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January 1, 2010

Zone 12: The Last Frontier Of Horse Shows

Photo by Anne Lang

Rising above the challenges of merciless winters, abnormal daylight hours and geographical isolation, Alaska’s hunter/jumper scene is thriving and competitive—with more similarities to the Lower 48 than one might expect.

Trainer Jenny Rousey-Dick, who spent a decade of her life in balmy California, illustrated a prevailing rationale for choosing to reside and work in Alaska’s hunter/jumper world.

“No matter where you live,” Rousey-Dick pointed out, “there are tradeoffs. Living in Alaska, you trade the harsh and difficult winters for the gorgeous scenery and unbelievably beautiful
summers.

“The summers suck you in,” Rousey-Dick declared, “and you think: ‘OK, I can stick it out for another winter.’ Because right behind it, you know there’s the promise of another spectacular summer. And then you just can’t leave.”

Rousey-Dick’s sentiments are shared by many others in the Alaska hunter/jumper community, where a relatively short summer reigns as the sole season during which to show—in state, that is.

Winter shows are not logistically feasible in Alaska. While a number of barns include sizeable indoor arenas and state-of-the-art amenities, none of these private facilities could provide the volume of guest stabling, enclosed schooling areas, van parking and spectator space necessary for hosting U.S. Equestrian Federa-tion-rated winter events.

Also, road conditions for hauling can be treacherous and unpredictable during winter months in Alaska, especially farther north. So most horse people prefer to stay put.

However, Alaskan hunter/jumper riders and trainers largely view the abbreviated show season as a benefit. It means they have all winter to hone their skills, bring along green horses and methodically treat medical issues or injuries without feeling as though the state’s show circuit is rocketing along without them.

Regional pressure is off as well, since Alaska and Hawaii are the only states that comprise their own separate USEF zones.

There are challenges, to be sure. Even in the more southern city of Anchorage, where the majority of the state’s hunter/jumper show barns are based, average winter temperatures fall well below freezing in daytime. Nighttime digits that drop below zero are not uncommon.

Wind-chill factors are ruthlessly wicked. Rain adds layers of ice to mounds of snow in paddocks and parking lots. Manure freezes to the ground and must be trucked out of town for disposal if a barn is in Anchorage.

Winter turnout is risky, because horses that play too hard can potentially injure themselves and not realize it in the numbing cold. In Anchorage, on the shortest winter days, the sun doesn’t show up until around 10:30 a.m.—and disappears just five hours later. Most hay is imported from out of state, and feed bills are painfully steep.

But Alaskan horse owners respond with trademark resiliency to all of this and more. They pile on extra-heavy blankets with hoods or let their horses’ coats grow out completely. They make sure their equines’ cold-weather nutritional needs are met, and they add just enough heat to their stables and arenas to create comfort while avoiding respiratory problems.

They ride indoors under lights, or outdoors with ice shoes. They monitor their horses’ turnout, and they arm themselves with super-duty snowplows. They sacrifice personal needs and luxuries in order to bankroll their beloved hobby, and they soldier on.

Because that promise of a dazzling summer always comes through.

Pathways To A Wider World

The Alaska Hunter/Jumper Association and Alaska State Horseshows Inc., organize and manage Alaska’s hunter/jumper shows, which typically number only four or five each summer, normally located in the Anchorage area or outlying communities. Exhibitors come from as far away as Fairbanks (350 miles to the north).

The USEF and U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Zone 12 Hunter/Jumper Committee also play a big role in horse show affairs. Among the committee’s many activities is an annual benefit clinic designed to encourage Alaska riders to aim for national championship points in Young Riders, Prix des States, junior and pony jumpers. Past clinicians have included Greg Best, Hap Hansen, Rob Gage, Norman Dello Joio, Ray Texel and Bernie Traurig.

