Plaidcast 320: Don Stewart by Taylor, Harris Insurance Services

Plaidcast Episode 320 Don Stewart


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Piper speaks with top trainer Don Stewart about hot topics in our industry today such as qualifying for national finals, judging and course design. Brought to you by Taylor, Harris Insurance Services. Listen in!


  • Host: Piper Klemm, Publisher of The Plaid Horse
  • Guest: Don Stewart has a long and illustrious career as a top trainer specializing in the hunters and equitation. He was leading hunter rider at the National Horse Show twice, and as a trainer, has coached many national champions and medal finals winners. Don has a famous sense of humor and a knack for getting his students to relax and succeed in some of the most competitive, high-pressure horse shows in the country. Don operates Don Stewart Stables in Ocala, Florida.
  • Ruth Bason’s Pony Club
  • Title Sponsor: Taylor, Harris Insurance Services (THIS) was founded in 1987 to provide specialized insurance for all types of equine risk. THIS places their policies with the highest rated and most secure carriers, meticulously selected for reliability and prompt claims settlement. THIS is proud of their worldwide reputation for responsive and courteous service, and welcomes the opportunity to discuss your equine insurance needs and provide you with a quote.
  • Photo Credit: Without A Doubt and Don Stewart at Upperville Colt & Horse Show in 1986
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  • This transcript was generated automatically. Its accuracy may vary.
  • Piper Klemm [00:00:34] This is the Plaidcast. I’m Piper Klemm, publisher of The Plaid Horse Magazine. And today we are joined by top trainer Don Stewart, discussing hot topics in our industry, such as qualifying for national finals Horses and judging. This episode is brought to you by Taylor Harris Insurance Services. And just a note for everyone, Don, as most of us know, has a lot of opinions, and I think a lot of these are constructive jumping off point for how to improve the sport. So let’s listen to this interview with that lens. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:01:35] Our guest on today’s plaidcast is Don Stewart. Don has had a long and illustrious career as a top trainer specializing in hunters and equitation. He was leading Hunter Rider at the National Horse Show twice, and as a trainer he has coached many national champions and equitation Finals winners. Don has a famous sense of humor and a knack for getting a students relax and succeed in some of the most competitive high pressure horse shows in the country. Don operates Don Stewart Stables in Ocala, Florida. Welcome to the Plaidcast Don. 
  • Don Stewart [00:03:35] Thank you, ma’am. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:03:37] Do you want to tell us a little bit about how you grew up in a sport and and how you established your career and what made you want to become a professional? 
  • Don Stewart [00:03:47] Yes, Piper, I did a judges forum last week for the North Carolina Hunter Jumper Association, and they asked the same question. I also told them if they wanted to get some good laughs and see where my roots began in Raleigh, North Carolina, they can go to YouTube and go to Ruth Bason’s Pony Club and you can see how it all started with the swinging out over the river on the vines. And we played tag football and swam in the above ground swimming pool was like a very, very cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap country club. We had a great time and formed lots of friendships there and the riding was just part of it. I fell in love with the horse and the competing aspect. This, this remind you, is early sixties. From there we would we started hunting and going to overnight trail rides and paper chase, that kind of thing. There’d be an occasional show back in the sixties recognized shows were only from May through October, and then the rest of the time you actually stayed home and tried to learn how to ride. And take lessons. The farm was only a mile and a half from my home, so I’d ride my bike. Down and back and forth and muck out a few stalls. We were from humble means, so I had work to do it. Of course, I think we probably paid. I remember the board was $45 a month and my first horse was $350, which I jumped five foot three in a pony contest. I got got the pony when I was 12. To win a pony high jump at five foot three. Moving on from that then we would go to a horse show in Sedgefield, North Carolina, was the first big show in the in the spring. And then we’d show up in Virginia, two day junior junior shows at Deep Run and Warrenton. There was another show, and there we went to Deep Run. Warrenton Upper Ville had a that was a big show. They didn’t have the junior show till later on. Basically we did local type shows and I always wanted to excel and. Hang out with the biI probably misguided even though I wasn’t there physically I was watching it on the. Internet because I had COVID that weekend. So, I think they softened it up because they thought that the year before it was too hard. But I want to reward the top riders that can meet the challenges that can do the right stuff. Don’t don’t you know, this is our national championship, even though you don’t have to win a class to go to a national championship, which I think is totally absurd, you know, to make sure you get over 200 people in it. I don’t think it’s for 200 people. Let’s get 200 and something there. But let’s shave it down to 100 or 150 for the final day. There’s no point in working the judges to death. That’s just, you know, then they want to complain about the judging. Well, who could? I know myself. I couldn’t do it. Well, thats an 11 hour day and do a good job, I just couldn’t do it. It would be too confusing. I don’t know if it’s because I’m so old, but I think you would think at 35, that would have been a big challenge for me. I could do it if I could do the course, because I’d make make it so challenging that, you know, right off the bat I wouldn’t have to judge half the class because they’d make a mistake in the first four fences. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:36:06] Yeah. 
