Horsemanship Between the Wins

California show jumper Mandy Porter’s success comes from knowing her horses in and out of the arena.

Mandy has seen much success with Milano, whose 2017 HITS Coachella AIG Million win was one of six 2017 grands prix victories. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Mandy Porter’s career cake is spiced with appearances at three World Cup Finals and three Nations Cups. The icing is 13 grands prix wins over the past 18 months. But her resume doesn’t reflect the horsemanship—and compassion—that happen between the wins. That story is told in a quiet stall in Wilsonville, Oregon, where Mandy traveled 1,045 miles to spend a final moment with her retired grand prix star and 2007 and 2008 World Cup mount, Summer. The Belgian Warmblood mare had sustained a pasture injury that left euthanasia as the most humane option. “Mandy wanted to say goodbye,” says the rider’s longtime supporter and Summer’s owner, Barb Ellison, who “can’t say enough nice things about her. But probably the most telling thing is that she flew up here to say goodbye to this horse that was so important to her.”

While Mandy’s empathy and her horsemanship skills take precedence, this California native has seen much success over the 25 years since she hit the grand prix circuit. Highlights at the end of last year were multiple prestigious regional year-end awards. At age 51, she now has a string of talented horses, loyal owners and a reputation that seems likely to earn her opportunities for many years to come.

Of the time spent making acceptance speeches in fancy party dresses rather than in riding gear, Mandy says, “It was a nice time to reflect on my career, on how fortunate I’ve been and the several really good opportunities that have come my way. It makes you feel like the hard work and things you put in are paying off. I’ve had great opportunities meeting some great people, the owners, but it’s really the horses that have enabled it all.”

Mandy Porter has won 13 grands prix over the past 18 months with her talented string of horses and loyal owners. Photo: Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

A Big-Hearted Horse

Her hottest horse now is the 13-year-old Swedish Warmblood, Milano. His 2017 HITS Coachella AIG Million was one of six 2017 grands prix victories, and he began 2018 by winning the $70,000 Ulcergard Grand Prix at HITS Coachella and finishing third in the $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping CSI*** there. That sealed Mandy’s No. 2 spot in the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American Western Sub-League and an invite to the Final in Paris last April.

Ultimately though, the sense that Milano wasn’t quite ready for the Final’s huge track and overwhelming environment exceeded the desire to go. Despite many brilliant rounds with Milano, Mandy wanted to develop more consistency over tougher challenges and for him “to learn to use his scope a little better.” He’s a hard-trying, big-hearted horse and Mandy and his owner, Abby Archer, worried about him getting discouraged. “He just hasn’t jumped many tracks like what he would have seen there,” Mandy explains. “Maybe the first day’s course, but after that, no chance.”

Gaining indoor Final’s-type mileage is difficult in the States and more so on the West Coast due to a dearth of courses, venues and atmospheres that simulate those in Europe. Mandy is confident another season of experience will produce the consistently solid performances needed to accept a 2018–2019 World Cup™ Final’s bid should they earn it.

“It was a decision we struggled with for months,” says Abby, who began working with Mandy about 10 years ago as a young professional entering the grand prix ranks. When she asked Mandy to ride Milano in 2016 after life events prompted her to set aside her own riding, Abby knew “there was nobody else I would rather have riding my horse. Mandy is incredibly kind, loving and she always does what’s right for the horse.”

Although Mandy and Milano qualified for the 2018 FEI World Cup Final in Paris, she decided that he wasn’t quite ready for the Final’s huge track and overwhelming environment and opted out. Kim F. Miller

She Knows Her Horses

Mandy’s approach to horse care and ability to bring out horses’ potential is a recurring theme. Barb Ellison, owner of Wild Turkey Farm, which has a successful sporthorse breeding program, knows this both from first-hand experience and from people who reach out to share observed tidbits. “I get calls and emails from people saying they just want to let me know what a great person she is, that they see her hauling, unloading, doing night checks and taking [the horses] out for grass grazing at the end of the day,” says Barb, who has backed and sent horses to Mandy for 17 years. “She is the consummate horseperson. She’s so good because she knows her horses. It’s not just because she rides them. It’s because she’s there for every part of their lives.”

Mandy’s brand of horsemanship had “barn rat” beginnings at Carol Dean Porter’s (no relation) hunter/jumper training program in Southern California. “She was always so much fun,” Carol remembers of the then 6- or 7-year-old rider.

