BY SISSY WICKES
Richard Spooner embodies the equestrian version of the American success story. His professional resume includes top finishes in the Equitation Finals, over $1 million in prize money, over 100 Grand Prix wins, and consecutive World Cup Finals appearances from 1998-2012. Recently, Spooner competed two young Grand Prix mounts in the AIG $1million Grand Prix at Coachella, finishing with a four fault score on each. TPH caught up with the prolific rider between rounds at Coachella. Always willing to give of his time and talent, Spooner is a bright light in the equestrian industry.
“From Wisdom and Education Come Success”- Richard Spooner
Born in California, Spooner spent the first part of his childhood as most small boys do- enjoying tennis, baseball, and hanging around with friends. Spooner’s mother was a horse trainer, but he did not show much interest in the sport until he was 10 years old. “I had no interest in riding, only in horses,” he delineates. “When my mother introduced me to them, I was hooked and a hole in my life was filled. I did not know that I was missing that piece, but I found out quickly that I was.”
Under his mother’s tutelage, Spooner began to learn to ride. He preferred to go to the farm to pet the horses, but his mother insisted that he ride. She provided him with an English saddle and some encouragement. “I wasn’t very good,” Spooner remembers. “At the first barn Christmas party, all of the young ladies were getting the ‘Best Hands” and the ‘Best Shoulders’ and the ‘Best Improvement’. My award was the “Most Persistent’. I fell off on the lunge line a lot.” As a boy, his instinct was to love the horse first and the ride second. Though the boy grew into a man with over 100 Grand Prix wins, he never lost this order of priority. His most famous Grand Prix horses, Robinson and Cristallo, showed successfully past the age of 19, what Spooner calls “Jack LaLanne-type careers.”
As Spooner grew into a teenager, his riding skills improved enough to land him on the national stage. With a budget that limited him to one horse and one top trainer, he steadily honed his craft under the tutelage of Jamie Mann. Of Mann he states, “When you are young, you don’t realize what people are giving you. There were many 5 AM lessons before the show and hours of training. Jamie put her heart and soul into the business and her students. The amount of effort she put into me really surpassed what we were paying for.” Spooner speaks with heartfelt respect for the modern equitation trainer. “These equitation trainers work very long hours and put everything into their students. With Jamie, it was her blood, sweat, and tears, as well as my own.”
The partnership forged of commitment and hard work reaped tremendous rewards as Spooner ascended the ranks of the equitation division. In 1988, he won the USET Finals, and was second in both the AHSA Medal Finals and the ASPCA Maclay Finals – all on the same horse named Reserve Bid. The young rider aged out of the junior ranks and, at the age of nineteen, rode his first jumper.
Education Abroad and the Warmblood
Spooner turned professional and spent a few months riding for George Morris until he was hired by Captain Canada, Ian Millar. The path of his professional career veered away from the east coast of North America to mainland Germany. From the age of nineteen to his late 30’s, he spent as much time as possible learning from German rider, Hugo Simon. Spooner explains his desire to learn another system of training. “People want affirmation rather than education. I have always wanted to educate myself by understanding my ignorance.” Spooner committed to learning Simon’s European system, dressage based, and unlike anything that he had seen in the U.S. at that time.
It was prescient that Spooner predicted the onset of the European Warmblood to the American equestrian scene. He saw that the future of the sport was not the traditional American Thoroughbred, but the Warmblood that now dominates both the hunter and jumper divisions. “I saw what was coming and knew that we needed to have interpreters for these horses because they were so different from the Thoroughbreds,” he explains. Seeing the wave of the future, he indoctrinated himself into the European system and brought it to the U.S. Anticipating the need for these skills, the young rider poised himself to fill a new gap in the U.S. equestrian scene. Asked how that strategy had worked for him, Spooner smiles, “So far, so good.”
Syndicates and Sponsorships
In May, 1996, Richard Spooner won his first Grand Prix at The Oaks in California. Soon after, on one of his frequent trips to Germany, he was looking at horses with Marcus and Meredith Michaels- Beerbaum and saw a beautiful gray standing in a stall. “I went into the stall to pet him, and asked if I could try him. They said he wasn’t for sale and wasn’t a good horse for North America anyway. But, somehow, I knew I had to have him.” Resolute in his pursuit of this horse, Spooner finally got to ride him and convinced the owners to sell. That horse was his first famous mount, Robinson.
