Richard Spooner: Bringing Up Babies

Homebreds bring show-ring successes for grand prix rider Richard Spooner, but his main motive is a passion for their parents and enjoyment of the entire process.
Ace Of Diamonds, competing at Spruce Meadows in the 1.25-meter class last August, is a 6-year-old mare bred by Richard and Kaylen Spooner. She is by the 1998 Holsteiner stallion Ace, out of Ezra, granddaughter of Voltaire. | © SportFot

There was a lot of excitement in the Richard Spooner camp when the veteran international rider and his 18-year-old Cristallo won the CNOOC Nexen Cup Derby at the Spruce Meadows National this past June. It was their second consecutive and third win of the big 1.5-meter Calgary class. 

Two weeks later at the Canadian venue’s All Alberta ring, the fences were lower and the crowd thinner, but there was no less excitement within Team Spooner when 6-year-old hombred Ace Of Diamonds won the Friends Of The Meadow Barrage 1.25-meter class after consistent top-10 placings in that division during the prior weeks. It was her second week competing over the derby course of natural obstacles that included an in-ground liverpool, up-and-down hills and a tricky triple combination. “The first day, it was very spooky,” Richard recounts. “She had a rail in the combination and after that, some horses would melt. But she didn’t. She realized, ‘I’ve got to try a little harder, go a little faster.’ She grabbed the bit and pulled me around just like her mother would. The next day she was clean and we finished fifth. I was so proud of her.”

Richard Spooner competed Ace in the 2009 Las Vegas World Cup Final. | © Amy K. Dragoo

Richard, of course, is known for World Cup, Nations Cup and grand prix victories throughout the United States and Europe, primarily on longtime mounts that seem to improve with age. His first big-time horse, Robinson, competed in his last big class in 2007 and retired at 19 after helping Richard to many of his first 100 grands prix wins. Today, Cristallo and Chivas Z demonstrate at the highest levels that late-teens are the new pre-teens as far as peak years for show jumpers.

But when the time comes for any of Richard’s veterans to retire, he won’t be caught unmounted. In addition to a steady stream of jumpers owned by backers, Richard and his wife and training partner, Kaylen, have ventured into the world of breeding and bringing along their own youngsters. Ace Of Diamonds, aka “Skittles,” is one of a few sparkling examples of their success. 

The Breeding Bug

Ace Of Diamonds and her full sibling Aces High are products of the inspiration for the Spooners’ breeding venture: the 1998 Holsteiner stallion Ace (by Acrobat II out of a Fernando dam who was out of an Anklang mare) and the Dutch Warmblood mare Ezra (by Heartbreaker out of a Voltaire mare), both top grand prix stars for Richard and owned by the Spooners at the time of these breedings. “We started breeding because we had a passion for these two horses,” Richard explains. 

Aces High, 6, competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival last March, is like his sire, Ace—a flawless jumper and an easy ride in the ring. | © SportFot

It wasn’t their first breeding effort. They’d earlier paired the stallion Lord Continuet with their own mares to produce a few nice youngsters. But it was the prospect of breeding horses they knew so well that really drew them in. 

“Ace has phenomenal bloodlines and he was a tremendous performance horse,” says Richard of his partner in many World Cup, Nations Cup and grands prix top placings. Ace was later campaigned at grand prix by amateur Abby Weese, who bought him from the Spooners and now stands him at Wild Turkey Farm in Oregon. “He’s also a spectacularly beautiful horse and has an incredible mouth.”

Conversely, mom Ezra “had no mouth whatsoever,” Richard laughs fondly. “What she had was incredible heart and she excelled at doing things you didn’t think she could do. She had a lot of try and a lot of character.” And a lot of big-ring blue ribbons to boot. 

The Spooners first tested their hunch about the Ace/Ezra pairing, along with Ace’s viability, nine years ago. The impressive result is Ace Of Hearts. The Spooners started him and Richard had him going nicely in the 1.2-meter division as a 6-year-old. At that point, longtime friend Ashlee Bond purchased him and continued his career into the grand prix ring. At HITS Thermal early this year, a newly pregnant Ashlee gave the ride to Mandy Porter, who piloted Ace Of Hearts to several top ribbons in the circuit’s FEI classes.

