By Esther Hahn
Hugh “Bert” Mutch has lived through many equestrian eras. From winning leadline classes at the age of 2 to nearing his 60th birthday this spring, it’s easy to imagine the multitude of experiences he’s had in the saddle.
He’s the son of R.W. “Ronnie” Mutch, the acclaimed rider and trainer, and the grandson of a Black Angus Show Cattle Breeder who once owned a sizable portion of Old Salem, N.Y. And although a self-proclaimed barn rat through his youth, most of Mutch’s equine exposure from the age of 7 to 17 happened on winter and summer vacations.
When Mutch’s parents divorced, he moved to Kentucky with his mom, where he was a normal child, playing sports like football or basketball and running track. It was this sports-centric childhood that Mutch credits for teaching him the discipline required to achieve goals, whether athletic or otherwise. And by his junior year in high school, with a pivoted focus to riding, Mutch was prepared to realize his ambition of a professional equestrian career.
An Unrivaled Education
In 1977, Mutch moved back to Connecticut, where his father helmed Nimrod Farm, a large training and lesson operation. By completing his high school requirements on an advanced track, Mutch could travel to Florida for the winter to maximize his exposure to the top of the sport.
There were goals he wanted to achieve, which included the medal finals. And in 1978, Mutch won the AHSA Medal Final, the same final won by Ronnie in 1950. They are the only parent-child combination to have both names inscribed on the trophy.
Following the success of his junior career, Mutch set out to learn from such equestrian luminaries as Rodney Jenkins, Bertalan “Bert” de Nemethy, Michael Matz, Eddie Macken, George Morris, and of course, his father.
“During those years, it was a true education in horsemanship,” Mutch says. “It wasn’t just hunters and jumpers but also racehorses, breaking babies, and working at the sales like Keeneland and Saratoga.”
Then it was a chance opportunity when Rodney Bross asked Mutch to come ride in 1990. Laura Kent Kraut had left, and so Mutch gained the ride on the legendary Rox Dene, the gray Dutch Warmblood-Thoroughbred mare.
“I rode Rox Dene in her pre-green year and most of her first year,” Mutch remembers. “She was a freak of a horse. I never felt a horse do that before, over a jump.”
The only opportunity that could come in between Mutch and the eventual National Show Hunter Hall of Fame horse was a private training position for footwear entrepreneur, Sam Edelman, in California.
“I left Rox Dene with tears in my eyes,” he reveals. “The bit in her mouth was mine, but I couldn’t take it from her. It was a special moment in my life to throw my leg over a horse like that.”
Finding His Stride
Life continued in this manner for Mutch through his early career: a private training opportunity would take him from one coast to the other, all the while proving his training and riding abilities in both the hunter and jumper rings.
There was the grand prix success with Edelman’s horses in Northern California, the beautiful, dream farm on 58 acres in Virginia, the sales and training business with John Endicott in Southern California, more sales with Joe Norick in Florida, and a private training position for a family in New York.
Then life for Mutch took a slight detour away from horses when he signed on to launch a frozen yogurt and gelato business in San Francisco, Calif., with his then wife. For three years, Mutch focused on the new endeavor, without touching a horse.
“I made a commitment to do this venture,” says Mutch. “I learned how to make the gelato from the Italian masters and helped to build three stores from the ground up.”
But horses continued to have a draw for Mutch, and he connected with Bay Area trainer John Charlebois as the yogurt business closed shop. The two horsemen could trace their connection back to 1979, when Charlebois worked for Michael Matz. It was from Matz that Mutch bought his top mount, Sandor.
“At that time, we had a subjective system of selecting riders for USET,” Mutch explains. “Bert [de Nemethy] said that if I bought this horse [Sandor], I’d ride on the team. I did buy the horse and I did ride on the team.”
Through the years, Charlebois and Mutch stayed friends, and once Charlebois asked Mutch to come ride horses at his Charlebois Farm, Mutch rode eight on the first day and went to compete at a show just two weeks later. They eventually went on to manage 50 horses at two different facilities.
“We have a great mutual respect,” says Charlebois about his colleague. “Bert’s an extraordinary rider and coach and teacher, and he produces great horses and great riders. Everyone wants to ride like Bert.”
After nearly five years of working for Charlebois, Mutch set out on his own, settling at Edgewood Farm, owned by his clients, the Hersh-Boyle family. Located in Nicasio, 30 minutes from San Francisco, it’s here that Mutch continues his quest of developing good horses and good riders. In the past year, Mutch welcomed assistant trainer, Leylan Gleeson, to expand the 2 Mutch Show Jumping operation.
