Thursday, Jun. 6, 2024

The Beat Goes On For Rumba At HITS Thermal

He and John French pull off a second consecutive hunter derby win.

Rumba and John French faced lofty expectations walking into the ring for the $10,000 ASG Software Solutions USHJA Hunter Derby during the HITS Desert Circuit VIII. Despite partnering with two new riders, Rumba had already danced away with two series titles and tallied a win at the derby held during week 3 of HITS Thermal.



He and John French pull off a second consecutive hunter derby win.

Rumba and John French faced lofty expectations walking into the ring for the $10,000 ASG Software Solutions USHJA Hunter Derby during the HITS Desert Circuit VIII. Despite partnering with two new riders, Rumba had already danced away with two series titles and tallied a win at the derby held during week 3 of HITS Thermal.

But Mountain Hill Stables’ Rumba saved his best performance for his last class of the circuit, scoring a decisive victory over Tonia Cook-Looker’s Forbes with Jenny Karazissis on March 22 in Thermal, Calif. A no-holds-barred handy round secured third for Keri Kampsen and On Top.

“I wasn’t sure we could do two in a row, but he pulled it off,” said French. “The derbies are really good for him because they keep him on his toes. After spending all winter in the same hunter rings you need to perk them up a little bit, and he was just stellar tonight.”

The 13 entries competed under lights on the spectator-lined grand prix field over John Manning’s courses. French and Rumba served as pathfinders and set the bar high with a flawless trip over the 4′ options, earning 84 and 88, the two highest scores of the trip. While the atmosphere surrounding the course set many of the tenser horses on edge, Rumba barely batted an eye as he galloped around.

The handy round gave riders a chance to show off their well-schooled mounts with plenty of options for tight turns and a walk, trot, canter combination.

The boldest riders hopped over a row of decorative rocks or a liverpool. But bravado backfired time and time again, as several riders who attempted a tight rollback over a pair of delicate 4′ split rail fences suffered rails. And a few riders who tried to incorporate the rocks into their course en route to a long five-stride line found the turn too awkward to showcase their horses’ handiness.

While professionals dominated the class, several junior riders took the opportunity to tune up their equitation mounts. Hap Hansen split the difference, tacking up 2007 USEF Talent Search Finals-West winner Y2K to show the field exactly how it should be done, but an unlucky rail marred their brazen trip. All three of Karazissis’ rides looked nearly undone by the atmosphere of the evening in the first round, but the veteran hunter rider didn’t let her mounts’ apprehension change her plan to go for broke. The careful Forbes secured the red ribbon with a ground-covering gallop and neat turns in the handy round.

When it came time for French to bring Rumba back, he’d already seen the perils of the course and opted for caution.

“I’d never done a walk, trot, canter combination before,” confessed French. “I was a little worried that he might knock down the walk jump; that’s pretty easy to do. We came in with a considerable lead so we could have jumped the rocks or the liverpool on the way to the next jump. It would have been pretty daring, but I figured, ‘Why take a chance?’ ”

His decision paid off as he secured the highest scores of the day, 90 and 88 with 4 bonus points from each set of judges, to notch a decisive victory. The win came on the heels of just five weeks of showing, which yielded circuit titles with Taylor Seibel in the large junior hunters, 16-17, and the second year green hunters with French.

“I have a lot of faith in Rumba, but I certainly didn’t go in the ring thinking that we would win two in a row,” said French. “This is an amazing horse who has gone so well with Taylor and me. He has the best attitude. We got him at the start of the year with the intention that he’ll be passed on to Taylor’s little sister when she’s ready. He’ll be a horse for them forever.”

Redemptive Winter

Last season didn’t end well for Jennifer Stillman and Roxana. Stillman and her then-junior hunter travelled from Beverly Hills, Calif., to compete at the fall indoor horse shows, only to have one bad decision at Capital Challenge (Md.) ruin her season.

“We were hand galloping to an oxer, and I ate it,” recalled Stillman. “I leaned up her neck, fell down, and I hit the jump in front of absolutely everyone. It turns out that I’d broken my orbit [eye socket].”

Even worse, the fall shook her delicate mare’s confidence, and Stillman had to cowboy her horse around the ring for the rest of the circuit before returning home to regain her pride and undergo surgery for her injuries.

But Stillman and Roxana returned to the show ring at HITS Thermal, capturing the amateur-owner, 18-35, circuit championship after showing just three weeks. The mare picked up the series title in the open hunter division as well with Hap Hansen aboard.

