The Mid-Atlantic’s Long Legacy Of Horsemanship

by | 05.22.2018 | 11:30am
Racing in the Virginia Gold Cup

Although Kentucky is known as the “Horse Capital of the World,” a quick trip east to Maryland or Virginia provides excellent reminders that it doesn't hold a monopoly on the title. In fact, you might say Kentucky wouldn't have gotten to be “Kentucky” without the particular brand of horsemen who got a start in the more gently rolling hills of the east.

Steeplechasing, point-to-point, pony racing, and foxhunting are all alive and well alongside hunter/jumpers and occasional eventers in the northwestern Virginia/Maryland corridors, and many of the best-known trainers, managers, and riders from the region have dabbled in other disciplines before or alongside their work in flat racing.

Though he's based in Pennsylvania, Jonathan Sheppard is arguably one of the most nationally-recognizable names with this crossover background, and up-and-comer Jonathan Thomas had a similar start, converting from steeplechase jockey to flat trainer.

Sheppard says he thinks his background in different horse sports has improved his ability to assess a horse as a whole. “It's almost second nature, rather than something you learn from someone else,” Sheppard said.

“I think if you've grown up with it, it gives you a little more in-depth perspective. It does give you an innate passion for the Thoroughbred.”

He also believes a broader view of a horse's abilities makes it easier for horsemen with this varied background to think forward to a second career.

Jonathan Sheppard

“I think if you've grown up with horses it's not just a business, it's not just a numbers game, you do have a little more concern,” he said. “I think it's easier because we have a wide range of contacts in other sports, rather than just a barn full of horses at Philadelphia Park.”

Sheppard mentioned to one of his employees a few years ago that he wished he had kept closer track on some of his former trainees who have gone on to excel in other disciplines. For Christmas that year, his employee presented him with an album filled with photos of former Sheppard horses on foxhunts and at shows – he thinks about 65 in all.

From the riding perspective, an all-around education can be beneficial, too. Although most widely known for her career in broadcasting, Charlsie Cantey had a similar upbringing, riding show horses, learning to gallop in Middleburg, Va., and moving up the racetrack hierarchy before working for Frank Whiteley and becoming a trainer herself.

“I think the biggest gift it gave to me was obviously you have to have a decent set of hands, and I think that's the one thing in the world that helped women make the break into racing,” Cantey said. “Everyone would say, 'Oh, girls can't hold all these big strong horses' and it really wasn't about strength. It was really about finesse. That was the great thing that enabled me to get along with some, let's say, unpopular horses.”

John Williams, Maryland native and former manager at Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, had an appreciation for the all-around horseman, too. Williams had grown up exercising horses and mucking stalls for a public stable and climbing on his neighbor's unruly pony when it proved too naughty for the little girl. He broke yearlings (and sometimes, he said, “they broke me”).

John Williams

Williams worked on the racetrack for trainer J.W. Sheffer (often taking the reins when Sheffer feigned a straw allergy and didn't come by the shedrow), and later Wilmont Haun, trainer for Edgar Lucas' Helmore Farm. Lucas hand-picked him to manage a new branch of Helmore although Williams thought at the time he was lacking in experience. He also wasn't sure what to do with sales horses, since Helmore almost never sold its homebreds, so he was out of his depth when asked to prep a yearling for auction in Kentucky.

“I had no idea [what to do], so I made him look how I would have wanted him to look,” said Williams. “I did all the things we did [with sport horses] – lunging, cavessons, all of that.”

The result was a horse so nice-looking, Williams started to get offers to work in Kentucky. When he identified the relative lack of experienced horsemen in the area, he called on the connections he had made syndicating stallions and breeding mares in the Mid-Atlantic.

Williams' honor roll of staff included Maryland imports Barry Ezrine (manager at Patchen Wilkes Farm), Bill Reightler (who now has his own sales/bloodstock company), and Rick Nichols (Shadwell vice president), among others. Williams, thanks to his tutelage under Haun, focused on the details – the proper way to pull a mane, to hang a water bucket (with the snaps facing in, to avoid an injury to the horse), to take a feed tub out of the stall after dinner. While he's quick to point out Maryland and Virginia-based people didn't have the monopoly on horsemanship, it was attention to detail he believed would help horses succeed.

“I was kind of surprised at seeing stallions squirted off in December and put in their stalls to drip dry. Broken fence and frozen ground and cracked heels – a whole lot of things I couldn't imagine. Raise a Native's paddock, the only thing holding the fence up was honeysuckle,” he remembered. “Pony Clubbers knew how to pick a horse's feet and they knew how important it was to do that. They didn't come out and get on an already-saddled pony, they had to do all kinds of things themselves. They knew how to feed him. They knew how to clean his stall and they cleaned his stall. They knew how to stand him up. They were already trained, same as on the racetrack. If you learn from a master, it becomes second nature to you. The things I learned from Bill Haun are still with me today.”

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