On the Line


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By Sissy Wickes 

Ah, springtime. Dogwoods and daffodils arrive with the fools of April and green is once again the color of the land. It’s time for proms and graduations; baseball and lacrosse. And, if you love the smell of alfalfa in the morning, it’s time for outdoor horse shows and that means “welcome back” to the Hunter Breeding division…

From Arizona to Florida, Texas to New York, over 200 USEF sanctioned horse shows feature Hunter and Pony Breeding divisions. While participant numbers continue to dwindle, there are staunch proponents of the divisions who continue to support them. Breeding show horses and showing them “on the line” before their performance career begins is a long standing tradition in the American hunter culture. While Devon and Upperville are among the brightest showcases, there are many other smaller shows throughout the U.S. supporting the efforts of the small breeder. In 2002, the Sallie B. Wheeler/USEF Hunter Breeding Championship was born. Offering both East and West coast divisions, the prestigious event is the ultimate contest for young horses and their handlers.

Hunter Breeding has evolved over the years from a Thoroughbred dominated world to a division that more completely represents 21st-century hunter sport horses and the many breeds therein. For the small breeder who has no more than a few foals each year, this is a great way to get young stock out into a potential marketplace and off of the farm for some mileage and education. All you need is a braider, transportation, and the guidance of an experienced showperson.

A handler can make all the difference in the ring. For this article, we gleaned the advice of two of the most sought after showmen on the circuit today. Oliver Brown, a four stride line past 60, is a brilliant lifelong horseman with 35 plus years of showing at every major venue on the planet in the Hunter Breeding division. Horses and ponies alike prepped by him and his family at their Hunter’s Haven Farm step down the van ramp ready to win. Jay Francella, a 30 something millennial, is one of the young pups on the professional handler “I’m a stickler for having their teeth done early in the spring before they show,” says Oliver. “Then, you can teach them to become used to and happy with the bridle. But, the last day or two before a show take that bit out of their mouth, so they’re not too tender on show day.”

“Sometimes, I tell people to take their babies to a local show, even if they’re not showing,” says Jay. “Just that experience, on the van and off the van, walking around the show grounds, does a lot towards a young horse’s education. And it’s cheap.” Both men agree that home prep should be simple and straight-forward. “Every time you hold ’em, groom ’em, or turn ’em out, you’re teaching them something,” according to Brown. But, he adds, don’t overdo the training at home. “You’ve got to remember that these are children. Take it easy, take your time.”

When it comes to getting the best from their charges in the ring, Oliver and Jay agree that feel – not fear – and patience rule the day. “Number one, you’ve got to have good hands and feel,” says Brown. “It’s similar to riding in that anticipation of the movement of an animal is so important. Horses are so sensitive that they pick up on the fears of a rider or a handler, just as they pick up on their confidence.”

“The biggest thing I’ve always tried to emulate from the great showmen is a level of patience,” adds Jay, who sights his 2 ½ year old daughter as his latest teaching inspiration. “Now having JoJo, I see that we ask a lot of these guys at a really young age. They grow up quick, but they don’t grow up mentally. For that, you need to always be calm, and you’ve got to have patience.”

The first shows of spring are fun, but things get real as May closes in on Memorial Day. “I still get nervous at some shows,” says Oliver, “like at Devon, even after 35 years. It’s special. But if you don’t get a little bit of that feeling, you’re not gonna compete well. You’ve got to give a damn.” Francella concurs on the importance of Devon. “Growing up in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Devon was IT for me. Being Leading Pennsylvania Handler at Devon in 2016 was a huge moment for me. But, now the Sallie Wheeler Championship in August is a new ultimate goal.” Oliver agrees on the win hierarchy in the breeding divisions. “Devon and the Sallie Wheeler are the Big Two. Hopefully in 2018, we’re going to have a pony counterpart to the Sallie Wheeler.”

Standing a 12-24 month old colt or filly up with a group of their peers is a tricky and sometimes risky business. Before stepping through the in-gate with a youngster, spend some time learning about preparation from a great experienced show person/mentor. “To quote the great horseman Delmar Twyman, ‘you’ve got to be willing to serve an apprenticeship. You’ve got to be willing to learn,’” explains Brown. “No one makes you a rider, no one makes you anything unless you want it.”

Showing a horse in the breeding division is about much more than walking an anxious youngster into the ring. Years of breeding management and planning, mare and foal care, weaning, handling, and training go into the effort before a young horse steps onto the show grounds. And, absolute for both kids and young horses, even the best plans go awry. Anxiety, environment, hormones, weather- all can make a greatly anticipated day at the horse show into one of those stories laughed about over dinner. Plan for the unexpected, get advice from the experts, let professional handlers do what they do best- and enjoy seeing your young horse on the line.


About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.

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