Most spectators at the Rolex FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas, Nev., probably won’t have heard of Jill Humphrey. One of the newest faces on the USA West Coast League, Humphrey had never competed above 3’6″ before teaming up with Rudy Leone, but in the three years she’s been working for Leone Equestrians Inc., in Sacramento, Calif., she’s taken the sport by storm, in a classic fairytale story.
Humphrey competed in her first grand prix in the summer of 2005, and by the end of that year, she’d earned the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association Rookie of the Year title. “When [that title] was in sight, we decided to do a few World Cup qualifiers, and I managed to place in both of those,” said a modest Humphrey, who rode Riva 49 in those classes.
“Being rookie of the year is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; you can only go for that one time, and I didn’t even start the year looking for it,” she said. “For that goal to be in sight, and then to accomplish it was really neat.”
Riva 49 sold, but Humphrey continued in the grand prix ring in 2006, doing her first class in May on Kaskaya. The 12-year-old, Holsteiner mare then won the $50,000 Los Angeles Grand Prix in September of 2006, Humphrey’s first grand prix win.
“It’s a little unheard of for a first grand prix win to be in a World Cup class,” said Humphrey, 24, with a laugh. “I hadn’t won a regular grand prix or jumped a clear first round in southern California. I was ecstatic about that itself—that I made it to the jump-off. All I did was jump clean in the jump-off; I didn’t go fast. We won just because we jumped double clear. It felt great, so exciting.”
The pair also won the $50,000 EMO Grand Prix on the 2007 HITS Thermal (Calif.) circuit. In December of 2006, Humphrey acquired another top grand prix mount in Felix 380, an 11-year-old, German import. “He seems to have as much scope [as Kaskaya] and is just as talented,” said Leone. “In the last three grand prix classes, Felix has finished better than Kaskaya.”
Felix, owned by Equistar LLC, had been competing in Europe in the 1.50-meter classes with an amateur, and when Leone imported him, he planned to sell him as a good amateur horse. “He’s turned out to be a lot more than that,” said Leone. “He’s been a good guy all his life.”
Kaskaya, who will be Humphrey’s main mount in Las Vegas, also wasn’t necessarily intended to be an international horse. Leone imported the horse for his now ex-wife, Andrea Hill Leone, to give her more experience.
“She had a reputation as not being the most careful horse, but she would always jump the jumps,” said Leone, who purchased her from a girl in the Czech Republic. “She started getting more careful than anyone expected, and we were offered tons of money for her.”
When Leone’s wife parted ways with him, he allowed her to keep the ride on the horse, although he chose not to coach her any longer. “In her next class [Kaskaya] crashed and had a suspensory injury,” he said.
Kaskaya was then laid up for more than a year before Humphrey took over the ride. “And from the time she and Jill stepped into the ring together, you know the rest of the story,” he said. “It was a big step up for the horse, too, because even three and four years ago, the grand prix classes were easier here. Los Angeles, The Oaks, Del Mar—those are definitely huge courses. She came out of almost 11⁄2 years of rehab, and now she’s going to the World Cup.”
But Leone is used to fairytale stories—he arrived in San Francisco from Switzerland in 1974 with $50 in his pocket, and he now runs a top sales and training business, importing approximately 100 horses a year to his 100-acre farm.
“What’s made me successful in the business is recognizing a diamond in the rough, and that goes with horses as well as riders,” said Leone. “What makes one horse so much better than another, and what makes one rider so much better? Jill has an incredible amount of feel and doesn’t try to force issues. She tries to find a kind way to deal with a potential problem.”
A True Calling
Humphrey grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., where she caught the horse bug as a 7-year-old, at a friend’s birthday party. “They had pony rides, and I spent most of the day on the pony, riding around and around,” she said with a laugh. “I started taking lessons and just couldn’t stop.”
As a junior, she took care of her own horses, meeting trainer Alison Sherred at shows and competing mostly in the hunters and equitation. She earned year-end awards in the children’s hunters, a championship at the Capital Challenge (Md.), and qualified for all of the major medal finals.
“After my junior career, I focused on my education and did less showing, although I was still riding,” she said.
She spent two years at a junior college in Bakersfield before attending the University of California at Davis. She graduated in 2004 with a major in communications and minor in animal science, and it was in Davis that she met Leone, whose facility lies within half an hour of the school.
