Brace Yourself for the Excitement of The Royal Hunt Cup

Royal Ascot is not all about glamour and the top grade one races. Thanks to the history of the meeting, the Royal Hunt Cup, although not the best quality race of the meeting is invariably one of the most unpredictable and most exciting races for horse race betting fans. Invariably, it is run on the second day of Royal Ascot. Although the premium Prince of Wales. Stakes tends to grab the headlines, the Royal Hunt Cup promises to be quite a spectacle. The race itself is a flat handicap race, run over a course of just one mile. Dating back to 1843, the Royal Hunt Cup was first won by a horse called Knight of the Thistle, with an incredible three horses tied for second place. In many ways, that encapsulates the traditional excitement of the race. The format of the course itself has varied over the years, but has remained in its current state since 1956. A measure of the race.s prestige, despite being a grade two race, is the fact that alongside the Gold Cup and the Queen.s Vase, it is one of only three races during Royal Ascot at which the winning trainer gets to keep the trophy.

Over the years, the race has witnessed some true legends of the sport triumph. The one and only Lester Piggott won the race on a record four occasions with Charles Wood having also achieved the feat towards the end of the nineteenth century. In more recent years, winning jockeys have included Frankie Dettori and John Murtagh, a veritable Royal Ascot legend. Last year, John Fahy rode the 16-1 shot Prince of Johanne to victory. If interested in this years betting odds . be sure to visit the Royal Ascot 2013 Betting page at William Hill.

However, the real beauty of the Royal Hunt Cup is the large and varied field that it attracts. There are usually around thirty entrants competing in the race, making for quite a spectacle. The sheer number of horses makes it difficult for those who want a bet on Royal Ascot to pick a winner. In the last decade, seven winners have had odds of 11-1 or higher, indicating the difficulty in predicting a result.

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.”

Ordinary Jump Poles Make Extraordinary Training Tools

by Gabriella Valsecchi

I’ve worked with cavalletti all my life, starting with hunters when I was a child. I had a very creative British instructor, Judy Whiting. She had us kids doing every kind of cavalletti and pole combination she could think of so her students and their mounts would be flexible when negotiating jump courses. It was great fun and our show results of numerous blues reflected its effectiveness.

With a little imagination, ordinary jump poles can be turned into super learning devices, showing the horse a new or non-habitual way of moving and becoming more elastic and gymnastic in workouts, which can make an extraordinary difference in their performance. When the horse (or the human) is doing something out of habit, they are generally not thinking. Take an example of driving the car; how many times are we driving down the road, only to awaken after driving a familiar route for 10 or 15 miles and wonder how we got there? If the horse or human can stay in present time and start to think anew about a situation instead of reacting, they start to get somewhere in changing a habit or a pattern. The ultimate goal, no matter what discipline, is a horse that is supple, correct in his given frame and balanced using his motor, the hindquarters. This horse is a pleasure to ride and happy with his work.

Work with ground poles or cavalletti enables the horse to override old patterns of behavior & movement and to learn with understanding. The results of ground pole work are obedience, self-control, focus, self-confidence, balance and coordination to name a few. The horse gains a greater awareness in his being as a result. Jumpers and trail horses benefit through increased hoof-eye coordination. They are effective for dressage horses, encouraging the horse to use his back, bend his joints and to collect and lengthen his gaits. Starting the work from the ground is important. It breaks up the horse’s old habitual patterns and gives them new things to think about. Leading the horse, the rider has an easier time slowing down the horse or asking him to drop his head and relax his topline. If a horse has been experiencing discomfort or offering resistance with a rider in his back, the ground work is particularly valuable. When the horse is taught from the ground, his body stays relaxed while learning patterns of movement and behavior that are desirable later as a riding horse. Everything you do on the ground, including leading the horse, is reflected in the performance under saddle.

I really like the basic ground work from the TTEAM method invented by Linda Tellington-Jones. Here are some ideas and exercises for you to try with your horse.

Be the leader
To facilitate the horse’s proper positioning through the poles, I use a six-foot lead with a 30 inch chain worn over the noseband (to encourage the head to come down so the horse can lengthen and relax his topline), and a stiff dressage whip four feet long, preferably white (they see it better). The whip is used to stroke the horse and gently guide him through the different grids. I use the butt end to stop the horse by gently tapping him on the chest. This action also helps him stop straight through the body and stay light on the lead. While leading the horse through the different combinations of poles, I stay out front of the horse, staying one step ahead of him and lifting my knees so the horse can mimic my actions. If the horse balks, I can touch him with the whip on the side or on top of the croup as a cue to bring him forward. Many horses are very tight in their polls and backs and when they drop their heads and lengthen their toplines they become more comfortable and forward naturally.

