Named an inductee to the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame in 2020, John French has won countless championship titles at prestigious shows around the country. He’s a four-time winner of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association World Championship Hunter Rider Professional Finals, and he won the inaugural $100,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship riding Rumba in 2009.
John grew up riding in Maryland as his mother taught lessons at a rented stable. His family didn’t have the means to own a lot of horses or compete on the A-circuit when he was riding in the Junior divisions, so he began catch riding other people’s ponies and horses. After training himself to a win at the Maryland Equitation Finals on a borrowed horse, he began being noticed by other professionals for his hard work ethic. This helped him earn positions for various professionals and eventually start his own business in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when he was 25 years old. But soon after, a trip to California to try horses led to a resident trainer position there in 1987.
After riding and competing in the Bay area for almost 30 years, John bought property in Central California in 2016. Unfortunately, a promising new show series in Paso Robles fell through a year later, which left John in an area with a small pool of clients and having to travel far to show his own horses. After he was seriously injured in a riding accident in July 2018, he relocated to show jumper Lauren Crooks’ farm in Snohomish, Washington, in early 2019 with the idea of building his own business and limiting catch riding. But fate had other ideas, which led to John teaming up in early 2020 with Olympian Kent Farrington to develop a comprehensive hunter division under Kent’s business, KPF.
In this podcast, John talks about his new business venture with Kent, his overall training philosophy, what he thinks makes a good horseman, how he quickly adapted to different horses as a catch rider, his favorite training exercise, influential horses in his life, how he handles competition nerves and more.
This podcast is sponsored by Perfect Products, makers of Perfect Prep.
You can listen to the full interview wherever you listen to podcasts, but in the meantime, here is a snippet of our conversation.
Q: Could you describe your overall philosophy?
JF: Every horse is different, and my philosophy is you need to feel what each horse needs, whether it’s confidence, patience, whether the horse is not really understanding his job, needs a stronger ride—all those things. You try to get in the horse’s mind and see what it needs because I feel as a trainer, your job is to make the horse want to do it for you. You want to make the horse like his job. When the horse understands it and you give it the right amount of praise and the right amount of a strong ride—you know you can get a horse to do so much more for you when you have that rapport with them. You know when to stop—maybe it’s not a good day to push something on this particular day. You just want to make the horse peak and want to do it for you and to me that’s the most important part of training, trying to get the horse happy and love what it’s doing.
Q: What makes a good horseman?
JF: As a good horseman you’re always trying to learn from other people. Whether it’s other professionals in the sport, whether it’s grooms, vets, blacksmiths. You always are looking to get more knowledge. And watching other people train, and the most important thing is to never think you know everything because the horse is going to teach you something new every day and other people are going to teach you things that might work and are beneficial as well.
Q: Do you have a favorite exercise?
JF: I do a lot of trot–walk, canter–walk, downward and upward transitions where I try getting the horse to come back or go forward without using too much hand or using too much leg. If you ask the horse to go forward just by softening from the walk into the canter instead of having to kick and use your leg or use too much seat—that it’s very subtle. I get my horses to just kind of feel me a little more. It’s nothing forced to go forward, it’s nothing tense to go backward. So I do that a lot on the flat.
Jumping a lot of the young horses … particularly I used to do it when I was riding a lot of Thoroughbreds, I do a lot of trotting jumps and just getting them to get their timing and land super relaxed on the other side. I get them really relaxed with their jumping, and then you can add a little more leg and jazz them up if you need to create a little bit more, but first I want that they feel that it’s super easy and super relaxed.
Q: How do you handle nerves before a big competition?
JF: … the meditating … mostly it’s right before the class or a couple hours before the class. And then there are other things, things I might say to myself like, “You’re so lucky to be doing this,” and “You’re so grateful that you can do what you love doing,” and smile or think about something funny in my opening circle. There are all little things—sometimes if I’m too nervous about riding this one horse because it’s too much pressure, then I pretend I’m riding another horse. Or if there’s too much pressure on me, then I might try to ride like somebody else or pretend to be someone else. There are many states you might be in, whether you have to psyche yourself up or just bring yourself down or be a little happier, so that there are those different comments that you say to yourself depending on which one you might need at that moment.
Q: Why do you think you’ve been so successful?
JF: Success is not accomplishments or what I’ve won. To me success is being able to do what you love doing, and you’re successful if you’re able to do that because for so many people, that’s hard. Though I’ve moved around a little bit in last few years, the fact that I’m not afraid of change and trying to make a better opportunity for myself, I think the success comes from not being afraid of change. Like what I’m doing right now, to me this is the most successful, even though I haven’t been showing that much, this is the most successful year I’ve had because I really love what I’m doing right now. I love going to the barn every day. I love my job and to me that’s successful.
Read about the health-care routine of one of John’s successful partners, Center Court.