“I helped hack horses and took lessons, and then when I graduated in December of 2004, I came into Leone Equestrian full-time,” she said.
Humphrey rode as an amateur for her first year and earned the rookie of the year title as an amateur before turning pro in 2006 and teaching lessons. She now rides eight to 10 horses a day and teaches 15 to 20 lessons a week.
“I’d done very little in the jumper ring before I came to Rudy’s,” she said. “It was a huge step up the first year at Indio, when I started at level 7. Everything looked so big, but it was just a blast. I got so much exposure on different horses.
“I love it here,” she added. “There are all different opportunities. I can ride really amazing, well-broke horses and young ones. There’s a variety of bringing the young ones along and teaching—it’s a job that never gets boring.”
Humphrey’s younger sister, Jan Humphrey, also lives on the ranch and is trying to qualify for the 2007 North American Junior and Young Riders Championships.
As for the future, Jill has no plans. “Everything is happening so fast, I don’t know what the next step is,” she said. “I’ll just keep riding and doing my best.”
While Leone has the utmost respect for Humphrey’s abilities, even he was amazed that they will be making the trip to Las Vegas this year. “I’m incredibly surprised myself,” he said. “Even though she has all this talent, I thought, ‘She doesn’t weigh enough or have enough strength.’ But I guess I was wrong—it doesn’t take a lot of muscle. She’s a hard worker and is 100 percent dedicated to this sport.
“She’s an extremely good listener,” he added. “You explain something, and she says, ‘I get it, let me try.’ Still, we all know this is a Cinderella story.”
When Humphrey started doing the World Cup classes, Leone knew Kaskaya had the scope but wasn’t sure if Humphrey was ready for it. “We went in for her to learn,” he said. “I told her, ‘It’s OK if you have four or five down; everyone has to learn. But the most she ever had down was two rails. After Los Angeles, all of a sudden we were in the standings and had to chase points.”
“I’ve always just, up to this point, done World Cup classes for practice, trying to complete the course and with as few faults as possible,” Humphrey said.
“The goal [of qualifying for the World Cup] came into sight but wasn’t something I would have aimed for at the beginning. This is still practice for me; I’m so new to it.”
On the HITS Desert Circuit in Thermal, Leone said Humphrey competed in 24 grand prix rounds with his horses, placing 20 times, usually in the top five. He’d seen a hint of that consistency at Pebble Beach (Calif.) the summer before, when Humphrey rode four horses in three grand prix classes, and 11 of those 12 rounds were clear.
“That’s when you’ve got to think to yourself that that’s not ordinary,” Leone said. “That’s something no other rider had done in 30 years of riding for me.”
Both Leone and Humphrey have complete faith in Kaskaya and her ability to handle the biggest challenge of her career in Vegas. “The bigger they build the course, the better it will be for me,” said Leone. “It’s going to be a very small ring, and we don’t know how that will be until we do it. We all know the Thomas & Mack Center is very tough—you’ll have a square oxer off a three-stride turn. How well we do it remains to be seen.”
“Kaskaya has as much potential to handle this kind of competition as I could ever hope for,” agreed Humphrey. “She has tons of scope, a great mind, and she’s a real trier. I couldn’t ask for more from her. I love her to death, and she tries really hard for me.”
And as Humphrey enters the international arena for the first time, she isn’t worried about her own state of mind. “I’ve had no experience at that level of competition, but I don’t think my nerves will get to me,” she said. “I tend to show better under more pressure, and I have all the confidence in my horse.”
In fact, Humphrey has never even seen a World Cup Final before. When it’s been held in Las Vegas in the past, the date has conflicted with the Kern County Fair Horse Show (Calif.).
“I’m just going to try my best. If I get through the course, that’s one achievement, and if I can do it with as
few faults, that’s another achievement,” she said. “I’ll try my best and see where that gets me.”
Fortunately, Leone sees it the same way. “I’m very conservative,” he said. “I’m just totally excited that she qualified and actually gets to go. If she ends up dead last, I’ll be happy with that. I’ll be totally excited if she’s in the top 25, and if she gets to Sunday, that’s more than I could ever expect. But I went into this whole thing with that attitude, and she’s proven me wrong.”