February 2016 - Next Generation
Written by Kim F. Miller
Tuesday, 02 February 2016 07:48
PDF Print E-mail

A glimpse of those who may lead the way.

by Kim F. Miller

As a companion to our Looking Forward article on how and by whom the hunter/jumper sport will be sheparded into the future, we asked a handful of veterans to suggest trainers who they viewed as good caretakers for the sport. We did not give strict criteria, but we did suggest points including education, service to the sport, show ring success and emphasis on well-rounded horsemanship.

The following brief profiles of some of those suggested trainers reveal their different paths and priorities, points of pride and causes for concern.

Nicolas & Ximena Rossi – Rossi Equestrian: www.rossiequestrian.com

Uruguayan Nicolas Rossi has ridden all his life, represented his country in international show jumping and eventing and worked in the States for 10 years. Yet, it’s still a daunting challenge as he and his wife, Ximena, establish their own business, Rossi Equestrian.

The fates aligned when Ximena, a chemist, got a job as a college professor in Bakersfield and a training barn there became available. “It’s a dream come true for us, and also a big challenge,” she says. They made the move last September and are already up to 18 horses.

“One of the biggest challenges is finding a niche,” says Ximena. “Most of the places you go, there are already two or three trainers, so lots of competition.” It helped that a handful of the clients Nicolas had developed in Los Angeles moved their horses to Bakersfield. For many, Bakersfield’s few-hour distance from the hub of Southern California competition is counterbalanced by the lower cost of maintaining a horse there, even with Nicolas and Ximena’s high standards.

Bakersfield doesn’t have a lot of hunter/jumper barns, which is good. The flip side is that prices are low. “We want to do quality training, but not price ourselves out of the market,” Ximena explains.

Rossi Equestrian has already grown faster than the couple expected. The goal is to specialize in jumpers, eventually Grand Prix horses for Nicolas, while also accommodating riders of various levels, young horses and sales. To build their pipeline of students, the Rossis plan to open a beginning riding school soon.

Nicolas has ample experience training horses and coaching riders. He was raised by a Grand Prix riding father, Jorge, and worked in his riding school while growing up. He’s ridden in Europe and, during 10 years in the States, worked for Steve & Jenni McAllister, David Sterckx and Santiago Rickard.

His philosophy is rooted in clear communication between horse and rider and rider and coach. Dressage-based flatwork is the fix for just about any problem that arises, he believes. In 2009, Nicolas added the FEI Level 1 coaching course to his resume.

The couple has less experience in handling the additional responsibilities that come from running their own farm: things like scheduling manure removal and making enough calls about hay prices to get the best deal for quality hay.

“It’s a steep learning curve,” says Ximena, an amateur competitor and Cal Tech PhD. “We live on site and the work never ends. If a pipe bursts or something, Nicolas has to take time away from the horses to fix it.”

On top of that, they have a 15-month old daughter, Helena. The couple, however, seems just the hardworking, ambitious type to make it all work, while also  fulfilling Nicolas’ hopes of representing Uruguay in the Olympics.

Devon Bridges – Bridges Equestrian / Ace Equestrian: www.devonbridges.com

Thirty-year-old Devon Bridges is now at a place he’s long dreamed of. Riding for the private Ace Equestrian enterprise, based at Blenheim Farms in San Juan Capistrano, Devon has the horses, the budget and the backing he hopes will help him reach the top in the show jumping world. He has coaching from Michael Endicott, horses in the pipeline for the 1.35 and 1.4 meter ranks, and he’s in the hunt for a Grand Prix mount.

Being here is great, but getting there wasn’t easy, even as the son of an industry veteran.

Devon grew up riding in his mother Ruthanna Bridges’ Bridges Riding Academy, also in San Juan Capistrano. The program emphasized beginning riding, horsemanship and regional shows, whetting his appetite for higher levels of the sport. He knew he wanted to make a career in the horse industry, but wasn’t quite sure which aspect of it. “So I systematically went through the industry and wound up identifying a lot of things I didn’t want to do,” he relays with a laugh.

He spent several high school summers riding in Ireland. Devon turned professional after graduating, worked for a while in Orange County, then spent a few years riding and competing in Germany and Holland. Posts at sales barns and breeding programs served as continuing education. He learned about sporthorse bloodlines, studied top international riders and learned more mundane, but practical, things like welding while living on working farms.