Bill Turner is chairman of the Zone 12 Hunter/ Jumper Committee, and Kerri Geppert coordinates the committee’s Horsemanship Challenge, the purpose of which is “to encourage young riders [in all disciplines] to learn, practice and appreciate all the elements of the equine world.” Participants earn points toward annual awards in the categories of riding, practical skills and written tests.

Geppert said the program’s purpose is to offer youngsters “exposure to basic horsemanship, such as putting together a bridle, wrapping a leg, that sort of thing. It’s mostly geared toward kids just starting out riding. We do this as a grassroots effort through the USHJA.

“It’s a way to show youngsters the reasons for what we do with the horses,” Geppert continued,
“and that this sport involves more than just showing up, putting on a saddle and going out to ride in
classes. Some of the focus is on getting a horse ready for a show and how to take care of it while it’s at the show.”

Geppert believes it’s important for young people to develop a bond with their horses. “That bond comes through as they rise through the levels of difficulty in their riding,” she said. “This program also bridges the gap between Pony Club members and USEF members, which is good up here because we have a relatively small pool of competitive riders.”

Geppert’s daughter Emily, 17, is part of that pool. Under trainer Carrie Patnode, Emily shows her horse Mahadi in children’s jumpers and various hunter classes in Alaska. But she’s also one of numerous Alaska riders who have journeyed outside the state to learn and compete.

Last winter, Emily spent two months competing on the HITS Desert Circuit (Calif.), with trainer Hap Hansen. She rode Jazmiro, owned by Dylan Kornbluth, to the mid-circuit championship and circuit championship in the children’s jumper, 16-17, division.

Emily kept up with her studies at the HITS on-site school. Geppert and her husband Steve (who often acts as photographer at Alaska shows) sent Emily to Thermal “so she could see the bigger world. It was very eye-opening for her: She was prepared to work, so she was pretty surprised when she showed up and the grooms had the horses ready.

“It was a thrill for Emily to actually see the riders and horses she’d only read about,” Geppert added, “and she learned so much just by watching them. She rode in bigger classes, over bigger fences, and it was a huge confidence-builder.”

Geppert recalled one incident with amusement. “Emily rode in a children’s/adult classic that was held in the giant grand prix ring, and when they announced: ‘Emily Geppert from Chugiak, Alaska,’ you could hear people saying: ‘What? Did they say Alaska?’ ”

While Geppert said she’d send her daughter to California again in a heartbeat, it’s not cheap. “It’s a minimum of $3,000, one way, just for the trip. And if you drive out, it’s five days—with eight to 10 hours a day in a horse trailer—just to get to Washington state.

“So it’s hard for the kids up here to get out and get exposure,” Geppert said. “But we have great trainers in Alaska and good horses. Yes, our numbers are small, but these kids work hard—and they’re competitive.”

Pride And Prejudice

ASH President Brena Doolen grew up in Anchorage and rode in hunter/jumper, equitation and dressage. After high school, she served an eight-month internship at Foxhill Farm in Pennsylvania, working with Sharon Best and Karen Karkow.

Doolen then transferred to a Quarter Horse hunter facility in Texas. From there, she attended Virginia Intermont College, where she rode on the school’s Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, Intercollegiate Dressage Association and International Student Riding Association teams. Graduating in 2005, Doolen returned to Anchorage. She married in 2007 and works fulltime for British Petroleum.

“When I went to college,” Doolen recalled, “some people were surprised that I could even sit on a horse, because they think we’re unable to get the type of riding education that they get.

“Definitely, it’s more difficult to gain experience here,” admitted Doolen, 28. “But we make it work. We’ve had clinics with world-class trainers and riders, and a lot of our riders and trainers are willing to travel to become more educated.

“I think people would be surprised to see the level of riding and talented individuals that Alaska is able to produce with limited resources,” she continued.

Rousey-Dick shares Doolen’s pride in the caliber of their home state’s equestrians.

“There’s a lot of talent up here,” Rousey-Dick said, “and because it’s so difficult and expensive to have hunters and jumpers in Alaska, the people who do it take it very seriously. So I think they put out even more effort than a lot of people in this sport.”

