About a week ago, North Run posted a pair of photos to its Facebook page that were shocking in their contrast: One was of a beautiful gray horse with championship ribbon and cooler, and the other of the same gray, all dull ribs and angles, with a number scrawled across its back. The two photos were taken just two years apart, in October 2020 and 2022, and both are of Jamaica, the horse with whom North Run working student Luke Jensen won the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunt Seat Medal Final on Oct. 16 at the Pennsylvania National. This weekend, the pair will take on the ASPCA Maclay Final at the National Horse Show (Kentucky). It will be the final show of Jensen’s junior career and the capstone on a season that saw Jamaica rise from unproven to an equitation superstar.
Jamaica, a 13-year-old Belgium Warmblood (Zurich—Petit Fleur, Voltaire), was bred and started in Belgium under the care of Stijn Loos and Elke Fransen.
“As a young horse, Jamaica was kind and unbelievably smart,” recalled Fransen, who brought him along from foal to age 6, when Stephan Conter of Stephex Stables purchased the gelding. “He learned so quickly. He was always playful.”
Jamaica spent several years competing in the 1.30- to 1.40-meter jumpers, then Conter sent him to North Run to be sold during the 2020 Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida).
“Stephex is a top-class operation,” said North Run co-owner Missy Clark, who trains Jensen and now owns Jamaica. “We trained Stephan’s daughters for several winters in the past at WEF, and Stephan often sends us horses to sell. When Jamaica was first sent to us, he looked great.”
North Run’s rider at the time, Tomas Yofre, had success with Jamaica in the 1.40- and 1.45-meter jumper divisions at WEF that winter, and at the end of the circuit, Jamaica sold to a rider in Mexico. Unfortunately, the pair didn’t get along well, and months later Conter called Clark to ask if she and her partner John Brennan would take the horse back. Clark agreed, and Jamaica was shipped to a horse show at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (North Carolina) in October 2020. When he arrived, Clark said, he was in horrendous condition—incredibly skinny and with a number written on his back.
“I was not prepared to see the horse walk off the trailer looking like that,” Clark said. “Stephan was very upset too. When I saw Jamaica, I said, ‘I’m shipping him out of here,’ so we sent him to our farm in Florida where he could turn out and receive some extra TLC.”
Jamaica was not only in rough physical shape, but his mental status was poor as well. Clark said, “He would come at you in the stall and try to bite and kick you, so you had to be careful around him.”
That’s when his Cinderella rehabilitation story began. Read on to go behind the stall door with this horse and the working student who helped renew his confidence and realize his potential.
• Jamaica’s road to recovery took two years.
After he had some time off putting weight back on and getting settled, Clark thought he could make a good equitation horse, but he needed lots of time and turnout to help relax and learn to trust people again.
“Cody Rego showed him a bit at WEF in 2021, and he did a great job, but it was still too soon for me,” she said. “Jamaica wasn’t relaxed enough, so I wanted to give him a nice summer and fall and turn him out. We took him to our farm in Vermont, and he went out every day and gradually became more relaxed. He was still edgy in the stall, however, and you always had to keep your guard up.”
• Having his own person was key to Jamaica’s rehabilitation.
After having the summer off, Clark and the North Run team began legging up Jamaica for WEF 2022. Once everyone arrived in Wellington, Florida, in early November 2021, Jensen, 18, of Denton, Texas, took over Jamaica’s riding and care. In March 2022, North Run purchased Jamaica from Stephex Stables and promised Jensen the horse would be his to ride for the rest of the season.
“That kid has such a wonderful way around horses—it’s like he has an old soul,” Clark said of Jensen. “He’s very thoughtful and deliberate in the manner in which he interacts with the horses. He was very patient with Jamaica, and over time the two of them began to form a very special bond. It’s been a fun journey to watch.
“If you watch any of Luke’s videos with Jamaica, it’s easy to see his natural empathy and wonderful horsemanship,” she added. “You can often see him barely landing from the last jump on a course and giving Jamaica many pats and rubs on his neck. It brings a tear to my eye. You don’t see that very often, that real, genuine empathy for the animal and the appreciation. He’s so thoughtful about all that stuff.”
• Jensen took his time with Jamaica.
“At the beginning, before we really knew each other well, I thought it was important to be really patient with Jamaica,” Jensen said. “He was nervous on the ground, and in the stall he would bite and kick at you. I tried to understand where he was coming from in that instance, and it wasn’t that he was biting and kicking for the sake of it, but rather as a response. I let him know over time that I was on his side and on his team. The more time we spent together, the more he realized I was there for him.”
Jensen made a point to spend as much time as possible bonding with the gray.
“I think spending so much time with Jamaica and doing more than the normal care—spending time in his stall, currying him for an hour at a time, because he was difficult to groom initially, grazing him, riding him and letting him see the sights, letting him decompress—all contributed to gaining his trust,” he said.
• Jensen and Jamaica share breakfast every morning.
Jensen is more of an apple than oats kind of guy, and conveniently Jamaica is too.
“I always start the morning with an apple as my breakfast routine, so Jamaica and I usually share an apple in the morning together,” he said. “He likes the core, and I don’t, so it works out.”
• Occasionally, Jensen lets Clark ride “his” horse.
Jensen does most of the riding on Jamaica, but sometimes Clarks likes to have a turn.
“I ride in the morning for the most part, and I do all the morning care and that stuff,” he said cheekily, “but Missy likes riding him too, so sometimes I unfortunately have to share.”
• Jamaica loves Luke’s dog, Ernie.
Jamaica is still kind at heart even after going through a traumatic experience.
“He’s really funny with the dogs,” Jensen said. “I’ve got Ernie, who I take everywhere, and when I’m in the stall, Jamaica is particularly friendly with him and other animals. He’s so sweet with the animals.”
• Jamaica is a Cinderella story, who has blossomed under the care and attention he’s received.
In their year together, Jamaica and Jensen have been champion or reserve champion at some of the most prestigious horse shows in the country. Their list of accolades includes winning the WEF Equitation Championship (Florida), sharing the R.W. “Ronnie” Mutch Equitation Championship at Devon (Pennsylvania), reserve champion at the ASPCA Maclay Region 1 Championship (Massachusetts), reserve champion at the Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final—East (New Jersey), and most recently, topping Medal Finals in Harrisburg.
“He’s an amazing horse,” Jensen said. “He’s a horse of a lifetime for me. I age out after this year, so I won’t show in any equitation after this, so the Maclay Finals this week is our last equitation go around together. So with that said, it’ll be a very special week and bittersweet to see it all culminate at the end.”
Reflecting on Jensen’s season with Jamaica, who started 2022 as an unproven equitation horse, and the horse’s recovery from where he was just two years ago, Clark spoke for North Run:
“It’s such a great story and journey of those two together,” she said. “Luke took the time to get to know a very special horse coming out of a very difficult situation and be patient with him, and their partnership blossomed. It’s such a wonderful story.
“Situations like this are why you get up in the morning. The horsemanship and the appreciation for the horse and bringing out the best in something that someone didn’t want to take the time to see,” she said, adding, “One thing I know for sure is that Jamaica will have a home with us at North Run—for life.”