French Appeal in the Super Bowl for Hunter Riders

by Diana DeRosa

“Horses like John French,” remarked Jack Towell of Camden, S.C., one of five judges who scored French as the 2000 Chronicle of the Horse Professional World Championship Hunter Rider on Oct. 6. French finished with a high-point total of 360.80. The championship was sponsored by Carol and Gordon Stillwell, of Stillwell Hansen, Inc., was presented by the American Hunter Jumper Foundation and hosted during the Capital Challenge Horse Show at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, Md.

French, born and raised in Maryland, now resides in Redwood City, Calif. It had been two years since he had come east to compete at this show. His horse, Keltic, owned by Kathy and Alex Mendez, was First Year Green Champion and the recipient of the Rox Dene Award, presented to the Overall High Scoring WCHR Horse of the Year. However, it wasn’t Keltic he rode, as the finals require the four riders to compete on four different horses they’ve never ridden before. Each rider takes a turn jumping each of the four horses over similar courses.
The four riders who had qualified after a year-long selection process included the 1998 and 1999 defending champion, Scott Stewart (New Jersey), Holly Hays (Connecticut), winner of the 1997 and 1999 National Horse Show WCHR Hunter Classic Challenge, Kelly Farmer (Illinois) and French. While Stewart, Hays and French had competed in this championship before, this was Farmer’s first time. When the riders were finished, it was French who took it all.

“Some riders had little things go wrong,” explained French. “I didn’t have any problems.”

Philip DeVita, of Apopka, Fla., who was judging the class, said, “The horses went the smoothest for him. He is a non-interfering rider. He doesn’t force anything on them.” Further, Towell asserted, “He’s invisible.”

The class started out with every rider putting in a fairly consistent round the first time out, until Hays entered on her first mount. After an obviously difficult ride, with her horse spooking around the course, the judges opted to use the replacement mount. Hays came back and put in a brilliant round, scoring in the low 90s, which, at the time, French thought would surely put her in the lead. However, Hays had problems with her second mount when she overrode a line and got too close to one of the jumps. The mistake earned her a score of 72, which lost her valuable points that were hard for her to make up despite three other good scores.

Both Stewart and Kelly were fairly consistent, but lower scores than French’s on the same horses made the difference. French felt that a factor in his victory was “just being relaxed, because the horses can sense it. The more relaxed you are, the better they go.”
Before French entered the ring, he gave himself four things to focus on, besides staying really relaxed. To begin with, he reminded himself that this was supposed to be fun. Second, he told himself to breathe around the entire course. His third objective was to look up over the jumps and to think about his position. Finally, his goal was, “Don’t doubt yourself. If you worry about the distance, you get too nervous. If you think about something else, the distance comes up.”

In hunters, the horses are judged on form over the fences, and when they jump from a comfortable distance, their form is best. So, as the riders go around the course, their goal is to bring their horse to the optimal distance for each fence. In fact, Hays’ one major distance mistake may have been what lost her the championship, while the fact that French had no major mistakes won it for him.

French knows what it is like to make a mistake and lose it all.

“Four years ago, I was leading up until the fourth round,” he explained. Going into the final round, French’s horse spooked at the first jump, and he ended up last. So, this victory was extra special.

“This is an award that really goes to the rider,” explained French, who felt that he was the inspiration behind the class. Ten years ago, when a few riders were sitting around talking, he suggested having a show where the riders switched horses.

Having the AHJF make his idea a reality “is great for the hunter industry,” he commented. “I am really grateful that they have done this for the riders.”

Michele Perla, AHJF executive director, agrees: “It’s put the professionals on a level playing field. It strips away the owners and the horses, and asks for the riders to show what they can do. It separates the experienced hunter riders from the green ones, and it is interesting to watch how the different horses reacted to the different riders.”

Kavar Kerr, AHJF president, added, “I think it gives the public a chance to see how talented these riders are. It’s also exciting to see them perform under a different format, because this is the only hunter class for the hunter rider.”

The AHJF was founded in 1992 by Louise Serio (current AHJF vice president), Geoff Teall and Kavar Kerr. Initially, it had 400 members and four designated member shows in each of five regions. Today, the AHJF has 1,000 members and 40-plus designated shows in eight regions. The organization was created for the purpose of rewarding the hunter riders, who are often overlooked when compared to the highly paid and heavily sponsored show jumpers. Beyond the awards program, the AHJF also has a retirement plan and scholarships. It also works toward educating spectators and encourages grassroots organizations. The AHJF is a nonprofit, member- and sponsor-supported organization.

French’s professional championship honors were part of an overall awards program, which included junior, amateur and pony hunter riders. In order to qualify, a rider’s top four WCHR shows count toward awards, and then these riders compete directly against one another at the Capital Challenge.

In the Professional Division, the riders are narrowed down to the top four, who then ride off for the annual title. Similar to a world championship, the riders compete over a 3-foot, 6-inch course on each of the four horses provided by the show. The five judges score using the open numerical system. The rider with the highest cumulative total is the winner.

This was the ninth year that the AHJF has hosted this award. French not only received the trophy, but also a Tad Coffin Performance Saddle, as well as a sponsorship from Chronicle of the Horse, which designates money to be used specifically to ensure coverage of both the championship and of French as its winner. In this regard, Press Link, a New York-based public relations firm that specializes in equine clients, has been hired to spread the word on both French and the AHJF.

Kerr felt French was a very deserving winner: “He rode beautifully in what is truly the Super Bowl for the hunter riders.”