Around the same time, they bred Ace to Lancia (by Lancer II by Landgraf), a former grand prix horse whom they’d bought as a broodmare. The result is Ace Of Spades, who was campaigned successfully up to the 1.45-meter division by Richard and was leased last summer by an amateur rider.

Ace has phenomenal bloodlines and he was a tremendous performance horse,” says Richard of the stallion who has sired Ace Of Hearts, Ace Of Spades, Ace Of Diamonds and Aces High–all successful in various jumper divisions. | © Amy K. Dragoo

Ace Of Diamonds and Aces High, also 6, are the youngest to carry on the Ace/Ezra legacy. “Ace Of Diamonds is so much like Ezra that it’s almost a reincarnation,” Richard says. The main difference is that she’s about 1.5 hands taller, at almost 17 hands, and with correspondingly longer legs. “Her mouth is, if not quite as good as her father’s, much better than Ezra’s.”

Richard’s experience corroborates conventional wisdom that it’s usually the stallion who passes on a good or bad mouth to the offspring. “Mouth” is a “rideability issue,” he explains. “If you have a horse with a good mouth, he accepts the bridle, slows down when you ask him to—it’s part of the willingness to be trained. Certainly a trainer can mess that up, but if you have a horse that’s born with a good mouth, that’s a great advantage.” Conformation also affects a good or bad mouth, Richard says. A short mouth, for example, typically makes it harder to get the horse to accept and work on the bit.

Aces High is so much like his sire, it’s uncanny. “He’s a little quirky, a little spooky, yet his jumping technique is absolutely flawless just like his father and he’s an easy ride in the ring,” Richard says. “Everything is easy for him.” He had solid ribbons in the 6-year-old division throughout the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida. 

Prospects in the Pipeline

Richard has a unique perspective on breeding and, equally important, developing jumpers in America. Campaigning his top horses continues to be his priority time-wise while the breeding is a labor of love that doubles as a relatively affordable way to keep prospects in the pipeline. “The reality of the sport has changed in that it’s very difficult to be able to afford a top 8-, 7-, 6-year-old, even a 5-year-old.” 

Richard laments the “disconnect between the breeder and rider” because of the extreme cost of developing a horse in the United States due to land values and the price of competing. “The price of production for a young horse in Europe is a nickel on the dollar to what it costs here,” he notes. “And even the [western] Europeans are sending their young horses to Poland and Hungary because they perceive costs as too high in their own backyard.”

The Spooners bred Ace to Lancia (by Lancer II by Landgraf), which resulted in Ace Of Spades, shown here competing in the 1.3-meter division at the Winter Equestrian Festival last February. | © SportFot

Breeding his own horses is not cheap by any means. Even owning the stallion, mare and his own property in Southern California, it’s still an “enormous investment of time and money,” he notes. For many years, that’s without a definitive sense of the payoff.

“Ace Of Diamonds and Aces High are 6 and it’s only now that you start to realize what you have and you still don’t know for sure,” he observes. “That’s a lot of time and money already spent.” He’s confident that Ace Of Diamonds will be an “excellent 1.45-meter speed horse and I’m optimistic she could be more than that.” He has big hopes for Aces High, too. Then again, Richard admits, “With all these young horses, one day you think this one’s a genius and the next day you think he’s a Forrest Gump. They vary from day to day and so do your expectations.” 

Profit ranks low in Richard’s reasons for breeding. “I might get lucky and get some nice horses, but I certainly don’t do it for the money. We’re doing it for the fun and because we have a passion for these horses.” 

Along with breeding, the Spooners shook up the show-jumping world in 2013 by launching a crowdfunding campaign to buy a going grand prix prospect. They didn’t raise enough to buy a proven winner, but they are thrilled with the halter broke 4-year-old Holsteiner, Rockette, they purchased instead (see sidebar, page 45). 

The Spooner System—Such As It Is

Because they’re breeding on a small scale and as a secondary endeavor to Richard’s grand prix career, the Spooners don’t follow a strict schedule with the youngsters. Both produced by embryo transfer, Ace Of Diamonds and Aces High were born in California and stayed home during the three years Richard and Kaylen lived in Southern France and campaigned exclusively on the European circuit. When they returned home, the horses were 4. 