“It was obvious that she had this enormous talent, even from the time when she was tiny,” Carol explains. “I was comfortable putting her on any horse: big, little, wild … .You name it, she rode it and got the best possible performance out of them.”

Mandy moved with her family to the Bay Area and there she cared for her two horses at their small home stable while excelling in the equitation, hunter and jumper divisions under Lowrey Jones of Far Fetched Farm. As she sought the higher jumper divisions, Mandy began working with Butch and Lu Thomas at Willow Tree Farms.

Presenting Mandy with the California Professional Horsemen’s Association Special Achievement Award this past January, Butch Thomas recalled “not thinking anything out of the ordinary was on the way when Bill and Jeanne Porter drove into Willow Tree hauling Mandy and a horse named Isaac Schultz.” That assessment had changed considerably by the time Mandy and her next horse, Orbit, hit their stride under the Thomases’ coaching.

“They were the hardest pair to beat in the Junior Jumper division,” continued Butch. “Then one day Mandy said, ‘I’d like to try a grand prix.’ I told her she didn’t have a grand prix horse and she said, ‘What about Orbit?’ She went on to make an older Orbit into a very good grand prix horse.”

Butch is a big, burly New Zealander who has coached many young riders to big wins and career launches, yet he choked up a little when describing the sight of Mandy winning the HITS AIG Million. “We got to say we knew her when … . She’s a strong but sympathetic rider and she has the one thing you can’t teach: feeling for the animals. Mandy has buckets of that.”

Displaying another recurring theme in her story—grace and humility—Mandy followed Butch’s tribute by setting the record straight on her first outings in the big ring. “We knocked off a few clear rounds, but I also fell off in our first two jump-offs.” In addition to the CPHA’s honors, Mandy also earned the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association Grand Prix Rider of the Year and its Gary Ryman Memorial Award.

Mandy developed her Junior jumper Orbit into a grand prix horse with the help of trainer Butch Thomas. Courtesy, Mandy Porter

Seven Years in Europe

Mandy had many successes in her Junior career, including a team bronze medal at the 1984 North American Young Rider Championships, the NorCal Medal Finals championship and an ASPCA Maclay Medal Final’s appearance. Even so, she was not one of those young equestrians firmly set on a career with horses. She attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to earn degrees in both animal science and agricultural business management, thinking of a pharmaceutical marketing job, she remembers: “Something that would enable me to ride my horses, but I wasn’t thinking of doing it 24/7.”

She kept riding through college and wound up returning to the Thomases to help them as an assistant trainer for a brief period. Just as she was thinking, “I have to grow up and put together a resume,” the chance to work for sporthorse dealer Gerhard Etter in Switzerland arose. She signed on for the rigorous life of busy sales barn work that included equal time riding young or difficult horses, mucking stalls and the rest of the hard labor that goes into the profession of developing horses. “I kept getting good offers and one thing led to another,” she says.

During her seven years in Europe, Mandy represented the United States in three Nations Cup competitions. She also worked with luminaries including Katie Monahan Prudent, Alison Firestone, Alice Debany and Peter Wylde. The experiences were an excellent post-graduate education for the career she eventually realized was going rather well.

Mandy returned to the United States in 1999, set up ACP Enterprises in San Diego and has been a go-to horseman for breeders, sporthorse owners and a small roster of jumper-oriented students ever since.

Having 15 horses in her stable is the ideal she strives for and never more than she can keep an active hand in herself. “In a perfect world I’d still love to be taking care of all the horses myself all of the time, but you have to keep all facets of the business flowing along.” Earning the top spot at the FEI Longines World Cup™ Jumping Sacramento last fall was memorable for more than the win. “I brought only one horse, Milano, and it was nice to be able to hang out with him and spend more quality time with him.”

Wild Turkey Farm’s WT Ca-Pow! (Chesapeake x Calato), a 2009 Holsteiner gelding, is one of Mandy’s up-and-coming mounts. © Kim F. Miller

A Team Effort

When accepting praise, Mandy attributes her success first to the horses, then to her team. Partner Craig Starr has been her main eyes on the ground for the last decade or so. The Detroit-area native started as a groom and worked his way up on the Wellington, Florida, circuit, including a few years with top-level grand prix rider Todd Minikus.

