BY ANN JAMIESON
Cynthia Hankins has been a judge for 40 years, judging the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals five times, the WIHS Equitation Finals and ASPCA Maclay Finals once each, and the USEF Talent Search five times. With a lifetime of riding, training, and competing with the best of the best in the sport, no one could be more qualified for the job.
A Family Affair
Growing up in southeast Pennsylvania near Doylestown, Cynthia was born into the saddle. Horses were in her blood, and central to her life. Both of her parents, Harry Hankins Jr., and Caroline, rode and hunted. Her mother taught in their small backyard barn. In addition to a regular job, her father moonlighted by leading horses onto the track, and working, at Liberty Bell Park racetrack.
Her mother was such a gifted teacher that George Morris referred to her as “a great starter.” Besides Cynthia, she worked with Debra Baldi Matz, and a few other riders that later rode with George as well. As a result of that great start, Cynthia won the always hotly contested leadline at Devon—twice.
Cynthia didn’t just join the Huntington Valley Hunt Pony Club, she lived on her ponies. Heading out across fields with her friends after a lesson, they would set up logs and other improvised fences to jump, eat lunch out of their backpack, and then head back on horseback to the general store for penny candy (which was actually a penny back then).
When Cynthia turned nine, her mother rethought the mother/daughter teaching arrangement and decided it wasn’t the ideal situation. She sent Cynthia to All Around Farm, the top barn in the area, under the training of Junie Kulp. Terry Rudd was based there, and Marvin van Rappaport’s Spindletop Farm also called it home. Due to a lucky break, Cynthia landed the ride on some top ponies. The owners were Jewish, and some of the major shows took place during the Jewish holidays. So Cynthia had the opportunity to ride one top pony at Harrisburg, and another one at Washington.
Then she got one of her own, a pony named Damn Yankee. Although he was supposedly four, he was “probably more like two,” Cynthia recalls, “and therefore barely started. I fell off of him twice the day I tried him.” A beautiful mover, he took home many blues in the hack.
At 12, Cynthia was starting to outgrow Yankee when she took a clinic with George. George wasn’t fond of ponies, and Yankee was still “young and sort of an evergreen.”
Cynthia was always very serious. Riding in long braids in the lesson in New Jersey, her mother and a friend were trying to get her to relax a little bit. “C’mon, smile,” they implored her.
Cynthia recalls, “I must have lifted one corner of my mouth,” and George whipped around, never missing a trick in his clinics, and saw her.
“What do you find so amusing?” he asked.
Embarrassed, Cynthia replied, “Nothing, nothing…” Over the lunch break they put the pony in the trailer and Cynthia told her mother, “I am not going back!”Her mother insisted they get the pony off the trailer. She had paid good money and Cynthia was going to ride in that clinic! She did.
Despite the shaky introduction, she and her mother began commuting after school monthly to Long Island (Anne Yohai’s Old Mill Farm in Brookville, New York) where George was then located. Cynthia would take two lessons back to back. At that time George was writing the original Hunter Seat Equitation. Cynthia would take a lesson on a school horse and then George would head back to the tack room to work on the book while she prepared for her second lesson.
Equitation and Junior Hunter Competition
Cynthia’s first Medal class was also her first win. “I was on one of my ponies, who was 13.1. They wanted me to fill a class. I went in, and I’m sure I did two in the in and out…but I ended up still winning.”
She tried showing in the equitation classes on her mother’s hunt horse, who had a wonderful temperament for the hunt field, but not the best technique for the equitation ring. She switched to a 17.1 Thoroughbred named Goblin who carted her around the Medal/Maclay courses, but he was an older horse, and not up to the finals. She needed an appropriate horse to compete in them.
George found one: an 18 year old retired horse that Michael Page had suggested. Turned out, he had grown a coat about four inches long, and developed a hay belly. “His name was Buttermilk Bay (aka Butter).” After they got him fit, Cynthia qualified for the Medal and Maclay finals and came in fifth in the Maclay in her very first attempt, at show age 12!
