Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024

Doug Hannum Keeps Horses And Humans Happy

He’s one of the U.S. Equestrian Team’s unsung heroes.

In a barn full of mostly young women caring for the equine athletes at any given international championship, a 59-year-old, handlebar-mustachioed man might look a bit out of place to an outsider.

He’s not a rider, an owner, a groom or a U.S. Equestrian Federation official, and he takes pains to retreat from the limelight associated with the Olympic Games and other team competitions.

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He’s one of the U.S. Equestrian Team’s unsung heroes.

In a barn full of mostly young women caring for the equine athletes at any given international championship, a 59-year-old, handlebar-mustachioed man might look a bit out of place to an outsider.

He’s not a rider, an owner, a groom or a U.S. Equestrian Federation official, and he takes pains to retreat from the limelight associated with the Olympic Games and other team competitions.

But spend even a little time within the high performance community, and you’ll hear the name Doug Hannum dropped everywhere like an equine status symbol.

A lifelong horseman, equine therapist and barn manager extraordinaire, he’s been an integral, if seemingly invisible, component of the U.S. teams for four decades.

Hannum grew up near Unionville, Pa., (he’s not related to the area’s well-known foxhunting and racing Hannum family, but matriarch Nancy Penn-Smith Hannum has always fondly referred to him as “a cousin”), riding steeplechase horses and later hunters and jumpers.

“But I always was interested in leg work and the care of the horse,” Hannum said. “Tendons and suspensories and all that just fascinated me. I thought, ‘If I can do something to help these great athletes, that’s what I want to do with my life.’ ”

In the 1960s, he got his proverbial “big break” when a horse he groomed, Ilion, was named to the team with rider Frank Chapot. Hannum traveled with the horse all over the country, from the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden (N.Y.) to the Washington International (D.C.), where he won the President’s Cup. Hannum then moved on to working at European shows and eventually the Olympic Games.

Soon, Hannum found himself not just grooming, but also forging new territory in the horse-care field. When competition drug rules began to formulate in the 1970s, he was training horses for one of the leaders of the movement, Mrs. William A. Hewitt, at her Friendship Farms in Illinois.

“When I went to work for her, she said, ‘By the way, if a horse is to be injected, I’m to be standing right there when it happens,’ ” Hannum recalled. “Basically, she didn’t believe in the use of all these pharmaceuticals, so I had to dig around and figure out ways to care for the horses differently.”

That’s when he forged a relationship with Respond Systems Inc., in Connecticut, which today manufactures non-invasive laser systems and magnetic products. As his equine therapy knowledge expanded over the next quarter-century, Hannum helped design and test everything from hydrotherapy tanks to magnetic wraps and blankets, and he traveled up and down the East Coast teaching clinics on holistic and homeopathic therapies and promoting acupuncture and chiropractic work.

“He’s always been a leader in bringing up the innovations,” said USEF President David O’Connor, who also rode on two Olympic teams overseen by Hannum. “He’s been at the head of all of that, bringing it to all of us and educating us, and that’s been beneficial to the well-being of our horses.”

Last year, Hannum’s one-of-a-kind mind clicked again as the U.S. team was preparing for the oppressively hot and humid conditions in Hong Kong, China, before the Olympic Games.

“We were always worried about the cooling down of the horses, and one evening I was just sitting around, and all of a sudden it dawned on me,” he recalled. “I could make a machine that could be set up in the middle of a field and have it pump water out into something that wouldn’t spook the horses, but make them relax and drop their heart rates.”

With the help of the MacKinnon Ice Horse Company, Hannum’s “Cross-Country Cooldown Machine” was born.

“We came up with this simple idea, and I have to say, it’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever been involved in,” Hannum said. “It’s very peaceful. It’s two scraper wands with water coming out, which is pumped by a 12-volt battery. You’re not throwing ice or dumping buckets on the horse—you put the water on and take the water right off. It drops their temperatures dramatically, because their heart rates drop.”

The contraption worked wonders in Hong Kong, but Hannum doesn’t consider it a lucrative scheme. Instead, he donates the proceeds from any sales toward equine pulmonary research.

