How the power of observation, intuition and hard work have pushed Nick Haness’ Hunterbrook Farms to the top.
BY LAUREN MAULDIN
It’s Monday, a rare day off between hectic show travel that spans both coasts, and Nick Haness is exactly where he wants to be – handing out treats to the horses in his barn with a parrot perched on his hand. The thirty-year-old Southern California based trainer is what most would define as a true horseman. Living on his farm in Temecula, he feeds in the evening and does his own night check. In addition to an elite team of hunter/jumper horses, he houses a menagerie of rescued animals including miniature ponies, alpacas, goats, pigs and parrots. Perhaps that’s why he’s in the barn on a Monday. Perhaps that’s why his farm is as much of a haven as it is home.
“When I’m home, I call it my vacation,” Nick says. And it’s not surprising, given the schedule he’s kept this year. Bouncing from California to Kentucky, up to New York and back home again, it’s a juggling act that’s only possible to maintain through sheer will and a deep love of the sport. With a talent for identifying the potential in young horses and developing them in the ring, Nick creates champions that go on to fulfill their future owner’s dreams. Maybe that’s what fuels his seemingly limitless energy, because it’s a dream that started all of this for Nick – the farm, the show horses, the rescued ponies. A dream, a hard working kid, and a good horse.
One of five boys, Nick was the only one in the family who rode. Though his parents were supportive, he didn’t grow up with a string of ponies on the top levels of the AA circuit. While grand horse shows fostered his development as a young kid, for a long time it was limited to the sidelines.
“To say that I was obsessed with horse shows was an understatement,” Nick says. When winter circuits were in full spring at Thermal, back then Indio, he’d get out of school early to go watch the open divisions. “I learned so much sitting in the tenth row back, not being someone that anyone knew,” he explains. Nick took notes of every detail – bits, bridles, what color coat they wore, if they jumped oxers or singles in the warm-up ring. “I studied how people warmed up and schooled their horses, how their horses were presented or when a hunter wasn’t turned out well. I think being a spectator really opened my eyes and made me set goals for how I wanted to be some day.”
While he rode on his IEL team in high school and was able to attend some A shows, Nick’s big “some day” break came in the form of a junior hunter. Through a set of circumstances and relationship with a family friend, Nick’s parents were able to buy him a really nice horse for a good price. Paired with a Christmas present that gifted him a week at Indio, Nick was able to step into the big ring that he’d been watching diligently.
One good week of showing with some nice ribbons turned into two when Nick pleaded with his family for one more week to perfect things. They agreed. The second week he was champion in the Junior Hunters, and received an incredible offer on his horse.
“My mom was great, and put all the deciding in my ballpark,” Nick explains. “She said, ‘This is the nicest horse you’ve ever had. You can keep it, and keep showing, but your showing is going to be limited. Or if you decide to sell the horse, I’ll give you all of the money to use for creating your own business and doing this on a different level.’” Getting a six-figure offer at sixteen would have thrown many teenagers into a string of irresponsible decisions, but after a few days deliberating Nick decided to accept the offer. He used the money to lease an equitation horse to fulfill his personal show dreams, went to Europe to buy a young investment horse, and set money aside to campaign them both.
It’d be a gutsy move at any age, but even as young as he was, Nick seemed to know that opportunities come from taking chances. Being able to show on a larger stage meant more catch rides became available as others noticed his talent. “It was a great learning experience for me at such a young age to get a taste of going to the horse show office to pay my own bills, paying my farrier and vet bills, leasing and selling horses,” he says.
Even though he was still a junior, Nick was ever the consummate professional. He rode horses for Don Stewart, John Bragg, Jim Hagman, Mary Morrison, Alison Sherred, Wendy Carter and many other reputable professionals. Nick won the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search West Finals, and got good ribbons at indoors including 4th in the ASPCA Maclay Finals.
Forgoing college, a professional career was all but inevitable. Nick worked as an assistant trainer for several years before all of the hustling caught up with the then twenty-year-old. “I feel as though a lot of top juniors have a successful career and think that being a professional is just going to roll right over the same as it was when they were a junior,” he explains. “Being a professional is about so much more than finding the jumps and being a good rider. There’s more to it than it seems.”
So, he walked away for a year. Took a break, did some traveling. Allowed himself to breath and realize why he worked so hard in the first place, and who he was as a person. “It was probably one of the best decisions of my life to step away and see the bigger picture. Understand how lucky we are and how much horses influence our lives,” he discloses. “And the end of the day, it’s about horses. Not anything else.”
