November 2016 - Horse People: Ruth Bley
Written by Kim F. Miller
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 02:40

A quiet contributor to the sport becomes a national champion.

by Kim F. Miller

It’s quiet all day in Castro Valley’s Cull Canyon. Golden, oak tree-dotted hills stand sentry above Cull Canyon Ranch, where amateur eventer Ruth Bley lives, keeps her own horses and manages a small boarding and training facility. It’s even quieter at 9 p.m., when Ruth puts away her third horse of the night. That’s following a full day in the “real world,” where she manages an electrical contracting company.

Solo Key at Twin Rivers. Photo: Captured Moment Photography

Rodrigue du Granit at the AECs in North Carolina. Photo: Shannon Brinkman Photography

From this quiet base, Ruth galloped onto the national scene as the winner of two divisions at the American Eventing Championships held at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina in early September.

She rode her Rodrigue du Granit to the Preliminary Amateur Division title and Spartacus D’L’Herbage to the Professional’s Choice Master Training Amateur tri-color.

The canyon is both cozy and spacious. “I think the horses like it out here,” Ruth explains on a foggy late-September morning. “It’s not totally closed in and it’s not totally wide open, either.” There’s plenty of space to fulfill one of Ruth’s horsekeeping priorities: letting horses be horses.

In the refurbished barn where her horses live and in the boarder barn, there are no doors between the stalls and paddocks. Unless stall confinement is medically required, they all go in and out as they wish.

Her own horses typically spend their mornings in one of several turn-out paddocks and have a workout on the treadmill or the oblong-shaped free-walker. The unusual shape was a better fit for the property’s narrow stretch of flat land, but more importantly, the shape means that horses spend most of their time on the straight-away, versus on a perpetual turn, which is better for body balance.

Riding Frankfurt at Galway Downs. Photo: McCool Photography

Spartacus D’L’Herbage. Photo: Shannon Brinkman Photography

Crazy for horses since her San Francisco childhood, Ruth has maintained horses, one way or another, all her life.

Her first was a Morgan yearling, which she now admits she had no business owning as a 14-year-old newbie. She didn’t ride him for two years, but in that time taught him so many voice commands that he would walk, trot and canter on cue when the time came. She had him until he was 20, enjoying various riding styles casually for many years before zeroing in on eventing several years ago. Ruth has since been a regular on the West Coast eventing circuit, with several One-Star wins under her belt before this year’s national victories in North Carolina.

Ruth’s role in and support of eventing is the quiet kind. “As an amateur rider, she is every coach’s dream,” says professional rider John Michael Durr, a partner in campaigning sales horses. “She sets herself goals that are both hard to attain yet are realistic for her and she works very hard at it, doing all of the riding and training of the young horses she’s bringing along.

“As a person and an owner, she’s awesome,” John Michael continues. “She has brought some investment horses from Europe for us to sell and she has been a huge supporter in helping with our business, giving us advice, etc.

She’s more like part of our family.”

Her support extends broadly. “She’s very quiet about what she does, but whenever there is a silent auction or something, she’s always the first in line.”

Frenchies & Germans

Ruth’s AEC stars are Selle Francais horses she purchased on trips to France, in 2013 and 2014, with Yves Sauvignon, the veteran eventer and coach Ruth has been riding with for several years. “Sparty” was actually purchased for Kimmy Durr, but turned out to be a poor match for the young professional, so Ruth took him on in November of 2015.

Her first step with him was backward. As Ruth has found to be common with horses purchased in Europe, Sparty had competed at high levels – in his case, at CIC2* – but lacked basic training. “The horses often have very little training,” Ruth notes. “But they are ridden by really good riders.” She took him back to Novice and worked slowly to build a trusting bond that’s especially crucial in eventing. “We took the slow, long path with him and it’s paid off.”

As often happens, the slow route turned out to produce results faster than expected. She’d planned to take 6-year-old Hanovarian, Solo Key, to the AECs, but in August, Sparty turned a corner in his work and he made the trip instead.

An original Cull Canyon structure with the 'wild and wooly' pastures in the background. Photo: Kim F. Miller

Ranch entrance. Photo: Kim F. Miller

Ruth targeted the AECs all year, giving up her usual July trip to Rebecca Farms in Montana, and competing at other venues – the Colorado Horse Park and the Coconino Horse Trials in Arizona – to expose the horses to different settings and get a feel for their readiness for the Championships.

They were ready. In addition to being run on grass, the Tyron cross-country track had an unusual twisty, turny start that called for a slower pace there and mandated making up time on galloping stretches later in the course.

