Sporthorse Star: Center Court’s Health Care Routine

Get up close and personal with "Billy," one of John French's top hunters.

John French discovered Center Court as a 4-year-old in a video from England. The big horse impressed him with his scope and bravery. © McCool Photography

Nickname: Billy

Occupation: Hunter

Hometown: Templeton, California

Basic stats: 8-year-old, 16.3-hand Holsteiner gelding

Sire: Ustinov

Dam: Tropical

Center Court’s people

Owner: Kristen Hiller

Rider: John French

Assistant trainer: Theresa Petyo-Wallace

Grooms: Daniel Soto, Pepe Ortiz

Background: John discovered Billy, who was 4 at the time, in a video from England. “He’s super scopey and brave. He could jump a mountain!” he says, adding that the big horse could have been a jumper if he were faster.

Billy gets bored easily, so his team’s constant challenge is to keep his routine interesting both at home and at shows. He performs best at new, unfamiliar venues. Now that he’s so experienced, John limits his schedule to special classes, derbies and, occasionally, the High Performance Hunters. “We can’t show him in the Regular [Working Hunter] division,” he says. “He would get sick of that.”

Billy is very lazy, says Theresa, especially when it comes to doing flatwork. “Once he starts jumping, he’s great,” adds John. “But he doesn’t put as much effort into his flatwork.” As a result, some of his skills on the flat have taken longer to develop. Last spring, John sent him to trainer Susie Hutchison to work on his lead changes for a few weeks and help him be more consistent with them.

After the 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships, John sent the big horse to an equine “spa” in northern California for a month to maintain his condition and strengthen his flatwork muscles. Billy swam five days a week and returned stronger than before. “He came back feeling really good,” says Theresa.

On the ground, the big horse “used to be a little bit of a handful,” says John. He was difficult to catch in the paddock and sometimes broke free from his handlers when being led to and from the barn. “He’s really smart and knows when he can take advantage of somebody.” Since moving to a new facility in 2016, Billy’s behavior has improved dramatically. Theresa thinks this may be because his box stall is attached to a 12-foot-by-24-foot run, giving Billy 24/7 access to the outdoors. “He spends most of his time outside,” she says.

While John will continue to campaign Billy this year in the High Performance and Derby ring, Kristen plans to ride him in a few shows as an Amateur as well.

Daily routine: Maintaining Billy’s fitness without dampening his enthusiasm for work is John’s primary goal. He rotates through the facility’s multiple arenas frequently, but tries to keep the gelding out of the ring as much as possible. He rides him on trails and practices flatwork on the farm’s hilly perimeter track, which is great for strengthening his hindquarters. Billy also goes on the hot walker for about 45 minutes a day. “It’s very important that he keeps moving,” says Theresa.

He is turned out in a large, irrigated paddock every day. However, because he gets fat easily, his turnout time has to be limited to about two hours.

Around the barn, Billy is “kind of a ham,” says Theresa. “He loves treats. In his stall, he’s very quiet, but he’s always paying attention. You can tell he’s always thinking.” Pepe says that Billy can be a little grumpy in the grooming stall sometimes and is picky about what tools are used on him. “He likes being gently groomed with a currycomb,” he says.

Before Billy’s rides—and sometimes afterward, too—Pepe puts a BEMER electromagnetic blanket on him. “It loosens up his back and sacrum,” says Theresa. They also routinely stand him on a vibrating TheraPlate. After jump schools, Pepe ices and wraps Billy’s legs. Otherwise, he usually leaves his legs bare.

A few days a week, Billy’s team uses carrots to encourage him to stretch his body.

Nutrition: To keep this easy keeper’s weight under control, Theresa feeds him just a pound of low-starch grain twice daily, mixed in with his thyroid medication, vitamin E and Red Cell vitamin and mineral supplement, which she says seems to keep his energy levels up. She soaks his orchard-grass hay to lower its sugar and starch content, then feeds him just a flake and a half morning and night, plus another flake for lunch.

Early in Billy’s career, he suffered from stomachaches. “He’s so laid-back, you wouldn’t think he’d have such a sensitive stomach, but he does,” says John. The low-starch diet has made a significant difference, along with GastroGard, which he receives during competitions starting about five days before he travels.

Other care: Billy is shod every five weeks with normal shoes. He receives Adequan and Legend monthly to maintain his joint health. Daniel poultices his legs after big classes. Otherwise, his care has been relatively uncomplicated to date.

The one treatment Billy cannot abide is acupuncture. “He hates needles!” says John.

Major Accomplishments

Began competing in the High Performance Working Hunter division as a 6-year-old · Won the High Performance Working Hunter championship at the 2015 Washington International, where he earned the best score of the show, a 92 · Has won 19 High Performance championships and reserve championships to date · Finished first or second in 11 International Hunter Derbies to date, including the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at HITS Desert Horse Park in November 2016 and the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at HITS National Sunshine II in November 2017.

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

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