Thursday, Apr. 18, 2024

P. Wynn Norman Can Breed Any Kind Of Pony

The breeder of Theodore O’Connor has always known exactly what she wanted to produce.

Try to peg P. Wynn Norman as a certain type of horseman, and you won’t get far. She’s bred a national pony hunter champion but doesn’t consider herself a pony hunter breeder. She’s bred a four-star eventer with international medals but doesn’t consider herself a breeder of event horses.

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The breeder of Theodore O’Connor has always known exactly what she wanted to produce.

Try to peg P. Wynn Norman as a certain type of horseman, and you won’t get far. She’s bred a national pony hunter champion but doesn’t consider herself a pony hunter breeder. She’s bred a four-star eventer with international medals but doesn’t consider herself a breeder of event horses.

Norman has always thought of herself as a trainer more than a breeder. After all, she’d paid her way through college at Cornell University (N.Y.), her master’s degree at New York Tech and her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan by training horses. And, while breaking 2-year-olds for the track near Millbrook, N.Y., she came across an exceptional stallion.

The 16.2-hand Thoroughbred had fractured his leg, healed, and then fractured it a second time. He was being prepared to return to racing again when Norman heard about him.

“He had such an incredible presence and was quite well built,” she said. “He had a huge stride and way of going and an incredible attitude toward life.”

That stallion, registered with the Jockey Club as Witty Boy (Anticipating—Miss Witty, Very Witty) but renamed Theodore by Norman, became Norman’s through a six-person partnership. “One of us had a farm where he stayed; I managed and trained him; another one took photos; another was an MBA and marketed him,” said Norman.

But when that partnership faded, Norman leased the stallion to Sue Hines, who bred him to top mares for the show ring. “Several of his offspring won major titles in hand in Michigan,” recalled Norman. “There are a number of his offspring who are hunters, equitation horses and jumpers out there.”

Some of those include I Don’t Know, the 2000 AHSA/Pfizer national small/medium green pony hunter champion under trainer Linda Evans, breeding division winners Exclusive Wit and Here’s To Your Wit, and Sweet Liberty, Out Of Character and Lexus, all of whom have shown on the A-rated circuit.

Originally, at her farm in Sharon Springs, N.Y., Norman planned to breed quality show hunter horses herself.
“But then I looked at the economics of it,” she said. “And I read studies that strongly indicate that the size of the mare dictates size of the foal. And it is far less expensive to breed ponies. I already had a stallion who was a successful hunter type—beautiful lines, great legs and feet. I had two mares I’d purchased, and my goal was to breed hunter ponies. That’s what there was a market for.”

But Norman’s skills were in dressage, and her love was eventing.

“I started to think, as the babies went under saddle, that the value added I could apply was to develop them as eventing ponies. I like them to go as hunters before they go as jumpers and jumpers before they event. So I figured I could put a foundation on them and widen the market for them.”

For the past decade, Norman, 45, has called her business Sportponies Unlimited and caters to all markets for ponies. “I still don’t specialize,” she said.

Making Her Way

Norman, now based in Ocala, Fla., said she’s been making headway with her ponies not just because of their accomplishments in the ring but from buyers recognizing her as a trainer and realizing that she knows what she’s describing in a pony.

“A lot of breeders don’t talk the language,” she said. “Breeders need to understand what trainers need. I’ve learned that through trial and error.”

Norman said her average price was once $7,500, but she now sells more ponies for $15,000 to $20,000 and more as 2- and 3-year-olds. “They walk, trot, canter and have that auto swap,” she said. “They can pop around a course by the time they’re 3, and the trainers seem to like that.”

Norman freely admitted that she’s not in the league of the best hunter breeders, although she has established a relationship with Fox Ridge Farm, of Salem, N.J., and breeds to their Land’s End The Colonel’s Fox.

