K.J. Pearson Makes Magic Behind The Scenes At Hunt Tosh Inc.

Mar 14, 2022 - 7:59 AM

Hunt Tosh has proven repeatedly that he knows how to produce a winning round under the brightest lights and in the biggest classes in the country. But the USEF 2021 National Equestrian of the Year isn’t shy about sharing credit for those victories with key players behind the scenes, chief among them Karie Jane “K.J.” Pearson.

On the heels of his win in the 2021 Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Kentucky) aboard the Wheeler Family’s Cannon Creek, Tosh was candid about his decision to have Pearson prep “Cannon” for the big class rather than do it himself.

“She had ridden him the morning that he showed in the performance class, and he went well,” Tosh recalled. “So I rode him early that morning for Derby Finals, and [he] needed to get out one more time, and I just told her to do it, because she had ridden him to get him ready before, so I really didn’t want to change our routine.”

Cannon is a horse that wants to win, and Pearson matches that drive, Tosh said.

“She wants to win as much as we do,” he said. “She puts as much effort into it. So that’s what I said at Derby Finals; she definitely wholeheartedly wanted to win as much as we did.”

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K.J. Pearson, left, holds Twain as he inspects the ribbon he won at the Platinum Performance USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championships in August 2021, with Maddie Tosh, center, and Jennifer Glass. Kimberly Loushin Photo

Tosh has kept his 2021 momentum rolling right into 2022, coming away from the recent World Championship Hunter Rider week at HITS Ocala (Florida) with multiple wins: champion in the 3’3″ and 3’6″ greens as well as the 3’6″ performance hunters, champion and reserve in the high performance, and third in the USHJA International hunter Derby.

Each morning, Pearson was up at as early as 3 a.m., longeing horses and getting a feel for their mood that day.

“She is one of the first ones there in the morning, and honestly, she is probably the last one to leave at night,” Tosh said.

Dedicated From Day 1

Pearson, 21, started riding at a young age under the watchful eye of her stepmom Lindsay Pearson at their family farm in Tallahassee, Florida. In elementary school K.J. started riding with Karen Smith. Smith saw a spark in K.J. from the first day.

“She never cared if she had to stay there three hours later cleaning,” Smith said. “It was just part of being around the horses. That was her priority: just be around them at all times.

“Her parents were working; they had other children, and she was the only one who wanted to ride,” she continued. “It was tough, but she rode everything she could get her hands on and rode the best she could. You know, she wasn’t handed anything. So I give her a lot of a credit for sticking with it and knowing what she wanted.”

K.J. got her first working student job at Cavallo Farms with Amy Center and Janet Cawley.

“I worked there for years. They really got me into the business, and that’s how I realized this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she said.

K.J. spent her junior career in all three rings with her own horse, Enamored, and got some additional show miles on sales horses.

“I would show whatever I could in any class to be able to horse show,” she said.

The highlight of her own riding career, K.J. said, was watching “Ellie” turn into a three-ring horse.

“When I bought her, she wasn’t your big equitation horse; she was your children’s jumper,” she said. “But getting to make her what I wanted her to be and being a part of every step, that was super rewarding for me.”

After graduating high school, Pearson worked for Caroline Searcy, then Bobby Braswell at Terrapin Hill Farm in Ocala, Florida.

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K.J. Pearson shares a quiet moment with Ceil Wheeler’s Autograph, who Hunt Tosh recently rode to the high performance hunter championship at HITS Ocala (Fla). Photo Courtesy Of K.J. Pearson

Focusing Outside The Ring

“[Braswell] made me realize I wanted to take the next step,” K.J. said. “He taught me all aspects of riding, whether it was getting horses ready to go in the ring, interacting with the clients or the sales. He made me realize I wanted to do more, and I wanted to get everything out of the sport that I could possibly get. So he actually helped me find Hunt and helped me get to the next step of where I wanted to be.”

K.J. stepped away from the show ring after she started working for Braswell.

“I really love prepping horses,” she said. “For me, getting them ready to go into the ring and succeed as athletes with another rider is even more rewarding than showing yourself.”

But she always planned to get back to her own riding career, and she showed for the first time in two years at HITS Ocala in February aboard Catherine Wheeler’s Carolina Blue in the low/USHJA 3′ hunters.

“He was great,” she said, “I’d only ridden him once prior to showing. Eventually, I would like to have my own group of horses, but I’m happy with the progress we’re making here.”

That progress happens within a schedule of work and school that leaves little room for sleep. During her interview with the Chronicle, she’d just changed out of her soaking wet clothes from a day in the rain. It was 6:30 p.m., and she’d been on a horse since 5 a.m. She had an hour before she went back for night check.

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K.J. Pearson and Maddie Tosh celebrate one of Cannon Creek’s many blue ribbons. Photo Courtesy Of K.J. Pearson

She’s a full-time online student at Central Florida University pursuing an associate’s degree in science and does school work until around midnight.

K.J.’s passion for developing horses fuels her through the long days.

“Watching them grow up all year long, and then taking them to a horse show like Kentucky where you have finals and [are] asking them harder questions, and watching them step up to the plate, and answer all the questions you throw at them—that is the highlight of my career,” she said.

She remembers riding Cannon a few times and watching him in his first derby.

“You just kind of know: This horse wants it. He is going to be something special,” she said. “And then when they prove to you that they are what you thought they were, that’s a really good feeling.”

Knowing Every Horse

And she’s a part of every horse’s journey out of the ring, too. Everything else that comes before and after a win, she does: wrapping, pulling out braids, making grain.

“I just love to spend time with every single horse,” she said. “I want to spend as much time with these horses as I can every day. Even if it’s five extra minutes just so I can wrap the horse myself, I’ll do it.”

It’s a skill Smith remembers seeing in her as a young child: “She could walk through the barn and know what kind of mood they’re in, because she knew them. And she was a little kid.”

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K.J. Pearson and Maddie Tosh share a hug after learning Hunt and Cannon Creek won the classic round Aug. 20, 2021, during the Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships in Lexington, Ky. Photo Courtesy Of K.J. Pearson

“I know them pretty well in every aspect,” K.J. said. “So I can pretty much look at any of our horses and say they’re ready to go in the ring. You watch them longe, and you’re like, ‘That’s enough.’ Or you’re riding, and you say, ‘10 more minutes,’ or, ‘Let’s look at this corner one more time.’ I’m really fortunate enough to be able to work with these guys every single day. So for me, whether it’s Derby Finals or just riding them at home, I know what it takes to get them ready to go in the ring.”

K.J. plans to stay with Tosh for the foreseeable future, and he hopes she will, too. “We obviously hope she’s part of our team forever,” he said.

But Tosh predicts a bright career for his assistant. “She’s brilliant at what she does, and she is truly passionate about it,” he said. “Anyone who works as hard as she does and cares about what she does, she can go in any direction in the business she wants.”

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