By Doris Degner-Foster
Photos by Isabel J. Kurek
While a green horse and green rider aren’t the best combination, for Jason Cole it turned out to be a recipe for success. Jason was just a teenager when his first horse, a 3-year-old green-broke Thoroughbred gelding, paved the way for a lifetime of training green horses, from the racetrack to the hunt field.
Jason recently became the huntsman for the Marlborough Hunt in southern Maryland — and while the job is filled with long days, it’s fewer hours than his previous job as racehorse trainer. “I just took over the position in May and I’ve already seen a cutback in hours,” Jason said. “No more getting up at three in the morning to get things done at the barn before leaving to go to the races to run a horse in the last race at Charlestown or Penn National to be back home at one or two the next morning.”
Jason’s job with Marlborough Hunt includes training and caring for over 60 hounds while also training the horses he will ride in the hunts. Maintaining a familiarity with the fixtures, or areas where the club hunts, and driving almost two hours to transport horses and hounds to those fixtures two days a week during the hunt season also falls under Jason’s job requirements.
The huntsman has to have the ability to ride a galloping horse over uneven terrain while blowing a horn to communicate with the baying hounds as they run on the trail of a fox or coyote. The thrill of that makes the hard work worth it for Jason.
He Took Another Path
Jason grew up in Maryland, then his family moved to Virginia, where he started riding as a teenager. It was just by chance that a neighbor’s daughter went off to college, leaving some horses idle. Jason took over and began working the horses for them, learning to ride saddle seat to take some of them to a show before his parents bought a horse for him.
Jason was 16 when his family moved back to Maryland in 1988. He started eventing with his then girlfriend and future wife, Janice Binkley. “I went up to Training Level eventing,” Jason remembered. “But we went to a point-to-point race one time and that’s when I got the racing bug. I started working at the flat tracks and getting into steeplechasing, and then she was into hunting and I started hunting with her.”
Jason began college with plans that didn’t involve horses. “I was going to be a landscape architect and on the side I got into breaking horses to earn money,” he said. But when his business of starting young horses became lucrative, he asked himself why he was going to school to start a new career when he was already doing so well financially. It was then that he decided to focus on a career in the horse business.
While it seemed like a good plan to Jason, he didn’t have the support of all his family. “My grandfather was trying to persuade me to go to work for him in his construction business,” Jason remembered. “Both my parents said, ‘Well, if that’s what you want to do, go ahead and do it.’ It’s not for everybody; it’s definitely a hard life, but in the long run, when it comes down to it, there’s nothing better.”
Jason smiled when he remembered that his dad recently confessed his misgivings about his career choice over 20 years ago when he told Jason, “I’m very proud of you because I never thought you could make a living off a herd of horses.”
Jason worked hard to learn how to make a living from horses after he decided on his career path. Part of his strategy was to learn from the best.
“When I first got into the racing industry, I worked for Eddie Gaudet for 10 years. I started out as a hot walker and then ended up as an exercise rider,” Jason said. “I got an extreme amount of knowledge from him. Shoot, he’d been on the racetrack since he was in the fourth grade, so he was just a font of knowledge. And then I worked for Janet Elliot for a while — tremendous experience there and a ton of knowledge.
“Other than those two, I’m just a self-taught person. I like talking to different people and getting information from them, but what they do might not work for me, so I take bits of info from them that I think will work for me.”
Jason said he looks at each horse as an individual and he makes it a point to tailor the training program to what is working for that individual in his business, which is aptly named Colebroke. He remembered a saying: “It’s not who they are by, but who they can run by,” meaning it isn’t breeding that is the most important, but the individual horse’s abilities.
Jason specialized in starting and training young horses for flat and steeplechase racing. As a racehorse trainer, he often followed up by training them in their careers on the tracks. His expertise also included working with horses that have behavioral issues, providing reschooling for horses that had poor training or bad experiences in the past.
“There is nothing better than seeing a horse that we broke go on to be successful in the show ring or on the race course,” Jason said.
Adding Whipping-In to His List
With his wife hunting a couple times a week, Jason soon joined her in the hunt field with the Marlborough Fox Hounds, using the outings as a tool to further the horses’ training.
“To this day, we have no problem taking out a horse that’s running on the flat or over jumps and hunting them,” Jason said. “In the beginning, it was just cool watching the hounds and viewing a fox while riding cross-country and jumping. It wasn’t until a little bit later when I started whipping-in that I really took an appreciation for the hounds and the hound work.”
Jason was busy galloping horses at the track and starting the young horses six days a week, so he could only take part in the Wednesday hunts. But when one of the senior whipper-ins stepped down, Jason was asked if he would be interested and he decided to give it a try. Never one to do anything halfway, he jumped in with both feet and began walking hounds out during the summer and realized how important it was to be in tune with the hounds.
As busy as his training business kept him, as a whipper-in, Jason still managed to get out to hunt more than just on Wednesdays. “It was a nice getaway from the barn, whipping in on Wednesdays and Sundays, almost like a day off,” Jason said. “I started whipping-in after I’d gone out on my own completely — not working for other trainers. That gave me the leeway to get the girls at the barn started and then I could go hunting for the day and just come back in the evening and finish up. I was renting a couple different barns filled with babies and steeplechase and flat horses, and whipping-in on Sundays and Wednesdays.”
For the last 10 years, Jason had juggled whipping-in with his training business, working with the young horses and getting the racehorses to different tracks in the area. It made for long work days, but he enjoyed hunting and when he was asked if he would be interested in the job as huntsman, he gladly stepped up. Jason has stayed involved with the training business on a limited basis, continuing to work with a couple of horses that are in race training, but his current wife, Filippa Boughton, has free rein over the buying and selling aspect of the business so that he can focus on his new job as huntsman.
“I just took over the position in May and it’s been a pretty nice transition,” Jason said. “It’s going from taking care of 40-plus horses to 60-plus hounds. It’s been a learning process but it’s been pretty seamless.”
Jason put his practice of talking with other professionals in the field into action, taking different bits of information that work for him and applying them. He decided that the hounds are similar to horses in that they are all individuals, and different training methods work for different hounds.
“I’ve been talking with other huntsmen and seeing what their training regimen is during the summer,” Jason said. “What I’ve been doing since May is to get these hounds out at least five days a week. It’s really what has gotten me in tune with these hounds and to see who needs what.” He has built a core group of hounds to begin hunting with and plans to add other hounds as the hunt season progresses.
Jason spoke of keeping balance in his life in spite of the demands of his work. He has three sons, college freshman Becher and high school freshman Tristan, who have both taken part in the family business of starting young horses, and his youngest son, Sebastian, age 3.
Horses definitely run in the family — and it sounds like foxhunting will, too. “Some of the happiest moments of my life are watching my three boys grow up, watching how they love the horses,” Jason said. “A few days ago, Sebastian saw me pulling the hounds out to walk and asked, ‘Can I go hunting with you?’”
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster is an award-winning writer who rides with Harvard Fox Hounds in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she is not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She enjoys writing fiction and is at work on a middle-grade mystery where teenagers ride horses and solve mysteries. Also in the works is a mainstream mystery where an ER doctor who rides with the local fox hunt must find a murderer before he is the next victim.