George didn’t just coach Cynthia, he helped her find the horses that she paired with in her equitation victories. “George did so much for me!” she remembers. He found Nissen, a Thoroughbred gelding owned by Valerie Monnett, for Cynthia. The horse later went on to do extremely well with Mark Leone.
Valerie had gone back to Hawaii, so Cynthia had the opportunity to show him. Nissen lived with them at home as George felt her mother was a knowledgeable horsewoman with superb horse care skills. Keeping him at home helped reduce their expenses significantly.
“He was the horse that I won the Governor’s Cup on and then the Medal Finals,” recalls Cynthia. They also won all three junior hunter rounds that weekend. Nissen was known for his smooth way of going, smoothness that could make one overlook his medium technique. After the first round, George just did a polite golf clap. After the second win, there was a little bit more enthusiasm. By the third class, he gave his traditional long whoop. They ended with a Grand Slam of victories: Small Junior Champion, Grand Junior Champion, and Best Child Rider. “We felt we better leave our luck and not bother with the special stakes class,” laughs Cynthia.
The next day they won the Medal, and the day after that, “My mom took Nissen back to the house and I stayed there because I was a working student for George.” She lived in a little camper at the show, cleaning tack and boots, grooming horses, and doing whatever else she had to do as a working student.
“It’s a little different in today’s world,” notes Cynthia understatedly. “But that’s what you did then. You had the one horse that did both divisions, and the horses lasted. Back then there weren’t so many classes, there was the AHSA Medal class, the ASPCA Maclay class, and the USET. You didn’t have to have as much depth to your horse string as you have today.”
Life at the USET
Bert de Nemethy called George one day and asked if he knew of anybody who could come and keep the horses flatted while Bert was away. As one of his working students, George volunteered Cynthia. The position was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Cynthia lived in the legendary team headquarters while flatting the Team horses. “It was awe-inspiring. The horses, the ring, the facility, it was fabulous!”
When Bert returned, he obviously was pleased. “Why don’t you work it out and stay here?”
Since Cynthia was still a senior in high school, she would attend one day a week while working and riding the rest of the time. They competed at all the big shows: Fairfield County Hunt Club, Ox Ridge, Lake Placid. When Cynthia wasn’t at a show, she was at the team. “It was a great opportunity and the start of expanding my education on the flat,” she recalls.
A Brief Stint at Dressage
When she finished the last equitation finals, the ASPCA Maclay at the Garden in New York, George came up with the idea that Cynthia should be a dressage rider. Cynthia headed up to Jessica Ransehousen (whose illustrious career included chef d’equipe for the U.S. dressage team in three Olympics, competing in two Olympics herself, and becoming the first American to wear the prestigious green leading rider armband at Aachen, Germany) in upstate New York.
Cynthia learned that “young dressage horses don’t do a whole lot.” In addition, it was “freezing cold!” While the indoor ring was heated to bring it up to 40 degrees, it was still “so darn cold.”
She attended classes at SUNY Plattsburgh as well while she was in upstate New York. She missed jumping, becoming so stir crazy that she began popping the dressage horses over small obstacles that appeared in the outdoor ring as the snow melted. It was clear that dressage was not going to be Cynthia’s discipline!
She returned to Hunterdon, where she was “an assistant to the assistant trainer.” Then she returned to the Team. Bert used to tease her and say she was the “assistant to the coach, not the assistant coach.” Ellen Raidt, who has remained a long time friend, joined the staff at the same time.
Cynthia had never shown in the jumpers. Her first experience in the division was almost beyond belief, “riding the horses at the USET!” She and Ellen competed on the team horses, among them two donated horses, a brother and sister, originally from California. Ellen got the ride on Flying John, while Cynthia rode the mare, Almost Persuaded. Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse crosses, the mare was “as hot as could be. If you took too much feel she would just canter in place. You had to just let her do her thing,” recalls Cynthia.