She added that because there are only a handful of hunter/jumper shows in Alaska each summer, every show is particularly meaningful to the riders.

Born and raised on a large Alaska horse ranch, Rousey-Dick eventually began taking hunter seat lessons. In the early 1980s, she entered Marymount College, near her former Alaska hunter/jumper trainer’s breeding enterprise in California.

Rousey-Dick, now 45, worked at that facility, then moved to Huntington Beach for a five-year stint as assistant trainer and barn manager for Victor Hugo-Vidal, who had a long history of bolstering Alaska’s hunter/jumper industry with quality horses and expert instruction during his frequent visits.

Rousey-Dick then met her future husband. “He had always wanted to move to Alaska,” Rousey-Dick said, “so I said ‘OK,’ since I still had family here and figured I could do horses back here, too.”

That was 20 years ago, and Rousey-Dick has indeed been “doing horses” in Alaska ever since. Currently, she’s the head trainer at Sindorf Equestrian Centre in the Palmer-Wasilla area. Sindorf, which opened in 2005, is backed by a corporation created by 10 women (including Rousey-Dick), each of whom brings different talents and expertise to the table.

Most of the 10-acre property was donated by Marion Sindorf, whose granddaughter, Rachel, is assistant trainer.

Sindorf features an 80' x 180' indoor arena, a 120' x 240' outdoor arena, 26 12' x 12' stalls, two heated wash racks, a large tack room, spacious office, seven turnout pens and trails dotted with cross-country jumps.

Rousey-Dick is one of the few trainers in Alaska engaged full-time in her profession.

“This is a difficult business to start with,” Rousey-Dick noted, “any place you go. Up here, what also makes it hard is the limited number of facilities that you can work out of year-round and the huge expense involved.”  

Selecting the right horse is especially key in Alaska, where many riders own just one mount, and often that horse is asked to perform double duty as both a hunter and a low- to mid-level jumper. For sale horses, Rousey-Dick takes customers to Washington, Oregon or California. Some Alaska trainers also travel to British Columbia.

“We try to stay on the West Coast,” Rousey-Dick explained, “because shipping from anywhere else is so astronomically expensive.”

The most common breed in Alaska right now is probably the Thoroughbred, said Rousey-Dick. “But that’s not always the case,” she added. “It’s usually kind of an eclectic mix. For a while, we had a wave of warmbloods.”

Progress Is Evident

Rousey-Dick is optimistic about the future of hunters and jumpers in Alaska.

“Every year,” she noted, “it gets better. All the shows keep trying to step it up to a better quality, like offering the modified hunter derbies. We’re trying to get that going here so we don’t get left behind.”

The riders and horses at the Alaska USEF-rated shows definitely look and ride the part, from sartorial properness to braided manes and tails and overall polish.

“It’s such a sport of discipline that I think everyone needs to learn it [and it]shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Rousey-Dick said. “It’s a privilege. The horses require a certain level of care, and they should be turned out a certain way. We shouldn’t be lackadaisical about it.”

Jaimie Thurman is head trainer at Diamond H Ranch in Ancho-rage, one of four major show barns in that city. (The others include Sindorf, Eaton Equestrian Centre and Huffman Horse Center).

Like Rousey-Dick, Thurman was born and raised in Alaska. And like Rousey-Dick, she experimented with training outside—Washington, in Thurman’s case—but came back home.

Thurman, who now lives in Wasilla, is married. Her 2-year-old twin daughters, Brooklyn and Devon, already compete in leadline. Their busy mother teaches riding three days a week, trading off with an assistant trainer at Diamond H.

“Growing up, we rode outdoors year-round,” Thurman said with a shrug. “We just plowed the arena. Horses that get ridden outside in winter here generally get ice shoes. You can walk, trot and canter, but definitely no jumping.”  

Still, she admitted that the expense and the short summers are big challenges.