Any exercise I do with a horse is very simple at first, and increases with difficulty as the horse shows he understands it. For instance, if a horse is nervous about moving over poles, I might start him out by drawing a line in the dirt. It sounds silly, but I have worked with jumpers that were incapable of stepping over a line in the dirt much less a pole! Once over the panic and calm again, I can proceed to walking over a single pole; more elements can be added as the horse is more comfortable. After he is comfortable slowing down and stopping in the middle of the poles, I may back the horse over poles and through a maze. I work the horse 10-15 minutes over the poles with breaks between each obstacle to give the horse a chance to think about it. I light-heartedly call it my ‘walking meditation’ because it seems to have the same benefits of meditating or another movement discipline called Tai Chi. Every time I ride, I work with the poles a bit during warm up and cool down. During the week, I incorporate using the grids from the ground 1-3 times depending on the age and training of the horse.

The Labrynth
I use different configurations of poles set up in varying patterns to address a range of behavior or movement problems. The foremost is the labyrinth, a simple maze set on the ground with six poles. Four of the poles form a box with two openings diagonal to each other; the other the other two poles are laid inside the box parallel to each other. The benefits of leading a horse through the labyrinth include learning obedience and self-control, balance, focus and overcoming fear of poles. When I have a candidate who is afraid of poles or cannot bend, I spread them apart at first to make it less intimidating to the horse. By breaking the lessons into smaller pieces, the horse has a better chance of understanding what I want of him and being successful at it. I will the horse into the maze and have him stop at each corner and after each turn, it gives him time to breathe and think about it. He learns to control himself by not barging or falling forward. It has been noted in several different experiments using electro neurological equipment that the horse releases beta waves (the brains waves of thinking) while negotiating the turns of the maze. Variations of use include backing through, ground driving and riding through the maze.

The Star
Comprised of three to five poles arranged in a semi-circular fashion and raised at the hub, the star is an excellent tool to improve flexibility and balance while at the same time bending the horse. It can be used as a building block to make the canter more ridable or corners more balanced. Work through the star from the ground first, then ground drive or ride through. As a variation, have the horse stop in the middle briefly, then resume the walk as a test of his balance and patience.

One of the most beneficial exercises for horses to strengthen and free the shoulder, back and haunch are working over raised poles. I use four cavalletti raised 6-12 inches arranged at walk length (about 2 1/2 ft apart) or trot length (4 1/2 ft apart). Simply walk over these at first and you will notice a marvelous swimming motion the horse makes to get through the cavalletti. Several passes will relax and loosen the horse before strenuous exercise starts. After warm up, use the cavalletti as a strength and coordination builder at trot. A hint here, the horse who favors one posting or trot diagonal more than the other is a good candidate for cavalletti to even out the trot.

Pick up sticks
Just when the horse was getting used to poles placed linearly, we are going to mess it all up! I randomly place 4-6 poles on the ground haphazardly overlapping to teach the horse balance, focus and confidence. This configuration makes him think where he is going to put his feet in order to get through the poles. After a time or two through, I have the horse stop and stand in the midst of the sticks to teach him to wait and be patient. I have found this to be a good lesson when the inevitable problem of being stuck somehow comes up for the horse. They tend to panic less and listen to the handler more.

Poles raised at one end
Use this configuration by raising one side with a block, tire, bucket or bale, either alternating the raised ends or raising the poles on one side. Place the poles about four and a half feet apart to begin with. This exercise helps the horse to differentiate movement from right and left sides, is useful for horses who stumble as it helps to free up tight backs, shoulders and hips. You can ground drive or ride through as well.

Materials for grid set
Poles can be standard length jump poles which can be picked up new or second hand from stables moving or going out of business. Round fence poles also work quite well for all the obstacles except the labyrinth which works best with 10 - 12 foot poles as a matter of maneuverability around the corners.

I have a set of 10 foot 3 inch wide PVC poles I travel with to demonstrations. They are light to move around by comparison to the wood poles, stay ever white so the horses can see them and they travel well in the back of my suburban. Not having to paint the poles is a big plus as well. To stabilize the poles against rolling, I got some T joints which are removable. If this sounds like the right pole for you, make sure you buy the heavier duty schedule 40, as it will last longer in the sun.