A pony named Karacter helped put Norman on the map in the mid-1990s, shown by Evan Coluccio to the WEF Tournament of Champions (Fla.) small pony reserve title. She has another small pony, out of her foundation mare Chelsea, also the dam of Karacter, and she believes Yet Another Karacter will be just as talented.

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She’s working on developing that talent with trainer and agent Debby Gibson, of Foxflower Farm in Ocala, Fla.

“[Norman] pulled an adorable pony off the trailer, and I said, ‘That looks like Karacter,’ ” recalled Gibson. “She said it’s his half-brother.”

Gibson’s daughter, Jaime, had ridden Karacter at the 1997 AHSA/Miller’s National Pony Finals, when she was 9 years old.

“It looks just like Karacter except a little bigger,” said Gibson. “For a 4-year-old, he’s so well-mannered and well-broke. She has nice ponies, and they have great groundwork and are a pleasure to deal with. I’d like to have one of them in every size. He’s brave, he goes to the jump, he does his changes and has an amazing mind.

“These ponies are broken correctly and have the right basics,” she added. “If you wanted one to go on and do three-days, they could do that, or if you want to do the hunters, they have the quality to do that.”

Like Gibson, Christan Trainor, who competed Theodore O’Connor to the advanced level before Karen O’Connor took over the reins, believes that Norman provides the ponies with a foundation that gives them an edge in their careers.

“She does a good job teaching them to figure out how to use themselves before anyone even gets on their backs,” said Trainor. “She does a lot of free jumping. Teddy hardly ever got himself in wrong, but he didn’t stress about it when he did. And I would attribute Teddy’s quiet boldness to her basic work starting out and the temperament she bred into him. He was always easy to ride to the jumps, quiet and adjustable.”

Gibson said Norman is on to something with her policy of diversifying her pony types. “From an economic point of view, it’s maybe not a bad idea,” Gibson said. “If one doesn’t jump in perfect form, it gives it another arena to be a star in. It would fit any number of perspective buyers. Wynn doesn’t limit herself to the hunter world.”

Gibson said she works well with Norman since they are both honest with each other about the ponies. “It’s sort of weird to run into someone as honest as her,” said Gibson. “She doesn’t have false expectations of the ponies. She’s very realistic. She trusts me enough to know I’m going to tell her like it is. And she thinks of her ponies first, probably even before herself.”

Gibson believes Yet Another Karacter could be the top small green in the country next year. “We just need to find the right kid to ride him,” she said. “These are all nice, quality ponies with good substance. I can’t say enough good things about them.”

Her Most Famous Pony

Despite her ponies’ accomplishments in the hunter ring, Norman is best known as the breeder and part owner of the hugely popular Theodore O’Connor (by Theodore). O’Connor rode “Teddy” to two gold medals at the 2007 Pan American Games and top-10 Rolex Kentucky finishes in 2007 and 2008.

“There have been a number of Theodore babies who did well, but Teddy brought it to a whole different level,” Norman said. “It gives me legitimacy, although I was also building that with others, I think.”

Norman always hoped to breed a horse who would be an Olympic contender. She almost achieved that with Teddy, who was short-listed for the Olympic Games before a stable accident took his life in May of 2008.

“I have a decent eye for a horse but have not always had the money to take a horse [to the top],” she said. “I had a horse who could have gone all the way in the jumpers, but I didn’t have the money to move him along. I was always trying to breed a horse for the Olympics long before Teddy’s talent was recognized. I never bred for the middle market—I always bred for the top. I kept the mares who had that edge, and I won’t deny that I had that ambition.”

Now, said Norman, she intends to prove that Teddy wasn’t a freak. His full sister, Louisianna Catahoula, competed with O’Connor at beginner novice this fall, and Norman said she has Teddy’s jump, although she is much smaller than him.

Norman also has high hopes for a foal she’s bred out of Chelsea’s Melody (dam of Theodore O’Connor), by Miner’s Lamp, the sire of Olympic bronze medalist Miner’s Frolic. For 2009, Chelsea’s Melody is in foal to Fleetwater Opposition, sire of Summersong, who competed for France in the Olympic Games, World Championships and European Championships.