Finding His Niche

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Hannum lives permanently on the road, traveling almost every day of the year between farms and competitions

There’s No Task Too Small

Doug Hannum’s renowned skills as a therapist keep him in high demand as a professional, but ask anyone who knows him well, and they’ll tell you it’s his unassuming personality and unflagging work ethic that inspire the loyalty of his clients and friends.

Since he first started working with the U.S. Equestrian Team in the 1960s, he’s always gone miles beyond his call of duty as a groom, therapist and barn manager, and his selfless example hasn’t altered with age.

“Jim [Wolf, the USEF executive director of sport programs] will call Doug ‘his roustabout,’ ” said Sara Ike, who serves as the USEF managing director of eventing. “If you need a trunk moved, or you need feed bags brought in, or if somebody’s forgotten their credentials, Doug’s running back to the stables. He doesn’t turn his nose up and say, ‘Oh no, I’m not that schmuck anymore. Send some other young, strapping person to do it.’ He’s honored to do it.”

“There is no question, no job is beneath Doug Hannum,” echoed rider Karen O’Connor. “And he takes it on as a privilege. He really is part of the infrastructure of the U.S. eventing team. We count on him.”
Anyone else in Hannum’s integral role might have grown comfortably complacent years ago, but he’s continually in awe of the people he works with. And his modesty seems to prevent him from realizing that the feeling is mutual.

“Each Games that I go to, it just gets better and better,” he said. “When you’re involved with horses like that and people like that, there are moments in your life that you’ll never, ever forget. Working with everyone—Jim and Sara and
[veterinarian] Brendan Furlong and [farrier] Steve Teichman—it’s just been incredible. When you’re with those kind of people, you’d better be learning something! But we all work together as a team. We’re probably one of the greatest pit crews in the world.”

across the country with his three business associates,“energy worker” Corky Panarisi, “saddle doctor” Gary Severson, and Hannum’s protégé, Grant Showalter. Together, they make up Four Star Equine Therapy.

Hannum’s 23-year-old daughter, Molly, also a therapist, represents her father in Fair Hill, Md.

Hannum said he “likes to keep a low profile,” but admitted he likely attends more competitions across the country than anyone else on the U.S. eventing scene. He may seem to blend in to the background, but to the riders who rely on him, Hannum is a celebrated presence and a revered character.

“He’s very much behind the scenes, and yet at the same time he’s confident enough in what he does to be able to walk up to a competitor and say, ‘You know, I’ve watched your horse go, and I’d love to talk to you about it because I think I can help him,’ ” said rider Karen O’Connor. “He wants all of the horses to have a good competition—not just the ones who are his clients.

“This ain’t his first rodeo,” Karen added, laughing. “He knows how to be soft around a horse, and he knows when a horse is needing the help he can offer. You don’t have to be an Olympic rider to be a fabulous horseman, and Doug Hannum is a fantastic horseman.”

Hannum’s finely honed senses also prove you don’t have to be a classically trained medical professional to be of service to a horse.

“Everything is totally self-taught,” he said. “I’ve worked with great horsemen all my life, and it’s all been an education all the way. It’s a great privilege to work with veterinarians like Brendan Furlong, Rick Mitchell and Tim Ober, and with Mary Bromley, who’s one of the greatest therapists in the world. When you grow up in this business, it’s the people that you’re involved with that you must listen to. Keep your mouth shut and your ears and eyes open, and you’ll learn.”

A True Team Player

In addition to his services as a therapist, Hannum is the U.S. stable manager for all three Olympic disciplines at international championships as well. His work with the USEF began long before Sara Ike, the current managing director of eventing, joined the discipline’s team three years ago, but she’s already come to value Hannum’s presence at major competitions.

On their return trip from Brazil after the 2007 Pan American Games, Ike recalled that the USEF crew had to wait in a massive airport line with the other U.S. Olympic Committee athletes, many of whom were wearing their medals around their necks. Though they’d swept the eventing competition, the slightly sheepish U.S. riders, including Karen O’Connor, Phillip Dutton and Gina Miles, had left their medals in their backpacks.

