When Nick Haness was 8, he had a miniature horse barn in his room. Each of the stalls was labeled with the name of its occupant, and he had a tiny whiteboard where he wrote down their schedules. “I basically had a makeshift training program with 100 Breyer horses and saddles and little riders,” he said. “It feels like that was yesterday, and being able to blink my eyes and fast forward to now, I’m just beyond blown away with what horses have done for my life, where I’ve been able to go, and what I’ve been able to accomplish.”
Those accomplishments in 2022 included winning the $25,000 USHJA WCHR Professional Final (Maryland), the grand championship at the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) on Only Always for Balmoral, the $100,000 WCHR West Coast Hunter Spectacular (California) on Lindsay Maxwell’s HH Elmo and the $65,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby Southwest Regional Championship (California) on HH Elmo. Haness crisscrossed the country, earning awards on a variety of horses, both green and made, catch-rides and regular partners, prompting the Chronicle to name him our hunter person of the year.
Hitting The Road
Haness and the California-based Hunterbrook Farms team made a big change in 2022 by spending much of the year away from their home show circuit. That decision was cemented after the EHV-1 outbreak cut the winter circuit short in California.
“It was a blessing to have no horse shows to go to in California so I would be forced to spend time in California with the farm,” he said. “Furthermore the horses enjoyed the break. They spent time being turned out and having some mental rest and health, a lot of trail riding and staying in a light fitness program at home. We had just imported some new horses as well, so it was a good time to stay home and just kind of get caught up on things. Our life is a whirlwind sometimes; we travel a lot for horse shows and live out of our suitcases. It was a great opportunity for us to just take a minute and regroup and get a plan going. That was what sparked our interest in traveling to the East Coast.”
In the late spring Haness headed to Devon to win big with Only Always—his only mount at the show—returning to California for a month before going east with several truckloads of horses to compete at shows in Traverse City, Michigan; Lexington, Kentucky; Tryon, North Carolina; and Middleburg, Virginia, before the fall indoor circuit.
“It was a hard decision,” said Haness. “California is our home and obviously has a lot of amazing horse shows and venues. It was nothing against those places. It’s just something that was on my mind for a long time that I wanted to be able to leave for a while and try new venues, see new jumps and new places and have a little refresher.”
It was a big change for homebody Haness, who drives from Thermal, California, to his farm in Temecula, California, every Sunday night during the winter circuit so he can sleep in his own bed for one night and visit the 75 petting zoo animals that live at his farm. And it was especially tricky when Haness was remodeling his farm, putting in new stalls, arenas and barns in 2022. But the results paid off in the show ring and outside of it, as he earned plenty of accolades in new environments and wa sable to show off his sale horses to a new market.
“I’m very fortunate to have a program now that allows me to make a group decision for my entire barn, and everyone is on board to go,” said Haness.“In years past it was always a struggle to even go to [Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Kentucky)], because I had other commitments with students competing in equitation finals in California.”
Many of Haness’ accomplishments in 2022 came thanks to working with trainer Tom Wright, who Haness first got to know alongside Laura Karet of Glade Run Farms in September of 2021. That’s when Wright and Karet flew to Temecula to try—and eventually buy—a young hunter named Circa. Thanks to the friendship that blossomed after that experience, Karet lent Haness Queen Celeste for the 2022 $100,000 USHJA WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular (Florida), where he finished fifth.
Then Wright and Karet reunited Haness with Circa just before the Platinum Performance 3’/3’3″ Green Hunter Incentive Championship (Kentucky), where Circa won the first round of competition, and the pair went on to win the grand 3′ and 3’3″ green hunter championship at Capital Challenge (Maryland). Wright also gave Haness a leg up onto Only Always, a horse his clients John and Stephanie Ingram had purchased from Balmoral. They won the green conformation title at Capital Challenge and won a pair of classes at Pennsylvania National. He catch rode horses less familiar to him for Wright as well, including Glade Run Farm’s Trust, who claimed tricolors at Middleburg Classic (Virginia) and Capital Challenge.
