BY LINDSEY LONG
If you’ve seen Bridgeport Farms at a horse show, chances are you’ve been impressed. The sheer size of the show setup is remarkable, with aisle after aisle of beautiful horses and ponies peeking out from immaculately kept stalls. The oversized client lounge features rows of proudly hung tricolors and blues. At the Desert Circuit held each winter in Thermal, CA, Bridgeport enjoys a permanent setup complete with an office, tack room, private restrooms, private grass turnouts, and an exclusive practice ring.
As extraordinary as they are, the homes away from home that Bridgeport creates at shows are nothing compared to their actual home barn, located at The Oaks Farms in San Juan Capistrano, CA. The 65 to 70 horses who participate in the Bridgeport training program enjoy several arenas with premium footing, large stalls, turnouts, and miles of trails. Coastal live oak trees provide shade on a huge grass grazing field—a rare amenity in Southern California.
The Bridgeport Farms logo prominently displays 1989, the year of its inception, but founder and head trainer John Bragg laughs when he remembers how much the business has evolved over 32 years. At the start, “I was in Industry Hills, CA, and I had four horses in training, one of them being my own.”
A Los Angeles native, Bragg was not born into an equestrian family, but knew he was a horse person early on. “I was horse crazy,” says Bragg. “I used to bug my dad and he would take me to rent a horse every Saturday.” That led to regular lessons and then eventually his own horse and a junior riding career that included coaching from Jeff Katz, Mike Edrick, Mark Mullen, and Victor Hugo-Vidal.
After aging out of the juniors, Bragg’s first job was with DiAnn Langer and his second was with Mary Gatti before establishing his own Bridgeport Farms. His business grew steadily, one horse at a time, thanks to his talent in working with both people and horses and his ability to ride and train all levels for all three rings: hunters, equitation, and jumpers.
Industry Hills, east of downtown Los Angeles, was a tough area to attract new clients—Bragg estimates he had 18 to 20 horses there at its peak. Then, in 1997, he was presented an opportunity in Petaluma, CA, when equestrian legend Bitsy Shields retired. Bragg moved to Northern California and took over her operation. “Bitsy had a nice group of people and a very nice barn that she trained out of,” says Bragg. “So I made the jump, and that was probably the turning point. I ended up with a lot of really nice clients that were into buying young horses and bringing them along. I just built on that and was able to get more horses to show myself.”
Bragg traveled between Woodside and Petaluma for several years, then worked in Woodside only, while also steadily acquiring some clients in Southern California. He owned a house in Laguna Beach, an area he had always loved, so when Joan Irvine Smith offered him barn space on her San Juan Capistrano property in 2009, he took it. Ever since then, Bridgeport has steadily grown in horses, clients, and—notably—professionals. In addition to John, the professional team includes Lee Flick, Mitch Endicott, and Lexus Arbuckle, who attend most shows, plus Sedona Prietto, Briana Blankenaufulland, and Erin Moehnke, who teach and train at home. Then there’s veteran trainer Leslie Steele who runs her own training barn but works with Bridgeport as an equitation specialist, and Deanna Kornbluth, who does the majority of scheduling and management for the whole operation.
“It doesn’t just happen overnight, it builds slowly,” says Bragg. “I think what makes it work is that we don’t treat anyone like the assistant. It’s more like a team and we value everyone’s opinion and so forth. We don’t have a pecking order.”
Professional Lee Flick has worked with Bragg on and off for almost 20 years and feels that having a great working relationship is key. “It’s nice to be able to work with your friends. John and I were friends for a long time before we started working together and it’s just been an easy relationship. When you genuinely care about each other and are friends, it might not always be perfect but it’s great most of the time.”
One of the advantages of a large team of trainers and coaches is the ability to personalize a program according to what’s best for each horse and each rider. “There are some horses that I think one of the other riders ride better, and some clients who click well with another person, so we are always looking for great matches,” says Bragg.
Before taking over the barn management, Deanna Kornbluth was a junior and then an amateur rider at Bridgeport, so she has a unique perspective on the program. “Lee and John have complimentary teaching styles, but also each brings their own unique perspective, which is nice for the client. And same with riding horses. As a rider you’re happy for either of them to be at the back gate for you.”
