Devin Ryan: To the Top with Young Horses

A third-place finish in a prestigious grand prix shows Devin Ryan, an up-and-coming show jumping rider, that his training program is on the right path.

Devin Ryan emerged from the pack of grand prix hopefuls with a third-place finish in the $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon. His debut performance there was even more significant because it was on the 12-year-old No Worries, a horse Devin broke as a 3-year-old for a friend.

Devin Ryan and Dillandra took first place in the $20,000 SHF 5-Year-Old Young Jumper Championship at The Hampton Classic Horse Show at the end of last summer. | © Shawn McMillen

“Being in the top three is where you want to be,” said the 32-year-old rider from Long Valley, New Jersey, shortly after the class. “It lets you know you’re on the right track, that you’re doing the right thing. It’s been a long road.”

Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward, who won the grand prix, agreed. “[Devin] came a little bit off the radar, not the normal route,” he observed. “The test of time is always a test, but he’s on the right path.”

The right path for Devin has included developing an eye for young horses with potential and training them up through the levels. “Finished grand-prix jumpers imported from Europe are astronomically expensive,” he says. “I’m on a budget, so I work with green horses, bringing them up through the ranks, hoping the time and effort I put in will be worthwhile.”

A Casual Start
Devin started along his path in a casual way. For many of his early years, he rode on his own at his grandfather’s nearby farm. He didn’t have his first lesson—with local trainer Dolores Hunt, noted for imparting good basics—until he was 13 years old. He then joined the local Pony Club and won the U.S. Pony Clubs National Championships at age 14.
During this time, he rode a variety of affordable horses who challenged his riding skills. His first horse, Friday, was a chestnut Thoroughbred mare he bought for $50. His next mount, former eventer Beaujolais, was given to Devin on a free lease by horse dentist Bill Schultz.

Those horses were followed by Scooter, a difficult but talented creature he couldn’t get around a course. As they struggled, someone advised, “If anybody can get him to jump around, George Morris can.” So in 1998, a 16-year-old Devin took his recalcitrant mount for a group lesson at Hunterdon Inc., about a half-hour from his home.

The flatwork went well, but as they started to jump, the horse refused. “Bring this horse over here,” George said. Then he got in the saddle. When Scooter stopped at the next fence, George smacked him with the stick three times. “Your horse is behind your leg,” George advised, offering Devin the key to getting Scooter over the fences. (An impressed Devin noted about George that after the initial refusal, “I didn’t see his leg move.”)
The Ryans couldn’t afford regular lessons, so George gave Devin a working-student position for two years in exchange for them. Then in 2000, George put him on the payroll for another two years.

Following Devin’s time at Hunterdon, he worked for horse dealer Alan Waldman in the Netherlands for a year. After that, he returned home to start his own business, which included teaching at Pony Club summer camp and dealing with problem horses. He eventually took over his parents’ barn, which had been run by others as a local enterprise, and started River Run Stables.

Pursuing his goal “to represent the U.S. on some level,” Devin has developed and refined his ability for spotting talented young horses. He is always on the lookout for a good horse. He started with No Worries (see “No Worries: The Gift of Confidence”, opposite page) and learned the importance of starting a partnership early.

“Look at the top riders and the horses with which they have been most successful, such as McLain Ward and Sapphire or Great Britain’s Nick Skelton with Big Star,” Devin says. “They usually start with those horses as 5- or 6-year-olds, when they’re young enough that they’re not set in their ways.”

Looking at a Young Horse
Overall, “I always buy a horse on its athleticism, temperament and a good workmanlike look,” Devin says, but starting out, the first thing he has to like is the horse’s eye. “I want a kind eye and a good expression. I believe the eye goes straight to the brain, so it doesn’t matter how much talent they have. If they don’t have a good brain, you can’t train them.”
In addition to focusing on a horse’s eye, Devin also is “big into reading their whorls,” the pinwheels of hair on a horse’s face, also known as swirls or cowlicks. “It’s an old cowboy thing,” he says, adding that he believes they can give insights into a horse’s characteristics. His 7-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Cooper, has the double swirls in the center of his face. “He walks into every ring brave and straightforward,” Devin says. “Every one I’ve bought with double swirls between their eyes is not spooky but is forgiving, very confident in themselves.”

After noting the eyes and whorls, Devin evaluates athleticism. First he considers whether the horse has a forward, ground-covering walk. Then he focuses on the canter. “You want a good uphill canter, just as you do in dressage,” he says. “If a horse is behind himself, it’s harder for him to achieve balance and develop the canter. That all contributes to rideability. Easy balance is an easier ride.”

Devin and Cooper jumped to a third-place finish in the $30,000 Split Rock Farm 6-Year-Old Young Jumper Championship at The Hampton Classic last August. | © Shawn McMillen

Devin also likes a horse with a longer back, which he says allows for more scope and power. “They can rock back on their hind ends. It’s a lever action, especially if they have long hind legs and shorter front legs; they throw themselves up in the air.” Although this sounds as if the horse would be downhill, he isn’t if there is a good angle to the shoulder and his neck comes out of the shoulder in an uphill way.

He also looks for a horse with high hips that proportionally are wider than the front end because that provides power, too.