Upon return to the States in 2010, Devon developed a more show-oriented branch of his mom’s business, working up to a healthy clientele of 10-15 horses. That led to him becoming the private trainer for the Ace Equestrian family, who purchased Blenheim Farms 18 months ago. (Bridges Equestrian continues under his wife Kendra’s hand.)

The path to establishing himself as a professional had its bumps, Devon acknowledges. In hindsight, he feels he progressed more slowly than he would have liked. Earning his USHJA Trainer Certification was a great slump buster, he says. “It was a cool thing for me at a time when I’d hit a hard plateau. I felt like it was a way for me to get an edge in a business where there are a lot of people training who maybe shouldn’t be.”

Given his segue into taking on the private Ace Equestrian family, Devon didn’t have a chance to see if the TCP certification would help from a marketing standpoint, but he sees other benefits and supports the concept.

“I had really enjoyed the structure of the sport in Western Europe and their way of standardizing things,” he explains. “When I started to see that there were Americans, like Bernie Traurig, who had their standard (training) systems, too, that helped me.”

Going into the TCP program with a strong, experienced-based knowledge of horses, Devon says he “did not learn a ridiculous amount of new things.

“What I liked about it is that it brings together a cohesive idea of how horses should be trained. I especially liked Bernie’s system because it is so simple. I think, as a young professional, you can get caught up in a lot of fluff.”

Certification puts you in good company, he says. “You become one of those who can say, ‘I went through these extra steps and spent the money and time to earn it’.” He sees the program as becoming more vital, especially as a means of vetting professionals who may become the first trainer to work with wealthy families new to the sport.

Devon jumped right into giving back to the sport. He serves on the Orange County Horse Show Association board and would like to volunteer with the USHJA at some point. “It’s a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry.”

Linda Cooper – Maverick Farms: www.maverickfarms.net

Linda Cooper attracts mentors like honey attracts bees. She’s a sponge for knowledge, hard working, appreciative of guidance and excited to give back to the sport as an active member of the Los Angeles Hunter Jumper Association’s board of directors.

As a junior she trained with Julie Smith and Rob Gage. When Julie retired in 1995, she turned her charge over to Jim Hagman for continuing education and mentoring as a young professional.

“I aspire to be a mini-Elvenstar,” says Linda. She refers to Jim’s multi-level program in Moorpark as our “sister barn” because she and Jim often collaborate to take a rider to the next level and in horse sales.

Based at the Peter Weber Equestrian Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, Linda’s Maverick Farm is, like Elvenstar, a multi-level program, with a riding school and summer and holiday camps. Increasingly, Maverick Farms’ riders are venturing well beyond “our little fish pond.”

The Langer Equestrian Group’s Outreach program has played a big part in that. These are “opportunity” classes held during rated shows, including the Verdugo Hills series at Hansen Dam. “That has been a great way for my students to see the bigger shows, while being able to compete at costs that don’t scare them away.” It whets their appetite for moving up to the bigger shows and higher divisions, Linda says. “My students are all excited and want to get on the road more and do the bigger shows.”

“We’re a small little equestrian center and it took a while to get these kids into the medal finals, but we’re doing it.” With Jim’s help, Linda brought Isabelle Garcia along to the CPHA Child/Adult Finals win and an LAHJA Horsemanship runner-up finish in 2015, and Paris Sommerfeld to a Rosewood Finals victory and other top placings.

Along with Jim, Carol Dean Porter and other trainers have been influential supporters, as has LAHJA president Marnye Langer. “Marnye has taught me a lot and come to my barn to speak with students about various USHJA and LAHJA programs.” Topics often include ways that riding can help with college admissions and/or opportunities to continue the sport in college.

“So long as kids are raising their hands, Marnye will sit there and keep answering their questions,” Linda enthuses.

To attract mentors, you have to be a good mentee. “I’m very open to learning and I’m very coachable,” says Linda. “I’m passionate about our sport and I try really hard.” Good manners help, too. “I’m polite and respectful and appreciative and I think that helps.”

Michelle Morris – The Clearing Farm: www.theclearingfarm.com

Michelle went directly from college graduation to becoming a professional. She knew it was risky to skip the assistant trainer step and that there would be an “unproven” stigma to overcome in building her clientele.

She also had lots in her favor. Michelle was a successful and well-known junior under Karen Healey and continues to have Karen’s mentorship. Through her friendship with the Champ family, she was able to set up shop at the family’s Hansen Dam Equestrian Center in Sylmar. And, she had a college degree from University of Georgia and the experience of riding for its NCAA Bulldogs equestrian team.

