BY NINA FEDRIZZI
These days, 2020 National Show Hunter Hall of Fame inductee Tom Wright needs little by way of introduction. The Nashville, Tennessee, and Wellington, Florida-based trainer’s list of tri-color wins in the pony, junior, and amateur hunter divisions speaks for itself. The horses he’s discovered and coached up to national and international superstardom includes names like Private Practice, Cuba, Strapless, and Hush.
Once upon a time in Malibu, however, things were a little different.
“Somehow, I decided that I was going to give lessons when I was 11, so I put a flier out at the supermarket. I taught lessons for $5 a half-hour. Believe it or not, people came!” said Wright with a laugh. His parents, both college professors, purchased a property overlooking the ocean to get their children out of the city and away from L.A.’s rush-hour smog. The family set up a pipe corral in their small side yard, where they kept two horses cared for by Tom and his siblings. Eleven-year-old Wright built and gave lessons in a rented sand ring across the street.
Though the scenery and clientele has changed a bit in the decades since, the feeling Wright cultivated during those early years in Malibu has stayed with him. “Horses have always been a comfort to me and a place of acceptance. Just kind of [believing] that I was a different person, the horses really gave me a feeling of strength and accomplishment,” he said.
In the wake of major national awards, Wright’s accomplishments have been well recognized by his peers. That acknowledgement, he said, means everything. “As a person who’s been in this business for as long as I have, that really is the most important thing; to be told by the people you work with that you do a good job.” Success, by Wright’s estimation, is a combination of factors including hard work, talent, and a few lucky breaks—but above all, the generosity of others. “I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, and I was noticed and helped along.”
First it was by his academic parents, who, against the odds, fully supported their son’s decision to forego a film degree at New York University and pursue a career with horses. “They really felt that I had found my calling,” he said. That calling was nurtured by formative apprenticeships with Joey Darby, Geoff Teall, and judge A.E. “Gene” Cunningham, who took Wright under his wing and taught him what he knew. Finally, there was ‘show mom’ Fran Bushkin, who hired Wright as an exercise rider for her daughters’ mounts in Santa Barbara. Bushkin and Tom stayed in touch, and she later sent him a number of the family’s horses to ride and manage when he set up his own shop in Cincinnati, Ohio. Said Wright, “If it wasn’t for her, there’s no way I’d be where I am.”
Making the Match
One of Wright’s most recent claims to fame is his training of back-to-back USHJA International Hunter Derby Champions: Cuba in 2017 (owned by John and Stephanie Ingram), and Private Practice in 2018 (owned by Brad Wolf). Both horses were ridden by Tori Colvin. Wright spotted the latter, known as “Peter” around the barn, during one of his first outings stateside in the junior hunter division at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington. After securing him for Wolf and getting Colvin the ride, Peter’s near-unbeatable 2018 season was, according to Wright, something of a perfect storm.
“It just so happened that an extraordinary horse got an extraordinary rider at the [right] time,” he said. “Private Practice is unusual in that he can show in the 3’6″ Amateur-Owner hunters and win; and then move up to the High Performance and win. At indoors, when everything has to be so precise and perfect, he can do that, and he can also go out on a big field and jump a 4’6″[derby] round equally well.”
“It’s very rare, when [Peter] is prepared, that he ever makes an error, so if the rider is on, he’s there 100 percent,” Wright added. “Then you put him with Tori, who rarely makes an error. She needed to have the right horse, at the right time, to bring out all of her best qualities, and that horse was right there.”
The success of Tori and Peter may have been a foregone conclusion, but Wright is equally proud of his less-straightforward matches: John Ingram and the sometimes-exuberant Airport; Martha Ingram and the ultra-sensitive Fonteyn; Clara Lindner and pro Emily Williams with the notoriously quirky Strapless.
Having staked his reputation pairing riders with talented horses at the pinnacle of the sport, Wright says the recipe for success is two-fold. First, you have to understand your riders, what they can handle, and where they are strong. The next step—finding the right horse with the right set of qualities (or qualities that can be improved upon)—is something like piecing together a puzzle. “Riders are all different, as horses are,” Wright said.
“Of course, I want a horse that has a good attitude, but I want to see something that’s extraordinary in their talent-level; something that stands out above the rest.” When it comes to the professional divisions or top-level derbies, Wright said, that might be a horse that jumps a little too high, or is a world-class mover. In Private Practice, it was the gelding’s beauty and presence in the ring, among other qualities (“he had it all,” Wright said). The trainer is honest about the fact that he’ll always take a difficult horse over one with less talent, though Wright’s own history with “difficult” horses informs that opinion.
Chief among them: Old Dominion, the famous, one-time conformation hunter for Winter Place Farm in Maryland. After an impressive career, the gelding was shipped west to the farm of Tommy Lowe and his wife Claudia in Santa Barbara, California, where Wright was a working student. “The horse arrived and they took one look at him and said that he needed to be put to sleep,” recalled Wright, adding that Old Dominion’s suspensory ligaments were shot, and his ankles were “nearly on the ground.” The Lowes agreed to let Wright try and stabilize the gelding, and he jumped at the chance.
“I went to the barn to change his wraps every day, three times a day, for over a year. It was my responsibility—he couldn’t leave his stall for nine months,” recalls Wright, who also credits the Lowes’ assistant trainer at the time, Carleton Brooks, for his help and knowledge rehabilitating Old Dominion. The two horsemen’s dedication paid off when their patient made a remarkable recovery, allowing Wright to compete him in the junior hunter and equitation divisions, ultimately qualifying for Indoors during his last year as a junior.
“That experience kind of changed everything. It made me understand the horses’ well-being, and brought me so much joy [when he improved],” Wright says. “At the same time, I earned respect within the barn. It really changed my outlook and work ethic and taught me so much.”
Less Is More
A few decades on, Tom Wright, the trainer, has come a long way from the kid who stapled fliers around a supermarket parking lot. Yet, in some ways, he believes, the sport itself has come full circle. “The hunters, when I was a kid, were very athletic; they worked out of more pace and they were extraordinary jumpers. I think the kids that rode at that time were exceptional riders,” Wright said, noting that the infusion of European warmbloods into the hunter scene ultimately led to a greater emphasis on style.
The addition of derbies “has brought the hunters much closer to what was around when I was a junior,” added Wright. “There’s that excitement that was there in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
In other ways, however, Wright’s program, with its emphasis on ‘less is more,’ has significantly evolved from his time as a fledgling trainer still learning the ropes in Ohio. “When I was young, even though I could work with difficult horses, and I was kind of known for that, I still wanted them to go a certain way,” he said. “What I’ve found is that, to bring out the best in the horses, they really go their own way, and you work around them.
“A talented horse is like a talented rider; you nurture and guide them, but you don’t really change them.”
It’s a mindset that’s in keeping with Wright’s extraordinary trajectory so far. Success often boils down to the simple things: a light touch, an unexpected compliment or show of support, a helping hand when least expected. “I had a lot of people that came into my life that furthered my career. They were willing to give up their time, because they saw something different in me, or something they completely identified with,” said the trainer. And he’s working to do the same.
When you see somebody who’s trying, “Say something nice to them. Instead of being so caught up in yourself, help them. It will come back to you in spades,” said Wright. “A kind word goes a long way.”
Originally from the October 2020 issue.