“Hopefully they’ll establish that that bravery and jump is there, and they’ll start bringing better prices,” said Norman.

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In her quest to find another upper-level prospect, Trainor now has Theodore al Coda, a talented 3-year-old full sibling to Teddy and a stallion pony.

“I thought [Teddy] was exceptional and one of a kind, but as I’ve known other ponies she’s bred, I believe so much in her program that I purchased Teddy’s full brother,” she said. “He has the same movement and jump, and it’s not a fluke that she bred him. Like any breeding program, I don’t think every one is going to be a four-star horse, but I never would have bought his brother if I didn’t believe he’d be the same way. He looks like a carbon copy, and he makes the horse distances easily.”

Of course, Trainor won’t know for years whether her pony’s accomplishments will rival those of Teddy.

“He has all the physical ability to do it, and he has the same look in his eye,” she said. “Wynn knew that about him. Last November [Wynn] and I were talking about how the world thinks Teddy was a fluke, but she knew from Day 1, and she’s been breeding for it. She said [Theodore al Coda] is going to be the next one to show the world that Teddy was not a fluke. But it took Teddy for people to believe it could be done.”

Part Of The Plan

Even at the height of Teddy’s publicity—when you couldn’t see an equestrian publication that didn’t feature him on the cover—Trainor said Norman never lost her focus on the next generation.

“She’s a private person, and she keeps her emotions and life to herself,” she said. “As excited as she was about Teddy and his successes, she puts equal amounts of energy into his siblings. She was smart enough to know that there are others, and if they are in the right hands, they will be special.

“Wynn’s focus was on the babies and the next ones coming up, not on how Teddy was doing,” added Trainor. “She never changed [after Teddy’s fame]. If anything it made her more resolute to show everyone. She was always offended when someone called him a freak of nature. She’d been working to produce that for a while.”

Trainor said she has great respect for Norman’s vision, which started decades ago.

“I don’t know many people who’d base a breeding program on an Arabian-Shetland mare and a Thoroughbred she bought off the track,” said Trainor. “It takes a lot of guts, and she had a lot of faith in the stallion. She knows her breeding history well enough to know that stallion had produced quite a bit of sport horse results in all different realms.”

And Trainor appreciates Norman’s production of smaller mounts.

“I’m little, and I don’t want to ride a giant horse. More people have been calling me looking in the 15- to 15.1-hand range,” she said. “[Norman] had the guts to not go with the fad but to do the best for the sport and horses—they’re sound and have stamina. I wanted an upper-level event horse who is small and charismatic and makes the distances easily without pulling.”

In hindsight, after decades of breeding, Norman does have one thing she believes she might have improved upon: “If I’d had the opportunity, I would have hooked up with a top trainer more consistently, and I would have had more confidence in my judgment,” she said. “I have my own way of training. I don’t force the lead changes early if it’s not natural, and I don’t set the head. I’d rather spend time with a rider I can develop my way, so I can stand behind the training. It doesn’t do a breeder any good to produce a bad pony.

“I’m sure other breeders have had similar ambitions, but you can’t do it alone,” she added. “The trainers are the ones who are going to make it possible. You can breed the best talent in the world, but it’s not going anywhere without a trainer.”

After all, the training is Norman’s favorite part.

“I like developing the offspring,” she said. “I like knowing them so well—you know the dam and the granddam and the sister—you recognize the babies so well. You can say that one is going to be a hunter or eventer or has the auto swap. That sort of thing is so much fun.”

But perhaps her greatest strength, said Trainor, was her vision. “She laid a lot on the line to keep Teddy going, especially in the early years before anyone believed it was possible. She was smart enough to see it and not let anyone dissuade her. She knew what she wanted, and she didn’t care what anyone else thought. She produces fabulous horses, but if the world doesn’t embrace it, it’s not the end of the world for her, because she knows she’s
producing quality.” 

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