“We have to ride in the very limited, crowded space of indoor arenas during winter, and we’re only able to ride outside for about a month in the spring before we go to our first horse show,” she said. “So a lot of times, the horses start the show season with a shorter stride and aren’t able to really clock around the courses right off the bat.”

Thurman, 25, is aware of the common misconceptions outsiders might have about Alaska.

“They might feel that we don’t play by the rules,” she observed, “or that our riders don’t keep up with the riders outside. Yet every clinician who’s come up here has been very complimentary, and they’ve stressed that our riders could keep up with any of the kids in the Lower 48, if appropriately mounted.”  

For more information about showing in Alaska, go to www.chronofhorse.com/alaska.

Alaska’s Hunter/Jumper World: A Historic View

Lifelong Alaskan Jill Cornforth is regarded by many as a “walking historian” on Alaska’s hunter/jumper evolution.  
A former chairman of Zone 12 and the Zone 12 Young Rider Program, Cornforth served on numerous committees of Alaska State Horseshows Inc., for many years.

Professionally, Cornforth has mostly worked in Alaska’s construction industry, which has taken her to remote jobsites such as Prudhoe Bay on the state’s rugged North Slope. In the early 1990s, Cornforth conducted a small lesson/training business as a primary source of income. She did that again from 1999-02, and now trains one horse and rider during limited time off from her job as office manager and project control engineer for an Anchorage construction company.

At age 8, Cornforth began taking lessons from former East Coast trainer Minot Howard of Wynfromere Farms in Fairbanks.

“Mr. Howard provided many Fairbanksans a well-rounded education in horsemanship,” Cornforth recalled. “While hunter/jumper oriented, we were exposed to a wide range of experiences that included riding on cross-country trails, memorizing and riding dressage tests at a young age, assisting with Mr. Howard’s pony-ride operation at the local fair, riding Roman-style over jumps, jumping bareback and learning to drive ponies in carts.”

In the summer of 1983, Cornforth worked for trainer Wilson Dennehy at several large Midwestern shows and at Lake Placid (N.Y.).

“It was a great education,” Cornforth stated, “and my first chance to see some of the country’s best riders in action—Michael Matz, Joe Fargis, Katie Monahan, Leslie Burr—who I previously knew only through the pages of The Chronicle of the Horse.”

She also showed with Judy Richter and Andre Dignelli in 1990 and 1991. “It was a wonderful opportunity to learn from top-caliber trainers,” she said.

Cornforth has seen the number of recognized Alaska horse shows decline over the years. “In the late 70s, there were recognized shows every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with an occasional weekend offering a show in both Fairbanks and Anchorage,” she said.

Cornforth competed in her first show in 1965, held on the Park Strip in downtown Anchorage. “Mr. Howard transported several horses from Fairbanks to Anchorage via the Alaska Railroad, about a 12-hour trip,” she said.

“Alaska shows used to offer all disciplines—hunter/jumper, dressage, western, saddle seat and gymkhana—but now they’re more specialized,” she added.

Cornforth is appreciative of the steady stream of experts who have shared their knowledge with Alaskan hunter/jumper riders, including Richter, Victor Hugo-Vidal, Wilson Dennehy and Hap Hansen, as well as Mark Mullen, Jimmy Lee, Greg Best, Anthony D’Ambrosio, Linda Allen, Larry Langer, Kenny Krome, Rob Gage, Bernie Traurig and Ray Texel.

A number of Alaskans have been “instrumental to the early development of the hunter/jumper industry in this state,” she added. Among them were Howard and Sammye Taplin, who in 1959 founded Diamond H Ranch in Anchorage.

“Their daughter, Linda McQueary, continues to run the stable and teach,” Cornforth said.

For the future, Cornforth would like to see the Alaskan hunter/jumper horse industry grow. “With more quality horses, and a show circuit that is truly statewide, with participation from all levels,” she said.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Zone 12: The Last Frontier Of Horse Shows" ran in the January 1, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

 
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