It all started with a warm-up class.
Lauren Shelton was slated to make her junior hunter debut in 2008 at Capital Challenge (Md.), and her mount for the occasion had never shown in that ring. So at his wife’s suggestion, Hunt Tosh tacked up his student’s junior hunter, Lone Star, for the $15,000 WCHR Professional Rider Final. The horse finished 10th, then went on to jump beautifully later in the week for Shelton.
Little did Tosh know that one class would inspire the partnership of his young career, pairing him with the horse who would claim two consecutive grand hunter and regular working hunter titles at Pennsylvania National, regular working hunter titles at Washington International (D.C.) and Capital Challenge and the top check at the $100,000 The Chronicle of the Horse/USHJA International Hunter Derby Final.
Tosh had never meant to ride the horse himself. For two years, Lone Star sat in Tosh’s barn, jumping children’s hunter courses and eventually junior hunter ones with owner Shelton. He did his job of a first show horse well: He was sound enough to endure lesson after lesson and talented enough to pick up ribbons. Tosh walked by Lone Star’s stall every morning, always thinking of him as a nice enough junior hunter he’d promised Shelton’s dad he’d sell after his daughter headed to college.
“You have a horse in front of you every day, and you think, ‘This is his job, this is what he’s doing,’ ” said Tosh, of Cumming, Ga. “You don’t expect one to go from the junior hunter ring to the workings. And you really don’t expect them to be this good.”
But few horses turn out to be as good as Lone Star. In their two years together, he and Tosh picked up a tricolor ribbon every time he stepped off a trailer, save one. Lone Star’s name is inscribed on the Protocol Trophy, presented to the regular working hunter with the most points from the Pennsylvania National, Washington International and Devon (Pa.), and the China Blue Trophy, presented to the high score working or conformation hunter at Capital Challenge. The National Show Hunter Hall of Fame awarded him the regular working hunter of the year title. And with just 12 shows under his belt, he scored the reserve U.S. Equestrian Federation regular working hunter Horse of the Year title.
Just as impressive as what he won was how he won it: commandingly. He earned a raw score of 98 at derby finals and a 94 in Harrisburg.
“He has nothing left to prove,” said owner Betsee Parker. “Watching Lone Star is such a treat. He doesn’t stand out because of markings or flashy ways, he just does his job in such an exceptional way. He elevates our sport to an art form.”
An “I Told You So” Moment
A few months after indoors in 2008, Shelton bid Lone Star goodbye and headed off to college, leaving Tosh and his wife Mandy to find the horse a new home.
As they sat down to fill out the stack of entries for the HITS Ocala (Fla.) circuit, they set Lone Star’s aside. Hunt had planned on finding a teen to campaign the bay in order to market him as a junior hunter. But Mandy, the behind-the-scenes guru at Hunt Tosh Inc., had seen something special when Hunt took up the reins in Upper Marlboro, and she wanted to see it again.
“It was one of my best ‘I told you so’ moments,” she recalled. “I convinced him to do one week in the 4′ division. He walked in and won every class.”
Hunt kept the ride, winning a tricolor a week to claim the regular working hunter circuit award. It wasn’t long before people started stopping Hunt at the in-gate to ask about the horse they’d never noticed before. All of a sudden they couldn’t take their eyes off him.
Several times during the circuit Hunt nearly sold the horse, but the deals always fell through at the last moment. As the series wore on, and the horse kept racking up ribbons, Hunt and Douglas Wheeler started discussing the possibility of keeping the horse to campaign in the working division.
Wheeler had admired Hunt’s riding for ages, recruiting him two years earlier in Ocala to campaign his hunters when his regular rider, Olin Armstrong, broke his leg. When Wheeler decided to branch out from the family legacy of his parents, legendary horsemen Kenny and Sallie, to try the horse business on his own, he recruited Hunt to pick up the reins. But Hunt had just begun riding Wheeler’s string full time at the beginning of that circuit.
“Looking back on it, it was a little awkward,” said Hunt. “I’d probably had Doug’s horses six weeks, and all of a sudden I’m telling him that there’s a junior hunter in the barn he should buy as a working horse.”
But Wheeler, Keswick, Va., didn’t need much convincing.
“What I loved from Day 1 is that horse has the scope of a jumper but the quality of a hunter,” said Wheeler. “He has every quality you’d want a hunter to have. He can handle the distances, he has a huge stride and he jumps every single fence 6 inches higher than he has to in perfect form. It’s not sexy, but if I had to use an adjective to describe him, it’s just consistent. Day in, day out you ask him to be sharp, and he is, just consistent and brilliant at what he does, and to me that’s the highest compliment you can pay a horse in this sport.”
Lone Star became the kind of horse who would get a piece of any class he stepped a hoof into, and by mid-season he regularly swept the division. By the end of 2009 he was inspiring onlookers to line the fence when he went in the ring.
“We started to realize after we got to Devon [in 2009, where he finished reserve champion] and won that first class just how great he was,” said Mandy. “We didn’t think it could ever go this well.”
