After suffering a near-fatal riding accident 11⁄2 years ago—resulting in multiple bone fractures and a brain stem injury—four-star veteran eventer Ralph Hill is back in the irons. It was therefore no surprise to anyone but him that he also earned the Ironmaster Trophy for “an individual who exemplifies fortitude and courage,” accompanied by a standing ovation, at the U.S. Eventing Association’s Annual Meeting in December.
With plenty of metal holding his body together and a new outlook on life, Hill has resumed teaching riders and training young horses. And while his beloved, larger-than-life personality is still intact, the king of the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** said, “The only advantage to being knocked out for eight weeks was that I quit all my bad habits.”
Hill now walks about 6 miles a day in addition to riding, and is getting closer to competing again, but he said that isn’t his ultimate goal.
“If I get to again, I will, and it would be great,” he said. “It would have to be because the horses are telling me I’m right. But it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to train horses in a good way and train people. I just want people to realize they’re fortunate. Let’s all have fun.”
Name: Ralph Hill
Home Base: Wellborn, Fla.
Given the chance, what horse other than your own would you like to take a turn on?
I loved [my former advanced mount] Bad Boy Billy and thought I was going to win [the Rolex Kentucky CCI****] that year before I got busted up. That’s the type of horse I like, because I had to work through his mind. But I sure enjoyed watching Phillip Dutton win Rolex on Connaught. And I know when I watched [Heidi White’s] Northern Spy, I thought he would be a fun one.
What is your most marked characteristic?
There is really nothing else that I love other than dealing with the horses, both physical contact with them and in the mental capacity. You have to put a horse in his niche. That’s what I’m hoping I can get back to.
What is the most useless advice you’ve ever received?
To run a horse out of his comfort zone. It cost me the gold medal at the World Championships in 1978 with a horse that my dad and I raised, Sergeant Gilbert. Sarg was the kind of horse that liked to go slower, and you couldn’t hustle him off his feet. But I was told in the show jumping warm-up to gallop faster, so I did exactly what they said and pulled a rail. Sarg just wanted me to go slow and absorb it; he would have jumped it clean. They didn’t look at the horse as an individual, and I should have known to.
What word or phrase do you overuse?
I used to have some bad phrases like, “You can ride them as fast as they can run!” and “Ride it like you stole it!” because you did your homework and you were ready. Now when I’m teaching and someone is struggling, I usually just pull him back to the walk and talk to him about what the horse is feeling.
What is your drink of choice?
I used to love Jimmy Beam and Coke, but I don’t drink anymore.
What three things are most likely to be found in your refrigerator at all times?
Mountain Dew, V8 and a half-gallon of whole milk. If there’s anything non-liquid in there, it would be pickled eggs.
What one item from your wardrobe best personifies you?
Maybe the fancy socks I wore in the jogs, but I would say the breeches probably exemplify me most.
What was the last book you read?
I read this book by Dr. Phil about relationships, because I’m not going to be bad to people anymore. Now I’m reading a book about the Spanish Riding School. And believe it or not, every now and then I’ll read a little passage of the Bible.
What do you find to be the most ridiculous part of the horse world?
The majority of people at events I went to watch while coming back from my injury weren’t treating their horses like individuals. They’re treating them like a piece of machinery. That’s what ticks me off more than anything. They just want to go to the social parties and have the horse get them a ribbon.
What is the best feeling in the world?
Probably the best feeling is coming off cross-country clean and fast, and your horse’s ears are still up. You carry his saddle and walk him back sound with his ears pricked, and you can tell he’s just as happy as you are because you’ve both conquered that course.
You have a reputation for being a cross-country crooner. What are your tunes of choice?
If I’m singing a hymn, you know I’m not doing so well. But if I’m singing rock ‘n’ roll—maybe some Guns N’ Roses or AC/DC—you know my horse is jumping great, I’m on schedule, and we’re kicking some tail.
What is your greatest regret?
One was that I lost my mother and father. They loved the sport and loved the horses, and they were in it for the right reasons. We always stayed in a camper together at events, and they were always so supportive. The other is that before I got injured I was riding too many horses and teaching too many people, and I was stretching myself too thin. I started losing the times when I could go sit in a stall and pet a horse.
What characteristic do you value most in a horse?
If I’m cantering across country or jumping, I like his ears straight forward, but what I like on the flat is when he’s a little lop-eared. I want a horse who lets you know what he likes—when you jump a fence and he gives a little buck on the end.
In a human?
I want them not to forget that they’re human. Don’t forget that you’re allowed to have a bigger warm side than a cold side. And you have to enjoy what you’re doing, even if you don’t want to ride, and you want to just be around horses. Enjoy it.
Where will you be in 10 years?
Honestly, now it’s just up to the main man above. Either I’m going to be in heaven, or you’ll be calling me up asking me how in the heck I got a 10 in dressage.