While earning a degree in telecommunication and film studies at UGA, Michelle had an epiphany that rekindled her girlhood dream of being a professional horsewoman. Having exceeded her fourth year of NCAA eligibility, Michelle spent her fifth year as a student coach within the school’s athletic association. The position entailed administrative work, travel plans and some coaching. “That’s when I really started to think that’s what I enjoyed and wanted to do.” She coupled that with how much she enjoyed the preparation part of her horsemanship education with Karen, and saw that the admittedly hardworking life of a trainer was likely to be very rewarding.

Now 25, Michelle will mark her third year as a professional this May. She’s grateful to the clients who first gave her a shot and her program at Hansen Dam is now home to 16 horses. She’d like it to get bigger, but never so big that she can’t give every client her full attention.

“My goal is, whatever level a student is at, I want to give them 100 percent of my time. Whether they are short stirrup riders or going for the big medals, they are going to get my time, effort and attention.”

Michelle credits Karen’s mentorship as a huge part of her success and she’s grateful to her mom Christy Morris for significant help with barn management and client relations. Her Hansen Dam location is another asset. The facility is great, she notes, and the fact that it hosts shows and is conveniently located to many LAHJA and San Fernando Hunter Jumper Assn. competitions is another plus.

Michelle is also grateful for her college experience and recommends it to any aspiring equestrian professional.

For one thing, the horse show world changed very little during her five years in school. She was able to re-enter it with a solid understanding of the players and the playbook, so to speak. Conversely, she changed a lot during college. “You may not get a degree in horse training, but you learn so much by interacting with people, being on your own and putting yourself in different environments.

“Even though you are a horse trainer, the horses don’t pay for the bills, the clients do and you have to learn to work with people.” Her collegiate riding team experience was a bonus in that department.

Michelle’s business is growing in both number of clients and in their ambitions. She has a junior poised to move into the 3’6” medals this year and has two Thermal weeks booked. Along with show success, she’s determined to impart horse sense into her student’s busy schedules. At the least, all students bridle their own horses before lessons and, on weekends, tack up their own horses and are evaluated for properly fit equipment. “They need to know things like what bit their horse is going in and why,” says Michelle, who plans to implement more daily horsemanship lessons.

Reagan Hayes – Hayes Training Stable: www.hayes-training.com

Having turned professional in 1995, Reagan Hayes is not a newbie but she is mother to aspiring professional, Cecily Hayes, and trainer to a few more. As such, she’s keenly attuned to how the sport is nurturing its future.

“It is really difficult in today’s culture, with kids being so busy and parents wanting them to be so competitive, to maintain that horse-first approach,” says Reagan, whose 30-horse program is based in the East Bay Area’s Castro Valley. That’s sometimes compounded by competing against horses in the half-million dollar range and more so when going against horses performing under illegal influences. Reagan’s program has very nice horses in more modest price tags and she’s “absolutely against any kind of chemical modifications.”

She surrounds herself with like-minded professionals. “I feel blessed in Northern California to have great working relationships with a lot of trainers. I have several that I would happily send my kids to and know they would take exceptional care of them.”

She’s impressed by these trainers’ desire to see the sport’s next generation succeed. One of four riders selected nationally for the Emerging Athletes Program’s horsemanship final, Cecily Hayes has helped herself by working hard and taking advantage of educational opportunities. “So many trainers have helped her get horses and catch rides and by giving her lessons,” Reagan says.  Being a pro’s daughter gives Cecily a great network, but unrelated young riders have also received leg-ups from many veterans, Reagan notes. These include Diane Yeager, Macella O’Neill, Julie Young, Hillary Johnson and Stephanie Simmonds in the Bay Area, and Southern California’s Leslie Steele, for whom Cecily will soon be a working student.

Offering several levels of training, plus leases and half-leases, Hayes Training has students with various goals and budgets. Kids especially are expected to do as much of their own horse care as their schedule allows and horsemanship knowledge is becoming a bigger part of Reagan’s instruction.

This past holiday, she gave horsemanship books to all her students. “Especially for kids who want to become pros, it’s really important to know the language of the sport and psychology behind training horses and coaching riders.”

In informally quizzing a new group of students, Reagan realized “there was really a hole in their knowledge base.” Regular horsemanship sessions, outside of riding lessons, are the next step on Reagan’s plan to fill it.

