Hap Hansen: A Great Horseman, A Remarkable Man

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Hap Hansen & Zulu. Photo © Tish Quirk

BY ANN JAMIESON

Although Hap Hansen was not born into a horsey family, he was drawn to horses as a young boy. He convinced his parents to take him to a rental facility where he could ride, and always asked for “the fastest horse” they had. At 10, his parents realized this was an obsession that was not going away. It was time for proper lessons.

Hap rode at Eaton Canyon in Alta Dena, California, for two and a half years. But legendary Flintridge was right nearby, beckoning, and soon Hap’s parents joined the club, allowing Hap to ride with Jimmy Williams. Hap’s training reflects this early education. He allows horses and riders to be individuals, and to shine according to their own strengths.

Jimmy demonstrated his distinctive training style when Hap ventured into the jumper ring for the first time, at Santa Barbara.  Hap’s horse Hale’s Pride was “really hot” and was usually warmed up in the barn aisle. Yet Jimmy made Hap ride right into the ring with no warm-up up. Hap was “scared to death,” but Jimmy nailed the situation, and it all worked out just fine. 

While Hap rode with Jimmy for about six years, he kept his eyes on others as well, watching trainers like Karen Healey, Missy Clark, and Mike Henegan, constantly expanding his knowledge.

Back in those days, says Hap, you could “do it all with one horse.” Riders competed in hunters, jumpers, and equitation, all with one mount. Hap had two horses, a junior hunter named Green Dolphin, and the jumper Master Charge, and competed in all the divisions including Medal classes. He, Susie Hutchison and Robert Ridland rode together, always scoring additional horses to ride at Flintridge. Riding with Jimmy, Hap won the Zone 10 and Barbara Worth Medal finals. 

He left Jimmy when he turned professional. 

Photo © Tish Quirk

Saddle Horses

Hap didn’t confine himself to forward seat riding. He discovered that on weekends it was fun to go to Bob Bradley at Benita Valley Farms, and take some saddle seat lessons. He enjoyed the discipline and groomed sometimes for the farm. “It was fun on the weekends to go down there and do that. I loved it!” he says. One year he competed on the weekends in hunt seat one day, and saddle seat on the other day.

Starting Out

Bob had a small hunter/jumper barn in the back of his facility, and one day the trainer there left for other opportunities. Bob needed a trainer, and Hap thought, “I’d like to do this.” Bob gave him the job. Hap trained the kids on Saturdays at local county shows and groomed saddle horses for the farm on Sundays. 

Hap was there about a year and a half before he was offered the chance to go completely on his own training out of San Diego Country Estates in Ramona. It was a huge, brand new facility, incorporating hunters, jumpers, and racehorses.

The whole idea was to promote San Diego Country Estates so people would buy properties in the complex. They bought a new van for Hap to use, which prominently displayed “San Diego Country Estates” in big green letters on the side. The owners were happy for Hap to go to all the shows, and he built up a good clientele. 

But after a year, the owners decided it was time for Hap to stay home on the weekends so that people coming to look at the properties could see the horses training and jumping. That didn’t work for Hap because weekends of course are when the shows go! 

Hap joined Sandy Aston, training out of Rancho Santa Fe Training Club. It was a great partnership. Sandy wanted out of bookkeeping and didn’t want to ride. She just wanted to be the ground person. Hap took over the bookkeeping chores and riding (with Sandy as ground person), and they formed a partnership that lasted 10 years. Hap remained at the facility for 17 more. Some of the top horses from that period were Juniperus, Don’t Dare Me, Triple Bronze, and Sailaway. 

Hap & Juniperus. Photo © Tish Quirk

Juniperus

Hap lost Maybe, one of his Grand Prix horses, when the horse’s owner moved east, taking the horse with him. Not wanting to see a scenario like that again, Hap decided to form a syndicate. If he headed the syndicate, no one could take the horse away from him!  People he spoke to said they would be happy to be part of a syndicate, but where was the horse?

Hap journeyed to France to search, and as soon as he saw Juniperus, it was love at first sight. Juniperus had been the alternate for the French team at the Santa Anita Olympics. He had found the horse.

When he got home, it was time to put the money together. He was so sure about the horse that he went to the bank, and mortgaged his home to buy Juniperus! He told the bank manager, “I’m not getting up until you give me the money, until we get this done.”

He got it done and got the horse to form his syndicate. 

“Juniperus was very scopey and very successful, but he loved to make everyone think he was very mean. If you went near him he’d pin his ears and act like he was going to bite you like he was ferocious. He would make such mean faces, but it was all bark and no bite. He was one of my best horses.

“We made the Nations Cup team to ride at Spruce Meadows in 1986. It was mostly a California team, including Jennifer Newell and Robert Ridland, and we were tied for first with the British who had just won silver at the World Championships. One of the horses was the legendary Milton, with John Whittaker.  

“George Morris was the Chef D’equipe. As I went into the ring I knew I had to go clean, and faster than Milton to win. George looked at me and just said ‘Fast!’

I went in there and we were able to do it, to beat Milton, and we won the Nations’ Cup with me being the anchor rider.”

Hap & Best of Luck. Photo © Tish Quirk

An Amazing Record

When asked whether he has a preference for hunters, jumpers, or equitation, Hap replied that he enjoys all disciplines. “Practice makes perfect, and horses are all different. The Grand Prix is the most exciting. I love a nice hunter that is a pretty horse, moves nicely, is cooperative, and jumps in nice form. I love watching Nick Haness and Jenny Karazissis and those that have so many nice horses; it’s fun. I love the equitation as well.”

