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Juli Hutchings

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Oldie but Goodie: In Praise of the Aging Packer

Juli Hutchings lives in Fair Hill, Maryland, on her farm, Appleton Equestrian. She has ridden to the FEI levels of dressage and eventing and denotes much of her success to her horses. She brought us this touching tribute to a special horse named Fling last week. You can find her best-selling novel, A Horse to Remember, online or in book stores.

Fling awaiting the award ceremony at the 2008 CCI2* at Jersey Fresh. Photo by Anna Davidson. Fling awaiting the award ceremony at the 2008 CCI2* at Jersey Fresh. Photo by Anna Davidson.

In terms of horse shopping, the well known phrase “oldie but goodie” is a rarity. I find that most trainers, riders and horse enthusiasts would agree the most common attributes shoppers are on the look out for are “young, safe and sound.”

In terms of my students, I often hear they don’t want to look at horses over the age of 9. They want something to compete, but it has to be young and within their price range. With this budget most are left with off-track Thoroughbreds, six to 12 months off the track with little to no show miles.

I applaud the OTTB organizations that have given new life to thousands of homeless thoroughbreds. However, the hype has led some young and green riders who are still in the learning phases to buy an OTTB they aren’t always ready for.

A student of mine was recently in a similar situation. She was leasing the horses in my eventing program at Appleton Equestrian in Fair Hill, Maryland, and gearing up to compete them in her first recognized Novice. She came upon the funds to buy a horse of her own and wanted to keep the upward slope of advancing her riding.

With her budget, the OTTB was all she was pulling up to go see, and most had yet to compete. We found some promising ones, and she went to see a couple on her own, but I didn’t get the feeling it was what she needed in a horse.

After watching her work so hard to get herself to the Novice level, I had hoped that her new horse would continue to further her training. After a discussion in the tack room one night (our “Come to Jesus” as I saw it), she said she realized that it would be a lot more work than she wanted. She agreed what she needed to find was a packer, and for us, age was not going to be a factor.

buddy

Buddy showing young rider Milla Kleyman around a schooling course. Photo by Suzannah Cornue.

A week later we brought home Buddy, a 16-year old-gelding with miles at Prelim and a solid Novice/Training packer. The two picked up next week with a recognized Novice event, Buddy already being fit and ready to go after packing a young rider around this previous year. And the best part? He was a less than half the price of her original budget.

As a trainer, I could not be happier for my student. Whether Buddy gives her three years or five years, she will progress steadily up the levels with the extra funds going toward some maintenance to keep him comfortable. After his time, maybe she will find an OTTB to pay forward the wisdom learned from Buddy. 

In terms of older horses, I am perhaps biased. Just last summer I took Guido, a 19-year-old dressage horse owned by my mother, Kate Hutchings, in my very first Third, Fourth and Prix St Georges level dressage tests. In one short summer, Guido taught me tempi changes, correct half passes and pirouettes. Now I can take this understanding onto teaching my future horses.

Today Guido is leased to a young rider who has consistently earned the High Point Champion for Third level at three different shows. One day too perhaps this young rider will pass on her knowledge to other horses or students.

Guido in my first Fourth level class. Photo by Barry Koster Photography.

Guido in my first Fourth level class. Photo by Barry Koster Photography.

Another oldie but goodie came in the form of a gelding named Fling, a Prelim packer. We were both 16 when he took me to my first Prelim. My favorite memory with Fling is receiving the Traveler’s Memorial Trophy at the Jersey Fresh CCI2* in 2008, awarded to the oldest Thoroughbred to finish the event.

I lost him at 19 years old. Even had I known how short our time together would be, I would never go back and trade those three years for any other horse. Fling taught me more than any person ever could

Now that I am a trainer and fortunate enough to run my own farm, I can only give so much to my students. A large portion of the learning curve comes from the horses you’re riding. That is why, for my program, I have Training level event geldings who have been there, done that. They are point and shoot at the jumps, and for kids and adults coming to me with confidence issues, or just looking to move up the levels, these packers are everything they need.

