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March 13, 2009

Free Rein With: Don Stewart Jr.

Name: Don Stewart Jr.
Home Base: Ocala, Fla.
Age: 57

Ask two-time Chronicle Hunter Horseman of the Year Don Stewart Jr. how he manages to sell 140 to 160 horses a year, and he’ll tell you his motto: You may be disappointed, but you’re never surprised. That full-disclosure policy along with an easy laugh and an eye for talent have helped the former top hunter rider grow his Ocala, Fla., Don Stewart Stables into one of the biggest sales and training barns in the country, with upwards of 70 horses showing at any one time.
   
As the chairman of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Junior Hunter Task Force, Stewart spearheaded many rule changes that have shaped the division into what it is today, including introducing a mandatory handy hunter class, splitting the division four ways and creating the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s National Junior Hunter Final. Most recently Stewart successfully won a long battle to cap entry fees.
   
Over the years countless national champions have worn Don Stewart Stables’ blue and gray, including Lyle (the
Chronicle’s 2008 Hunter Horse of the Year), Fernwalk, Hilton, Dance Away, Sassafras Creek, Mokoo Jumbee, Midnight Hour, Western Prospect, Stetson, Clouceau, Bold Headlines, Heartstrings, Leave Me A-Roan, What About Me and Western Magic.
   
“Anyone can get lucky and have a great horse and a great student, but it’s when you produce and reproduce that it counts,” said Stewart. “We’ve passed the test of time.”


If you hadn’t become a horseman where would you be today?
Probably a lawyer because I like to argue, and I know it all.

What trait do you value most in a horse?
Style.

In a human?
Honesty.

What is your greatest extravagance?
I got my wife Nancy a 10-carat yellow canary diamond ring for our 25th wedding anniversary. Most people tell her it wasn’t big enough for having put up with me for that long.

What changes would you like to see in the show world?
I want to see a big increase in the money offered to hunters just as in the jumpers. We’re finally headed that direction, with money won having a greater influence than points.  Obviously, the show managers have to oversee some restructure in the pricing [of entry fees]. We probably need to [award money] according to how many are in the class.

If you’re not at the barn or at the in-gate at a horse show, where are you?
Either at a restaurant or on a golf course.

What three things are in your fridge at all times?
Well there are never leftovers because I’d have eaten those. Probably ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise.

What is your most marked characteristic?
My ability to get along with just about anyone. I get that from my parents.

What is your favorite horse show food?
Devon French Fries.

What is your drink of choice?
Iced tea.

What would you say is the biggest issue facing the world today?
World peace and the economy.

What’s the hardest kind of horse to sell?
A difficult horse or a stopper. I won’t sell one of those anyway. I disclose everything to everyone. I always tell people, “Don’t send me that horse if it stops; I won’t take it.”

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully, retired and enjoying the good life.

Most frequent item on your credit card statement?
Restaurants.

Describe your first horse.
I had a large pony named Can Do back in 1910 or so when I started. He was super honest, and I jumped him 5'3" in a pony high-jump class. That’s still the highest I’ve ever jumped.

What was the first horse you sold?
In the 1960s, when I was a kid, I had a nice horse named Monday Blues I did the juniors and equitation on, as was the norm, then the amateurs. He was an honest, reliable hunter.

What is the best feeling in the world?
Making my wife [Nancy] and kids [Erin, 24, Don III, 19, and Whitney, 15] happy.

If you could go back and change one decision you made during your career, what would you change?

I wish I’d moved to Florida sooner. Up in North Carolina they don’t want to spend money on horses.

What do you miss most about riding and showing?

I miss showing off. I like being the center of attention.

Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?

Being leading hunter rider at Devon [Pa.] and The National Horse Show [N.Y.] back when those were the only shows to give that award.

What phrase do you use too often?
Either “not sold” or “didn’t pass the vet.”

 
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