  • Don Stewart [00:36:07] Well, you know, when you start with a steady five strides. You’ve got to overlook a lot of different things. They were slow to the first jump. Well, of course, because the line’s too short, then you can’t jump when they’re big, you know? You know, it’s. It’s just I feel it always like a very forward to a very steady I don’t like a single jump that- a national championship should be a championship course it shouldn’t be watered it down you know and some of these championships have had a a softer course’s second round than the first. I don’t understand that either. They’re just there a lot of I think there’s there’s some questions there should be a very steady to a very forward. There should be a blind turn. There should be a steady to of a steady to, a forward somewhere in there. I think I think you’ve got to have, you know, three, you know, like an s turn those where you married a certain number, mainly because you want to separate the people that do it the best. Not to avoid the question. Like if it’s a forward five, ‘well let’s do the slow six because it’ll look better’. But at the end of the day, you’re just making room to fudge. I want I want to see somebody that sees the fences in good style and shows shows the different seats on course, you know, the half seat, full seat, light seat, you know, different releases at different jumps, all in. Nice technique, nice style. Obviously the jumps have to come first. They can’t chip fences and make blunders just because you’re riding good style and get called back. It’s got to be a little bit of a test that way, too. You know, that’s that’s just me saying what I think, obviously. But I don’t know how you get qualified for a national championship and not have to win a class. There are plenty of classes. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:38:01] Yeah. And I think that the total number of I don’t think in any given year that there are more than 200 or almost 300 or more than 300 some years in the USEF Medal, you know, riders really appropriately ready to tackle that level, of course. 
  • Don Stewart [00:38:20] Right. And if they are, then let’s make some. Requirements for the courses they compete over. I know that the girls that ride with me from Atlanta, if they get two fourth place ribbons in Palm Beach, they’ve qualified. Should that qualify for a national championship? I don’t think so. You know, why is it and they got plenty of shows in Georgia, why is that so watered down that you you know, that you can get two fourth places and qualify for national championship and you only get to do 14 classes? Why not beef up the requirements right there that’ll, you know, take down the they said the excuse. They said oh well the bottom tier will chase more. I said, well the bottom tier is going to have to chase no matter what you make the requirements. That’s just how it is and so to think that we’re going to let them qualify easier so they don’t chase. That’s not that’s not really a valid answer that they give you at these meetings. That’s not really true, because any any any of those that are at the bottom of the thing are going to have to chase. That’s that’s all there is to it. They have to chase. That means they probably shouldn’t be there to start with. And if they squeak in, then don’t expect them to be a contender just to have a nice day and watch the rest of them. And it’s fine to have all these people go in the classes championship that qualify, but the qualifying shouldn’t be so. So. So minimal. And that’s what kills the hunters. You buy an expensive hunter and you have to show its legs off to get there. Half of them are lame. And the number that they only take 2025 in the division. It’s why wouldn’t I go rent a horse from Don Stewart for next to nothing and qualify and just do that. You know it’s that’s kind of killing the hunters also. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:40:15] Yeah. I mean, I always, like, bring up the score differentials and I know that score isn’t an absolute and score isn’t everything. And I know score is ordering the class, but I bring up the score differentials between capital challenge and the rest of indoors, and that’s dramatically lower scores that are winning the rest of indoors because it’s selected out two horses that had to show an awful lot to qualify. 