“Hap has been amazing with me and with her,” said Stillman. “I can get frustrated easily, but he always knows exactly how to intervene and fix the situation after giving you time to figure it out yourself.”


Roxana and Stillman have been together since Sharon Blake imported the mare in 2004. According to Stillman, though the mare still needs an accurate ride, compared to her behavior at the start of their relationship, the mare has become a push-button amateur horse.

“When we first brought her over from Europe I didn’t want to ride her,” said Stillman, 19. “She was so careful—I thought I was going to die! She stopped so much and then jumped so high over it the next time. She wouldn’t sell, so finally my mom said I had to learn to ride her. Now she’s a completely different horse, and she doesn’t think everything is going to eat her. She’ll put up with a certain amount of mistakes from me before she says forget it.”

Stillman feels plenty of nostalgia for her recently departed junior years, but with a full class load at University of Santa Monica (Calif.) she has a newfound appreciation for the time she does get to spend with her horse.

“There’s no pressure anymore,” said Stillman. “I’m keeping it as a hobby now, not a lifestyle. If it were my life I wouldn’t love it anymore. So many people I know quit after their junior years. My mom always tried to make sure it’s not about winning but that it’s about learning. Getting Roxana to go well really made me appreciate the sport.”

A Fairytale Ending

When Alexandra Ladove hit a growth spurt last year, she and her trainer John French knew the time had come to say goodbye to ponies. But she never thought her first horse would be chosen for her without even a chance to try her out.

“I was down in Florida trying horses from Emil Spadone and tried a whole string of horses for another client,” recalled French. “After I sent Cinderella back to the barn Emil said, ‘Are you sure about her? I think she’d be great for you.’ We pulled her out again, and I realized as soon as I sat on her that she would be absolutely perfect for Alex.”

So French got on the phone and convinced Ladove and her mother that he’d just ridden their first full-sized mount and they should send a check. French’s matchmaking skills proved themselves at this year’s HITS Thermal circuit, when Ladove and Cinderella picked up the children’s hunter, 13 and under, circuit title.

“When I first got her I was really scared because she jumped so big, but she’s been great,” said Ladove, 12. “We get along really well. I’m so lucky that John found me the perfect horse.”

According to Ladove, it’s easy to see how the mare picked up her fairytale name. “She is a total princess,” she said. “ ‘Elle’ doesn’t like to get her feet wet, and she tries to be perfect all the time. Every once in a while she knocks down a rail, and she gets really upset.”

Ladove started riding with French about nine months ago, just in time for him to help her make the transition to horses from her medium pony.

“John is hard on me in the lessons but in a good way,” she said. “He’s a perfectionist: if he knows you can do it well and sees you do it well, his expectations for you are set higher. It’s been working out great for me.”

Ladove earned an extra ride for two weeks after her mother took a tumble off her own mount during week 5, effectively sidelining her for the circuit. So the 12-year-old picked up the reins, finishing as champion aboard Elle and reserve on the borrowed mount, Orion, during the seventh week.

Despite sneaking out of school midday on Thursdays to travel from her Pebble Beach, Calif., home to compete at Thermal, Ladove still managed to maintain her A average for the winter semester, finishing her schoolwork early and e-mailing in assignments between classes. As a reward for her hard work she picked up a new pet: a chameleon she named Robert.

Wind Woes

Exhibitors and show officials faced the unenviable task of battling Mother Nature at her most impressive when the worst downsloping windstorm in 20 years hit the Coachella Valley on the mid-morning of March 23, the biggest day of the HITS Desert Circuit. When reports of the upcoming storm started filtering in on Saturday, officials rearranged the show schedule in an attempt to get through the biggest classes before the wind started rumbling.

While some exhibitors did scratch and hit the road early, most riders opted to stick around and take their chances.

But heavy winds started taking a toll on the show grounds first thing in the morning, blowing sand and toppling jumps. Course designer Olaf Petersen Sr. and his ring crew stayed on their feet in the grand prix field throughout the $25,000 high junior/amateur-owner classic, resetting fences that refused to stay up despite plenty of sandbags and carefully wedged flowerboxes.


The weather took a decisive turn for the worse by 9 a.m., sending exhibitors trotting back to the barn and anyone off a horse clamoring for the VIP Oasis Club, barns or restaurant, where sand still managed to pile up on tables. Dust darkened the air, trees in sturdy planters fell over, and the canvas straps securing one of the small tents over the bleachers snapped, sending it flying. Winds gusted up to 60 miles an hour, staying above 30 miles an hour until late in the evening, knocking out power to more than 12,000 homes in the Coachella Valley but sparing the show grounds.