PVC Bloc training sets are a lot of fun to work with, they adjust easily are light and you are only limited by your imagination. Wood blocks ’pared out’ also work for raising the ends of the poles, as do buckets, 55 gallon barrels and hay bales.
Negotiating poles and cavalletti give the young or green horse clear parameters for movement while staying relaxed.
I’ve noticed that knowledge picked from this segment of education carries over to other areas, such as loading your horse into a trailer. For the advanced horse the strengthening and suppling aspects combined with relaxation are tremendous benefits when grids are used as a cross training exercise.
Gabriella Valsecchi specializes in neuromuscular bodywork, focusing on soft tissue injuries and designing alternative training and healing programs for horses, dogs and cats. She helps enhance horse-owner partnerships through better education, training and health, and is available for seminars and private sessions. Call Gabriella at 805-686-1312, or e-mail to

Prince Charming: A Personal Look at David O'Connor

by Rita Juanita Mock

For equestrian sports, such as three-day eventing, to gain the mass following that, for example, football and movies enjoy, it needs more charismatic personalities like 2000 Olympic Individual Eventing Gold Medallist, David O’Connor.

Lord Badminton, as some of O’Connor’s younger students called him for a while, has a wonderful sense of humor, and his students enjoy spending time with him and consider him their friend. They use this nickname to suggest more than just his win at Badminton, England: It demonstrates his sense of humor and the congeniality he displays.

“They work hard and play hard,” said Shannon O’Malley, of Middleburg, Virg., who speaks very highly of the fun times she has spent training with the O’Connors at Sharpton Stables in Altoona, Fla.

When asked, “What has never been printed about you that you would like people to know?” David chuckled while contemplating the question. “That there are two very different sides [to me] … a very private side and the public side. I enjoy the public side and take it as a responsibility, but I’m a very quiet person on the private side.”

The personal side of David enjoys the wonderful cooking of his wife, Karen. She makes his favorite dish, bacon-and-cheese sandwiches, any time she wants to fix something really special, just for him. Ribs and chicken wings are a close second on his list of favorites.
Another part of his private side is an immense love for literature.

“I’m a voracious reader,” he confessed, when asked about his hobbies. David has books scattered about the house, and trunks full of books from England, which he has brought back with him from his global roaming to competitions, many of which he has not yet read.

He also enjoys scuba diving, snow skiing and golf. When the O’Connor Event Team heads south to Florida for a winter session with students, they all look forward to participating in the now-annual “TTO (Trailer Trash Open) Golf Tournament.” Conceived one night after a party on the Sharpton Stables grounds, the TTO was an instant success with these golf-loving riders. What distinguishes this tournament from all others is that there are no rules, and everyone is expected to cheat like crazy. The participants have enjoyed two of these golf tournaments now and look forward to more in the future.

During these training sessions in Florida, David and his students ride all day, training with many different horses; David has been known to ride as many as 19 horses in a single day! They school, rain or shine.

One day, when it was about 40 degrees and pouring down rain, David and Karen stayed out in the jump field until everyone had finished.

“By the end, the dynamic duo was sopping wet and more closely resembled drowned rats. However, needless to say, everyone got a jump lesson!” recalled Shannon O’Malley.

The group, which now trains in Ocala, Fla., at Lambholm South, grows each year, as David and Karen add more riders and horses to their team.

“With so many more students, one would expect to not get as much personal attention, but Karen and David are amazing at making sure everyone gets individual help,” reported O’Malley.

In addition to the training sessions in Florida, David conducts clinics at other locations across the country. He spends a lot of time around the horses he rides, and six to eight hours a day in the saddle, as well as being the manager of a farm for Jacqueline Mars, owner of several of the horses that he and his wife ride in competitions.

David and Karen spend such a large portion of their time with the horses strengthening their relationships with the animals, which is what David says is his favorite aspect of riding.

“Spending time, and being very clear about your communication,” said David, “is the best way to strengthen your bond. … Communication with the animal (is the best part) … to have a horse totally understand what you want to do.”

Much of the time, the O’Connors ride horses for others in the competitions and events they attend.

“We’re kind of like a NASCAR team,” David said, in that they are the “drivers” of other peoples’ horses. They own several competition horses of their own, and ride numerous others for sponsors, friends and students, currently riding and training at least 17 horses for competition.

