Ashwood Farm: Built on Honesty, Thriving on Hard Work

© Campbell Brown

BY LAUREN MAULDIN

Mary Ann Thomas & her daughter Abby Funk open up about their small, standout program

Equestrian programs aspire to have a barn full of exquisite horses, rippling with talent that snap their knees over jumps and effortlessly float around the arena. Trainers love having ribbons on the banner at the biggest horse shows, accolades piling up. The perfect harmony of hard work, dedication to the animal, and peak physical performance is a thing of beauty that true horse people can immediately recognize.

Mary Ann Thomas’s Ashwood Farm has all these pieces—the talent, wins, and horsemanship—but what is more impressive is that this aptitude for performance spans generations. Mother and founder, Thomas; her daughter and tenacious young trainer, Abby Funk; and an up and coming junior, Campbell Brown, together form a trio of remarkable women that are making their way in this sport.


© Sportfot

Horses found a young Thomas on a family vacation in Colorado. “My mom said the only way to get me to be happy was to let me stand next to the corral the whole trip after my first ride,” she said. After five years of begging, she got her first horse. Her parents had to rent a trailer from an equipment rental store to pull out of a friend’s pasture and haul to local boarding facility. “The fact my parents and I lived through that experience is a full-fledged miracle,” she added with a laugh.

Thomas has come a long way from that scruffy horse in a field. In her youth, she trained with Barbara Kirby and later Sandy Longan in Kansas City, and attended her first Pony Finals in 1986 with Diane Carney and Connie Stevens. She named her third large pony, Right Royal, as her greatest partnership. Moving into her later junior years, Thomas teamed up with Orley DeHoyos in Houston to compete through to the amateur divisions.

DeHoyos mentored Thomas, who decided to go pro, and was influential to her start in the industry. “He had so many sayings,” Thomas said, “but my favorite was, ‘Everybody puts their pants on the same way: one leg at a time.’” These kind of frank, real world lessons, paired with her hands-on start in the horse world, turned Thomas into a professional who knew how to roll up her sleeves, work hard, and identify future winners from their first canter through the field. 

Looking back, my dad was my greatest supporter,” added Thomas. “He loved horses and the sport and was a well-loved character to all the horse show people who knew him. I also have two other children, Emmalee and Garrison, who are both horse people, but have chosen to make the law their careers. They are in school now, but both helped our business immensely.

Photo © Shawn McMillen Photography

Today Thomas leads the way at Ashwood Farm, a small program based out of Lexington, Kentucky, and Wellington, Florida. By keeping boarder numbers low, Thomas provides a “boutique” experience with unrivaled, individual care. “It allows us to really focus on each horse and rider,” she said. “We truly love our clients and animals, and we keep the atmosphere calm and enjoyable.” The program is run under a primary tenet of honesty, which Thomas believes should drive all interactions in the industry. Without it, many young trainers lose their way. She recognizes how much courage it takes to follow your instincts.

When it comes to intuition, Thomas excels at identifying talented horses. Maybe it all started with the horse her family pulled from the field, but she has always had a knack for picking a winner and knowing how to fine-tune training for optimum results. Ashwood’s stalls are full of champions that have been carefully selected by her expert eye.  She trained Desiree, who took her daughter Abby around her first 3’6” Junior Hunter trip when Abby was only nine years old, and later was the mount for niece, Meghan Felts, for a 2012 HOTY title in the younger 3’3” Amateur-Owner Hunters. Thomas also imported Zilverfee, an equitation prospect who ended up taking Abby to her first Grand Prix. She has been crucial in guiding young horses, which Abby has been showing to great success.

It’s here we find Thomas’ greatest point of pride. Beyond the special horses, wins and career highs, she recognizes Abby as her true joy. “I’m very happy to do what I love every day and am privileged to learn from the best in the sport, but hands down, any small part I have played in Abby Funk’s riding is the biggest accomplishment of my career.”

Abby Funk, Thomas’s daughter and professional rider at Ashwood, started showing when she was just four years old. Throughout her junior career, she got invaluable experience on the various sales horses coming through the barn and showed more than 200 different horses and ponies as a junior. Special standouts for Funk besides Desiree and Zilverfee include Mowgli, her short stirrup pony; Camelot, her equitation horse for her last junior year; and Leopold 221, her Prix De States Horse.

“Each horse I rode taught me so much, and allowed me many special experiences,” Funk said. Being able to adapt to an extreme number of different mounts has proved to be an essential education, and led to stellar junior accomplishments including Younger Large 3’6” Junior Champion and Best Child Rider on a Horse at the 2014 Washington International Horse Show.

Like her mother, Funk enjoys the process of developing young talent. More than wins at prestigious horse shows, she’s proud to have a direct hand in young horses’ training and watch them improve season after season. The solid foundation, careful schooling, and Funk’s skilled riding have led to a lot of success in the past few years. She has won several Young Hunter championships as well as multiple wins in the Young Jumper program.

One particular standout, the five-year-old hunter Journey, was Reserve Circuit Champion in the Young Hunters at the 2020 Winter Equestrian Festival. A promising derby horse, Funk moved him up to the 3’6” to place in his first International Derby as well as earning her a top ten in the WCHR Developing Professional Challenge at the 2020 Capital Challenge Horse Show. Having built such versatility from her junior career, Funk can effortlessly switch rings with an expert’s feel for her talented string of young horses.