Wright works with a handful of professional riders through his Uphill Farm, and he said Haness has a special talent in the saddle.“I feel like he’s come back [east] again this time so well rounded and so focused on his career and so focused on doing the right job for each horse he rides,” said Wright. “It’s interesting to watch how particular he is at figuring out each horse and changing his ride to suit the horse, versus a rider that wants a horse to change to suit their type of ride.
“We’ve been able to make some special things happen in a short period of time, and we work really well together with good, open communication,” he added. “He will totally change his ride if I want to see him ride the horse a little differently than what his instincts tell him.”
Finding His Path
Growing up one of five boys in a non-horsey family in Orange County, California, Haness had the moral support of his parents along his chosen path, even if they weren’t sure where it led. As a teenager Haness served as a working student, catch riding regularly, and he started a business buying and reselling horses when was 16.
That year his mother, Shawna Haness-Dakides, managed to buy a very special horse for her son from a friend at a discount. It was the nicest horse Haness had ever ridden, and after two competitions someone approached him about buying the horse.
“My mom said, ‘This is your life; this is your path and your decision, and I know how much it means to you. If you want to sell this horse, you will probably never have a horse that nice again, but if you sell you can keep the profit and start your own business and go to Europe and continue to do this at that level,’ ” said Haness. “That was so gracious of her. She helped me set up my LLC and get my business at that stage going and really put all the marbles in my basket. She had confidence in me, and I felt responsible for making her feel proud and do it right and be successful.”
In 2006, his last junior year, he made several trips to Europe to buy horses for resale, and he won the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final—West (California). He also made his first trip east for the fall indoor circuit, where he finished fourth at ASPCA Maclay Final and 10th at the Washington International Horse Show Equitation Final.
“I knew when I was 18 and after finals were done, where I’d had a lot of success and fun, that [going pro] was just my path, so I turned pro right away and went to work,” said Haness. “I got an idea of how it works. A lot of junior riders are confused at that stage. It’s not just about riding horses; it’s a lot more that goes into it than that. I worked for someone for 2½ years, decided it was not for me, and I wanted to have my own business. So I made it my goal. I went to Las Vegas to turn 21, and when I returned Monday morning, I opened my barn.”
Haness focused on clients like Conor Perrin, who was 10th at ASPCA Maclay Finals in 2011. He also stayed busy catch riding for trainers like Archie Cox, whom he’s worked with for 15 years. Through Cox, Haness scored a big finish early in his career when he earned second aboard Jessica Singer’s Cruise in the 2011 $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix Final (New York), and they also partner together on Maxwell’s string of mounts.
Cox said that Haness’ work ethic drives him to continually improve.
“Nick is passionate. He is very accurate, and most importantly he’s very comfortable in any arena at the horse show,” said Cox. “He’s really proven that this year. He’s really a student of the sport. He loves the horses, and he works extremely hard. To stay at the top of this sport takes a lot of work. He puts it in whether it’s traveling, looking at horses, showing horses or giving lessons, he puts in the time.”
After years putting customers first, in 2022 Haness changed his plan.
“This is the first time it’s been about me or my goals and my career, so it feels deserved,” he said. “When I earn these things, I know I put in the time and the yearsand the patience that goes into this. I feel very fulfilled, and that it’s something I’ve tried to earn for myself, and it feels really good to get there.”
Next for Haness? Look for him spending more time over striped rails. Over the summer he topped the $20,000 1.35-meter National Prix at Split Rock Hunter Jumper Classic I (Kentucky) on Maxwell’s Gerko III Van DeZeilhoek, a horse he first sat on a few days before. He also earned good ribbons in the 7-year-old ring with Fair Play, a horse he imported from Colombia. Now he’s hoping to spend even more time on the other side of the showgrounds.
“Whenever I would ride a jumper or a grand prix horse and I would win a class, people thought I was a hunter person and thought, ‘Well, if he can win on that horse, anyone could.’ They would buy them, and I wouldn’t have a chance to keep them. It was fun, and I was grateful for those times. I’ve always really dreamed and wanted to visualize becoming a top jumper rider as well,” he said.
“I had always told myself, ‘I want to win WCHR Pro Hunter Finals, and once I do that I really want to focus more on the grand prix,’ ” he added. “I didn’t think that would come together as quickly as it did. I was sort of giving myself a 10- or 15-year timeframe on that.”