By noon officials cancelled the remaining classes, pinned the $25,000 high junior/amateur-owner classic without a jump-off (refunding the entry fees for the riders who didn’t get to start) and awarded the remaining circuit championships without the last day’s points.

But the biggest quandary lay with the $150,000 Grand Prix of the Desert—the circuit’s signature event. HITS President Tom Struzzieri met with the grand prix riders and offered them three options: wait out the storm and attempt a night class, divide the $150,000 purse between all declared 38 horse and rider combinations or cancel the class and offer a $300,000 class next year. Rather than challenge the weather or wait a year, the riders voted to divide the prize money amongst themselves, with each entry picking up a healthy check for $3,947.

“It was pretty cut and dry—there was no way to run that class,” said Rich Fellers, who had entered the class with his Flexible. “That was incredibly generous of the show management. I’ve been entered in classes that have been cancelled before, and never, ever has the management offered to pay off the prize money.”

Richard Spooner echoed Fellers’ sentiment: “It was above and beyond the call of duty. The weather here was perfect this year, and to have such a bizarre day on the final Sunday was very unfortunate. But I am very happy with the end decision.”

Spooner celebrated the biggest payday of the group: with five horses entered in the grand prix he left the office with almost $20,000 without jumping a single fence.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said a cheerful Petersen as he finally sat down to rest after chasing tumbling oxers around the grand prix field for two hours. “This will be a great story for my grandchildren.”

Flexible Proves Himself Again

Most riders who gather an impressive list of wins don’t worry about having to prove their horse’s mettle. But Rich Fellers couldn’t shake the notion that despite Flexible’s second-placed finish at the 2008 Rolex FEI World Cup Final (Sweden) and a long list of wins, everyone dismisses him when the competition turns outdoors.

So when Fellers and Flexible outran 51 riders to win the $25,000 HITS Grand Prix in Thermal, Calif., March 20, over Mandy Porter and San Diego he couldn’t help but feel vindicated.

“People say, ‘Oh he’s not so big; he’s good indoors, but in the field you need a horse with a bigger stride,’ “ said Fellers, Wilsonville, Ore. “But he’s a really fast horse. I really wanted to set the record straight, and I’m pretty sure we did.”

With $150,000 on the line in Sunday’s Grand Prix of the Desert (see sidebar), riders used the Friday grand prix to tune up their top mounts, and 15 horses managed to find a way around Olaf Petersen’s course fault-free.

“When I walked the course I certainly didn’t think it was soft,” said Fellers of the high number of jump-off riders. “Maybe Olaf could have challenged us a little more, but there were plenty of top horses and riders there. It’s actually a huge credit to the facility that the horses are still jumping so well after seven weeks of showing.”

Eighth in the first round, Fellers returned early in the jump-off, slicing turns and finding a pace that no one else could match. The game chestnut bounded around the course looking every bit the winner, ears pricked the entire time and in perfect harmony with his rider.

“Last year was his first year at the grand prix level, so he’s actually pretty inexperienced even though he’s 13,” said Fellers. “He had significant injuries when he was younger and lost three years of show jumping experience. He’s not exactly a veteran, but he is smart and he understands the sport.”

Fellers started the year aiming to bring Flexible (Cruising—Flex) to the Rolex FEI World Cup Final (Nev.), seeking to better last year’s second-placed finish. Despite a strong start to the season—the Irish-bred stallion placed in all nine grand prix classes he entered this year, winning two—a trip to Vegas wasn’t in the cards. With one qualifier left Flexible sits too low in the standings to bear a reasonable chance of competing at the Final, so Fellers opted to take his family to Hawaii for a vacation following the Thermal circuit.

“I never go to the last qualifier [the Blenheim Spring Tournament (Calif.)],” said Fellers. “It’s nothing against the horse show, I just personally don’t believe in competing a horse up to the last week or two before the competition. From a mathematical perspective it would be extremely unlikely for me to be able to qualify. I thought about messing up my vacation and sending him down there, but I decided it wasn’t worth it.”

Fellers has set his sights on a strong season at Spruce Meadows (Alta.) with hopes of securing an invitation to ride for the flag in Europe at Falsterbo (Sweden), Dublin (Ireland) and Hick-stead (England).




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