  • Don Stewart [00:40:39] Exactly. You got it- Capital Challenge. Yeah. Has 40 in the division. So you. You know, you’ve got to. Yes, you’re absolutely right. That’s a very good point that I’ve never thought about. Glad you said that. So I can use that as my ammo also. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:40:55] Yeah. I mean, there are plenty of classes indoors that are won with an 85,86, also plenty that are won with an 88-89. But you don’t see any classes is really a capital challenge. One with an 85 or an 86. 
  • Don Stewart [00:41:08] No you do not. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:41:12] On point chasing. I mean I bring this up a lot Goodard’s law which states when the measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure. So the point of qualifying is that it’s supposed to select the people who are qualified to be there. But when when the measure becomes a target, when qualifying becomes a target. Instead of qualifying being the measure of who belongs there. When qualifying becomes a target, you get you get point chasing. And I would argue let them run around and point chase because it sounds like they need the experience and the mileage to be ready for a competition like that. 
  • Don Stewart [00:41:55] Right. Exactly. Well, there’s also the thought that. At the end of the day, let’s say – Minor leagues shouldn’t qualify you for major leagues. Winning a class of four, I don’t care where it is or who’s in the class shouldn’t really qualify you to be a a classic qualifies you for, you know, indoor horse show. I don’t think single A’s. Necessarily should count for a double A show. I think you need to be beating somebody or more than a couple of people. Let me let me go back to that. Let’s say you have the more you beat. And I also think if you got –not for the three foot– so don’t don’t blow my car up, but for the rest of it, I think it’s money. One should do it. That would help. And then, of course, you’ve got to regulate what they can charge to go in the classes, which of course, I’ve been trying to do since the seventies, not very successfully. We did get to we did get them to put a 5% cap on the classics and then all of a sudden that disappeared when the managers were voting on all that. Obviously, they didn’t like that. But, you know, they like the jumpers do. They don’t pay these and they don’t pay 15% entry fees when they go to our show, which it’s just gotton to be commonplace with the hunters. That’s what you’re going to expect to pay, maybe do less classes for more money. You know, that way you got more time and you make more in the classes, etc., etc.. Money won’s a little a little may not be a lot better, but it’s a little bit. Better barometer for who should be there and who should. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:43:45] I struggle with that, though, because of just like geography of of the whole country. I think if we do money won, we’re really saying that that indoors is a competition for people who, you know, live in Wellington or Ocala and you know, in the winter. 
  • Don Stewart [00:44:04] Yeah, yeah, yes, yes, I understand that. But I also in the in the the three foot divisions and three some of the three, three, too. But the three foot division, they they don’t give you squat for money anyway. Do they? 
  • Piper Klemm [00:44:20] Know. I’m thinking about even the larger divisions and you know, I it’s hard enough to try to qualify in the larger divisions from anywhere else.  
