Pass by the newly refurbished CJ Ranches, off the 78 Freeway in San Diego County’s Ramona, and you are apt to see a gaggle of happy kids gallivanting about on ponies and horses. The ringleader most likely will be 9-year-old Alexus Willson, the daughter of the boarding and training facility’s resident professionals, Jennifer and Chris Willson. The smiles on the kids’ faces are the best advertisement for Jennifer’s hunter/jumper training program, Jennifer Willson Equestrian Training, where the hard work of horsemanship is made fun and rewarding in a family-friendly atmosphere. Chris Willson’s business is focused on ranch work events and Quarter Horses along with starting young horses. It’s a synergistic situation that benefits the trainers and their clientele.
Based at Romona’s Creek Hollow Ranch since she became a full time professional five years ago, Jennifer is understandably proud of the program she’s developed. Affectionately known as Team Willson, a crew of about 14 riders and their families have been making great strides in their horsemanship. The most obvious proof of this is reflected in Jennifer’s sixth-place in the Greater San Diego Hunter Jumper Association trainer high point standings as of late August. More meaningful proof may be found in the number of students who are earning their show expenses by helping her ready off-the-track Thoroughbreds for the hunter/jumper market.
“My heart is all about Thoroughbreds,” says Jennifer of her affinity for the breed she first competed with on the hunter/jumper circuit. Their intelligence and athleticism kept her a fan in the intervening years and she’s turning a new generation of riders into Thoroughbred enthusiasts. Whether they are fresh off the track or come directly from breeders, Thoroughbreds, handled correctly, are ideal mounts for riders of most any age, Willson asserts. Students as young as 10 and more often in the 13-18 year old range often do the training and showing off of what are currently about 40 Thoroughbreds in her program. In return, they earn a portion of the sales commission for those horses, which Jennifer applies to their show expenses.
Many students get a project horse they take lessons on or school four or five days a week. Coupled with lessons on their own mounts, Team Willson riders wind up with lots of saddle time and an unusual breadth of horsemanship experience. “My smartest students get lessons all day on various horses,” she comments.
Willson is well known on the GSDHJ circuit for turning Thoroughbreds around, sometimes a little too well. “We just got beat the other day, in two classes, by a horse we sold recently,” she relays. With several sources for Thoroughbreds, most often between 2 and 4 years old, Willson and her team often see six or seven former projects at any given competition.
The trainer’s turnaround gifts are not restricted to Thoroughbreds. One of her stable’s stars is Barkley, a horse Willson took pity on at an auction yard and bought for $300. “He was just skin and bones and I thought at least my husband might have a place for him in his program,” she recalls of taking the horse on less than a year ago. In just a few weeks, Barkley fattened up and demonstrated his ability to walk, trot and canter. “We said, ‘Let’s see if he jumps!” Jump, he did, as is now obvious to those who compete against Barkley and his rider, 13-year-old Taylor Howe, on the San Diego scene. “He’s not beautiful,” Willson comments. “But he packs her around like he’s been doing it his whole life. Everybody knows Barkley.”
As a junior growing up and riding in Northern California, Willson had a soft spot for Canadian jumping heroes Ian Millar and Big Ben. Millar and USET chef d’equipe George Morris remain role models for Willson, but these days she is equally impressed with the talent and professionalism in her own San Diego backyard. “We are so blessed to have such great local trainers,” she says. Nancy Reed, Mark Conley, Chuck Esau, James Waldman and the team at Newmarket are just a few of the professionals Willson happily confesses to “stealing from.”
Although she admits it was hard to leave the beautiful 350-acre Creek Hollow Ranch, Willson is very happy to be at CJ Ranches. Its central location in the heart of Ramona is its first selling point. The property is visible to the general public and easily accessible to horse people in surrounding areas including Del Mar, Lakeside, Poway and many other horsey communities.
Taylor & Barkley practice at their new facility.
Photos: Erpelding Photography
Willson is a stickler about footing and she is thrilled with the surfaces in CJ Ranches’ schooling and jumping arenas. A round pen, mare motels and spacious equine living arrangements are among the property amenities, along with ample space for trail riding. Chris Willson’s cows will arrive soon enabling the western horseman to continue training horses and riders for penning, cutting and sorting activities and giving Jennifer and her students a chance to desensitize their horses to the unusual site of cows on the property.
The program’s best feature may be its people. Much like families whose kids participate in more mainstream sports, Team Willson members often chalk up their car windows with encouraging slogans as they head to shows. Nine year old Alexus Willson gets as much enthusiastic support as the top level equitation riders excelling in the circuit’s higher jumping divisions.
This time of year, Team Willson riders are in the hunt for final year-end points, but there is always time for non-competitive fun. This can include team penning on Chris’ horses and trips to the racetrack, where students enjoy watching Thoroughbreds do what they were bred to do.
For information on any aspect of Jennifer Willson Equestrian Training, call 760-310-4488 or visit www.cjranchesramona.com.