Funk and her mother prefer to keep the Ashwood program small, training pony rider Campbell Brown, adult amateur rider Audrey Gallagher, and Mary Kathryn Brown, a childhood friend of Thomas who came back to riding after a 25 year break when her daughter Campbell started showing.

“I think young people can learn a lot from trainers who focus more on the journey and less on the ribbons,” Funk said. “You should compare yourself to who you were the day before, and not to other people. Like everyone in the horse business, we all work hard, but we try to have enough people on staff so horse care and training is never compromised by being stretched too thin. We try to follow the wisdom that an  ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

This positive mentality and elite level of horsemanship is crucial mentorship for  young riders like Brown. With Thomas and Funk, Brown is on track to grow into a successful equestrian who knows how to put the horse first and keep focus on her own individual journey.

As we all head into the new year, Thomas, Funk and Brown keep their eyes on the future together. For this talented trio of equestrians spanning three generations, tomorrow is built in the barn. It’s in the tiny, pricked ears of pony hunters and powerful scope of young jumpers and derby horses. It’s in the next superstar horse—maybe even one pulled out of a field—that will be thoughtfully molded into a future champion. And through it all, a foundation of honesty, talent and dedication will uphold Ashwood Farm for years to come.


Abby’s Horse Power

Gallardo
Owned by Ashwood Farm LLC
2011 KWPN Gray Gelding
(Cancara x Ladyway)

True Knight
Owned by Ashwood Farm LLC
2013 Bay Gelding Warmblood

Cheers
Owned by Audrey Gallagher
2010 German Sporthorse Bay Gelding
(Ciaco’s Son x Sungold S)

Asteri
Owned by MMK Equestrian LLC
2013 Bay Gelding bred by Dierks Klaus

Indira 
Owned by Ashwood Farm LLC
2013 KWPN Bay Mare 
(Plot Blue x Elaretta)
Bred by Frans Burgers

Journey
Owned by MMK Equestrian LLC
2015 BWP Chestnut Gelding
Bred by Jan Wuytack & De Moerhoeve BVBA


Abby Funk’s Highlights:

  • 2020 Capital Challenge Horse Show: WCHR Developing Pro Challenge – 7th with Journey
  • 2020 Kentucky Summer: DJ Tour 7 Year Old  Jumper 1.35m – 1st with Indira
  • 2020 Tryon Summer II: Green Hunter 3’6″ /  High Performance 4’ Champion with Asteri
  • 2020 WEF IX: Young Hunter 3’6″ 7 Year  Old & Under Champion with Asteri
  • 2020 WEF IX: 7 Year Old Young Jumper 1.30m –  1st with Indira
  • 2020 WEF VII: Young Hunter 3′ Champion  with Journey
  • 2020 Holiday Festival I: $2500 USHJA  National Derby – 1st with Handwritten
  • 2019 SFHJA 69th Annual Charity:  1.20m Open Jumper Champion with Indira
  • 2019 Kentucky Spring Classic: Young Hunter  3’3″ Champion with Baudelaire
  • 2019 Kentucky Summer Classic: Amateur Owner 3’6” Champion with Noteworthy
  • 2018 Capital Challenge: USHJA 3’3″ Jumping  Seat Medal Gymnastics – 1st
  • 2018 Tulsa Rendezvous II: $10,000 USHJA International Derby – 2nd
  • 2018 Queenie Productions Winter Festival II:  $2,500 USHJA National Derby – 1st with Night Life
  • 2014 National Horse Show: $3000 Large Junior Handy – 1st with Neander
  • 2014 Washington International Horse Show  Best Child Rider on a Horse
  • 2014 Washington International Horse Show: Large Junior Hunter 15 & Under Champion with Neander
  • 2013 Pin Oak Charity Horse Show: Large Junior Hunter 15 & Under Champion with Avec Plaisir
  • 2013 Pin Oak Charity Horse Show: Small Junior Hunter 15 & Under Champion with Forecast Sunny
  • 2013 Pin Oak Charity Horse Show: Children’s Hunter 14 & Under Champion with Vantage

A Special Kind of Dragon

A special pony in the hearts of everyone at Ashwood Farm, Sir Dragon has been a star partner for Campbell Brown. Thomas admired the small pony for many years before she had the opportunity to train him for the Brown family. Not only has he been a happy addition in the barn for the young rider, but Dragon also got Thomas back in the saddle herself for the first time in five years while she struggled with a neuropathy which left her unable to fully feel her feet. “Dragon needed riding when Campbell was away, and my friend, Stacey Weiss, told me to go get some boots and chaps and ride him for myself. I was so glad for the nudge!” Thomas said.

Sir Dragon’s Highlights:

  • 2020 Holiday Festival 1:  $500 Small Pony Hunter Classic – 1st with Campbell Brown
  • 2020 Holiday Festival 1:  USEF Pony Medal – 1st with Campbell Brown
  • 2020 WEF VI, VIII, IX:  Small Pony Hunter Reserve Champion with Campbell Brown
  • 2018 USEF Pony Finals:  Small Pony Hunter Model – 2nd with Campbell Brown
  • 2018 WEF IX:  Small Pony Hunter Champion with Emma Hechtman
  • 2017 Washington International Horse Show:  $2,500 Small Pony Handy Hunter – 1st with Emma Hechtman
  • 2017 US Pony Finals:  3rd Overall Small Pony with Emma Hechtman

Originally from the January 2021 issue.

Photos Sportfot, Shawn McMillen Photography, Tori Weed


About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.

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