After a self-funded successful Junior career, California hunter rider Nick Haness started his own training and sales business, Hunterbrook Farms in 2009. The next several years were filled with multiple top placings in the hunter divisions including back-to-back wins in the 2012 and 2013 WCHR Handy Hunter Challenge and the championship in the 2016 First Year Green divisions at the Devon Horse Show and the Pennsylvania National Horse Show. More recently, he and Verdict were the reserve champion at the 2019 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships, and a month later, he finished first and second on Crowd Pleaser and Reese’s at the $50,000 Stal Hendrix Green Futurity Finals at the HITS Saugerties Championship. He earned the 2019 USEF’s Emerson Burr Award and was voted by his peers as the 2019 USEF National Equestrian of the Year.
In this episode, Nick talks about his early catch-riding successes, starting his own business at age 21, what he looks for when buying a horse, building trust with horses, furthering his education in the jumper ring and enjoying the collection of rescue animals living at his farm.
You can listen to the full interview wherever you listen to podcasts, but in the meantime, here is a snippet of our conversation.
You went to Europe with your brother at a young age to buy your first investment horse. How did you handle it being so young?
I laugh at it now. I think it’s funny, I look back and think, How do I ever go to Europe as a 15-year-old with my brother who knows nothing about horses as my agent or my financial advisor? I don’t know if I got lucky or if it was just my intuition in my blood to just have an eye for picking horses. I luckily went over there and had some success. I bought my first horse and he ended up turning into a pretty well acclaimed hunter in America. He got sold and had a big career afterward and sort of gave me the ability to compete more so that was pretty fun and exciting. It’s funny looking back at a glance because now it’s such a big part of my life and my career and my daily function at my barn is importing horses from Europe, so it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing from a young age.
Can you talk about your training philosophy?
I definitely believe that horses speak to us, what they’re ready to do and when they’re ready to do it, so my training philosophy is always let the horse speak to you. There’s no time limit with horses. There’s no time frame. You’ve got to let the horses develop in their own time. So I think that’s the biggest thing is being patient. I think that a lot of my training involves happy horses. I like to think that my care is extremely crucial—taking care of the horses and letting them have the best vet care and maintenance care. Whatever they need, they get. I think that happy horses are winning horses and horses that are willing to work have a happy home life. I think that’s a big strategy for me is getting horses feeling as happy and healthy as possible. Again, letting them tell me when they’re ready to do things and when they’re ready to compete and if they need more time, they get more time. There’s no rush. I think that’s a big and important strategy and part of my techniques at home is letting horses just relax. They get to go in the turnout, they get to eat lots of hay, they get to go on the trail, they get soft bits in their mouth and they come around when they’re ready to. They blossom and they shine when it’s time and that’s always been my philosophy.
See also: Take the Dread out of the Long Approach
I like to be on my horses’ good side and I like to know my horses. That’s one of the things I love about owning the farm. They’re in my back yard. I can walk out of my back gate to my house and be right there at the barn within three minutes. I check on them at night, and I listen to them and I look at them, and I can see kind of how they’re feeling and what their thoughts are. You can almost hear their thoughts out loud just by looking at a horse’s expression. So that’s the best part for me.
You placed second at the 2019 USHJA International Derby Finals on Verdict, can you share what that was like?
It was incredible. Derby Finals in Kentucky was just an amazing experience. The event itself is just so highly broadcasted and everything—the audience, the stadium, the set-up, everything about it—is just incredible just to be there. To be on a course on a horse that you can trust and a horse that trusts you at a venue like that is just so magical because the jumps are huge, they’re decorated, they’re wide, they’re tall, they’re challenging. For me, it’s like everything you worked hard for during the year at horse shows is just beautifully painted at that horse show.
I was fortunate enough to ride Verdict at the Derby Finals. He was a horse that I was catch-riding throughout the year a few different times and he is an incredible horse, a brave horse, a really fun horse. He was a horse that I had to kind of get to know before the Finals and I got to spend a week with him in Kentucky before the Derby Finals and turn him out in a big grass field and just watch him all day long and just get to know him and get on him bareback and ride him and for us to have this this relationship, this bond, before we went to that big event. I completely attribute my success to having that time with him to get to know him and him to get to know me and it was like a bond … When we got there, I had no expectations of doing well, I just really wanted to get around and do it. After the first round we scored really nice scores. We were in second place to Tori Colvin. That really pumped me up, I was super excited.
