The ‘‘Step Down’’ Horse: A Secret Weapon of the Horse Show World

Tenderly showing with the author

A seasoned campaigner in need of a lighter job can give green riders confidence


I don’t like the term ‘stepdown’ horse,” says Paul Cronin, the longtime director of the Sweet Briar College equestrian team (1967-2001) when I call to discuss this type of horse. Cronin, who is also a trainer, recognized hunter/jumper judge and the author of Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse prefers to call them “new career horses.” 

Mr. Cronin has worked with many such “new career” horses over his 50-plus year career. Sometimes they were show jumpers retired from the circuit, sometimes they were horses whose owners could no longer afford, and sometimes they came from owners in search of a tax deduction. (In this final instance meant, owners sometimes greatly inflated their worth.) Mr. Cronin has received—and retrained—hundreds of such stepdown/new career horses that he incorporated into his program.
The horses, in turn, gave Sweet Briar student riders confidence and helped to improve their technique. 

“These horses play a part in everyone’s career,” says Cronin.

Tenderly showing with Danielle Sagliano

In my case, a stepdown horse helped me to return to the sport that I loved. After a bad riding accident and a six-month hiatus from the barn three years ago, my trainer, Ariel Secula, suggested that I try the aptly-named Tenderly, a then 18-year-old Dutch warmblood mare. Tenderly would “take care” of me, says Secula, of Furlyn Farm and Stable in Greendell, New Jersey.

When I first met Tenderly she had already “stepped down” from a big show career. Her owner, Danielle Sagliano, had been campaigning Tenderly in equitation and the hunters on the East Coast. Danielle, now 24 and working as an IEA coach and trainer at Limelight Farms in Bedford, New York, was only ten when her parents bought Tenderly.  

“We used to joke with my family we got great bang for our buck; Tenderly did everything,” Danielle says. Danielle and Tenderly’s successful partnership included Ariat medal class wins and qualifying for Marshall & Sterling finals. 

After she left to work in New York, Danielle entrusted Tenderly to Denise Furtkevic, owner of Furlyn Farms. At the time, Tenderly wasn’t quite ready to retire but needed an easier job. In fact, before she and I crossed paths, Tenderly had already brought a few other Furlyn riders up the ranks, including 27-year-old Jourdan Cinnante. “Tenderly had all the show experience and didn’t need any prep. You knew she was always going to be there for you,” says Jourdan, who leased and showed Tenderly in equitation and 2’3″ hunters for a season.

Tenderly gave Jourdan the confidence to lease a young rather green Appendix mare named Platinum Belle with whom she now successfully competes in the 2’6″ hunters. 

Tenderly, who I leased for eight months, not only helped me win championships in a few small local shows, but she also gave me the confidence to purchase a green Appendix mare of my own named Alice last year. (I told the story of Alice in The Plaid Horse last year). I’ve shown Alice in Hunter Pleasure and equitation and a talented young rider named Becca Bender has shown Alice over fences in Beginner Hunter, winning a couple of Reserve Championships.  

On our last outing, at the Sussex Benefit Series in Augusta, New Jersey, I ran into trainer Mark Leone of Ri-Arm Farm in Oakland, New Jersey. Leone, an international show jumping champion rider and trainer, with there his 14-year-old son James Leone, who was riding his own stepdown horse. 

Mr. Leone and I had discussed stepdown horses in a phone call a couple of weeks earlier in which he had recalled their importance in his own career. “When I was a junior,  13 or 14 years old, we understood that it was necessary for the horse to teach the rider,” says Leone. “For my son James, I want a horse that has been around and has the experience.” Leone acquired his son’s horse, a 14-year-old gelding named Devne from McLain Ward. (Clearly Mr. Leone chose well; James won his ASPCA Maclay class that day.) 

A great stepdown horse is not only hard to find but can also be very expensive, Mr. Leone notes. “That’s what’s tricky about this business—the scarcity of the horses. An adult 2’6″ to 3′ hunter is $25,000 to $45,000 lease-to-purchase, and a top-of-the line horse can cost $150,000 or more.” Mr. Leone is currently looking for a stepdown horse for a “timid” client but he’s discerning about his sources. “I know it’s very popular to look on the Internet and people are willing to buy horses off videos, but you can protect the client when you work with someone you know and trust,” he adds.

Top hunter trainer Peter Foley of Woodhall Farm of Aldie, VA, says temperament is key in a great stepdown horse. “They’re sweet, they’re easy,” he says. Such horses are particularly useful for green riders at horse shows. “I say ‘somebody needs to know what they’re doing,” Foley adds with a laugh.

The biggest variable in a stepdown horse is soundness, says Mr. Foley. A horse that has competed at a very high level may require maintenance to remain sound. This might be anything from special shoes to injections to even softer work. And of course, a stepdown may eventually need to retire altogether. Tenderly, now 21 years old, is fully retired and living at Furlyn Farm. 

“She did so much for so many people, let her sit in a nice field and let her enjoy her retirement,” says Danielle. 

Every great stepdown horse deserves as much. 

PHOTOS: Denise Furtkevic, Paws and Rewind Photography, Elizabeth Furtkevi

*This story was originally published in the July 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!