Craig has a special knack for preparing Milano, whose “Cookie Monster” nickname hints at sensitive, sometimes bossy, aspects of his temperament. Milano’s show-day routine always includes a longe to “get that right kind of energy,” Mandy explains. “He’s a really clever horse and Craig sees when he’s being a little complacent.” Craig also rides and competes some of the horses in their program.

ACP Enterprises’ four grooms are also acutely tuned in to the horses. “It’s important that the horses can look to consistency in their people,” Mandy says. Alex Lopez, Marco Antonio Acuna Cortez, Migalis Villarreal and Gabriel Galindo “are all on our same page, treating the horses in the same manner that we do.”

Talented as he is, Cookie Monster may have to share the spotlight pretty soon. Among other prospects in Mandy’s program, Wild Turkey Farm has youngsters making their mark thanks to her gift for bringing out their best. WT Ca-Pow!, a 2009 Holsteiner, is leading this pack, most recently finishing third to Milano’s first in June’s Temecula Valley National’s $40,000 Aon Grand Prix.

Wild Turkey’s Barb describes Ca-Pow! as “my heart horse.” When he won his first big class, the $10,000 Electronic Vet 1.35 at HITS Coachella this year, he showed why “he’s the kind of horse I’ve been striving to produce all my life.” Both statements are also true of the 2011 Holsteiner WT Leapfrog.

Leapfrog could have been described as a “rogue stallion” through his early years over fences, Barb explains. “He just wants a human who understands him and believes in him. The first two weeks Mandy had him, she brushed him, took him on long walks, long-lined him and got him to realize ‘This person is here for me.’” In the fall of 2017, Mandy helped him become the Jumper Champion at the inaugural North American Stallion Sport Test, and the pair began this year with a win in the 1.3-meter division at HITS Coachella.

Mandy and Barb’s long relationship includes indulgences and difficult discussions. The rider accepts Barb’s insistence on keeping “the Frog’s” long mane and forelock (a trademark of his sire Lio Calyon), yet stood firm on a harder call: gelding the 2011 Holsteiner Coruscant. “Mandy doesn’t hide or avoid things,” Barb recounts. “If there’s a difficult conversation to be had, regarding what’s in the best interest of the horse, she has it. She knew I wanted to keep him a stallion, but when she called saying, ‘We need to talk,’ we ended up gelding him. I know she never says anything lightly.” Since the procedure, the once “on the muscle, slightly angry” horse is “so happy, he comes right up and wants to say hi.”

Given Mandy’s early indecision regarding a career path, she acknowledges that she sometimes wonders where other tracks might have led. If they didn’t end somewhere that enabled Mandy to indulge her hard-wired love for horses, it’s unlikely they would have led to the gratifying, happy place in which the rider now finds herself: proud of her past, excited about the future and much admired by her peers, fans and, most importantly, her horses.

After developing a solid partnership with Wild Turkey Farm’s WT Leapfrog (Lio Calyon x Carthago Z), Mandy helped him become the Jumper Champion at the inaugural North American Stallion Sport Test and began this year with a win in the 1.3-meter division at HITS Coachella. Photo: Kim F. Miller

Supporting U.S. Breeders

Big wins have put Mandy Porter in the national and international spotlight many times throughout her career, but developing young horses at home and up the levels on the show circuit is the bread and butter of her business. Breeders are a consistent source of horses and she helps them as a rider and an advocate. Serving on various young-horse development committees over the years, Mandy works with industry stakeholders to promote domestic breeding and affordable ways to develop the horses they produce.

Discounted young-horse stabling and entry fees, initiated on the West Coast by Blenheim EquiSports show management, are “fabulous,” Mandy asserts. “It’s important because we have some good breeding here. To encourage people to want to buy horses here, we’ve got to have a way to produce them.” As other show managers have followed suit, the old model of sending youngsters to Europe for relatively affordable show mileage will hopefully become a thing of the past.

Further along the development pipeline, Mandy is pleased to see an increase in FEI-rated shows on this year’s West Coast calendar. It was too soon after this year’s AIG Million for Milano to contest the first of those new competitions, a CSI*** in late March, but Mandy was happy to be there in support. She had a student, Nicolette Hirt, in the class and celebrated the effort to make it easier for the region’s riders to earn national and international ranking points without leaving the area. 

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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