“But Doug said, ‘Hey, come on Phillip, come on Gina, come on Karen. Be proud. Put your medals on,’ ” Ike said. “It took Doug’s prodding, but they dug into their backpacks and pulled them out and wore them proudly.”

“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Karen added. “He’s always so pro-USA and so game. He’s always trying to facilitate the riders’ wishes and put the whole package together so we have every opportunity of doing the best we can.”

Hannum not only supports the current teams, but also keeps an eye out for the riders coming up the ranks who’ll comprise them in the future. His 20-year-old client Tiana Coudray is one of them. She first met Hannum at an Area VI young rider camp prior to the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships four years
ago.

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“I think it really is his passion to seek out these people and help them along their way,” said Coudray. “He’s been so generous to the young rider program, and it’s been a huge benefit to those of us who have dreams of [being on a team].”

Coudray competed at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** when she was just 19, and has since trained a horse from bottom up to the three-star level herself. Hannum’s work on her horses and his personal guidance have been essential elements in her advancement.

“He’s taught me so many ways to help my horses through a three-day event,” she said. “He’s just got the biggest bag of tricks to keep the horses feeling well and get them through within those strict [Fédération Equestre Internationale] rules, which really limit the ways you can care for your horses.”

Since Hannum refers to himself as “not a financially wealthy person,” he prefers to give back to the younger generations in other ways—donating his therapy work, giving away products and facilitating sponsorships.

But his educational guidance is the most valuable gift in the long term.

“I have a group of kids right now that are just phenomenal, and I want to help them as much as I can,” Hannum said. “I want them to be able to help their horses even when I’m not around. But they can also call me on the telephone wherever I’m in the world, and I’ll get them the info they need and tell them how to do it.”

In Service To The Horse

In Max Corcoran’s eight years as head groom of the O’Connor Event Team, she’s come to anticipate Hannum’s beaming, excited smile each time the U.S. team arrives at their destination after an arduous journey.

Each big team trip is inevitably the first time for someone, and newcomers often begin the journey with glamorous fantasies of foreign parties and fun, carefree times.

“But Doug is always the voice of reason that says, ‘Girls, this is not how we do it here,’ ” Corcoran explained. “He reminds the newer generations that we’re here representing the United States, and we’re here for a serious reason. And yes, there’s time for fun, but we’ve got to get our jobs done first.”

Once they’ve fully grasped the gravity of their new roles on the team’s support staff, grooms like Corcoran find they can learn a lot from Hannum’s energetic example and firm insistence on the highest horse care standards.

“A lot of times we’re in a weird country, and we’re a little bit worried and nervous about asking for things, but Doug demands exactly what it is that’s needed for those horses,” Corcoran said. “Whatever it is, he’ll keep looking for it and keep trying for it to make sure there’s no stone left unturned. He’s taught me never to compromise anything for my horse, to make sure he’s the best on that day.”

While the horses are his top priority, Hannum is just as protective of the human members of his team. Having started out as a groom in his teenage years, he now has a soft spot for those in the same vocation.

“To me, the grooms are the backbone of our industry, and I’ve never been around such a great group as the one we have now,” he said. “I know how hard they work and how many hours they put in in a day, so they’re the people I really look out for.”

That paternal instinct kicked in when he discovered that the grooms at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had nothing but ice-cold water in their grooms’ quarters showers. Seeing this as unacceptable, he fashioned a makeshift shower for them in the barn’s wash rack.

“He and David went off and ran the errands, strung us up a couple of shower curtains in the corner and, low and behold, we had showers,” Corcoran recalled. “After 48 hours of no showering, that was one of the best showers we’d ever had!

Hannum’s modest lifestyle is a testament to the priorities he’s set, and it’s clear that his own needs rank far below those of the equines and equestrians in his care. He’s signed on to manage the barn for all of the U.S. teams at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky next summer, so he’s not likely to slow down anytime soon.

“The horses deserve it,” he said simply. “If I can be there to help them and look into their eyes and see what they need, I’ll work 24 hours a day, and I’ll enjoy life tremendously.” 

Kat Netzler

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