As a horse begins to move, Devin notes whether he is light on his feet. “If you watch enough horses, you start to notice the ones that are easy on themselves versus the ones that are hard on themselves. If you hear them going across the ground, they’re going to make some noise, but it’s the kind of noise that matters. If you drop a bowling ball, it sounds different than a tennis ball, which is springy and elastic.”

To evaluate a green or young horse’s jumping ability, Devin watches him through a jumping chute, paying attention to how the horse uses his hind legs and focusing on his jumping arc. Does the hind end follow the path of the front end, or does the front end jump while the hind end drops early? If the horse doesn’t have a nice follow-through, he loses efficiency. Devin also observes the way a horse touches the ground landing from a fence, wanting him to be light.

When Devin tests a young horse for grand prix potential—where “you need that extra carefulness”—he ideally likes to try him two or three days in a row so he can see how the horse reacts to a mistake: Does the effect of hitting a rail wear off quickly, indicating that the horse may not be careful, or does the horse learn from his mistake and stay smarter?

Building a Foundation
Devin looks at prospects both in the United States and Europe. If he finds green horses in Europe, he’ll often leave them there for basic training because it’s less expensive. The board fee includes shoeing and training by a decent rider who instills initial flatwork, gets the horse around a course and competes him in small shows.

Regardless of how the horses, often 3 or 4 years old, are started, flatwork is critical to future success. “Flatwork, to the standard of lower-level dressage, is the foundation of everything,” Devin says. “After all, we can only jump our horses so many times a week. You must have good basic use of aids, getting your horse to listen to you.”

That work is focused on walk, trot and canter as well as lateral work such as shoulder-in and haunches-in, lengthening and collecting, asking for a greater degree of collection as the horse gets stronger. Building muscles, he says, protects the horse from injury. “But the process involves mental training, too. It’s discipline.

“I treat the horse as if it were my own child,” he adds. “I know the earlier years are the foundation for life for both children and horses. If they don’t have confidence when they are young, they’ll never have it later on.”

He starts jumping most horses when they are 4 years old. “I probably jump once a week throughout the fall, no higher than 3 feet. That’s my program. I don’t need to do a lot with my horses as 4-year-olds. It’s the quality of education that counts, not the quantity.”
When horses in his program turn 5, Devin starts jumping twice a week in the spring and over slightly bigger fences, doing gymnastics for a month. After that he starts competing to give the horses exposure. He competes at 10 to 12 shows throughout the year in Young Jumper classes, which are designed to develop horses in the U.S. He’ll enter about two classes per show. Throughout the season, if the horse is ready, he’ll progressively increase the fence height that he schools and competes, jumping no higher than 1.10–1.20 meters by the season’s end.

He notes, though, that these horses are “not as adult in their bodies and they tire more quickly, so they get lots of breaks between shows and have time off at the end of their seasons.”

The work gets a little more rigorous for 6- and 7-year-old horses. Fitness and rideability need to increase because the jumps get bigger: The national standard for 6-year-olds is 1.20–1.30 meters throughout the season, and the national standard for 7- and 8-year-olds is up to 1.40 meters—and courses get more technical. “If you don’t have rideability and the horse isn’t disciplined, you’ve got trouble,” Devin says. “All that mental training pays off.”

Devin puts the grooming advice he received from a former instructor to good use with Boucanier. | © Nancy Jaffer

But again, he is careful not to overdo it. His young horses get a two- to three-month vacation at the end of the season. “Always have a plan,” he says. “You can’t show, show, show. If you decide to show in the fall and into winter, take a break in the summer. For young horses, mentally it’s huge. After you give young horses a break, they come back smarter. They want to go to work.”

Devin’s plan as well as his time and effort appears to be paying off. In addition to his Devon placing, he won the $20,000 SHF 5-Year-Old Young Jumper Championship on the Dutch Warmblood mare Dillandra, and Cooper placed third in the $30,000 Split Rock Farm 6-Year-Old Young Jumper Championship at The Hampton Classic Horse Show at the end of last summer.

In September, Devin entered the 7-year-old Dutch Warmblood Boucanier in the Devon Fall Classic. Though a few of the verticals were higher than the regional standard at 1.45 meters and the class was in the evening under the lights, which is “a test of temperament,” Devin felt secure in his training. “I know that horse, whom I got early in his 6-year-old year, and he knows me. If I didn’t think he was ready, I wouldn’t have put him out there. I’m not setting him up for failure.”

Devin’s instincts proved right: Boucanier won the class. “To me, that was a signal that the training had paid off and we were ready to go on to bigger things.”

Devin is also planning for the future. Last year, he bought a 3- and a 4-year-old in Europe after watching them go in a jumping chute and he purchased a 4-year-old who was under-saddle. “I think all three are potential grand prix horses,” he said. “Some of that feeling is based on their breeding, but the rest is judgment on the way they go as you watch them.”
As for the international success to which he aspires, Devin realizes that “a lot of it is timing. You have to have the right horse at the right point.”

George Morris, who has followed Devin’s career over the years, has high hopes for his future. “He started out with very limited everything,” George said. “He was a neophyte, and he didn’t have any budget. He was diligent with Chris [Kappler], Jeff Cook and myself and Anne Kursinski,” who were all trainers at Hunterdon. “He is an example of perseverance. He’s a success story.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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