Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

North Cliff’s Journey To The Children’s Hunters Became A Family Affair

Emma Brown learns to ride her mother’s Thoroughbred and reaps the rewards at the USEF Zone 2 Hunter Finals.

The first time trainer Nancy Maillet saw North Cliff in action, she thought he had the perfect, cadenced canter for a show hunter—as he crossed the finish line at the Meadowlands Racetrack (N.J.).

“He was running his own race,” said Maillet with a laugh. “He was way behind.”

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Emma Brown learns to ride her mother’s Thoroughbred and reaps the rewards at the USEF Zone 2 Hunter Finals.

The first time trainer Nancy Maillet saw North Cliff in action, she thought he had the perfect, cadenced canter for a show hunter—as he crossed the finish line at the Meadowlands Racetrack (N.J.).

“He was running his own race,” said Maillet with a laugh. “He was way behind.”

She’d noticed him in the track stable two years earlier, when he was just 2, and was attracted to his low head carriage, the shoulder set low into his withers and his nice, relaxed walk. She’d told trainer Pat McBurney to let her know if he was ever available, and two years later, the time came, and the 4-year-old registered with the Jockey Club as Nice Try came to her farm in Morristown, N.J.

Maillet’s niece, Melissa Monti, began to show “Mario,” who took quickly and quietly to his new job. At about the same time, 10-year-old Emma Brown was learning to ride at Maillet’s Crewe Hill Stables. Aboard a small pony, she learned how to count strides and get her changes.

Meanwhile, Emma’s mother, Erika, had been bitten by the bug after watching countless hours of her daughter’s lessons. When she started looking for a dependable mount for herself, Maillet thought of Mario.

“He was young and green, and I’m just starting, but I got on, and he felt so safe,” said Erika. “We just clicked.”

Mario’s job description was about to change, however, when it became evident that Emma had outgrown her small pony. A long search for just the right large mount wasn’t yielding the perfect match, so Maillet thought of Nice Try, now renamed North Cliff. Erika was more than willing to share her horse in order to keep Emma showing.

At first, however, Emma wasn’t so thrilled.

“Originally, I started riding Mario as a filler while we were looking for a pony, but then we decided to stop looking,” said Emma, now 13 and an eighth-grader in Chatham, N.J. “I was disappointed at first. I didn’t like riding him because he was my mom’s horse. I felt like he was more of a hand-me-down until I realized how special he was.”

And that didn’t take long.

“Everyone started going ‘wow’ when Emma started jumping him. He was no longer just that plain bay,” said Erika. “He was sort of a diamond in the rough. I don’t think any of us knew quite what he was.

“Nancy has a great eye about finding the right horse for the right rider,” she added. “She’s really picky. She always says, fancy is as fancy does.”

Mario, now 8 years old and just 15.1 hands, proved how special he is at the 2008 USEF Zone 2 Hunter Finals in Harrisburg, Pa., where Emma finished as the reserve champion in the children’s hunters in one of the biggest shows of her career.

A Big Transition

“I started out on Thoroughbreds in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and I’ve always had a fondness for a small Thoroughbred with a big stride,” said Maillet, who enjoys putting the time in with a green horse. “They’re smart and eager to learn and make jumping easy for kids to learn.”

Maillet thought Mario would be the perfect horse for Emma.

“I felt, for the money, he would be better than a large pony, who she would probably only get a year out of,” said Maillet. “It was a little tough in the beginning. Not too many kids have to go from a small pony to a small horse. But I thought in the long run she’d be much happier and was hoping she’d love Mario.”

At first, Emma had to adjust to his long stride.

“The jumps looked huge to her coming off a small pony at 2′,” said Maillet. “But he’s easy to balance, easy to manage and can easily do the lines.”

In the early days of their partnership, Emma sometimes didn’t know the right pace for her new mount.

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“[Mario] likes a light leg and hand, which was hard for Emma initially to get, but she figured it out, and she’s a pro at it now,” said Maillet. “She persevered and practiced a lot, rode a lot of horses. She has a good work ethic and is a natural athlete; she bends well in the air, follows the horse if he jumps a little long.”

“Having to ride Mario was frustrating at first,” recalled Emma. “His jump is bigger [than my pony’s], and he’s more forward, and I get tossed out of the saddle. I was always having to worry about a million things at once—having him forward but not too forward, staying in the tack and steering around the course.

“He likes things done his way. At the beginning we’d disagree on a distance. I’d go long and be ahead of the motion. With [my pony], the distance would just come up. Then we started agreeing. I started seeing it his way.”

Maillet knew it was all coming together last spring in Ocala (Fla.), when Emma won some children’s classes on the prestigious HITS circuit.

Emma’s Horsemanship Lessons

•    Emma said she grooms her own horse and takes care of her own tack.

•    She knows how to put on polo and shipping wraps.

•    She knows not to leave her horse on crossties for more than 20 minutes.

•    “You always put your horse over yourself,” said Emma. “You take the tack off and put it away before you take care of yourself.”

