2006 U.S. Open Jumper Championship winner Kent Farrington on Madison | ? 2006 by Nancy Jaffer
Kent Farrington, who has blazed a trail of victories with the Weeks family's Dutch-bred mare Madison (she was 2005 American Grandprix Association Horse of the Year and he was Trainer of the Year--as of October 1, 2006, Kent is three points out of first place for the AGA Rider of the Year, and Madison is leading for Horse of the Year), was impressing top professionals with his potential when he was just a year out of the juniors.
The following story, which appeared in the September 2001 issue of Practical Horseman, is a cameo of Kent at the beginning of his professional career. Comments from his then-employer, Olympic veteran Leslie Howard, help to explain how Kent has come so far in such a short time. For the full scoop on Kent's rapid rise to the top of the sport, see the October 2006 Practical Horseman.
It happens every year in the hunter/jumper world: A few talented riders, fresh from successful junior careers, reenter the competitive ranks as professionals-and find that very little is the same.
"When you are a junior getting a lot of catch rides you just go to the show with your show clothes and you have fifteen horses to ride. This is different," says Kent Farrington, who won the AHSA Medal Finals in 1998. "When you are a professional, you start all over again. You can't get away with just riding well."
"Kent and I were in the same situation," says 1996 Olympic show-jumping team silver medalist Leslie Howard, "I went from winning the Maclay Finals as one of George Morris's top students to mucking eight stalls a day--and having just one or two horses to show--the next year as Melanie Smith's assistant."
Kent joined Leslie's barn, Fairfield (part of Connecticut's Fairfield Hunt Club), this past January after spending his first post-junior year working for British Olympian (now U.S. citizen) Tim Grubb. "You have to start at the bottom and work your way up," Leslie says. "And you have to do so many things well. The riding is the easy part!" An equitation-finals win is a great credential for a young professional seeking a job at a top barn, she says, but it's not a free ticket.
Leslie hopes Kent will play a role in her busy barn similar to the one filled until recently by Molly Ashe: showing both jumpers and hunters, teaching lots of students and constantly being a good ambassador for Fairfield. (Molly, now on her own, won the American Invitational in March 2001, came in eighth in the World Cup Final and won the Grand Priz at Devon on her mare Kroon Gravin.)
Kent was a good candidate for the opening, Leslie says, because:
He has tremendous desire to do the sport. Growing up in Chicago, Kent had his first encounter with horses when he was about nine, after he saw an old snapshot of his mother riding. "I said, 'I want to do that.' So I started once-a-week longe-line lessons at a place in the city. I was enthusiastic and aggressive. An instructor who had racing and eventing ponies asked if I'd like to come and ride them. I got involved in Pony Club that way." Soon his mother was driving him an hour and a half into the country-side almost every day, a routine that continued through high school. "Of course, once I got to the barn I couldn't ride just one; I'd ride several." As his junior career--and his aptitude for getting along with different types of horses--developed, he enjoyed increasing demand as a catch rider.
He has a strong work ethic. "You start around 6:30 a.m. during show season, and you're busy all day, riding eight or 10 horses." At shows, Kent is also responsible for walking courses with Fairfield students and helping to get them into the ring. "I always had to work; I've never known it any other way. Either you want it or you don't, and I do, so this is how I'll get it."
He is willing--eager, actually--to learn new things."With all of the jobs I've picked since the juniors, what I got paid wasn't too important. I wanted to go somewhere where there was someone I respected, someone I thought could teach me something." At Tim Grubb's barn he learned the workings of a "European-style" system with a focus on jumpers. Fairfield has giving him an opportunity to fill some major holes in his own riding background.
Flatwork is one: "I never really had anyone help me with my flatwork. People would throw me up on a horse, and I could run around in the junior jumpers and win."
Instructional technique is another: Teaching will become a big component of his job at Fairfield, but not before an intensive phase of learning to do it. Says Leslie, "It's important that Kent be able to follow both my style of teaching and that of Timmy Kees"--who also trains at Fairfield. "I want him to just watch us teaching a lot at first, so that there's a continuity and everyone feels comfortable when, for instance I'm off at Spruce Meadows and Kent's at Lake Placid with the clients."
Yes, he rides well--and (a bonus!) he's small. "He rides well enough that he can do both the hunters and the jumpers," says Leslie. "That's lucky, because the hunters are a big part of the business. And he's a very gutsy, brave rider in the jumpers, for instance when riding a horse that doesn't want to jump the water. Being small is a huge advantage, because he can ride all different types, including the smaller hunters and jumpers; "I'm sure Emerson"--Fairfield Hunt club owner Emerson Burr--"will even have him on a pony or two at Fairfield when we get home."
Most important: "People like him. The hardest thing in this business, even for established professionals like myself, is finding the owners to put horses under you," says Leslie. "If people don't find you're someone they want to be around, they're never going to buy you a horse. At the end of the day, this is probably more influential than how you ride--which is why there are a lot of people in this business who ride beautifully but just don't have owners. And learning to be a good teacher is a big part of this 'people' aspect: If you're teaching 10 juniors and you have a good positive relationship with each of them, that's 10 possibilities of meeting a parent who might want to have a horse for themselves. You have to be a likable person, and you have to be smart. I can't always know up front how a person is going to mix with the clients, but so far Kent is doing a great job: The parents love him, the kids love him, and it's working out very well."
Says Kent, "It's hard to analyze yourself this way, but I think I've learned to be a good people person. Growing up riding lots of horses for lots of different people, you learn to get along with everybody."
And that, after all, is the difficult--and important--part.