  • Don Stewart [00:44:32] I kinda disagree with that. Like last year for Devon, we didn’t show at any recognized shows and we had five hunters get in there. We we stayed at WEC all winter and all my hunters got in by mistake or not, they got in. And we didn’t even show. So I think. And most of those indoor shows, if you just have a a piddly a number of points. You know, one of my horses didn’t even get a didn’t even show in a hunter class until the until mid-May. And it was grand champion at Harrisburg in the junior hunters. And we didn’t even show it in the juniors every week. You know, it was just I mean, it’s a top horse, obviously. I’m not saying that, but it’s not that hard to get in the three six divisions anymore. The people people I think, step away from that. They’re happy doing the Medal Maclay and don’t have to mess with showing that Hunter a lot of shows, but I just looked up to qualify for Devon last year and they only take 20. We have a 600, 600 and change for the large junior older and really that’s not many points. Used to take over 2000. Yeah I think I think the. I think the requirements are getting easier, softer and softer, because not that many people want to go to all these indoors. I mean, and in Washington is and it is exorbitantly expensive, you know, and they have the capital challenge and the entry fees are over the top. You know, when they want to restrict how many they take in, it’s a capital challenge, which is not the greatest neighborhood to start with. But it just seems like. They’re less important. Then, then, then back when I did it. Well, obviously the sixties. And that was on blue ribbons, you had to win blue ribbons, not not points back then, which that’s not all bad either. I know it’s probably hard. It’s harder to qualify in the three, three and the three foot. That is very hard to qualify for. But when you get to the three six and look at the number of points it took to get in those those divisions, it wasn’t that dramatic. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:46:41] It’s interesting, like we have more people in the sport than ever, but I almost feel, yeah, we’re we’re so spread out and so divided. And it’s almost like and I’ve often wondered this about the sport. It’s almost like we like don’t want I’ll use the word celebrities or we almost don’t want people to look up to every time we have good role models, we seem to like just spread things out even more. And I agree the importance of winning indoors in the three six divisions is not not what it used to be. Obviously, so many people are doing different things, showing themselves at a different show that weekend. And as we’re very siloed. But but I almost feel like people don’t. There’s some level of all of us that, like people don’t want people to look up to. And it’s a conversation I have a lot because I always say to people like, you know, I talk with a lot of brands about like sponsored riders and stuff, and I’m not sure I can really think of anyone, even the top, top, top people who are incredible. But like if they said to buy some product or wear some pants or something like that, that like I would run out and trust them at some level. It’s bizarre. 
  • Don Stewart [00:47:58] Well, I also think society in general has changed so much in the last 50 years that the idea of looking up to somebody is almost pooh poohed. You know, there’s almost they don’t want you to in anything. I don’t think they encourage that. Like you said. Not having somebody to look them. They almost don’t want that to happen. And so many of the younger generation, I think is is. That’s encouraged not to have that. I might be wrong on that topic. Don’t tell anybody I was wrong about anything. But it could be. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:48:34] No, I mean, I don’t think there’s any, like, obvious answer. I just I think it’s interesting that, you know, we’re not rallying. We’ve almost like humanized everyone too much. 
  • Don Stewart [00:48:47] You know, it used to be, people that took great pride in their turnout and there’s still plenty of them that are. But, I mean, you were really looked down on if your boots were dirty and the horse is dirty and the tack wasn’t kosher. And I don’t know, it just seems like nowadays they tend to overlook just about anything. You know, But like I said, just like going to church. I said, you know, I find it almost disrespectful. You know, they wear flip flops and cut off jeans. And I’m like, wow, You know, we always had to put a coat and tie on and look, look nice, you know? I mean, what’s wrong with that? I don’t know. I just don’t it’s hard for me to understand that, just like I think. And, you know, it carries over in everything we do. But times have changed, you know, like I said, I mean, heck, the one one church we went to in Raleigh, they like you to wear a suit on Sunday, just a coat and tie. So it’s it’s all it’s all, you know, changed a lot. Let’s just leave it like that for this, it’s no different in the horse industry, I think. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:49:53] So what advice do you have for for young people if you met if you met your your know it all self at 20 or 25. Today, would you just punch him in the teeth, or what would you do? 