Do you get nervous before competitions?
I don’t usually get nervous before a competition unless it’s for a major competition like Derby Finals—yes, I was very nervous. So, in those situations when I do get that butterflies in my stomach feeling before a competition, it’s usually a good sign. It means I’m nervous, but I’m focused and I’m ready. That usually propels me to be better and ride better so it’s almost a good thing when I get that feeling. But I like to be by myself. So when that happens, I like to prepare by finding a seat in the stands or somewhere around the course where I can sit down by myself and focus and watch. I love watching. From the time when I was a young boy, I always learned by watching, so watching my competitors show first or seeing how they ride a bending line or seeing where the turn is for the handy, those are all things I like to do for myself to mentally prepare for my round, for my competition for that day.
In Kentucky, before the final round at night I was very nervous because I really wanted to do well. It’s not a fear of falling off or messing up, it’s more of nerves to win—I’m very competitive with myself. So I wanted to give myself the best opportunity and chance to do well. And I like to be creative. I think that handy courses are super fun. I’ve been given the nickname “Handy Haness” in my past because I like to do handy classes. In a big venue like Derby Finals, there was a lot of different options to jump, different places to turn, tracks to take—things like that. I like to sit around the course and move positions a few times. I’ll sit at one end of the ring for a few minutes and then I’ll move to another end of the ring and just look at the ring from a different perspective and a different view to really understand and calculate my plan and strategy to win the class.
How do you handle it when things don’t go your way?
It’s great to win but more times than not, we don’t win. There are plenty of those times at horse shows when things didn’t your way. You made a mistake as a rider, or you miscalculated, or your horse got green, or your horse made a mistake or you had a great round and the judge didn’t like you—there’s all these different situations that arise at a horse show. At the end of the day, it’s frustrating when you don’t win, but for me I’m happy if my horses are developing in the right direction, my horses were well behaved, they put in their all or all of their effort, then I’m happy. You can only do your best every day. Everyone’s trying their best so you have to realize it can’t work out every single time in your favor and things happen, and that’s part of being a human.
I have plenty of funny stories and experiences where things went wrong or I made a mistake or something just didn’t happen right. Those days make us humble and they bring us back to remembering that we’re working with live animals that are not machines or robots and that’s the best part of our sport and why I think it keeps making people keep coming back. There are so many challenges and things that make this interaction and relationship with horses more interesting, so I think for everybody, myself especially, at the end of the day, after a long day of showing and competing when you go to your horse’s stall and they come back out and want a cookie and they love you all over again, it makes it all worth it … It’s a fun process, it’s a humbling process but it’s a great process.
You have more than just horses at your stable—you have goats, alpacas, pigs, miniature horses and parrots. How did that come about?
I think that circulates back to my childhood being one of five boys in a big family. I’m an animal lover. I obviously love horses, but that pretty much goes for all animals. I always dreamed of and wanted to have a little petting zoo at my house and was of course never granted that when I was kid. I think when I grew up and had my own farm and was able to have the land and space for it, I started collecting one animal here and there and it’s sort of now expanded a bit. I’ve been able to rescue some animals which has been very rewarding and very fun, so a large portion of my animals have been rescued that live at my farm now, sort of part of my petting zoo. I’ve also bought a few of them and bred a few of them, so it’s a little bit of a mixture of all three but for me the animals bring happiness and joy to my life. When I’m away at horse shows and dealing with the hustle and bustle of horse shows and clients and the horse show management staff and all the things that go into my daily life, when I go home and I’m by myself or with my dog or with my partner, Ryan at the farm it’s peaceful and rewarding for me to hang out in the pasture with all my animals and admire them and love them and spoil them, it’s something that brings me peace and happiness.
For more from Nick, check out his profile story, “Nick Haness: A Triple Threat in the Show Ring” and his training article, “Take the Dread out of the Long Approach” and listen to the full podcast here.
About the Practical Horseman Podcast
The Practical Horseman podcast features conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform, educate and inspire. It is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors. Find the podcast at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts.