Cynthia Hankins: Between Two Worlds – Part II

Caraccho, at Fontainebleau in the 7 yr old class. He became a hunter in the US named Lake of Stars. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Hankins


Back East

Through the horsemen’s grapevine, Cynthia learned that Linda Hough was looking for an equitation trainer for Megan Johnstone. Linda handled the hunters and jumpers Megan rode. It was her last junior year. “So, I contacted Linda. There were a couple of young horses to ride−one being January’s Best−and horses to keep fit when Megan was in school, but the top requirement of the job was no easy task. Linda said ‘I want an Equitation Finals win.'”

In 1995, the two original equitation finals had grown to four: Medal, Maclay, Washington International Horse Show, and the Talent Search. Megan had already won the Talent Search and Washington. “So it wasn’t like I had a one in four chance, I had a one in two chance!

“Megan was a great kid to work with. Her mother, Shana, was a delight. Megan  had a very nice equitation horse, and, as we began in Indio, CA, she won plenty. She also had a young horse, six or seven, named Graf Stern aka Howard. She was particularly fond of him and had started him in the equitation classes as well.”

After qualifying for the ASPCA Maclay Regionals at Flintridge, Megan began pressing to ride Howard at Harrisburg and the Meadowlands (for the Maclay Finals). Linda wasn’t convinced; she thought Howard would be too green for the task. As it was, warming up for any class was always over low jumps, as he would overjump otherwise. But Megan stood firm.

”I can have a nice round, but I won’t be the winner. With Howard, it will be all or nothing.” Her other equitation horse was braided at Harrisburg “just in case.”

Cynthia gives Megan credit. “She did it. Megan was third at Harrisburg (she was never a fan of hand galloping, except on her jumpers), and won the Maclay Final! And that ‘top priority’ box was ticked.”

Equitation Finals Changes

When asked about the changes in the equitation finals since she competed, Cynthia says, “There used to be a traditional round log at the end of the ring at Harrisburg, and that jump was in the first round in 1975. You had to shape the track and ride to it. Today the courses are much more technical. And there are more riders. 

“The top trainers during this generation are Andre Dignelli, Stacia Klein Madden, Missy Clark, Don Stewart, Ken and Emily Smith to name a few. Back then you had George Morris, Victor Hugo Vidal, and Ronnie Mutch, the “Big Three.”

“The courses have to be designed to be fair enough for those coming from an area where they don’t have the level of competition we have on the East and West coasts, yet at the same time be challenging enough for the top riders. When you have that many top riders they have to be able to handle the challenges of the course, measuring and shaping the track, the basics have to be there, and an empathy to follow the horse in the air. Horses have to have the scope to lengthen and shorten and jump easily. You always want to have a little more scope in the tank. And while some horses are younger and made up here, many coming from Europe have often jumped bigger tracks than they’ll see in the equitation ring, but the smooth adjustability needs to be schooled. Some are older Grand Prix horses coming back down, and no longer jump 1.50 to 1.60 meters.”

Cynthia trained Marley Goodman during her last junior year, as well as her first year as an amateur. Reflecting the movement of the sport, Marley had a hunter trainer, a jumper trainer, and an equitation trainer.

Changing Coasts, Changing Continents

RJ Brandes, the former owner of Blenheim Equisports, was searching for a private trainer for his fourteen-year-old daughter Katie, so Cynthia had the opportunity to head back out to California again, this time to San Juan Capistrano. There were 10 horses between Cynthia and Katie to show. 

“I was there for two years, but during the second year in the spring, I was riding in Indio and this guy calls me and he says ‘Hey, this is Matthew,’ and he was someone I had gone out to dinner with 25 years ago. He had sent me letters and they had never reached me, but finally, one was returned to sender. So he thought, ‘oh maybe she never got my letters.’ He must’ve thought I wasn’t very nice, I never answered him!” 

Contacting the USEF, he found that they “were very liberal about giving him my phone number,” and he was finally able to reach her. Matthew had gone back to school in his 50’s studying law, made Law Review, and was picked up by a very white-shoe law firm out of New York. The firm had a Paris office. He asked, “What would it take to get you to come to Paris?

Cynthia thought for a moment or two and said, “An airline ticket.”

She thought, “I love the horses. But I didn’t want to wake up and I’m in my 60’s and all that I know is the horse show, the hotel, and Monday is when we get the dry cleaning, and the car washed, and it starts again. 

“I’ve ridden all my life, I love riding, I enjoy horses, but I wanted to be able to see a little bit of the world. So I moved to Paris.

“I didn’t ride. I spoke some French because I’d learned it in school. But I had a Sorbonne student who came in to teach me to work on just everyday French.”

Cynthia and Tellius. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Hankins

It wasn’t long before Cynthia began to really miss the horses. She went to a friend of hers, Alan Waldman, who was up in Holland. “I’d known him since he was 12 and begging me to ride Tellius out in California. I would drive up, six and a half hours to Holland doing 180 kilometers an hour, and I would ride for a few days and get my fix and then turn around and come back. 

“That lasted for a while, then we bought a house in the country. Matthew thought that we should have a ‘residence secondaire.’ Buying a mill in Burgundy, they initially used it just on weekends. Then Cynthia “started to head out to the country earlier and earlier.” Soon she was in Paris three days a week and at the mill four days a week.

At that point, Matthew was recalled to the States, and Cynthia stayed at the house in Burgundy. She started working for a local breeding farm, an “hara.” Riding young horses, she qualified throughout the year to compete at Fontainebleau. 

France now hosts its own version of hunters, and Cynthia competed four times with different horses in the four, five, and six-year-old hunter finals. Adeline Negre was the force behind the hunter concept in France. The system used in France is different from ours. Instead of a scale from 1-100, theirs only goes from 1-20. The announcer (called the speaker) is often the judge as well. Using a traditional hunter course, although with striped rails (as it was all they had), they would stage their own version of hunters.

After a round, the judge might say “A nice round, but a bit quick,” or “The rider was close to fence four.” A score of 18 was a great round. Then the riders would repeat the course and receive a second score.

One pretty chestnut Cynthia had, although adorable and typy, could not do lead changes. However he could land a lead, so Cynthia made it work. He ended up winning the four-year-old Hunter Finals. Two years later Cynthia ran into a well-known French jumper rider who told her, “Have I got the horse for you! He’s this cute chestnut and two years ago he won the hunter class at Fontainebleau.”

Cynthia replied, “Yes I know; I was riding him.”

“Fontainebleau,” recalls Cynthia, “is an amazing place!”

When Cynthia learned that Peter Wylde was looking for someone to train Edouard de Rothschild, a banker who showed jumpers, she seized the opportunity and began working for him. She trained Edouard for 5 1/2 years. 

In Europe they don’t have amateur divisions, so Edouard competed against professionals. Traditionally, without showing in the young jumper classes, a rider takes three to four horses to a show. Cynthia had the chance to ride some young horses, which gave her the opportunity to show in Monaco, Italy, France, Germany, and Portugal. Although he wasn’t the easiest man to train, traveling to these amazing venues in Europe “was a fabulous opportunity!”

In Arezzo, Italy, Cynthia won a seven-year-old class, and the Star-Spangled Banner was played in honor of her victory. “There is nothing,” says Cynthia, “like hearing the National Anthem when it is played for you!”

After leaving Edouard, Cynthia began working with the Emerging Athletes Program as one of their instructors. “It’s a super opportunity for young riders!” she says. She’s been doing it since 2011. In addition, she judged more frequently. Cynthia was only in the United States for three years before Edouard contacted her with an opportunity to return to France. A young woman had a well-known French trainer but found she needed an English-speaking coach to make improvements. Poor Cynthia, she had to move to the Côte d’Azur!

Calirado – 5 yo Finals at Oliva, 2016. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Hankins

Wanting to enjoy life in a charming little town, Cynthia chose Mougins, between Cannes and Grasse. Mondays were spent on her transat (a lounge chair) surveying the Mediterranean. They would head to Oliva, Spain, twice yearly, in the fall and then for a winter circuit that lasts from mid-January through the end of March, because “It was getting a little chilly in the south of France.”

Cynthia laughs about it but “I’ve had such great fortune to be able to have these opportunities. I’ve never been one to be goal-oriented; I’ve sort of let things flow the way they do, and I’ve been quite fortunate.”

The time in southern France “was a nice three-year stint. The woman kept buying horses and all of them were lovely horses. It was a very interesting time. She gave me two young horses to train. A seven-year-old ended up coming to the States and became a wonderful hunter for Hope Glynn. A little five-year-old who was brave as all get out won the five-year-old finals in Oliva, and some other good classes. When it was determined that he wasn’t going to have enough blood for the young woman, he was sold straight away.”

Kip Rosenthal, Chance Arekelian and me preparing the course for the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals, 2019. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Hankins

The one-piece that was missing in Cynthia’s life was a love interest. Having heard some of her friends had good success with online dating, Cynthia gave it a try herself. It was a good try; she met her husband. He is English and at the time was in Monaco. Since she was in southern France, they got together. It was a twist of fate. Nick was waiting for a friend to get ready, and decided to check the dating site Cynthia was enrolled in. He saw her photo. They now own a house in France, where he lives, while Cynthia splits her time between the U.S. and France.

Four years ago Cynthia packed up her show clothes, as she left a job competing in Spain for a German rider. She wasn’t sure she’d use them again. “After all, I’m not exactly a spring chicken,” she says. But an old friend from her time in Washington state from the 1980’s, Juliana, who is now located in North Carolina, contacted her. She asked Cynthia to ride her young jumper mare along with another horse she had that came over recently from Germany. And Ellie Raidt, from the Bert and Gladstone days, “comes to the ring to help me! It’s fantastic! I couldn’t ask for better support! I’m moving up incrementally with both horses, five centimeters at a time, the 1.30 m felt comfortable! I’m enjoying feeling the six-year-old improve and above all, I’m having a blast!”

“It was a good thing,” says Cynthia, “that the shirts and jackets didn’t get donated!”

Cynthia always enjoyed writing as a child and was an avid reader. Yet nothing she’d written had been published. That changed when she was helping George with the Samsung Super League.  She wrote articles about the team at Rotterdam and La Baule.

“I wrote a couple of articles for some California magazines and then 20-odd years ago I wrote this story that is taking me forever to find the right illustrator but it will come to pass. That’s the last box that I need to tick.

“Well,” she corrects herself, “I’m sure there are a few others.”

Click here for part I

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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