Persuaded was older, and had enough earnings that she was only eligible for the Open division, so Cynthia had no choice but to go straight from Preliminary to Open Jumpers!
The West Coast
Cynthia married young, but when that didn’t work out, she headed out to Washington state. Previously she’d judged a show in the Seattle area, and as she’d liked it out there Cynthia packed up the car with no job and no place to stay and headed west.
Hearing that Bob Woodington at Central Park Stables was looking for a rider she approached him about a job. She got it. While they didn’t go to a lot of horse shows, as there weren’t many in the area at the time, she did go…straight into the Grand Prix!
“Bob was a funny guy, he was ‘fairly thrifty’ in his praise.” Although she didn’t win any Grand Prix, Cynthia placed well in every one, earning seconds, thirds and fourths. When she said to him, “You know Bob, this is the first time I’ve ever had a Grand Prix horse,” he looked at her and replied, “Yeah, I know. I could tell.”
Cynthia shrugged it off. “Oh well, it makes you tougher.”
Cynthia moved from Washington state to California after being offered a job at LA Equestrian Center in Burbank. While initially, she was on her own, she soon found Wayne Thomsen, who wanted to give her all of his students and just write scripts. He wasn’t just California dreaming; the scripts did have options on them. Cynthia said “No, you can’t write scripts, I can’t do all this on my own. Do it after you finish at the barn.”
They set up a business. “We had a couple of very nice hunters named Center Court, and Midtown, and a little jumper named Tellius. Tellius came to us because his owner was having difficulties with him in the junior jumpers. For a time, Cynthia and the junior shared the riding duties. Cynthia would get him forward, taking the “stop” out of his mind in the Preliminary classes, then his rider would compete in the junior division.
“He won everything! We won a Young Horse Championship which earned us a free trip to Hawaii. That was a really great prize! He was a super little guy, a 15.3 hand Dutch Warmblood, he won a lot of speed classes. He could just hunker down and turn.”
“For a brief period, we moved Tee up to the Grand Prix, but his specialty was as a modified/speed horse, and, as we were paying the bills, his earnings paid his way. I think he knew he was in over his head in the Grand Prix ring, but he was a trier. While everyone else was flatting their horses seriously in the morning before the big class, I’d walk him around bareback, with a halter and lead ropes. I know! Far from my traditional roots! But he stayed more relaxed. Soon enough, we went back to the level where he excelled. So we kept him. In 1990, we’d been champion at Aid to Zoo Show, after the Fox, in northern California and Bakersfield, California.” But the one cooler that they really wanted to have up on the tack room was the coveted one from Del Mar.
With an unexpected rail in the first class and not enough speed in the second class, they finally scored a win in the third. It wasn’t enough to earn the cooler. Unfortunately, the sting of heading home without the cooler paled when the groom came running breathlessly down to the ring as Cynthia was sending a student in. “They’re taking Tellius!” she yelled.
The owners, who lived south of Del Mar, had arrived with the police. They wanted their horse back. They took him, and a legal battle then ensued to recover over two years of back boarding, training, showing, and other expenses. “It was a mess!” Cynthia recalls.
Cynthia took a short-term job with Richard Keller, filling in for his rider, Joie Gatlin, who’d broken an ankle helping her stunt-rider father. It took them on the road to British Columbia and then Spruce Meadows. Eventually, Tellius’ owners decided they would sell the gray and sent him back to Cynthia to get fit and then show him a final time at the LAEC. Again, the little gray didn’t disappoint. He was champion.
Conrad Holmfeld flew out to try him, liked him, and said the horse would work for his client. But the owners changed their minds. “We’re taking him home.”
Tee returned briefly to Chalk Hill Ranch, near Healdsburg, CA, where Wayne and Cynthia had their business, but only to await pick up. “The day Tee was scheduled to leave, I walked him the half-mile up to a separate stable, closer to the road, and set him up with hay and water until he was to go. I fed him carrots and walked back down the hill. I couldn’t watch him be driven away. That was half a lifetime ago and I still remember that day.”
About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years.
She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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