Twist Of Fate
For both Wheeler, who owned the horse with his wife Elizabeth in 2009, and Parker, who bought the horse from Wheeler in 2010, the particular appeal of Lone Star was clear: He looked and jumped like the classic, traditional hunter they remembered from their youth.
“He could have fit in perfectly in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Wheeler. “So many older horsemen and trainers have compared him to a big-time working horse from the old days.”
“Even when I was a little 10-year-old in my pony days, I would have picked him out,” echoed Parker, Middleburg, Va. “It took no particular expertise of the eye to see that was a special horse. The first time I saw him canter at Devon I thought that was about as perfect a lope as I’d ever seen.”
But his canter wasn’t always so perfect. Lone Star spent his early show days as a notoriously difficult charge with unimpressive gaits and an attitude problem. Heidi Austin-Fish sent the bay with an unmanageable stride and no lead change to Diane Yeager in California, promising that once she saw him jump she’d understand why he’d be worth the effort. Sure enough, Yeager was blown away by the mount’s athleticism. She sold him quickly to campaign in the junior hunters with Katie Harris, with Kelly Van Vleck spending hours getting his flat work in order as a first year horse. Van Vleck showed him the first half of the year, then passed the reins on to Archie Cox.
“Even as a first year horse, the 3’6″ was so easy for him, it felt like he needed a bigger jump,” said Cox. “So we started doing him in the 4′, and he started winning there. It felt like you couldn’t build a jump he couldn’t jump.”
He earned some success in the professional ring and mellowed as he grew up, but despite plenty of positive feedback, no one would buy him. Eventually Van Vleck sent Lone Star to Dennis Mitchell and Kim Burnette-Mitchell to let him try his luck off the West Coast.
Burnette-Mitchell and Mitchell ran into longtime friends Hunt and Mandy at the Brownland Farm series in Franklin, Tenn. Hunt stopped by the second year ring to cheer for his friends’ newest mount, and while he liked Lone Star’s look, he wasn’t in the market. Yet.
As luck would have it, that weekend Shelton and her parents, new to the show scene, approached Hunt about training with him and finding a horse. Within a week Lone Star was on a truck headed to Georgia.
“He was hard for Lauren to get used to, but she stuck with it, and she was dedicated,” recalled Mandy. “She must have had 200 lessons on that horse. Hunt never rode him, never showed him. It’s funny, because you don’t hear of [teaching a junior rider] making a horse better. But it sort of numbed him to what his job was going to be. By the time she was done with him she was getting great ribbons.”
With Hunt the horse finally hit his stride. His mind settled, and he started rising to the occasion every single time he showed. Hunt continued to finesse his flatwork until the horse’s canter became more controllable. And by the end of two years Hunt jumped the horse exclusively in the schooling ring and show ring and preferred to trail ride his top mount rather than drill him in the arena.
“That’s something the horse taught us: patience,” said Mandy. “Everyone who rode him before us got him better and better, and as Hunt started riding him he got stronger and more confident. All the sudden he went from no hack ribbon to the hack winner. How does that happen? There’s no difference in his shoeing—he’s always been 100 percent sound and shod the same. He’s never needed even routine maintenance vet work.”
A Bit Of A Shock
Parker had fallen for Lone Star the year before, but when she’d inquired about purchasing him the horse wasn’t for sale. She approached Wheeler again during the early spring of 2010 and eventually convinced him to sell to her.
“Emotionally I was super attached to the horse, but we do run this as a business,” said Wheeler. “Knowing who he was going to and the program he’d be going to was great. Betsee’s an amazing woman and always puts her horses first. I knew he’d have an easy life, not show much and retire early. I have two young kids, and if they were nearer to an age where they could have ridden him maybe things would have been different.”
Parker still considers Wheeler an important part of “Team Lone Star” and continued with the winning formula he and Hunt developed, showing the horse selectively and keeping him with Hunt and Mandy. Lone Star performed so consistently that the one time he dropped out of tricolor contention in 2010 at Devon he sent his team almost into panic mode.
“Devon was a bit of a shock,” recalled Hunt. “You get used to having a shot at doing well, and he just wasn’t himself. Looking back I still don’t have any idea what was wrong. We checked his temperature, had the vets look him over, we just couldn’t figure it out. I spent so much time in his stall trying to figure it out he got sick of looking at me.”
Lone Star got back to winning within a few weeks, with a wire-to-wire victory in The Chronicle of the Horse/USHJA International Hunter Derby at the Country Heir II (Ky.). And by midsummer Hunt and Parker had their eyes trained on the derby finals. Unlike many top professional pairs, Hunt and Lone Star had only shown in three qualifiers over the two seasons, so they came to the Kentucky Horse Park without any expectations.
Things got off to a slow start. Lone Star anticipated a turn in the winding course of the qualifying round and swapped off his lead for a step before getting back on track. They barely eked into the final, finishing 22nd when only the top 25 earned a call back.
But the next day he was back in form. In Round 2 he laid down an extraordinary round to earn a score of 98, prompting judge Rob Bielefeld to proclaim that he would sell his mother to ride the horse. Judge Chrystine Tauber put it more simply, dubbing the round “ideal.”