As for her own ongoing education, Reagan attends at least one or two clinics per year. She earned her USHJA Trainer Certification in 2013 and likes the concept but thinks it should go further in offering more levels and ongoing education to maintain the certification. “I would love to see it speak more to trainers that have been around for a while.”

She’s also learned a lot, while also giving back to the sport, as a new member of the NorCal Hunter/Jumper Association’s board.

Shelly Stull – Bellaventage Farms: www.bellaventagefarms.com

A top junior with Karen Healey, Hap Hansen and John Bragg, Shelly has taken a circuitous route to the professional ranks. She first worked as an assistant, then, a tad burned out on the industry, went to work on the racetrack where her family has roots. She exercised racehorses and established a therapy business using electromagnetic pulse therapy.

During that time, an acquaintance asked Shelly to teach their child and one thing led to another.  In 2010, Shelly established Bellaventage Farm at a private five-acre property in the Pasadena area’s Bradbury. As she began attending shows with her first clients, her business built through referrals to its current 30-horse level. “I’m not really a good sales person and I don’t do Groupons or a ton of advertising.” Which is all well and good because the property is full as is.

Shelly left the sport because “I just wanted to ride horses and have fun” and returned to it determined to do things her way. That means, she says, honesty in all things. That can include telling a client of “normal” economic means that the jumper route may be more rewarding than the hunters. “I try to put my horses and kids in spots where they’re going to do better,” she says. Maybe it’s the local shows versus the A shows. The goal is always to set them up to not fail.”

Two shows per month is her typical average and “the outcome is about going in with whatever goals we’ve been working on at home and trying to accomplish them at the shows.”

Her clients are also friends, she adds, which makes things easier. The fact that two are veterinarians is a plus in promoting horse-first priorities. Having total control over feed, footing and all other aspects of the horses’ care has been critical to her success and her happiness in returning to the sport.

She understands the difficulty of packing horsemanship lessons into tight schedules. “Parents usually need to get their kids in and out of here on the weekdays,” she says. On weekends, they tack up their own horses and there is sometimes time for lunging their own horse or other non-riding type lessons. “To me, you can’t be that good of a rider if you don’t know how to lunge your own horse.”

She used to volunteer at a Thoroughbred retirement facility, and now helps others in a variety of informal ways. Serving on industry committees is not on her current agenda. “I try to stay out of all the drama, but I’m always there to help.”

Nick Karazissis, Jr. – Far West Farms Malibu: www.farwestfarmsmalibu.com

Nick carries on the proud legacy of his family’s Far West Farms training business, including an emphasis on ongoing education, for students and trainer, and of giving back to the sport. Growing up in the Calabasas program run by his father Nick, Sr., and Jenny and Kost Karazissis, Nick Jr., added considerably to that by spending many years working for others. After 11-and-a-half years with Mike Edrick and another few training for a family privately, Nick Jr. established Far West Farms Malibu about 18 months ago.

Even with such a highly-regarded name, Nick wanted to work for others before going out on his own. “I wanted to learn from other professionals in addition to my family,” he explains. Those years also gave him practical chops, like hauling horses and preparing multiple horses for multiple show rings, that he suspects might be missing from the foundation of trainers who stepped straight into their own business.

Nick is genetically hardwired to seek educational opportunities. He earned his USHJA Trainer Certification in 2012 and regularly attends clinics. Watching other pros in the warm-up and show rings is a staple of his continuing education. “Whether you agree with what they are doing or not, there is always something to learn from everybody.”

He started his new training business from scratch. One client is a beginner who walked onto the farm’s primo location just off Coast Highway and is now jumping and competing; another, Nick was introduced to while showing in Oregon.

Clientele building has taken a back seat to fatherhood since the arrival of Nick and his wife Adrienne’s son, Grayson. He’s just now developing a marketing plan and has a clear vision for his program.

“I aspire to a small group of kids who want to ride and learn and be involved with their horses, along with having show ring success.” Like the Farm West Farms model in nearby Calabasas, Far West Farms Malibu will emphasize raising good riders and good people. “I want to help them in how they treat their horses, their parents and others. There won’t be any temper tantrums around here.”

Amid views that too few young trainers contribute their time to the sport’s future, Nick serves with three organizations: the California Professional Horsemen’s Association, the LAHJA and the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association. At 37, Nick says he’s one of the youngest on the CPHA board of directors.

“We need more young blood volunteering their time to the sport,” he says. Plus, there are networking benefits to volunteer service and the edge of helping to shape and stay abreast of changes to the sport.