Amy Hess Brings Thoroughbreds Back To The Show Ring

Photos courtesy of Amy Hess


“I just love the heart of a Thoroughbred.” 

That’s how Amy Hess, of Avanti Equestrian in Lake View Terrace, CA, explains her lifelong passion for the breed. Hess grew up with horses, steeped in a diverse mix of disciplines. Her mother showed hunters and jumpers, her father and sister rode cutting horses, and the family had ties to the racing industry. Hess followed her mother into the show ring and found her knack for Thoroughbreds early, “Both my junior jumpers were Thoroughbreds,” she said. “I had a lot of success with them.”

Her affinity for Thoroughbreds deepened when she dated and later married a racehorse trainer who worked at the Santa Anita track. “When we were dating,” she said, “I had nothing else to do when I came home on weekends. So I got my gallop license, and started galloping and working horses for him. When I was little I always told my parents I wanted to ride racehorses at Churchill Downs one day,” she added, laughing. “They were like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ The first time that I got to work a horse on that racetrack, on Kentucky Derby week under the twin spires, the sun was coming up and I looked out and I was like, I told my parents I was going to do this one day!

Photo courtesy of Amy Hess

Today, Hess focuses on her hunter/jumper training business, though she still manages a handful of horses at the track. With her feet firmly planted in both worlds, she has unique insight into how to transition Thoroughbreds into second careers. Hess is well-known for her ability to source former racehorses and bring them up the levels in the show ring. “I don’t push the Thoroughbreds on people,” Hess said, noting that the majority of her barn is warmbloods. “There’s some people who like tennis. There’s some people who like golf. And there’s always going to be warmblood people and Thoroughbred people.”  

Still, she’s noticed an uptick of interest in the Thoroughbreds, recently getting a phone call from a professional in Canada who was helping a young pro who wanted to learn how to develop a young horse. “He said he missed the Thoroughbreds,” Hess said, “So he asked me to pick one out for them and send it up to Canada. That was really refreshing to hear.” 

Photo courtesy of Amy Hess

One beloved Thoroughbred in her Los Angeles barn is Blue Tone, a 12 year old Kentucky-bred that Hess picked out at the yearling sales at Keeneland. She was his main exercise rider throughout his successful racing career, where he won $568,870 in 26 starts. “The owners are amazing people,” she said. “They kept him in training with me for a second career.” After a careful restart, she went on to show Blue in the jumper and hunter rings. There he proved Hess’ philosophy that the power of the Thoroughbred comes from their gallop. 

“I was so frustrated,” she said, “because he’s got a ton of scope, but we would have rails in the 1m, because I was trying to ride him conventionally. I looked at my assistant and I said, what do I preach to everybody? Thoroughbreds get their scope by going forward. I’m not riding forward. I’m just going to get in my half seat and gallop these jumps, and it’s either going to work or I’m going to die. He was champion of the division, he didn’t have a single rail down. We eventually played around up to the 1.20m and he didn’t have a single rail.” 

Photo courtesy of Amy Hess

Another special Thoroughbred in her life is Audible, known as “Dig” in the barn. Sold at Keeneland for $2 million as a yearling, he raced until 7 before Hess re-trained him, eventually bringing him up to the 1.30m jumpers. “He was hot and crazy,” she said. “One of my clients kept telling me she wanted to show him in the hunters. Lo and behold, that horse turned out to be one of the top adult amateur hunters around. He would go down to the older hunter ring dancing around like he was going to the paddock to race. People looked at me like I was crazy for putting an old lady on him, but the minute the rider got on he’d just drop his head, go into hunter mode, and do his job.”  Now 23, Audible is still going strong and is ridden by Hess’ teenage nephew. “When he goes to college,” Hess said, “We’re bringing him back for a little girl to do crossrails on.” 

Photo courtesy of Amy Hess

When asked how a rider interested in making an OTTB their next show horse can set themself up for success, Hess emphasizes finding a trainer that understands Thoroughbreds and their lives on the track. “They’re not bad or hot,” she said, “they’ve just only ever known one career, so there’s a bit of a learning curve for them.”  Hess believes bias against Thoroughbreds comes from simple misunderstanding of the breed, as well as a larger shift in American horsemanship. “There’s not a lot of people around anymore with a deep background in starting young horses,” she said. “They’re show riders, not horsemen. A lot of people don’t take the time to develop a young horse, and they also don’t understand the Thoroughbred process. They’re not being bad, they’re doing what they were trained to do. You have to untrain them and then retrain them.” 

“I think there’s a fear factor, too,” she added. “The warmbloods don’t move as quick underneath you. The Thoroughbred can intimidate people because their moves are quick. People feel they’re getting run away with, because they’re not used to feeling the blood. No one is used to feeling that blood underneath you anymore.” 

Photo courtesy of Amy Hess

Still, Hess says her best amateur horses have always been Thoroughbreds. “Once you take the time to retrain them, you have an almost unlimited amount of withdrawals from the bank,” she said. “If they have a couple of bad rides, have a trainer get on and give them a couple of good rides. Then the Thoroughbred says, Okay, no problem, I’ve got your back. They’re very forgiving.”

“I really hope that the movement continues to grow,” Hess said. “To get some of the good Thoroughbreds back in the ring and have people understand what an asset they are. I know they’re not the most popular in the hunter/jumper world anymore, but I still feel the heart of a Thoroughbred — nothing can replace it.”