Sue Lightner is one busy woman. In between teaching lessons, riding, training and supervising horses on the farm for rehabilitation, she breeds some of the nicest young hunters in the country.
Two of her homebred full siblings, Rendezvous and Ragtime Cowboy (Ragtime—Misty View) topped the yearling and 3-year-old divisions of the U.S. Equestrian Federation national hunter breeding year-end standings. Lightner herself earned the USEF leading hunter breeding breeder top honors for 2010. And Lightner bred the 3-year-old performance grand champion, Raggedy Music, and reserve grand champion, Ragtime Cowboy, at the West Coast Regional International Hunter Futurity.
“Sue really has a niche in the young horses. She’s extremely talented at starting them right, which is crucial for down the road in their career,” said Jennifer Grubb-Reed, a breeder who sends her young horses to Lightner for training. Grubb-Reed’s Glenn Morangie, trained and handled by Lightner, earned the USEF Horse of the Year title in the 2009 hunter breeding national standings.
“She starts them slow and doesn’t put pressure on them, so they enjoy their jobs. And they are so confident in what they’re doing. They thrive on her patience and confidence. She really loves the horses; it’s truly a passion for her. She’s really promoting the young horse program and supporting the hunter breeding. She’s a big proponent of positive mileage at a young age,” continued Grubb-Reed.
Lightner, Modesto, Calif., dabbled in breeding and producing young horses for years, but when she found the Thoroughbred mare Misty View, her breeding program really took off. “She started producing some very nice offspring. The first of her Ragtime babies was a stunner, and I decided I need to do this for real,” Lightner said.
Misty View has had eight foals for Lightner, and the last four are all by Ragtime, who stood at Lightner’s farm from 2004 to 2008. The first of the cross, Reggae, won on the line and in the International Hunter Futurity, then was sold.
“He could have gone to a professional home to be a conformation horse, but an amateur rider fell in love with him. He’s going to have a great home for life, which warms my heart,” Lightner said. “She shows him in the 2'6" adult amateurs. He for sure has enough step and scope to go on, but he’s got a job and he’s happy.”
Rendezvous and Ragtime Cowboy, the two USEF champions, are full siblings to Reggae, and Lightner has a yearling as well, ready to show on the line this year.
“She’s one of those people who really loves what she does,” said John French, who shows some of Lightner’s young horses over fences. “She’s very conscientious in the care of them, and she’s very involved in their whole lives. She treats them like her kids.”
They Have To Work For A Living
Ability to perform, not just a pretty face, is an important goal for Lightner when she’s breeding horses. “These horses are really going to have a job,” she said. “Once, a judge who judged Reggae on the line was blown away when he watched him jump around the young hunters. He said to me, ‘I thought these things were all hothouse flowers.’ And I told him ‘Oh no! Mine all work.’ ”
Lightner believes winning on the line just shows the horse is built to do a job effectively. “I think a well-conformed horse is always going to have a job somewhere,” she said. “I don’t really believe in just strictly breeding for jumping talent if the correctness in conformation isn’t there. If you’re lucky and you get the one that can jump the moon, wonderful. But if you don’t, and it’s not that talented and not that correct, it can be hard to find a job for. Pretty horses and correct horses with good movement and athletic ability will always find a home.
“For me, performance is the whole point. When you have a horse like Ragtime Cowboy, with that beautiful natural topline and correct legs, you know that it’s going to be twice as easy to train that one under saddle because the physical part is already there. You’re not battling nature,” she continued.
Ragtime Cowboy was also the reserve overall champion in the Sallie B. Wheeler/USEF Hunter Breeding National Championship in 2010. Twinkle Gorman bought the stunning gray, and Lightner thinks he has all the ability to go on and be a successful hunter, even a derby horse.
Diane Yeager rode Ragtime Cowboy at the IHF for Gorman, but French also shows Lightner’s horses frequently and showed Raggedy Music to the IHF 3-year-old championship.