Which brings us back to where Nick wants to be more than anywhere else – the barn. Taking the time to reflect on what he wanted for his career, he started his own Hunterbrook Farms at just twenty-one. It’s a program that has evolved as Nick paid his dues as a young pro in the industry. Whether training a small string of 7-8 horses in the early days or growing to as large as 45 in the barn, Nick has always put the horses first… even when it didn’t make financial sense. “I’ve invested a lot of money in footing at other people’s facilities,” he laughs, referring to making improvements at the various places he leased in previous years.
In 2014, Nick stopped investing in others’ facilities when he purchased Hunterbrook’s current home in Temecula. Owning the property not only allowed him to fulfill a childhood dream of having horses in his backyard, but also focus the business on what he finds most personally fulfilling. “It was very challenging at times to produce a high level of results for my clients,” he says of the days running a larger business. “I had many students win medal finals, Maclay regionals, Junior Hunter finals, and Horse of the Year, but there were a lot of components in play while I worked to establish myself as a reputable professional and top rider.” As he settled in the new property, Nick decided to reduce the number of clients and narrow the scope of the business to finding and developing absolutely stellar horses – the kind that take your breath away when you see them enter the ring. Although for Nick, he has a knack for recognizing that star quality far earlier than most.
When shopping for prospects, Nick doesn’t rely on videos. “Sitting on a horse myself and getting a feel for them is more than any video I could ever receive,” he says. “I look into their eyes. I ride them. I get a real sense of their character, and I get a feeling. It’s just all about a feeling. It’s about what the horses tell me, and I honestly buy them off that feeling and the aura that comes off of them.”
That feeling has been like a crystal ball for Nick. He’s purchased a lot of horses from Europe that others have overlooked, because he can feel what they can become. The knee snapping derby horse. The kind hearted amateur ride. All based on a gut feeling—one that has been very successful in finding star horses.
Nick imported Technicolor, Lindsay Maxwell’s famed hunter, as well as other top horses recently successful on the east coast. The buying and selling process, a perpetual treasure hunt and puzzle, drives him every day to create that next champion. Now he travels to Europe 3-6 times a year, and has recently started venturing to Canada and South America as well. All in the search for a superstar found through quiet conversations with the horses and his magical gut feeling.
But it’s not just about purchasing a promising horse. Nick guides his imports from their first days at Hunterbrook where they enjoy individual attention, turnout, trail rides and top amenities, to the next stage of their careers with new owners. “It’s important for me that when I sell a horse, they go on to be equally as successful as they were with me,” he says. For him, the goal is not to sell the horse and get the cash. The goal is to have a string of Hunterbrook horses winning at the biggest shows in the country.
It’s a goal that’s well on its way. Perhaps Nick’s horses remember the Monday afternoon visits and treats, but it’s undeniable that they try their heart out for him. He earned the nickname “Handy Haness” from his incredible knack for handy rounds where he impresses judges with tight turns, bold moves and big jumps. “In the handy, the horse has to follow and believe in you,” he states. “My horses know when I challenge them that they can trust me. If I say it’s okay, then they know it’s okay.”
Recently at the 2019 USHJA International Derby Finals, Nick proved just how much horses trust him when he placed second overall with Verdict. He rode the horse for his first trainer, Michael Croopnick, and showed him a few times before Derby Finals. Nick and Verdict spent the week before the big event on the east coast together, trail riding and getting to know each other, before wowing a sea of spectators at his first Derby Finals with 2nd in both the classic and the handy. Earlier in the week, Nick had the highest scoring 3’3″ horse at the Green Incentive Hunter Finals with Reese’s, earning him 4th overall in the 3’/3’3″ Greens. There is no doubt that we will be hearing his name and Hunterbrook associated with many more big wins in the future.
As a kid walking around the Desert Horse Park in California, Nick used to stroll around the barns. He was starstruck when he passed Hap Hapsen or Richard Spooner. He admired the custom drapes and decorations, so envious, and thought about how fun it would be to have his own barn and fancy setup at the shows one day.
“It’s not about how good you are or how many ribbons you’ve won,” Nick says of his journey so far. “If you work hard enough, put in the time, and you’re respectful to your peers – you will prosper.”
These days, he enjoys life at his farm with his partner, Ryan May, who introduced the parrots to Hunterbrook. When traveling to the biggest shows in the country, he’s got the nice barn setup he dreamt of as a kid. At it are some of the most promising hunters, ones that he’s looked in the eye and believes in. And I’m willing to bet, somewhere sitting quietly in the back of the stands, there’s a horse crazy kid that’s watching Nick’s every move, taking notes and building big dreams. Maybe they’ll even get a parrot one day.