Richard likes to start the horses when he can, but when show agendas or temperaments prevent that, he’s happy to farm the task out. “If we have one that is particularly difficult and is going to kill me, then I’ll send it to someone and it can try to kill them!” he says. 

Whether the work is done by Richard, a staff member or a hired gun like noted horseman Allen Clarke, Richard likes youngsters to be handled and begin training at 2. His process starts with free longeing, carrying a saddle and eventually a rider. The early lessons come in what Richard calls “pulse” sessions interspersed with “kicking them back out” to the paddock for stretches without any formal training. This is partly his preference and partly a necessity due to his show itinerary. 

Later training sessions include introducing small jumps, typically in the relatively controlled setting of free longeing in a round pen versus in a straight chute. “In a chute, there’s more opportunity for horses to make a large blunder and you are too far away from them to have much control,” Richard explains. “A chute can also teach a horse to run at the jump, especially if he is getting chased to the jump.”

During these years of intermittent training sessions, the babies transition from living with buddies to living in their own paddocks and breaking away from their herd. “When you first bring them in, they freak out and they are pining to be with their friends. That’s when you come in and become their new friend. You are kind of like their margarine substitute for their friends. Once you become the butter in their lives, they are more apt to listen to you and want to hang out with you.”

At the Spooners’ Southern California base, youngsters spend their days in approximately 15-by-40-meter paddocks with gaps between the next enclosure so they can talk to but not physically interact with other horses. There’s plenty of room to get exercise, but typically not enough to work up to a fast, risky run. “You always want to minimize the opportunity for these horses to brutalize themselves.” 

Set on Richard’s hillside property in the high desert town of Agua Dulce, the paddocks offer built-in conditioning benefits. “The footing is moderately uneven and not always on a flat plane,” Richard explains. “It’s good for them getting used to watching where they are going, to going up and down hills, getting used to putting weight on their hindquarters and to traveling with their body in different balances.” The terrain also makes for trail rides—for youngsters and veterans alike—that build physical and mental conditioning. These single-track trails are frequented by coyotes and sometimes rattlesnakes “and other indigenous life forms in our area,” Richard says. In addition to watching where they are going, the horses have to engage their muscles’ slow-twitch fibers to help develop endurance and strength and stretch their backs and stifles going up and down the hills. “It really works out the knots both physically and mentally.” 

Nights are spent in the barn stalls, “so they get used to the routine of going out in the day and coming back into the barn just like everybody else.”

By 4, the horses are well under way, learning to jump a variety of regular fences and natural obstacles. As is demonstrated in Facebook videos of Richard riding Rockette and Ace Of Diamonds at progressive stages in their training, obstacles are introduced into flatwork in a way that looks haphazard but is anything but. 

His arena is well suited for this. Conventional fencing borders about half of the ring. A steep upward grass slope edges another side. There is a sunken road (grob) in between the hill and the railroad tie that separates the grass area from the arena. A 2-foot-6 bank serves as an exit or entrance option to the grob on one end.

The arena is filled with everything from low, angled poles and tiny crossrails to grand prix jumps set at solid heights. In a video that show Roxette being warmed up for what would be her first day of jumping, Richard weaves the mare casually at the trot and canter past and around everything, including up and down the slope, through the grob (with no jumps or poles) and, from a walk, nudges her off the bank. Her first actual jumps were leaving the ring over the railroad tie with a jump pole behind it and returning to the ring by coming down the slope and, from the walk, jumping a 1-foot pole set on cavalletti blocks. 

“I don’t want her to think she’s learning to jump,” he relays in the video, “but rather that she is encountering some natural obstacles as we are going around.” During this phase, Richard rides with light rein contact and simple, direct aids, sometimes a guiding outside rein to indicate direction and lots of neck pats and cookies from his pocket during breaks. Within just a few lessons, Rockette is doing similar patterns but this time with a triple combination of crossrails in the grob, a pole set a few inches off the edge of the bank and a crossrail following a few strides after coming down the bank. These simple add-ons introduce her to a triple combination, teach her to jump up off the bank, rather than down from it, and to rebalance herself quickly after the bank. All with minimal fuss or drama.