Of these event horses, the most popular schoolmaster on my farm, is one that doesn’t jump at all. Verbena is a 24-year-old Oldenburg mare, former seven-time broodmare. Bonnie Mosser, a well known event rider and friend, did all of the mare’s training. She once attributed her success as a rider to Verbena, owned by my cousin Ellen Sheppard McKee.

“Verbena made winning easy,” said Bonnie, who won the DeBroke Trophy aboard Verbena in the mid ’90s. The mare was also named USEA Horse of the Year for the Preliminary level. Due to a tendon injury after many Intermediates, Verbena was put to pasture and served as a broodmare for 10 years.

Bonnie Mosser evented Verbena to the Intermediate level in the 90s and did all her training. Photo by Ellen Sheppard McKee.

Bonnie Mosser evented Verbena to the Intermediate level in the ’90s and did all her training. Photo by Ellen Sheppard McKee.

In 2011, Ellen Sheppard McKee gave Verbana to my mom to use as a broodmare. After one beautiful foal, Verbena was unable to reproduce the following year. We struggled with our options. I decided to give her a test ride and see what she could do. The mare hadn’t skipped a beat in 10 years. 

When I settled in on my new farm in Fair Hill, Maryland, my mom gifted me Verbena to use in lessons. Almost one year later, we all refer to the mare as the Queen. It is an honor to ride Verbena.

“Verbena is the ultimate horse,” says Julia, 27, of Elkton, Maryland. “She gives me the feeling that I could ride any dressage test and nail it! She is like riding on a cloud. She makes all of her riders look great and builds our confidence.”

Lisa Morgan, 47, of Wilmington, Deleware, says, “When I am riding Verbena, there is never any doubt that I am the beneficiary of a lifetime of experience. What I have learned from her in a summer has accelerated my growth immensely as a rider.” 

Gabriella Lehman, 14, of Elkton, Maryland, says, “Verbena makes learning dressage easy.” 

With all these riders learning and adapting to better themselves, the most ironic thing of all is that the horses are just doing their job, something they were taught during their early years of training and continue to do for us every day. 

Thus I see it as a circle that should continue to circulate: Good training leads to good horses, and good horses make good trainers. 

I hope for all my students and riders alike that they may be so lucky to learn a thing or two from an oldie but goodie, like Buddy, Guido, Fling and Verbena.

After all, some of the best words of wisdom can come from a horse that has no words for us at all. 

A Million Dollar Horse

Juli Hutchings lives in Fair Hill, Maryland, on her farm, Appleton Equestrian. She has ridden to the FEI levels of dressage and eventing and denotes much of her success to her horses. She is the author of many articles written for the Chronicle of the Horse, Sidelines Magazine and most recently EN. You can find her best-selling novel, A Horse to Remember, online or in book stores.

Juli Hutchings and 18-year-old Fling receiving the Traveler's Memorial Trophy at Jersey Fresh in 2008. Photo by Shannon Brinkman. Juli Hutchings and 18-year-old Fling receiving the Traveler's Memorial Trophy at Jersey Fresh in 2008. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Three, two, one — GO!” Fling went; Fling always went. No jump was too wide, narrow, tall or tainted for Fling to get to the other side. No matter the length or level of the cross country course, he always finished just like he began: his small ears pricked forward and his eyes eager with love for his sport.

 When I first met Fling I was 15 years old and had competed through Training level. I met him after my older gelding fell on me during a lesson with Phillip Dutton, solidifying the fact that I needed to find a new partner.

It was thanks to Phillip and the crew at True Prospect Farm that Fling found his way to me. His owner, Gil Phillips, had left him in their hands, and over the years he’d become a seasoned one-star horse at their barn. When he came to me, he’d been off for a year due to a mysterious injury but had come back sound and needed a rider.

For months Fling drug me to the fences as though insisting he knew much better than I. I couldn’t argue most days, and I recall once we nearly careened over my mother who stood in the gymnastic line to help slow him down. I knew I had a busy winter ahead of me and filled it with lots of lessons to learn how to ride him better.

