It’s Time To Focus On Education

Feb 13, 2017 - 1:34 PM

In order to make our sport stronger, we need to increase education across all aspects.

I’m lucky. When I was first starting out I was trained by the best horsemen of the time, many of them, the best horsemen we’ve ever had. Thanks to them, I’ve become one of the best hunter trainers of my generation.

I believe our sport is struggling because I don’t see that process happening as often now. Many young trainers of today just don’t have the knowledge base they should have, and they aren’t pursuing the education they need. If the trainers don’t have a good understanding of basics, how are they supposed to teach that to new riders in the sport?

I teach a lot of clinics that include young and inexperienced riders, and I really enjoy them. I also like to share the wisdom I’ve learned over the years with the younger trainers coming up the ranks.

Our educational process has changed over the past few decades, and more trainers begin their careers without the foundation that was instilled in the “older” generation. I believe young trainers should still start out being working students, interning and working as assistants for the top trainers. They need to learn more before going out on their own.

I believe in that old adage: It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts. I’m still learning. I learn something every time I do a clinic. I still watch other trainers in the schooling areas, and I go out and ask them questions. I still want to learn, and I still do learn. It amazes me sometimes how little I know.

And credentials should matter. Right now, anyone can hang their sign out and say they’re a horse trainer. Riders need to look at credentials when looking for trainers, and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Trainer Certification Program is a great place to start (www.ushja.org).

Riders need to research what a trainer has done. How many of their students have won at the fall indoor horse shows, Devon or the major equitation finals? Remember, the trainer’s personal riding career shouldn’t matter as much, because you’re looking at that person as a teacher. I was never a famous rider, but, luckily, I’ve become a pretty good teacher thanks to so many people who have taught me.

Increasing The Qualified Judging Pool

We need more qualified judges in our sport. I would guess that only about 10 percent of our current judges are asked to judge 90 percent of the shows, and they can’t do them all unless they’re a “professional” horse show judge.

Look at one particular week in the wintertime, and you’ll see what I mean. You have the Winter Equestrian Festival circuit in Wellington, Fla., HITS Ocala in Florida, HITS Thermal in California, and numerous smaller shows in the north. Each show demands from four to 10 judges, and that’s a lot of judges for a given week.

The USHJA, which took over the licensed officials educational component from the U.S. Equestrian Federation, is working to improve the process. Danny Robertshaw, Julie Winkel, Bobbie Reber, Mike Rosser, Geoff Teall, Karen Healey, Fran Dotoli and Scott Hofstetter have taught the clinics over the past several years. They’re fantastic educators, but they can only do so much in a two-day session.

I know it’s hard for trainers to give up time for their businesses to acquire their licenses and to judge, but our sport depends on it. It’s a difficult situation because a trainer is going to make more money training customers at a horse show than he’ll make judging a show over the same time period, but it’s important for successful horsemen to make time to judge. They may be losing money, but they’re giving back to the sport and to the business, which is most important in the long run.

Finding The Right Balance In The Derbies

The USHJA international and national hunter derbies have been a boon to our sport. I think the derbies should be kept on a pedestal, and I consider a derby horse a specialty item, but we still want everybody to enjoy competing in the derbies.

The international derbies and the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship are something riders and trainers can aspire to reach while competing at the national level and in other smaller derbies at local shows.

The championship shouldn’t be for everyone—it’s the ultimate challenge. But the national derbies are something everybody can do, at the very least on a local level, and enjoy.

I think the new rule limiting the number of horses a rider can compete in a USHJA International Hunter Derby will help encourage junior and amateur riders or trainers of less experienced horses to enter. The derbies aren’t just for the winners; they’re also for those that are learning—meaning younger riders and less experienced horses. We need to have these competitors entering the derbies, offering them opportunities to do well and keep them moving up.

Let Things Work Themselves Out

The competition year of 2017 marks the beginning of the newly titled green hunter sections (replacing the pre-green, first and second year greens) and the addition of the young hunters.

One of the challenges to this new structure is that more classes will require horses to jog. When you’re competing at some of the bigger shows, that’s challenging because some classes will last hours, and the stalls are often far away from the show rings. As a trainer, you’ll have to stay on top of when the jogs are going to go while still competing horses at other rings. You may have to hire extra helpers just to get the horses to the rings for the jogs. I’m not saying it’s a wrong thing; I’m saying it’s a hard thing and a new challenge we all have to face.

When you add these new classes to the schedule, you’ll often get the question: Do the horse shows have enough time in the day and enough rings? Are they going to have these classes at the end of the day when dusk is imminent? Are show managers going to have to add another day to the professional schedule?

These aren’t necessarily problems, but they’re questions we must ask as the show year continues. We really won’t know how it will all work out until we start competing and running these new classes.

The powers that be at the USHJA are trying their best to make the hunter sport better. They’re not waking up and thinking, “How can we mess hunters up?” What we need to do is go along with the new program and see how it works. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, we’ll work to improve it.

These are smart and dedicated people who are making these changes, and they’ve taken their time to research and propose solutions to help grow our sport. Let’s support them this year, see what happens and go from there. Our sport has improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade with the inception of the international hunter derby and the Green Hunter Incentive Program, just to name a few, so let’s continue to support them as they raise the bar toward the future.


Jack Towell of Finally Farm in Camden, S.C., started his career as a hunter/jumper trainer at 17 and was influenced by Bucky Reynolds and Ronnie Mutch. He trained Brunello to three consecutive wins in the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships with his daughter Liza Boyd in the irons. He’s trained horses and riders to numerous tricolors at Devon (Pa.), Capital Challenge (Md.), Pennsylvania National, Washington International (D.C.) and the National Horse Show (Ky.).

He’s a four-time leading junior hunter trainer at the Pennsylvania National, and his students have earned Best Child Rider honors 14 times at Devon and the fall indoor circuit. He’s trained riders to victories up to the grand prix level, and his son and daughter are both professional trainers.

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