By Felice Vincelette
Renowned horseman Mason Phelps was honored in 2015 with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New England Equitation Championships (NEEC) on the 40th anniversary of the leading regional championships, which he cofounded. The recognition was well deserved, given that Mason has spent his entire life improving and elevating equestrian sports across the board.
Over the years he has mastered just about every equestrian discipline there is — and at the highest levels — while sprinkling a dash of humor throughout the high-stakes competition world. From the hunter ring to Grand Prix jumping to three-day eventing to foxhunting and now to polo, Mason has done it all and had a grand time along the way.
“It’s just amazing how he has touched so many parts of our industry: the three-day, the show jumping with the International Jumping Derby, the Denim and Diamonds charity event and so many others,” said Susie Schoellkopf, owner of SBS Farms, Inc. “Mason has gone from being a participant — and a very good participant — to holding a great fundraiser, to putting his efforts into creating and developing so many memorable events. I think that there are a lot of things people should follow his lead on . . . sponsorships he’s secured, events he’s gotten behind and turned around.”
Case in point: the CP National Horse Show. In an interview at the 2015 event, Susie credited Mason for the revival of the National, the oldest indoor horse show in the U.S., after the event left Madison Square Garden. “There was a huge gap after Sally Wheeler, and we were about to lose the show,” she said.
In stepped Mason. He spearheaded the effort, became president of the National and voila: a grand tradition was saved and reborn. It was a huge challenge for him to take on, and quite a risk. Had he failed, it would have been in front of the entire hunter and show jumping world. But true to form, Mason was undaunted.
“Mason has always helped the sport,” said legendary trainer George Morris. “He’s not self-centered, and he kn
ows how to be creative. He’s always been able to think outside of the box and do what the sport needs.”
George pointed to Mason’s foresight in bringing European-style jumping events to the U.S. back in the late 1970s and early ’80s by founding the American Jumping Derby (pronounced “darby,” true to its British Isles roots). A competition the likes of which this country had never seen, the Derby featured a jumping course modeled after the challenging jumper derbies in Europe — complete with a coffin, grob, sunken road and other immense natural obstacles you’d expect to see on a 4* eventing cross-country course rather than on a stadium jumping field. Mason soon elevated it to the International Jumping Derby.
“It was spectacular,” said George, adding, “He had everything happening — the jumping derby, the speed derby, everything.”
Few would even consider attempting the challenges Mason has seized upon and conquered over the years. How about performing an international-level pas de deux in a public exhibition with Olympian Debbie McDonald, when you’re not a dressage rider, have neither practiced the test nor even sat on the horse you’re going to ride in the exhibition until a few hours beforehand? Or making your debut polo appearance in front of 5,000 spectators in a United States Polo Association-sanctioned tournament — at the International Polo Club Palm Beach, no less — when you’ve had only a handful of polo lessons?
If it’s a dare, Mason’s there. “These things aren’t on my bucket list; it’s never about that,” he said. “If something drops in my lap and someone thinks it’s a good idea, and it gets my attention … You know, I’m a sucker for adventure.”
The Early Days
His adventure-seeking persona became evident early on. The year 1967 was a turning point for Mason, who had come up through the hunter-jumper ranks to the AA-circuit. Determined to watch the National Horse Show, which had thus far eluded him, he hitched a ride on a friend’s horse van heading for Madison Square Garden. Without any credentials, he slipped into the venue unnoticed by show officials. He was soon discovered and detained while officials debated what to do with him. Eventually they acquiesced and let him stay, and he hasn’t missed a year of the show since.
Also that year, at the age of 16, he tried out for the U.S. eventing team for the Pan Am Games but despite his talent was told he was too young and inexperienced to compete at the international level. The solution was clear: pack up his horse and gain some mileage in Europe, which he did on his own at 18. He competed as an individual in the European Eventing Championships in Punchestown, Ireland, finishing a respectable 12th.
By then the horse world had begun to take notice. In 1968 his horse, West Country, was named Horse of the Year by the United States Combined Training Association (now the United States Eventing Association), and Mason was named Rider of the Year by the United States Combined Training Association. He was an alternate on the U.S. eventing team for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He went on to successfully compete in the European Championships and won the Canadian Championships aboard his favorite horse, Gladstone, not once but twice.
In 1974, Mason decided to move his equestrian interests to Glen Farm, his family’s estate in Newport, Rhode Island, which he turned into a world-class hunter/jumper training and competition facility. Its flagship event was the International Jumping Derby. He also managed the prestigious International Driving Event sponsored by the Newport Preservation Society.
Serving in the U.S. Army, he coached the U.S. Pentathlon Team in San Antonio, Texas, with Hugh Kincannon. Mason went on to found the San Antonio AA-rated Christmas show and the NEHA Hunt Seat Medal. In 1980 Mason was appointed chairman for Zone 1 of the American Horse Shows Association and in 1988 became president of the New England Horsemen’s Council.
From Equestrian Icon to Media Mogul
His indomitable “Why not?” spirit has served him equally well in the business world. He operates with a drive and business savvy that rivals that of anyone on Wall Street. Mason retired from training in the 1990s to focus on show and event management and media coverage. In 2002 he launched Phelps Media Group International (PMG) with his first client, the National Horse Show, and moved his business headquarters to Wellington, Florida. Word spread rapidly about this new company that offered unique thinking, lightning-fast media responses and effective results, and PMG grew into an industry-leading public relations and marketing firm.
Today PMG (phelpsmediagroup.com) represents the top names in the equestrian world, among them competitions, organizations, businesses, athletes, trainers and veterinarians including the American Gold Cup, Challenge of the Americas, Cherry Knoll Farm, George Morris, Marcus Fyffe Dressage and Stadium Jumping, Inc.
PMG’s news division, PhelpsSports, owns and operates the popular websites PSdressage.com and PSpolo.com. Mason’s photojournalist team has covered every major national and international event, including the Olympics Games, the Pan Am Games and the World Equestrian Games.
Ambition aside, Mason’s dedication to worthy causes and the kindnesses he has extended to those in need are well known. His philanthropic efforts have included sponsoring events by organizations such as the Gay Polo League, United States Equestrian Team Foundation, Equestrian Aid Foundation, North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, USEF Developing Rider Program and the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, among many others.