I was still in Pony Club at the time, and I’ll never forget our clinic with Scott Hassler at Hilltop Farm. Amy Jackson, a racehorse trainer and my friend, was watching our lesson and couldn’t contain her excitement when I pushed Fling into a trot. She came bounding out into the arena and flung her arms around Fling.

No one could understand what was going on until she managed to push away her tears of joy and explain that she had trained Fling as a 3-year-old at the Fair Hill Training Center and had raced his mother too. Thirteen years later, she’d known it was Fling only by the way his hind legs plaited as he walked.

After the lesson I called Fling’s owner, Gil, to tell him of the encounter with Amy. He sent me a DVD of all Fling’s races, and it was no overstatement that he was an outstanding racehorse. In nearly every race Fling led the pack from start to finish. In only one did he break badly for the gate and hug the rear only to burst to the front in time to win the race in a three-horse photo finish. The announcer’s words were, “Look out for the big gray machine coming up on the outside; I told you he was the one to watch!”

Fling’s years as a racehorse must have made him the world’s fittest horse. In my events that spring, Fling skipped around like a kid on a playground. We began calling him the Iron Horse, and without a doubt he lived up to the name.

He taught me this: Just point, kick and hold on tight. In my first season of Preliminary I was his protégée, clinging for dear life over jumps larger than us and allowing Fling to be my eyes, ears and protector.

The year after, we worked as a team and took away a ribbon at our very first one-star. I learned the hard way how ties were broken, and after dropping three spots in a tie I stopped letting Fling go his rather speedy pace on the cross country and learned to regulate his gallop to finish nearest the optimum time.

Our work paid off, and that summer we represented Area II as individuals in the 2007 North American Junior & Young Rider Championships. The coaches had decided that with Fling being 17, they were taking a chance on his soundness and couldn’t jeopardize the others in putting him on the team.

Fling proved his worth by finishing better than all the team horses, just missing the 10th place spot for the country’s best young riders. It was two pesky rails that pushed us behind the ribbons. The only downfall I could ever place on Fling was that sometimes he got lazy with his feet. That was until we tackled Intermediate.

Fling shocked us all with three clear stadium and cross county rides between the red flags. My mom knew how hard I had worked, and she and I were both nearly in tears after my first big win in the Young Rider’s Open Intermediate at Plantation Field. In an eight-horse division, Fling was the only one to leave up the rails in the show jumping and finish without time faults cross country. We had come such a long way.

In 2008, we finished two CCI2* events at Fair Hill International and Jersey Fresh. I still remember the chills at Jersey when Fling’s name was called during the awards ceremony. Alongside top horses and riders, Fling and I walked to the middle of the ring to receive the Traveler’s Memorial Trophy for the oldest off-track Thoroughbred to finish the event. At 18, it was no wonder cheers erupted in the grandstand in tribute to such a noble horse. To this day I believe Fling understood he was being recognized; he had never looked more proud.

When the end of summer hit far too quickly, Fling accompanied me to college. I couldn’t leave him behind yet and planned to return him to Amy Jackson the following year. Gil, Amy and I knew retirement as a pony horse at Fair Hill was exactly what Fling would want.

In the meantime Fling spent a happy and healthy fall and winter in South Carolina. My college friends would often visit him at Full Gallop Farm in Aiken and I’d let them take him around the fields, ride double, even pop over a few jumps with me. Laura Anderson, who owns the farm, called Fling a saint of a horse.

After a final jump school one January night, Fling was fit and ready for our in-house event the following week. The phone call at 7 a.m. the next morning put our plans to rest and with it so did my dreams.

Fling was gone. In the awful cold and rainy morning, I drove down the long sandy lane as I had so many times before, only this time, instead of grazing under the 300-year-old live oak beside the lane, Fling lay still and lifeless beneath it. He must have had a heart attack; he was unscathed and peaceful on the ground.

When a man came to take him away from me, he comforted me in saying, “He will be in good company. There are some million dollar racehorses buried where he’s going.” Through my tears I had to smile. I stroked Fling’s soft gray fur one last time and said, “That’s good because he was a million dollar horse.”

Fling taught me more about riding and the sport of eventing than any person ever could. I was so fortunate to have had him in my life and owe him everything. Thank you, Fling.