“I can go to a show never having ridden her horses, 3- and 4-year-olds, and she has great insight into each one’s personalities and quirks and how they like to be ridden, so it’s very easy to ride for her,” said French. “The horses she raises are very good quality with good minds. She shows them, but I like the fact that she doesn’t over-show them. She does a good job getting them started, and they’re all well-mannered horses,” he continued.
Lightner’s firm belief in breeding correct horses comes from her youth in the Quarter Horse world. “I watched in the halter horses as they were breeding for an arbitrary set of standards that included very small feet and very muscular, big bodies. I saw them end up with a whole line of horses that couldn’t perform,” she said.
A Bareback Foundation
Lightner, 58, didn’t have a typical hunter/jumper junior career. Her first horse—an albino horse called Rebel—was a hand-me-down from her stepfather. She grew up in the hills near Oakland, Calif., and at that time, you could ride out over all kinds of open countryside, so Lightner would hop on Rebel bareback and go exploring.
A friend taught Lightner how to jump, and she discovered that Rebel was a talented jumper. “Here I was in my mechanical hackamore, on my albino horse, bareback. He had a roached mane then, and I’d hang on to the little clump of hair at the base of his withers, and that’s how I learned how to jump,” she recalled.
One day, equine veterinarian Dr. Bill Nissen came to Lightner’s family’s farm and saw her makeshift jumps. “Bill watched me jump, and he told my stepdad, ‘You have got to get this girl in lessons; this horse is amazing.’ And, unbeknownst to me, he tried to buy Rebel, and my stepdad didn’t sell!” Lightner said.
She started formal lessons with Earl Hansen in Skyline, Calif., with an old Pariani saddle Nissen gave her. “I still have that saddle to this day. I’ve kept it as a treasure,” she said. “I had the worst time transferring from bareback to the saddle.”
Soon, Lightner discovered horse shows. She didn’t get to show in many A shows, but she kept busy with 4-H and Pony Club activities. “I did a lot of everything on that dear horse Rebel. I did the medal classes, the junior jumpers and the hunters. He was a bit of a hot pistol, so when we did the hunters I couldn’t warm up over jumps. I’d warm up on the flat, and then I could get one round out of him that was good before he would get overly excited,” she recalled.
Lightner started teaching lessons while she was attending college. She intended to teach school when she graduated in 1977, but by the end of the summer that year she’d built up quite a clientele of students and decided to keep teaching riding.
“The starting salary of a school teacher was $8,600 a year. I looked around and said, ‘I could do as well teaching riding, and the kids would want to be here and learn,’ ” she said.
She Does It All
By 1979, Lightner had set up her own business on the very farm where she is today, Lightacres Stable in Modesto, Calif. She leased it for years and then bought it. “It’s 10 acres, so it’s not big, but it’s functional, and I’ve used every inch of space,” she said. She even has grass pastures, rare in California.
Today, Lightner’s business partner, Lori Clark, runs a thriving beginner lesson program at the farm, while Lightner concentrates on students who show and the young horses.
“My business is a bit eclectic. I have a great group of amateur ladies who don’t like to go to the rated shows as much anymore, but they have a great time riding and going to one-day shows. I also have Ashley Norris, who does the junior jumpers, and we’ve gone to Spruce Meadows [Alta.] for three summers, which has been fun. I see all facets of the business,” she said.
Lightner has done a little bit of everything on the farm, including foal watch, breaking babies, riding, training and teaching. She has a few foals every year—of her own and for clients. But in recent years she’s had to slow down and hand off some of the duties to others. She sends the babies away to be broken, and the mares go to the veterinary clinic when their foal date is near.
Lightner used to do all the showing over fences and on the line, but when Ragtime joined her farm in 2004, she started handing the riding over to professional rider Carol Wright. “My business here has never been big enough to have a great staff. I never realized until I stopped how demanding it was to show and make sure I was on top of every single detail. I’ve discovered since I stopped showing that I have become a much calmer and gentler person than I used to be!” she said.
Lightner still rides at home, training the young ones. “She has the ability to think like a horse,” said Grubb-Reed. “She’s two steps ahead of the youngsters and knows how to not let them get into a bad situation.”