With 68 horses currently at Bridgeport Farms, there is plenty of work to go around, whether at shows or at home. “People may not realize that John is here every day, all day, with everyone,” says Kornbluth. “Today when I got to the barn he was pushing the golf cart back to the barn. He’s not pretentious in that way and if it needs to get done, he’s willing to do it.”
A large team means there is room for all levels of riders, and helping riders and horses make significant progress is a hallmark of Bridgeport Farms. “John will teach the walk-trot then run over and get on his Grand Prix horse,” says Kornbluth. “We have a lot of clients that go from ponies to juniors to bigger jumpers, and that’s a special thing.”
Bragg’s only plan for Bridgeport’s future is to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing: “To see some of these kids and how they’re progressing and achieving their goals, it’s truly rewarding. We want to do more of everything. I want to continue to just be able to ride and train these nice horses. We’re just lucky that we’re able to work with such great clients and horses and ponies.”
Junior Brooke Morin Shines in All Three Rings
Brooke Morin is wrapping up her junior career with a bang. A student of Bridgeport Farms for the past eight years, she began riding there with one small pony and two medium ponies. Now 18, she’s regularly seen earning top placings and tricolors in the junior hunters and equitation, and most recently has competed at Grand Prix level with 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood Icarus and 11-year-old Danish Warmblood NKH Carrido, both stallions. From the small ponies to the Grand Prix, she’s a perfect example of the type of progression for which Bridgeport is known.
“Even when she first started it was clear she has a lot of talent,” says Bragg of Morin. “We’ve been doing this for a while together now, and I don’t have to hold her hand. She’s calm and cool, and we form a plan and she just does it.”
For her part, Morin loves being on the Bridgeport team. “My favorite thing about working with John is how well we get along, and I like working with Lee and the rest of the team because they’re all so hard working, but fun at the same time!”
You can catch Morin this fall competing with the zone 10 team at the 2021 North American Young Rider Championships, and then at various medal finals on the East Coast.
Recently, Bridgeport Farms has exponentially increased its cuteness level with a growing herd of ponies. While John Bragg and Lee Flick didn’t intentionally set out to create a pony empire, it continues to grow, four small hooves at a time.
“We had hardly any little kids before and now we’ve got a bunch, which is awesome,” says Bragg. “Two years ago, we had one or two ponies and now we have 17 or 18. It’s an advantage for small kids to learn on ponies because it’s not as intimidating and they don’t get jumped around as much.”
Bragg enjoys working with the smallest children and their ponies but gives Flick most of the credit for the program’s growth. “He’s picked out all the ponies and he’s so good with the kids. He never gets flustered and he really loves them.”
Flick says the first key to success is quality ponies, but beyond that, they’re trained and coached the same as the horses. “A lot of people think it’s a lot different from doing horses but we don’t teach or train any differently,” says Flick. “It’s all the same concepts: Good riding is good riding. Good horsemanship is good horsemanship. And quality is quality.”
Ponies often enjoy careers much longer than those of horses, and several ponies that were outgrown and sold have now come back to the barn with new owners. Brooke Morin’s former medium pony Always Happy is now back in the barn with Taylor Morrow in the irons, and Morin’s former large pony Party Favor is back with Sophia Donald as his rider.
“With the prior ponies we used to have, you know what their habits are, how they are with kids and so forth, so that’s really fun,” says Bragg. “It kind of comes full circle.”
Bridgeport Farms has a nice group headed to USEF Pony Finals at Kentucky Horse Park this year, and everyone is looking forward to it. “A lot of them are going for the first time this year, so that’s fun for everyone and we’re super excited about that.”
Party Favor Returns
Imported in 2013, Party Favor is a Large German Riding Pony that was gelded and brought over by Bragg. He showed with Hailey Giddings and then Brooke Morin, and has had a successful career with many championships and is now back at Bridgeport, currently owned by Sophia Donald.
PHOTOS: Kate Houlihan, Mccool Photography, Captured Moments Photography, The Book Llc & Katie Cook
*This story was originally published in the August 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!