An equally relaxed approach applies at the higher level of preparing 6-year-old Ace Of Diamonds for the first natural obstacles she’d see in competition, including her first open water. Schooling at home for her Spruce Meadows debut in June, she faced bigger fences and many more of them in quick succession. Ace Of Diamonds’ first experience with an in-ground liverpool was passing by it as she jumped a slanted rail set nearby it. “So she first gets to jump near and around it before having to jump it.” When she does jump the liverpool, it is woven in with other fences that she is already familiar with. 

A Rider’s Edge

“When I’ve bought an older horse, it really takes a year to get to know them and vice versa and to develop a rapport, even when they are very well trained,” Richard explains. “Working with your own young horse, you know the mistakes because you made them. You know when they are going to spook, what their strengths and weaknesses are, so you can accentuate or eliminate them.” 

Richard and Kaylen first tested their hunch about the Ace/Ezra pairing nine years ago, which resulted in Ace Of Hearts, here competing in the 5-year-old division at the Winter Equestrian Festival in 2012. | © SportFot

Economics and training advantages aside, Richard’s main incentive is enjoyment. Bringing the homebreds along, in particular, is “incredibly rewarding.” To watch and help Ashlee and [her dad], Steve Bond with Ace Of Hearts and see him beat me and everybody else in the grand prix is a rare and very rewarding experience.” He adds that part of successful breeding is “who you sell the horse to because that dictates where they go from there. When you sell to someone like Ashlee, who consistently produces quality results, that reflects well on you as a breeder.”

Ace Of Diamonds and Ace Of Spades are the Spooners’ youngest homebreds and the couple doesn’t have plans to produce more at the moment. Richard would welcome a profitable sale but the priority for every horse he’s bred “is that I want them ultimately to be good at something, even if it’s just the 1-meter division so they can find a good owner and have a happy life. When you breed horses, you really take on responsibility for their whole lives.”

Rockette: On the Way to Social-media Stardom

In 2013, grand prix rider Richard Spooner and his wife, Kaylen, took the innovative step of launching a crowdfunding campaign with hopes of purchasing a going grand prix prospect. Funds fell short to purchase the 5- to 8-year-old with show mileage they’d hoped for, but, as promised, they used the nearly $7,000 raised for the next best thing: a younger, greener prospect. After a two-year search, they bought an unbroken 4-year-old Holsteiner from breeder Gerwig Bahle’s Okanagan Show Jumping Stables in British Columbia.

Christened Rockette after the crowdfunding site they used, the Lorroz Z by Calife IIZ mare started with the Spooners in January of this year and she has become quite the Facebook sensation.

On “Richard Spooner’s Rockethub Project” Facebook page, the couple is documenting each step—from first free longe to first jump—with commentary and, in some cases, a helmet-cam view as Richard narrates each new threshold. The Spooners knew they were on to something when a 20-minute video of Kaylen giving Rockette her first free longe drew 500 views. Captured by a GoPro camera at one end of the arena, it’s a real-time depiction of the patient, gentle cajoling and cookie-giving involved in getting Rockette to travel with some continuity in both directions—stops, starts and all. 

The viewership spilled over to videos of Ace Of Diamonds’ training progression (found on Richard’s own Facebook page), a nice following from the Rockette videos because Ace Of Diamonds, at 6, is further along with her training and already competing. The session of prepping the mare for her Spruce Meadows debut drew 15,000 views. 

Richard has an engaging, funny and effective teaching style and wishes he had more time to share what he’s learned. “In the mainstream of our sport, I think we have a tendency to assume that everyone has access to what we have to offer, but that’s not the case. Through social media we’re able to give people some access to what we’re doing and share some fun exercises and things people can work on.” 

The Spooners have been thrilled with the response. “We realized how educational it could be to show the whole process, step by step, that goes into producing a young horse through whatever he or she is going to become,” Richard says. “There’s a lot of value in watching it all come along, good times and bad, ups and downs.” 

He wishes social media had been on hand to document his first star Robinson’s brilliant career and is grateful that the medium has caught so much of Cristallo’s. Documenting the current young-horse development is a great way to harness technology for horsemanship’s sake. And there’s an added bonus for his own legacy. “It will be nice when my own riding career is over that there is some amount of my experience with horses left behind.” 

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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