By Sissy Wickes
Thirty two years of riding at the Grand Prix level, over 130 National and International Grand Prix wins, 2014 Equestrian of the Year, 2014 Horse of the Year, numerous Nations Cup wins, $1 Million Grand Prix win, multiple Pan American Games Bronze Medals, and alternate for the U.S. Olympic Team. Most recent highlight? The $5000 USHJA National Hunter Derby in Tryon, NC.
For all of his past successes and acclaim, Todd Minikus is still fighting his way to the top. Every day is a chance to ride better, to train better, to learn more about the horses to which he has dedicated his life. At 54, he is as fearless and hungry as he was when he first rode out of the Midwest decades ago aboard the aptly named jumper, Thrilling, to take the showjumping world by storm. He has had a string of great horses: Pavarotti, Quality Girl, Babalou 41, Macoemba, Sweetheart, Oh Star. But, as he states, he has yet to meet his horse of a lifetime. “I haven’t met that horse yet. For me, every horse has a significance and a purpose.”
Todd hails from Iowa, which he jokingly refers to as a “hotbed of showjumping.” More cowboy than not, he quickly realized the value in learning from all disciplines. “Good horse people are good horse people; it doesn’t matter what discipline. My driving force is to be a better horseman every single day, and to keep my eyes, ears, and mind open to what horses are telling me.” Minikus listens and watches those around him, ready to learn from everyone. Thoroughbred racehorse trainers, Standardbred trainers, bull riders, old horsemen, young horsemen- everyone has something to offer. “I keep my eyes open,” he explains. “Every horse and every situation can be educational.”
Paramount to Minikus is good horsemanship. “I was blessed with some ability to ride. But, horsemanship is the most important part.” Every trainer should know how to do every job in a barn. From mucking stalls to wrapping legs to understanding the anatomy and psychology of a horse, a consummate horseman participates in all. Minikus believes that a healthy future for the show horse industry is tied to young trainers’ commitment to horsemanship. “My advice to young professionals is to be responsible for their own thing. Don’t give the management of your business away to a foreman who may know less than you. The blacksmith, vet, feeding, and care of the horses are the rider’s and/or trainer’s responsibility. They have to be involved.”
“You make your own luck,” Minikus claims. “Through sacrifice, decisions, and choices.” Young trainers should do any job that needs to be done without believing it is beneath them. Successful young professionals David Jennings, Craig Starr, Daniel and Mark Bluman, and Brian Walker came up through the Minikus system of starting at the bottom and moving up. With no job too menial, these young men worked hard and positioned themselves for the opportunity to gain their own clients and professional careers.
Has the horse show industry become too exclusive and elite as recent conversation debates? While Minikus acknowledges that financial privilege may smooth a career path, he believes that money is not the deciding factor in professional athletics. “There is a certain percentage of people – wealthy or not – that have a burning desire to be good.” He explains that many sports face the same dynamic with young participants who can afford lessons, specialized training, and the best equipment- and those who cannot. The “have-nots” with steely determination to succeed will find a way to their goal. The “haves,” despite their financial advantages, will only ascend as far as their talent and determination take them. As Minikus puts it, “If this is your burn, if this is what grabs you in the stomach and keeps you up at night wondering how you are going to make it happen, you will make it no matter what your background.” He points out that horse sport has always had a component of wealth at its core. Yet, talented, committed, and hard working horsemen find a path to success regardless of economic status. “At some point it all comes out. Even if you buy Pegasus, at some point, Pegasus is going to think that oxer is too wide and you are going to have to ride the hair off of him to get him to jump it. Money can’t buy that desire to dig in and put your body on the line.”
Risk of injury is a part of the business that Minikus knows well. Cracked bones and bruises are part of the game. He has been broken and sidelined, but never daunted. “I am still hungry and I am still capable,” he states plainly.
From young jumpers to Grand Prix horses and, most recently, a young hunter, Minikus is still riding for the win. Aboard his six year old, Exceptional, he has been tearing up the hunter ring of late. “I started in the hunters and I do love competing there. This is a very special young horse that keeps getting better and better. He is going to make someone a top-notch horse. Selling horses is our business so I would love to find the right buyer for him.”
With no plans to slow down, Minikus continues to compete, train horses and riders, and spend time with his wife, Amanda, and two kids, Colt and Langley. Amanda is a force behind the scenes, keeping all of the moving parts of home and business operating at optimum efficiency. Together, they operate their farm in Wellington, Florida and coordinate Todd’s riding and training career. Always in the mix is the endeavor to find good clients to enable them to buy great horses. “Owners who love this sport are important. We have to keep track of those who are in this for a lifetime. “ Todd and Amanda are vocal proponents of American buyers for American riders. They believe strongly in the quality and efficacy of the American equestrian system. As Todd opines, “Throughout history, Americans have dominated because we have had the best horsemanship, riding skill, and technique while Europeans have had a better breeding program. We are very patriotic.”
As the fall show season approaches, Minikus will have his sights set on the next in-gate, the next set of start flags, the next horse- hunter or jumper, and the next winner’s circle. Undaunted by the effects of time and toil, Minikus doggedly continues his race to the top.
Photos © Maria Donovan, ESI, HITS and SportFOT