Thanks to her horses’ conditioning program at home, Ruth was confident of their stamina at that point. A 100-acre, “wild and wooly” pasture at Cull Canyon includes ample hill work opportunities and long stretches for trot sets that made both her horses plenty fit for the challenge--even in the humidity that adds another degree of difficulty to competing back East in the summer.

Ruth has become a big fan of the Tryon area and its growing popularity as an equestrian haven. In 2015, she purchased a 1930s-era, 35-acre, 10-stall property in the old part of town. This year, she and her horses were based there a few weeks ahead of the AECs to prep in a local horse trials and polish their show jumping skills in 1.1M classes at jumping shows. The sales horses campaigned by John Michael and Kimmy Durr stayed longer in North Carolina and the young proprietors of Durr Eventing recently decided to relocate to the East Coast.

Ruth’s relationship with Kimmy (Steinbach) Durr goes back to when Kimmy first came to Cull Canyon as a 12-year-old whose dad dropped her off with the explanation, “My daughter wants to ride,” Ruth laughs fondly. Ruth knew that feeling from her own youth and took Kimmy on as a groom and barn helper. Kimmy bought Pikture This from Ruth and took the horse up to the Three-Star level, grooming for Ruth along the way. When she met and married John Michael, Ruth helped the young trainers get established by sponsoring a few horses for them. It’s not an easy business to make financial headway in, for trainer or owner, but Ruth has been happy to support the sport by supporting these young trainers.

She recognizes that American professionals have a tough challenge in reaching the international ranks while also needing to build up the economic support of a training and/or sales business. Compared to the business model for, say, German star, Michael Jung, “I think our riders tend to get spread a little too thin.” She doesn’t pretend to have a solution for it.

Ruth’s competition plan for the coming year is in flux at the moment. She has the goal of getting all her current competitive mounts to join Rodrigo at Preliminary, though she’s in no particular hurry to get there. In addition to her two “Frenchies,” Ruth is bringing along two Hanoverians, the 7-year-old Frankfurt and the 6-year-old Solo Key, as in “so low key.”

She enjoys working through their challenges. “Frank,” for example, has tons of talent but got rattled in crowded warm-up rings. Ruth brought him along in the Future Event Horse classes, a less crowded division with less crowded warm-up rings, so the issue didn’t surface initially. When it did, Ruth went back to establishing his trust in her. As oncoming traffic approached, she’d pull him up and let him have a good look. “He eventually began to trust that was going to take care of him.”

Outside Help

Yves Sauvignon visits Cull Canyon once a week to work with Ruth and a few other eventers. And Creeky Rouston has been her dressage coach for the past six years. Their work builds on a strong dressage base Ruth acquired during an unintended detour from eventing. At the time, she had a 10-year-old Off The Track Thoroughbred, Vinnie Can Go, and came to the realization that “I just did not understand dressage.”

Ruth’s Little Orchard property in Tryon, North Carolina.

She went to Christiane Noetling in Vacaville thinking she could “kick the tires” of the discipline by spending a few months on a schoolmaster. “But it’s not my nature to only kick the tires,” she laughs. So, she bought the schoolmaster, Armani, and spent the next three years progressing from First to Third Level movements. It was a great education and one she figures may come in especially handy “if I ever get scared of eventing.”

The education helps her contradict what she considers an outdated concept about eventing that a friend used to explain the sport early on: “Eventing is for horses that aren’t talented enough to do dressage or show jumping.” Ruth didn’t think it was true when she first heard it and definitely doesn’t believe the statement to be true now.

Creeky “has an uncanny ability to blend dressage with jumping,” Ruth explains. “She has a softer and quieter way to get into the horse’s brain that applies well to jumping.” It’s worked wonders with Rodrigo, in particular, who Ruth fondly describes as her “fat brown pony.”

“To convince him to be fancy is hard. It’s a matter of convincing him to be fancy for a few minutes and letting him know he doesn’t have to be fancy all the time.” That ability to shift gears retains his accuracy in show jumping and boldness on cross-country, Ruth explains.

No matter how far Ruth goes in the sport, even possibly splitting her time between California and North Carolina, she’ll always be a Cull Canyon girl at heart. Her parents bought the ranch in 1976 and she took over the management in 1992 and has lived there most of that time.

She loves the low-key vibe of the unincorporated area of the East Bay Area’s Castro Valley. Her passion for it is reflected in her attempt to keep boarding prices reasonable at the Ranch. “Horses should be accessible to those who want to own them.” With the exception of a cross-country course, the facility has all the training and care amenities needed to produce a national champion, yet retains the relaxed, quiet vibe that reflects its history and place in the little-changed community.

It’s off the beaten path by about five miles and that’s just the way Ruth likes it.