Spooner found the horse he wanted, convinced the owners to sell, but now what? He had to find sponsors to buy and support two horses: Robinson and Cosino. He began a process that has funded his career: putting together syndicates. “When I worked for Ian (Millar), I saw him do this, so I understood the idea. But, I was clueless about accountants and attorneys and LLC’s.” Clients and sponsors soon stepped up to support Spooner’s endeavors. As intrepid as riders are, most are awkward and reluctant to ask for sponsorship. “It is really hard,” Spooner admits. “It is hard to put yourself out there and ask people- some of whom you don’t know well – for money. Especially when we know that ‘equine investment’ is an oxymoron.” He approaches his sponsors with an opportunity to invest in the love of the sport and is quick to point out the inherent risks. Perhaps it is this attitude or his success in buying horses, but Spooner has had a loyal core group of sponsors for which he is extremely appreciative.
World Cup Finals – Again
Spooner carries the nickname, “Master of Faster,” a nod to his acumen at riding fast jump off rounds. His success on the international stage is noteworthy with an astounding record of 14 consecutive FEI World Cup Showjumping Finals. This prestigious competition is very difficult to qualify for and more difficult to compete in. Held all over the world from Geneva to Helsinki to Kuala Lumpur to Las Vegas, the event features the world’s best horse and rider combinations competing in a three day, multi- round format. Spooner’s repeated presence in the Finals event is testimony to his long career at the top of the sport.
The now 20 year old gelding Cristallo (Caretino x Cicero) has been with Spooner since his five year old year. He was retired in early 2018 while described by Spooner as “still the wildest horse in my barn.” Under Spooner, Cristallo competed in six FEI World Cup Finals, won five star Grand Prix’s all over the world, and was a frequent Nations Cup competitor. At one point, he was ranked as the best horse in the world. Cristallo’s temperament matches his talent: boundless. He was so difficult as a younger horse that Spooner contemplated selling him. Instead, the horse became the project of his wife Kaylen, an amateur rider who managed to get the horse on track for a long, impressive career. Lunging, cross country rides, flat work, and barrel racing (yes, barrel racing) to improve his turning ability were all part of Cristallo’s program. The talented bay defined unconventional and demanded that his trainers design creative, outside-of-the-box training methods for him. Cristallo’s success is a tribute to their efforts.
Spooner is an avid teacher and clinician, most recently lending his time to the USHJA Emerging Jumper Rider Gold Star clinics held in Wellington, FL and Thermal, CA. Contrary to many professionals in the business, Spooner is very optimistic about the next generation of riders. “Our youth has a tremendous opportunity to show in top competitions and learn from older, more experienced riders. In North America, they can watch and access the European riders. They are gaining a different type of knowledge and a different skill set.”
Spooner is extremely complimentary of the American system of riding and training. “The American system is clearly the best because it is set up as a training system. The vast majority of the North American Grand Prix riders are also trainers. Our young riders have opportunities that other people don’t and they have an association that is trying to educate riders from the grass roots levels up. It is so refreshing to see the support from the USHJA and USEF in funding educational programs.”
Spooner is optimistic about the future of American showjumping. The prize money now available to Grand Prix riders throughout the U.S. has greatly impacted the level of riding in his opinion. “When I started, there was no opportunity to be a professional rider and actually make a living off of your prize money. That has changed with the extraordinary money now offered. If you are lucky and have the right horse, you can make a living off of prize money. When the sport gets to that level, the riding ability at the shows improves exponentially because people can exclusively be professional riders.” The international complexion of the U.S. showjumping scene contributes to the quality of the American experience in exposing our community to the methods of Europeans. As a result, showjumping becomes more homogenous and less defined as European vs. North American.
Richard Spooner retired two superstar Grand Prix jumpers, Robinson and Cristallo, as they approached their twentieth birthdays. With a nod to these exceptional partnerships, he looks forward toward his future and the young horses in his barn that may become his next famed mounts. He has two exciting Grand Prix horses in Quirado RC and Chatinus. Quirado RC, a very promising nine year old, was recently fourth in a World Cup qualifier and is owned by the McElvain’s Rancho Corazon. Chatinus, owned by himself and longtime sponsor Tracy Katayama Esse, is a bright light in the Spooner stable. Thoughtful, experienced, and generous, Richard Spooner is one to root for.
Richard Spooner: How to be a successful Grand Prix Rider in 2018
- Follow your own path Everyone is different. Be creative; be willing to take risk. Stretch your comfort zone to try new things and new ideas.
- If you can’t invest in yourself, who can you invest in? Young, up and coming riders need to keep their eye on the ball. Focus on yourself and your education as a horseman and a rider.
- Education is essential Everything you have done can be undone; everything you have can be unhad. Horses get old or sold or hurt, your bank account will get small, but education and experience last forever.
- Choose learning over winning Don’t put results ahead of learning. Understand the process and the basics. You will fall back on them when things aren’t going well.
Photos: Skyler Allen, Sofia Baiker, Sierra Jansen, Lauren Maudin, and V. Hughes
About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist, an autism advocate and Editor of The Plaid Horse. 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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