BY SISSY WICKES
Although 34 years old, Jennifer Bliss seems to have been around the horse show world forever. She was one of the most successful pony riders of her generation and consistently at the top of the jog in the most competitive rings on the East Coast. Catch riding and bringing along her own green ponies, she garnered Championships at USEF Pony Finals twice on her own Believe in Magic and Hillcrest Blue Wishes. One of her green projects, Believe in Blue, is still out and winning with successful young rider, Vivian Golden.
From the pony divisions, Jenn graduated to horses and continued her legacy of making up young projects into successful, competitive animals. She won numerous World Championship Hunter Rider awards as well as a top 10 finish at USEF Medal Finals. In 2014, Jenn won the prestigious WCHR Developing Professional Championships, symbolizing the launch of a stellar professional career. With her famous white- faced hunter, Poker Face, she won ribbons at the largest shows in the U.S., including Devon, WCHR Hunter Spectacular, and indoors. Jenn is a tough competitor in the National and International Derby rings with a 7th place finish in the acclaimed International Hunter Derby Championships.
Now awaiting the birth of her first child, Jenn has spent the winter at her home base in Wellington, Florida, teaching and training the clients of Harris Hill Farm. With a quiet demeanor and genial smile, she can be found preparing riders of all levels for the hunter and equitation rings. TPH recently caught up with Jenn at the Winter Equestrian Festival.
TPH: Tell us about your location in Wellington.
JBB: We have been based in Wellington full time for about 4 years. After renting for several seasons, we purchased a farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, about a year and a half ago. One of the great advantages is that it is in a quiet gated community. So, while it is only 15 minutes from the show, it feels like a world away for the horses. We have 12 stalls, 6 paddocks, a large ring, and miles of trails. We have all of the modern day amenities like a treadmill and Theraplate. For me personally, it is such a joy because we live there and I can walk down and do night check myself and fuss over the horses to my heart’s delight!
TPH: What about the nature of your business? Hunter, jumper, equitation, sales?
JBB: While I grew up doing the equitation as well, my heart has always been in the hunter ring and that is definitely the central focus of my stable. I just love the finesse that one must develop to be a great hunter rider; the complexity of building such a strong relationship with your horse that it all appears effortless. Riding hunters well, really any good riding in general, is such a blend of technical skill and innate feeling, and striving for that beautiful round is so appealing to me. These days, with the rise of the Hunter Derby, there is a whole new level of scope and rideability that is required, without sacrificing style.
The two main components of my business are professional horses that I develop, show and eventually sell for myself, in addition to a group of amateur students ranging from Low Adult to Amateur Owner Hunter riders. Some are year round, and some are with us just seasonally for WEF.
TPH: When I think of you, I think of your skill with young horses. Is bringing along young horses your favorite part of your profession? Can you talk about a horse that you brought along from the beginning?
JBB: I get such a thrill out of developing young horses. Growing up in New York, my family had a farm and always kept my horses and ponies at home. From the start, we would find green ponies or sometimes more seasoned ones that needed some TLC and just take our time working with them. We ended up with some special and successful competitors, but more than anything it just instilled in me a love for that whole process.
There is something very special about starting a horse from the very beginning stages of his education, and together working up to the higher levels. The knowledge that you have of their past experiences, the trust you have built up in each other. It is so cool to have moments with a horse like Poker Face, showing in the WCHR Hunter Spectacular as a 4′ horse and thinking back to his first show in the Baby Greens at the same venue years ago. Or under the lights at Derby Finals and remembering his very first National Derby. Poker Face is probably my most high profile example right now, but it is something that I have been doing for most of my life and what I hope to continue to do for many years to come.
TPH: How do you approach teaching and training? What is your system with both younger and more seasoned horses and riders?
JBB: My system with the horses really focuses on fitness and rideability at home – lots of flat work, ground poles, and cavalettis. I don’t jump a lot at home, and rarely big jumps unless we are specifically addressing a particular issue or in the final stages of getting ready for a certain show. I try to save their jumps for the horse shows. And keep their minds fresh with some trail riding for those horses that enjoy it.
As a teacher, I have a real appreciation for what a life long passion and pursuit riding is, and I try to impart that to my students. I want them to love their horses and enjoy the process and small achievements along the way. I have a nice balance of patience with my ladies that have started at this later in life, but also an ability to guide my more seasoned clients toward their competitive goals.
TPH: What does the Harris Hill Farm show schedule look like?
JBB: WEF during the winter months. During the summer, Florida remains our home base, but we travel on and off to show. Typically two weeks or so on the road followed by a few weeks at home. In recent years, we have enjoyed showing primarily in Aiken, Tryon, and Kentucky during the summer. Indoors in the fall if we have the right group of horses that particular year. We do take advantage of the local shows in Wellington throughout the summer and fall for the greener horses or riders that just need some low-key mileage.
TPH: What sets you apart as a trainer?
JBB: At the risk of sounding cheesy, my strongest attribute as a horseman is my absolute dedication to horses whether I am bringing along a young horse or preserving an older one. I have a lot of patience with the horses. I’ve had a few that were difficult young horses, but so much quality. For me, I don’t really care if it takes 3 months or 3 years to make them up properly. I don’t mind the quirky ones that need a little extra time or attention. We keep our program small so that I can be hands-on in every aspect of the horses’ life.
I spend the time trying to figure out what makes each horse happy and comfortable, and just try to do what I truly believe is right for that individual horse. I just love the process and the relationship with the horses. I draw a lot of confidence from the fact that I have put the time and care into my horses’ development in a thoughtful way. It enables me to trust them in a deeper way and eventually call on them in bigger competitive situations down the line.
I have also had a few that we nursed back from injuries that have taken literally years of blood, sweat, and tears and seemed like a borderline insane undertaking at times. But, when I look at them now, it is something that makes me really proud.
TPH: Jenn, we wish you the best of luck with your career and your new addition.
JBB: I am having a girl, so I am already dreaming of ponies!
Photos by Sally Floyd Kay, The Book LLC, Alison Hartwell, Sportfot, Nick Gagliardi & Shawn McMillen Photography