James Alliston remembers watching Happenstance at events in California a few years ago and being impressed with the black gelding’s impressive jump, but he never expected to be riding him.
After partnering up with “Hap,” an 11-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Hunter—S’Brina, Ramirado) owned by Mary McKee, this spring, Alliston earned a win in the advanced division (48.9) at the Twin Rivers Fall Horse Trials, held Sept. 21-24 in Paso Robles, Calif.
“He hadn’t been jumping for awhile, but he’s very experienced. I knew him from when he was in California, and I remember him just being a beautiful horse and always loved him,” said Alliston. “He was always one of the nicest horses around. When he started going advanced he looked like a really promising horse for the future.”
Hap started his eventing career with Kelly Prather, then spent some time with Amber Levine before Matt Brown took over the ride in 2013.
He won the Rebecca Farm CCI** (Mont.) in 2014 and completed the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) before spending last year competing up to third level in dressage with Jaclyn Pepper.
“He’s been really well trained by everybody up through the levels and has a lot of education,” said Alliston, 33. “I would say he always looked very relaxed and super straightforward when other people were riding him, but there’s a little bit more to him, so it’s a credit to their riding. He’s a very established horse.”
Hap was bred by Wendy Webster, who owns the stallion Hunter, by Heraldik. “He’s predominantly Thoroughbred, which explains why he’s so fast. She bred [Jennifer McFall’s] High Times. There are a few very good horses by Hunter in California,” said Alliston, San Ramon, Calif.
Alliston has only had his longtime partner Parker to compete at the advanced level recently, and he said it was a bit of a challenge to take on an experienced horse, but one he’s very appreciative of.
“It’s just me figuring out the buttons on him. I think his cross-country is probably his best phase. He’s very fast, and he likes it. The dressage can be really good, but I think I have to sort of figure out how to ride him best and get the best out of him, so it was good to win the dressage [at Twin Rivers,]” he said. “The show jumping, he’s a very careful horse, it’s just me figuring out the best way to do it. He had a couple down, so it wasn’t necessarily ideal at this show, but it was a challenging show jumping. There were a lot of people having rails down. Hopefully I can keep working on that and get it better.”
And on cross-country, “he’s really fast although he’s a warmblood, and he’s really brave. He’s a big horse. When he gets going he’s got a big stride and is nice and scopey.”
The pair were ninth at the Galway Downs CIC*** (Calif.) this spring, and they’re headed to the Woodside CIC*** (Calif.) next. If that goes well, they’ll go back to Galway for the CCI***.
“It’s a dream come true getting a horse of his caliber that’s ready to go at that level. I’m obviously extremely fortunate, and thank you to Mary McKee,” he said.
Alliston, originally from Great Britain, has had a busy season competing several horses including an intermediate ride, Sunsprite Madeira, and several lower level horses, but he endured a tragedy in June when his father, John Alliston, died suddenly.
John was an Emeritus Professor at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, England, and served as Dean of Agriculture.
While he wasn’t a rider, John was an ardent supporter of James, flying from England to watch him compete at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** on multiple occasions.
“My mum [Petey] was into the riding. She had a pony as a kid. But he really loved the sport. He was a big fan,” said James. “Back in England he would go to the events, even just to support the Americans through the connection with me. Even if you’re not a rider, it’s a really cool sport that’s exciting to watch, and he definitely enjoyed it. They came over every Kentucky. I’m very fortunate with my parents that they’re very into the eventing and helped me out a lot.”