As Sonya Crampton softened her hip angle when Happy Boy left the ground at the first fence of the 2021 Platinum Performance USHJA 3’6″/3’9″ Green Hunter Incentive Championships, she felt her balance shift. With her rain-sodden saddle providing no grip, she briefly thought she might hit the soaked footing. As she rebalanced, Crampton couldn’t help but let out a laugh, remembering the last time she’d ridden in rain like this at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Nearly two decades ago, she’d dropped into the Head of the Lake aboard Smooth Sailing at the 2002 Rolex Kentucky CCI5*-L, which was infamous for the storm system that rolled in on cross-country day. The deluge caused scratches from top contenders, including overnight leader William Fox-Pitt; solidified Bruce Davidson’s reputation as the king of Kentucky with his legendary ride on Apparition through the worst of the conditions; and sent many lesser riders who attempted the course walking back to the barns discouraged.
“I did actually have that same experience here at Rolex where the only part of me in contact with the horse were my Aqua grip gloves, and they were holding onto the reins, and no other part of me was staying in the saddle,” Crampton recalled of her 2002 ride.
Last year in the ring, after her near miss with Happy Boy, Crampton knew a typical hunter ride might not be ideal in these circumstances.
“I went back to my equitation roots,” she said. “I put my heels down and sat up and really held my shoulder.”
Crampton will have another chance at the championship this year, as she once again is slated to compete Happy Boy in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Eventer With The Hunter Habit
Crampton, 51, grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, and participated in Pony Club with a focus on eventing. But with limited eventing opportunities in the area, she rode in the hunters and jumpers as well.
Crampton worked her way up to the advanced level and earned a spot in clinics with then-team coach Peter Gray for riders with team potential. Knowing Crampton hoped to compete at Rolex Kentucky, Gray invited her to Ocala, Florida, to train with him in the lead up to the event. With the help of her students, she and a fellow rider raised $40,000 Canadian to fund the trip, “which did not go very far with the exchange rate. It sounded like so much money.”
“Unfortunately my first Rolex, my horse got an abscess, and I was spun in the first jog, so I didn’t want to go home. I hadn’t accomplished this goal,” she said. “So many people had helped me put in all this effort. My students, their parents and other people in the community back there had helped me fundraise and had done car washes and activities with me. I felt like I couldn’t go home and let them down.”
Instead, Crampton found a job at a barn in Chicago and ran Fair Hill (Maryland) in the fall, before heading to Rolex a second time the following year. In a tense moment in the third vet box, she was held, but eventually finished the event. But by then Crampton didn’t want to go home.
“I didn’t want to go be the lead actress at the local theater; I’d rather be a chorus girl on Broadway,” she said.
To earn a living, Crampton leaned on the hunter/jumper experience from her youth, catch-riding and doing flat schools for people like Bobby Braswell, Christina Schlusemeyer and Sissy Wickes. For several years her barn was split between eventing and hunter/jumper clients. But when the Great Recession hit, Crampton found that while many of her eventing students cut back on discretionary expenses, her hunter/jumper clients continued their lessons.
“At that point the very generous people who had sponsored me privately on their horses at the top levels of eventing decided they couldn’t continue to do that with their worries of the future and their kids going to college,” she said. “And so I was sort of sitting there with some very talented horses in the barn and a barn full of hunter/jumper people, so I ended up just segueing into hunters and jumpers as my primary, instead of eventers as my primary.
“I didn’t think I was quitting eventing. I just thought, ‘Oh this was my focus for the moment, and the other will come back along,’ but somehow it didn’t,” she added. “But I meanwhile rode in some 1.45-1.50-meter grands prix and then got a ton of hunters. For a little while I was like queen of the baby green ring. And it just kept going from there.”
That switch in focus took place in 2009, and it wasn’t until she met Mexican eventer Pedro Gutierrez that she returned to her roots. More than a decade after she’d left, she rode two horses at novice at the Middleburg Horse Trials (Virginia) in 2020.
“The biggest challenge has actually been going fast enough, because I’m now a little bit of a turtle after riding in the hunters,” she joked.
Now Crampton splits her time evenly between eventing and the horse show world, and earlier this month she returned to the intermediate level with Bonmahon Flash, an Irish Sport Horse gelding she and Gutierrez own, at River Glen (Tennessee).
“In the end, it’s all good riding,” she said. “There’s some different styles, but it’s feeling your horse’s balance and rhythm and straightness and just adapting to the different requirement of that discipline. Definitely I have to say riding dressage again has helped my core strength immeasurably, because I’d gotten a little sloppy in hunter riding.
“I feel like riding in the hunters has hugely benefited me as a rider overall, and when I go show jumping or cross-country I am so much smoother than I was before,” she added. “So there are good things on both sides, and I also think my dressage and flatwork from eventing benefits the jumpers and the hunters, and then riding cross-country is super helpful. I highly advocate for people to do all of it.”
The Horse Who Returned
Gutierrez imported Happy Boy, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Sheraton—Didentic), to be an event horse. But “Happy” proved too quiet and careful, so he sold him as a hunter to amateur rider Carson Clark. When they heard he was for sale again at the end of 2020, Gutierrez and Crampton went to try him.
“Pedro said, ‘You know, I always liked that horse, but he wasn’t a horse for me,’ so we went to check him out, because now we have a reason to have hunters again, because I really wanted to come and do the incentive, and I would like to do the derby here,” Crampton said. “He said I think that horse might be able to do that for you.”
This year, Happy has competed in two international hunter derbies at HITS Ocala (Florida) and has gone cross-country schooling a few times to prepare him for the more natural elements that sometimes can be found in derbies.
“It’s really neat to see how much he’s matured since last year,” she said. “His body is way stronger, and his topline is much stronger. He’s able to have more power but be a little slower, and that’s showcased his scopiness and technique.
“I’m so glad I’ve had this time to build a partnership with Happy,” she added. “I think the incentive has really helped that because we’ve had goals.”
The Platinum Performance USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship is running Aug. 16-18 at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The Chronicle is on-site bringing you gorgeous photos, great interviews and behind-the-scenes stories. Make sure to follow along at www.coth.com, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can read all of our coverage of the Platinum Performance USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championships and International Hunter Derby Championships here.
We will have a full analysis of the competition in the Sept. 5 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse magazine.