David enjoys Western riding as well as English, though he’s never done any Western-style showing. During the summers in his teen years, he worked out of ranches in Laramie, Wyo. He just plain loves horses and riding! He started riding lessons at 7 or 8 years old, then, at 10, he joined a local pony club. At the age of 11, David, along with his older brother, Brian, and their mother, Sally, rode from Maryland to Oregon on horseback. David started “playing at” competing when he was 12.

Growing up with Sally O’Connor for a mother, David was exposed to horsemen of the highest caliber.

“My heroes were Bruce Davidson, Mike Plumb and the other Olympic riders from my childhood,” said David.

After going through the “astronaut stage,” as he calls it, he decided he wanted to go into veterinary medicine or music. Like any normal kid, he played football and baseball with his friends, and sang baritone in high school, as well. But at 16, he began competing in national equestrian events, and has been doing so ever since.

Horses have taken him all over the world in competitions. He’s traveled to Spain, Poland, Italy, Ireland, New Zealand, Korea, to name a few of the countries he’s been to, leading what he calls an “amazing life.” He’s gotten to meet people all over the world that share his passion, and has enjoyed it immensely.

“It might be easier to ask me where I haven’t gone,” he joked after listing several of the countries he has traveled to. “I haven’t gone to Africa or South America, but I’m looking to.”

While on the circuit, David met Karen Lende, and the two soon became friends. After a while, they began dating and eventually married. Now, seven years have passed since their marriage, and they still enjoy competing on the circuit together. They have competed side by side at two Olympic Games, and have carried home the Team Silver and Team Bronze medals, making history as a married couple. They enjoy competing together and look forward to more years of doing so.

“It’s great having somebody who understands what you’re going through,” said David.

Among David O’Connor’s achievements is a first-place finish at the 1997 Badminton competition in England, the 2000 Olympics Individual Eventing Gold Medal from Sydney, Australia, as well as the Bronze Team Medal from the same Games, and the Silver Team Medal from the 1996 Olympics.

In David’s opinion, the best part of competing in the Olympics is that “You’re a part of something that’s huge … the only thing the whole world believes in. … Representing your country is the biggest deal.”

He said, though, that is also the hardest part, and confided that, “You have a lot of people counting on you, directly. … (The) pressure not to screw up is pretty big.”

The thing he least likes about competing? “Probably that you are beating one person, and it can become the priority,” said David. “Competition is about a pursuit of excellence (not one person beating another).

“That’s the hard part,” he admitted, acknowledging the struggle that riders have, like the rest of the world, keeping their priorities straight.
Both David and Karen love riding and competing, and have been taught from an early age that they have a responsibility to give something back to the sport. They expect to be involved in eventing, in one way or another, the rest of their lives.

David expects to work in course design, teaching, training and organizing, and would love to run an event and coach international teams in the future. His short-term plans include doing a developing-rider clinic in Temecula, Calif., and possibly competing at the Galway Downs this November.

Recently, David attended the Red Hills Horse Trials in Tallahassee, Fla.

“It’s one of the top horse trials in the country,” he stated, complimenting the community for its backing of the event. He said that Red Hills’ best quality was that it gets the spectators and community to fully endorse the horse trials, as well as the sport, which, to him, is a vital component of equestrian sports.

Like many riders, he believes that the sport has a deficiency of spectators. Publicity, in his opinion, is what is needed to assist the sport in getting this much-needed attention and excitement.

When told that Olympic riders would be competing in Red Hills, Rachel Coate, a college student from Tallahassee, said, “They have horses in the Olympics?” This is only one example of the ignorance of, and lack of support for, the sport.

“Once you get someone there for the first time, they’re hooked,” David stated confidently. Many participants in this sport would like to see more effort put into reaching people like Rachel, who don’t know what a great thing they’re missing.

Although the number of spectators at such events is not as high as David and others would like, the fans that do come to the events are ecstatic. While getting the autograph of Phillip Dutton at a training demonstration, a teenage girl said, “You signed a poster for me last year. … It’s on my wall, right next to Leonardo DiCaprio!”

If David O’Connor is referred to as “Prince Charming” and “the Golden Boy,” and Phillip Dutton’s poster is worthy of hanging besides Leonardo’s, there may yet be hope that equestrian sports will develop the enthusiastic following that these riders desire. With the assistance of competitors, photographers, publications and the spectators that are already “hooked” on this exciting sport, equestrian activities have the potential of becoming as big as football or the movies. Look out, Hollywood!