•    She knows how to tell if her horse is colicking.

•    “A lot of dedication is involved,” said Emma. “I’m not going to go to a party if I have to ride before a show.”

“He’s still a Thoroughbred, and you’ve got to be quiet on him and give subtle aids,” said Erika. “I watched [Emma] be frustrated. Then in her first class, in her first show with him, she got a blue ribbon, and I think she realized what he was about. She had to decide he was not just Mom’s hand-me-down. She had to stick with it, and learning and trusting Nancy through the process makes it that much sweeter looking back.”

Hanging In There

In addition to her natural ability, Emma loved the horses, said Maillet. “When I first met her she was 8, and her pony took a certain kind of rider,” Maillet said. “She was fearless.”

Emma proved she was willing to put up with personality quirks: Her pony wouldn’t let a rider use a mounting block, but Emma adapted to please him.

“I love, love, love horses,” said Emma. “I do it more for them than myself.”

Learning to ride Mario taught Emma another level of patience, said Maillet.

“A lot of kids like instant gratification, but she had to work at it, do her homework,” said Maillet. “It was good for her. She’s tenacious and didn’t have trouble hanging in there and following though. Some shows were rough, but she was never going to give up.”

Erika also appreciated that Maillet teaches her students to prioritize their horses’ welfare: “We weren’t sure if we were going to qualify [for the Zone 2 Finals] because Nancy had us pull back on the show schedule. She said it’s not fair to Mario [to show too much]. I love that she has to be so aware of taking care of something else and what his needs are. She’s developing self confidence at such a young age.”

When it came time for the finals, Emma may have had her nerves under control, but Erika couldn’t watch ringside.

“I watched the live feed in the hallway,” she said. “I knew how much work went into the whole year, and I just wanted it to be a good experience.”

Mario turned out to be one of few horses that didn’t even peek as he went about his business in Harrisburg. “He didn’t bat an eyelash,” said Erika. “He stuck his nose out and didn’t look at a thing.”

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Emma picked up a wrong lead on her first course but nailed every distance and ended up second in that class, even though she’d had no expectations of placing.

A Few Small Quirks

•    Only one trainer in the barn can clip Mario; all of the grooms gave up.

•    Mario has to be tricked into earplugs, and it takes three people to get them in.

•    When bathing or grooming Mario, “when he’s decided he’s had enough, he’s had enough,” said Erika Brown. “Everything has to be on his terms.”

“It turned out the rest of the horses were leaving strides out and refusing,” recalled Emma. “In the second course I thought we had a chance, and he was second again. I just wanted to get around and not fall off. I’d never shown in a big indoor, and I kept telling myself it was for fun.”

In the flat class the pair finished sixth.

“He’s not quite as nice a mover as some of the horses we show against, but he’s one of the best jumpers,” said Emma. “He has really consistent form. We’re working on being more consistent, getting it right the first time and keeping it right.”

This year, Emma hopes to do well at more of the bigger shows, including the Hampton Classic (N.Y.) and Capital Challenge (Md.). Her long-term goals include competing in the big equitation classes and someday doing the jumpers.

A Family Bond

The Browns’ experience with Mario has changed the way that they approach horses. “We’ve bought another young one with Emma in mind, and it’s more fun for me because I still get to hack them,” said Erika.

“There aren’t many things in this day and age that mothers and teenagers get to do together,” said Maillet. “It’s a nice story, and it shows that Thoroughbreds are still really useful horses. A lot of people stay away from small horses, but I find them easy to train and not as expensive.”

Although Emma may outgrow Mario at some point, Erika expects that they would look to lease him rather than ever part with him.

Otherwise Known As…

“Mario” was registered with The Jockey Club as Nice Try, but when he came to Nancy Maillet’s barn, his name was changed to Windmere, which, according to Erika Brown, was the name of an air-conditioner. The Browns changed his name to North Cliff after the place in Virginia where he was bred.

“He’s like a legend in the barn,” she said. “I don’t know that either one of us could let him go.”

Emma added, “He’s definitely my best friend. He’s always been there for me. If I’m in the ring, he will always have my back and save my butt every time. He’s definitely a sweetheart, and I can’t imagine not having him. Mario taught me everything I know—how to actually ride a horse, find a distance, how to ride and not be a passenger.”

“I think it’s helped her appreciate things rather than having it handed to her with a made pony or horse,” said Erika. “In our society, there’s a lot of barns where you’d get a push-button horse. If we’d gone with the large pony or seasoned horse route, those would have been easier for her, but she’s learned so much more. If there’s one thing horses can teach you, it’s that the easy road is not always the best.

“This is a sport with a lot of people who have a lot, and you have to be careful that the right life lessons are learned from this,” added Erika.

But even more than any sense of values that her daughter may be learning, Erika appreciates the bond that she’s been able to form with her teenage daughter. 

“To share something I’m so passionate about with my daughter, who is 13 but still talks to me and depends on me—it’s been neat, because I know a lot of my friends don’t have that with their daughters. Having a common passion has been fun.” 

Beth Rasin

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