One of the winningest riders ever on the Grand Prix circuit, Hap has just under 100 victories to his credit. He won over $1,000,000 in prize money at Spruce Meadows, and was the 1990 AGA Rider of the Year, 1994 AHSA Rider of the Year, and from 1992 to 1995 won the World Cup Qualifying Grand Prix at the LA Equestrian Center—on four different horses. Hap tied for sixth place (the highest placing American rider) in the Gothenberg, Sweden World Cup Finals in 1988 on Juniperus, and was also sixth in the World  Cup Finals in Berlin in 1985 on Maybe. 

Hap & Maybe. Photo courtesy of Hap Hansen

He stars as well in the hunter ring, with countless wins on horses such as Best of Luck and Sir Caletto. Hap was inducted into the National Show Jumper Hall of Fame in 2011 and the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame in 2014. When he won the Queen Elizabeth II Cup riding Mirage he considered it, “one of the biggest deals I’ve ever won.” 

Hap has been a mainstay in the horse industry in Southern California for decades. Employees stay forever (most have been with him for decades) and consider him a best friend; riders and competitors admire him for not only his talent but his kindness and support for others. 

When the LA Equestrian Center named a new arena after him, “The Hap Hansen Arena,” along with the Riders’ Cup Perpetual Hap Hansen Trophy, they “wanted to give him a big shout out because he’s someone who we should all look up to. He’s always there to give knowledge to, and support everyone.”

Hap is an extremely gifted teacher as well as a rider. His students have won the West Coast Junior Hunter finals, the CPHA Medal finals, and qualified for numerous regional and National medal finals. His student Natalie Rae Medlock took the blue at the USET Talent Search Finals, won in every ring from Hunter Derbies to Grand Prix aboard Hap’s own horse Y2K and went on to become a top amateur.

Hap says he “loves teaching” especially when riders are able to do it and get some success. “And someone being appreciative goes a long, long way!” 

He is particularly proud of Bliss Heers, who competed for the team in the Nations Cup in Poland and is now short-listed for the Tokyo Olympics. “I trained her as a junior. She also made the team in Wellington; she was the only American to go double clear. She’s doing great and has a great horse.”

Although Hap would have loved to compete in the Olympics, he realizes that being on the team depends on having the right horse at the right time. “The hardest part of getting to the Olympics is making it there. The chef d’equipe has to pick the best team at the moment for the Olympics, and the trials are very tough. There’s a computer list and you have to be at the top to be considered. It’s extremely competitive because we have a tremendous amount of capable riders and good horses.”

Robert Ridland, who Hap rode with as a junior, is the current chef d’equipe for the Olympics or any of the Nation’s Cups.

Flying High

Hap doesn’t just fly over fences. He flies planes too—another of his passions. Hap  was at Spruce Meadows one year, with a customer whose horse he was showing. 

“They had a private plane and offered me a ride home. So I thought, ‘Oh that would be fun.’ Then they gave me three free flying lessons. I was scared to death. But I took the lessons and I thought, ‘I’m going to keep doing this.’ 

“The first time I flew I took the controls as we were taking off, the flight instructor told me what to do and I said ‘You get your hands on that wheel!’  

“That was pretty exciting!” He eventually earned his pilot’s license, and calls flying “a nice break from the horses.”

While he has basically retired from riding now, Hap judges, and was fortunate to judge McLain Ward in the Maclay Regionals “He was by far the winner out of over 100 kids.” And “he still looks like an equitation rider as he goes around the Grand Prix.”

 Hap enjoys judging and has been able to judge “some really nice shows.”

Photo © Tish Quirk

The Birds

Hap has a collection of “very spoiled birds.” Currently, he has eight living outside in aviaries while only one bird, the African Grey, lives in the house. 

“I have a Red-fronted Macaw and a double yellow Amazon parrot and three Griffin Cockatoos, two Turaco (native to South America) which look a little bit like a roadrunner, and then an East African Crowned Crane. “She’s about three feet tall and tame. She has the whole backyard and then I have an aviary where she stays with one of the Turacos at night. But her wings are trimmed so she mostly stays in the yard.

“Somebody gave me a Cockatiel and I always kind of liked them or had a bird. The Cockatiel was scared to death of people, so I took it back to where they got it which was believe it or not Mary’s Tack Shop. I ended up getting an African Grey because I wanted a friendlier bird. Her name was Shadow.  We had her for about 20 to 25 years. Now we have another one, his name is Primo.”

While Hap Hansen is not the type to “toot his own horn.” His friends and associates don’t hesitate to define him with superlatives. Will Simpson says he’s known Hap a long time and “the quality I admire most is consistency. He’s the same every day. And the other thing? He’s really, really funny.”

Linda Smith adds “Integrity.” And Joie Gatlin says “One of the most incredible things about Hap is his calm, cool demeanor.  He’s one of my heroes.”

As the new “Hap Hansen Arena” opened at the LA Equestrian Center, Hap’s friends shared their thoughts. 

“On the horse or on the ground, Hap is the horseman we should all strive to be like. He is such a good rider and an excellent horseman in every way but beyond that one of the kindest and most generous people you could ever meet.”

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