  • Don Stewart [00:50:09] Key here would be to listen, you know, try to, you know, listen and learn. There’s so much out there to read about this, how to train, ride different techniques, watch some people that win. I always you know being a know it all I just hang out with the people that won and see how they did it rather than act like I didn’t know something. Don’t be like that. Try to be flexible. Try to learn stuff as you go along. There’s no substitute for practice. You can put that book under your belt and you can get your hair done up just right. There’s no substitute for practice and it’s like any sport. I highly recommend a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. That’ll sort of explain it to you and a lot of difference. It gives you some insights into what it takes. He says 10000 hours of practice before you’re even considered Okay. Anyway, it’ll explain to you and some of the things about the way you are and why you’re like that. But you can’t be you can’t be lazy and you can’t cut corners if you want to excel in the business. When I was a kid, I braided my own horse, so we didn’t lunge back then we didn’t know there was such a thing. I braid the horse wash the horse,  clean the tack, drive the trailer, all that stuff. And it seems like a lot of our. Top of the sport people. I’ll name some off. Most of these people listen to this podcast don’t even know Rodney Jenkins. Michael Matz. Beezie Madden. Katie Prudent, Laura Kraut. I’ve known her since she was ten. They were all workers and they really fought to do it and they didn’t have the silver spoon in their mouth. They had to work. They they came from normal, normal backgrounds. You know, they they did not come from money. They worked and worked like dogs to get to where they are. And it seems like they’re the ones that used to be that we’d have sponsors that give top riders good horses to show we don’t have that anymore. We have all the riders doing that themselves, which is fine, that’s okay too. But at the end of the end of the day, I think that’s why these Irish kids come over here and they’ve ridden crap for a lot of years and they’ve had to produce on less horseflesh than a lot of our people. And they, they ride. They, you know, they ride by the seat of the pants. They’re used to riding pony jumpers when they were kids and they learn how to do it early. Like I said, there’s just no substitute for experience. You know, sometimes you’ve got to take a chance and you might get bucked off or, you know, the horse might stop and fling you into the jump. But that’s what’s gonna develop your riding is just getting the repetition. And if you’re if you’re a chicken, then don’t get on these horses. But it’s hard to jump Olympic horses and and be a chicken. So you have to get past that also. My advice would be hang out with. Try to follow the leaders, the good ones, you know, watch McLain Ward how it’s got great turn out, great style. You know, all that. All those top competitors. You know, you can get. You can learn something from everybody. They don’t have to be on the Olympic team to learn from and try to get behind the scenes where you learn how to take care of a horse. I know there’s not time for a lot of that anymore because it is such a rigorous schedule, but that if you learn the background of the horse and pay attention to the horse’s shod in his conformation and what tack works better on what kind of a horse and just don’t just hop on the horse and expect the trainer to make all the decisions and not notice what what changes are being made. That’s that’s my best advice I can give. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:54:03] And I always tell young people, especially there is so much opportunity at sales barns to to do everything under the sun and learn all those skills. What are a few things that you look for in new working students or what? What are some what are some attributes or traits that you see in someone that that you say, Oh, they’re going to go far in the sport. 
  • Don Stewart [00:54:29] They’re the ones that are anxious to get there early in the morning. They’re the ones that don’t complain about being there late at night. They’re the ones that don’t complain about being dirty. They’re the ones that come up and say, thank you so much for the opportunity, Don. I really appreciate it. This has been a great opportunity. They’re the people that aren’t looking to complain. They’re looking to grit the teeth and go for it. You know, 30 years ago, as a much more lenient owner – working student nowadays, I try to steer clear of them just because I’m old and don’t really, I’m trying to step back in the sport, not charge forward, you know, and enjoy the stuff I’ve done over the years and the horses. We’ve made it up and bringing along young horses and making big sales is what I that’s what I like nowadays. And, you know, obviously making the students excel, I like somebody with a good attitude, a good disposition. I don’t want somebody that is wound too tight. That’s that’s not that’s not fun for me to be around. I want somebody that’s relaxed but but very anxious to do a good job. And good attitude and, you know, clean, at least clean when they get there. I don’t expect them to be clean when they leave, but I want them clean when they get there and to be on time and they should be there to learn, not see how fast we can get out of there in the afternoon to get to the party that night. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:55:53] Well, Don Stewart, thank you so much for joining us on the plaidcast. 
  • Don Stewart [00:55:57] It’s always a pleasure. Great speaking with you, too today Piper. 
  • Piper Klemm [00:57:51] To learn more about anything we’ve discussed on today’s show, visit You can find show notes at Follow The Plaid Horse on all the social medias. You can subscribe to the print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine at Please write and review the plaidcast anywhere you listen to it. And if you enjoy this episode, please share it with your friends. I will see you at the ring!