“Edgewood upgraded the footing and paddocks for us to make it a top training facility,” says Mutch. “And now we’ve added another facility that’s less than a quarter-mile from Edgewood to welcome more horses and riders into our program. And with the addition of Leylan, we can build up our pony and equitation groups.”
Gleeson’s young professional career already parallels Mutch’s in many ways: she’s the daughter of a trainer, performed well in the big equitation finals, and worked at a large training and sales operation, Ashland Farms, in Wellington, Fla., after graduating with a finance degree from the University of Georgia.
“The biggest thing that Bert has given me is a sense of confidence to be competitive,” Gleeson says. “As the trainer’s kid, I always had the difficult horse or the problem horse, so I always approached competing with more a sense of the process – to make the best of what I had. I never went into the ring to try to win the class but to make the horse the best they could be. Now, I go into the ring to be competitive, and that’s been a game changer for me.”
Now Gleeson hopes to instill that same sense of confidence and competitive nature into an upcoming group of serious young riders.
“I have the experience of going to Pony Finals and the medal finals as a rider and as a trainer, and I hope to build that program up here,” Gleeson adds. “Bert and I are both really focused on horsemanship and we’re excited to pass on our experiences to future riders.”
Mutch’s encyclopedic knowledge of the various eras that he’s ridden through is a factor in how he produces talent. The greats in the sport were his mentors. His flatwork knowledge comes largely from his time at the USET training facility in Gladstone, N.J., where the former U.S. Team horses were the schoolmasters, and de Nemethy himself drew on a chalkboard to demonstrate the correct lateral movements.
“I surrounded myself with the best riders and have taken little pieces of each of their programs to establish my own style,” explains Mutch. “I love to teach and I love to compete. It’s the whole process and the work that it takes to get to the end goal of winning. The time I spend trying to figure out each idiosyncrasy of a horse is what gets me up in the morning. If I, or my client, can become one with the horse in the ring – that’s why I do this.”
A common misconception about Mutch is that he’s only interested in the top level of the sport. But in truth, he wants to give and to shape any rider that comes forward with an earnest desire to learn.
Recently, novice riders joined the program without much course riding experience. It was the perfect opportunity for Mutch to teach his approach to finding distances, a process that he learned during his junior years from trainer Timmy Keys.
“Timmy taught me how to create and to protect the distance,” says Mutch. “I have now developed it into a system that I teach that comes from track, rhythm, and aids. Many people come through the turn and at the apex, fall in or fall out. Instead, I eventually learned from Timmy – then again with de Nemethy and Christine Traurig – to use my outside rein to control the inside hock.”
“George [Morris] taught me to have a three-color eye: red for a deep distance, yellow for medium, and green for the forward one,” he continues. “I think you create those distances. I teach my novice riders to find those over a pole then over a cavaletti and then the more experienced riders must find them over a 3-foot, 4-foot, and 1.60-meter fence. If you can make a horse do that, then you can make it do whatever you want it to do.”
Flatwork is the cornerstone of Mutch’s program. Even for his more veteran clients like Tonya Johnston, a successful amateur/owner hunter rider, it’s the flatwork that separates Mutch from prior trainers.
“Making sure the horses are responsive and elastic is one of Bert’s specialties,” Johnston reveals. “He talks about the quality of the canter in relation to RPMs and identifies what level of RPM is ideal for your horse. Then he targets finding that level in each corner. It’s a concept that has been helpful for me, and we work on that in the flatwork as well—you can go past it, under it, but you always want to consistently be able to find your course RPM.”
These are the types of lessons to be found in training with Mutch. He draws on his rich history of experience, and he’s able to relay his techniques in a multitude of ways to make the content relatable. As he sees it, it’s his responsibility to continue the legacies of the great horsemen and horsewomen that came before him so that the traditions don’t disappear with the trends that ebb and flow.
He still has his Olympic and World Cup Final aspirations, the goals that continue to drive him to routinely be the first and the last at the barn, whether at home or at a show. But in the meantime, if his horses and his riders are happy, confident, and progressing, he’ll revel in the team achievements.
Mutch’s love for the sport is a self-evident truth. To hold a piece of his knowledge of – and passion for – the horse and the sport is to share in a gift. And in the years to come, may the sport never lose sight of its roots and the true horsemanship that Mutch and his team at 2 Mutch Show Jumping keep at the forefront of the narrative.
“I strive to pass on the knowledge that I’ve gained from the masters,” Mutch says. “I want to be thought of as a true horseman and an educator of the sport – and most of all, I want to be remembered as a rider.”