By Lauren R. Giannini
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
Jumper riders are “in it to win it” with a perfect score of zero, leaving the big fences up in an exciting race against the clock. Grand Prix is the ultimate in jumpers — not every equestrian’s game, but Molly Ashe Cawley loves it. Extremely competitive in jumpers, derbies and hunters, she champions her horses by being their advocate, protector and defender. With Molly, the horses always come first.
“They’re my friends, the whole reason I chose this lifestyle, because I really love the horses, all of them,” said Molly. “They’re amazing animals. It’s unbelievable what they do, day in and out. When they give me their whole heart, I feel like I owe it to them to do the best I can for them.”
Blessed with the kind of “feel” that can’t be learned — sensitive, totally attuned to the horse’s mind and body — she makes every effort to find the keys to unlock the best each one has to offer. Molly pays attention, “listening” and waiting for the horse to let her know he’s ready for the lesson or for whatever’s next in the training program. She’s very honest about their abilities and practices what can be called enlightened horsemanship.
“For sure, I think that’s the only way to do it,” she said. “I know others do it differently, but for me it’s the only way I can do it – when they want to do it. I cannot ignore the voice in my head when I know the horse isn’t happy or doesn’t feel right. It’s impossible for me to turn that off, because I want to know when the horses are off or unhappy or whatever. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Sometimes I’m not so sure. It’s a catch-22.”
The Horse’s Job
Molly determines the program for each horse. They’re often bred, trained and marketed for specific disciplines and sports. So, if the horse doesn’t like its job, there will be problems ranging from poor performance to bad behavior.
“When you see a horse that you know professionally isn’t suitable and that the shortcomings are going to get in its way, I feel a responsibility to tell the owner,” said Molly. “People hire us and it’s part of the job to be honest with them. If they don’t want to hear it, they might insist we continue with the horse or take it to someone else. Often, by the time they realize you told them the truth, it’s too late — they have spent so much money on a horse that clearly needed a different job. I’m not going to be dishonest just because somebody doesn’t want to hear the truth. That isn’t doing anybody any favors.”
When hunters are too animated or jumpers too careless or slow, they end up switching jobs. “I’m more likely to make a jumper into a hunter than the other way around,” said Molly. “That’s especially true for the derbies. They’re good for horses that didn’t quite have a spot, because they were really nice horses, yet didn’t have the heart to be a jumper or didn’t have the technique to be the end-all hunter type.”
After the birth of her first child (she has two, now 8 and 6), Molly bought a Finnish Warmblood jumper by Coriano, meant to be her Grand Prix horse. “Kennzo has been my derby horse for the last few years,” she said. “He worried so much in the jumper classes, I knew he wasn’t going to make it as a jumper. His technique wasn’t good enough to be the best hunter, but Kennzo won derby after derby. He won a lot of money and he did it beautifully. The people who bought him for me had fun owning him. If he hadn’t done the derbies, I don’t know what we would have done with him.”
Kennzo’s retired now, turned out in Molly’s father-in-law’s field. She’s known to buy horses back when the opportunity arises. Some never leave, like Orpheus, her equitation horse. He developed respiratory problems and was only able to compete at the equitation regionals, which they won three times, and the equitation finals. Orpheus lived to be 23, turned out at a farm down the road from Fairfield Hunt Club in Connecticut where Molly worked for years and could see him all the time.
“Orpheus was my friend. Charlie Ziff, who owned Commonwealth Park in Culpeper, Virginia, gave him to us,” recalled Molly. “My brother Neil showed him in the Junior Jumpers, but Orpheus couldn’t really do it. I thought that horse was the coolest thing ever. Neil handed him down to me to be my equitation horse. He was a Dutch Warmblood that had done dressage in Europe. He had an amazing extended trot, like waltzing. He meant the sun, the moon and the stars to me. He was one of my favorite horses.”
More recently, Molly’s retirement club includes Carissimo, imported from Europe by Maarten Huygens, who had the horse for sale and asked Molly to ride him. “We hit it off — Carissimo was very sensitive,” she said. “He had been ridden by European men and didn’t love the pressure of being put between your hand and leg. I rode him like a hunter and he really blossomed going that way.”
In 2012, Molly made a spectacular comeback in the $200,000 American Invitational, having been away since her consecutive victories (2001, 2002). Beaten by the clock by one second and change, she finished second with Carissimo. They enjoyed wins and placings at Tampa and Southampton, and victory in the Old Salem Spring Grand Prix. Carissimo was sold twice, but recently Molly and Maarten bought him back.
“Carissimo’s going to show a little bit this summer,” said Molly. “When he’s ready, he’ll go to my father-in-law’s to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.”
Norfield Stables LLC is a partnership comprised of W.T. “Timmy” Kees, Chris Cawley and Molly. All three are specialists who started early in childhood and whose experience and knowledge help their clients to enjoy great success.
“Timmy teaches all the equitation. They’re all his kids. He has a good rapport with them and he looks out for them — there’s no bigger fan or cheerleader than Timmy,” said Molly. “My husband, Chris, is an excellent teacher and has a great eye for a horse. He doesn’t say a lot, but he’s very smart and what he says makes sense. He has a very calm demeanor — the clients all love him.”
Molly rides, trains and teaches lots of lessons. She moved from hunters to jumpers in the ’90s, won her first major Grand Prix at Lake Placid in 1999 and went out on her own in 2000. She’s one of only three to win back-to-back American Invitationals. As top finisher at the U.S. Equestrian Team’s 2002 Selection Trials, she was short-listed for the World Equestrian Games, but withdrew Kroon Gravin because of injury.
Molly credits her sponsors — CWD, Animo, Samshield, Equifit, Lucky Braids and Seashore Acres LLC — for making it possible to pursue her dreams and achieve successes here and in Europe. She has many career highlights, but still nurtures big goals.
If the Stars Align…
“My individual goal is a Grade 1 horse who wins the World Cup Finals,” said Molly. “If that happens, it happens. A lot has to fall into place: WEG, World Cup Finals, all that, but I have two kids now to consider as well. I have been riding horses for Louisburg Farm, managed by Paul Butterworth.
“They have a 9-year-old, Cat Ballou — he showed really well and did some of the 5-star classes in Florida,” she continued. “He’s got a big future ahead of him. We also have some nice young horses coming up through the ranks. Louisburg is devoted to finding talented young horses and developing them into future champions. I feel lucky to be a part of their mission. Hopefully, we can produce some future stars.”