“Sometimes with judges in four locations one pair sees something different [and gives him a lower score], but we all marked him on top of our cards,” she said. “His round was exactly what you’re looking for and showed an incredible partnership.”
With a 10-point lead, Hunt played it safe and rode a relatively conservative handy round. That lovely round proved good enough to win, but it earned Hunt plenty of flack from those who wanted to see more bravura.
“I’m going to defend Hunt about that decision—he rode for exactly what the occasion called for,” said Wheeler. “He rode very smart.”
Hunt silenced anyone who doubted his mount’s handiness a few months later at the Pennsylvania National. Heading into the regular working handy hunter stakes, Lone Star lay neck and neck with Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Oare’s Rosalynn (a former ride of Hunt’s) for the division title. Kelley Farmer and Rosalynn went for broke, leaving Hunt no choice but to show off his mount’s phenomenal talent. Lone Star rose to the challenge, negotiating a pen of split-rail verticals, a tight turn back to a trot fence and finishing with a huge hand gallop over a 4’4″ oxer to win the class, the division title and the grand hunter title.
“That was a thrilling moment,” said Parker. “Hunt came up to me afterward and said, ‘You know, Betsee, we’ve said that Lone Star is the horse of a lifetime. But did you ever think that he may be a horse of all time?’ ”
After Harrisburg, Lone Star went to Prince Georges Equestrian Center in Maryland to prepare for Washington. Hunt rode the horse as usual, and his groom, Jose Guiterrez, prepared him for the ride to downtown D.C. But when Lone Star stood up from rolling, Guiterrez could tell something was amiss.
“We were literally loading trunks on the truck,” recalled Hunt. “He was wrapped and ready go to. Within 10 minutes Dr. [Robert] Barber’s there, and he’s trying to lay down again.”
Lone Star zipped off to the Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va. By the time he stepped off the truck he looked fine, and Barber thinks that he displaced his small intestine when he rolled. While Lone Star quickly returned to normal, there was never a question of trying to show him after the colic scare.
“Harrisburg was a great way to go out,” said Hunt. “The day before he was sick I was riding in the field with Sandy [Ferrell] and Jen [Alfano], just trail riding because I knew it was one of our last days together.”
In 2011, Rob Coluccio, who trains Parker’s ponies along with Richard Cunkle, will take over the ride.
“I think Lone Star could use a new challenge,” explained Parker. “It’s always been fun to see a really good horse do really well with another rider. This year, since he has nothing to prove, I can’t wait to see him with another seasoned, excellent rider. Like Hunt, Rob is an exceptionally soft and tactful rider, and so far they’re a very exciting pair to watch.”
Hunt admitted that losing the ride on the horse that shaped his career has been difficult, but he can see the forest for the trees.
“The way I see it, it was incredibly generous for Betsee to let me keep the ride on the horse for a year after she bought it,” said Hunt. “And I advised Douglas to sell her the horse; I would have been a terrible advisor if I hadn’t. It’s sad not to have him. He was a family member, the first one I patted when I walked into the barn in the morning and the last one we said goodbye to at night. He was a pet in addition to being a really good horse.”
When the Toshes arrived in Florida, they had a hard time deciding who would go in his old stall. “His bridle’s still on his hook, and it’s not going to go on anyone else,” said Hunt.
“There was a lot of crying involved,” he added. “It’s funny how much it’s affected not just me but everyone else. When we got back from the clinic and were unloading him, Dr. Barber’s wife Michelle said to me, ‘Everything’s going to be fine, at least you get to show him again.’ And when I told her I didn’t, all of a sudden she was bawling too.”
For Hunt, it’s now a chapter in what had always been an unlikely story. “We laugh about it now, because he wasn’t even bought to be an amazing junior hunter, we just thought he’d be a good horse for that job,” he continued. “If you’d known what he was going to be, maybe there would have been a different chain of events that wouldn’t have made him what he is today.”
Description: 12-year-old, 16.3 3⁄4-hand warmblood gelding of unknown breeding
Owner: Betsee Parker.
Current Home: Huntland Farm in Middleburg, Va.
Bit: Slow-twist hinge.
On His Name: “He came with the barn name Kid, but we named him Lone Star in honor of the fact that he’s from Texas,” said Diane Yeager.
His Pre-Show Routine: “Since the day we got him, he wouldn’t canter on a longe line,” said Mandy Tosh. “You take him out, and he trots like a Western jog in a circle for half an hour, and he won’t speed up no matter what you do. But he really likes it! All of his groom Jose Guiterrez’s friends make fun of him.”
Favorite Charity: All of Lone Star’s winnings to go to support Danny And Ron’s Rescue.
2010 “Team Lone Star”: Owner Parker, former owner Douglas Wheeler, rider Hunt Tosh, barn manager Mandy Tosh, groom Jose Guiterrez, blacksmith Lyle Jenkins, veterinarians Robert Barber and Ken Marcella.
On His Fandom: According to Parker, guests at her parties abandon her house to make pilgrimages to the barn, and by her count no fewer than 20 other visitors stopped by the month after the Pennsylvania National alone. But it hasn’t gone to his head: he’s patient enough to let Parker’s 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, brush him, and let the barn dogs run between his legs.