By Doris Degner-Foster
Family has always played an important role in show jumper Antonio Martinez’s life. So when Antonio was ready to venture out on his own from the family horse business, the separation was especially difficult for his family.
A native of Venezuela, 26 year-old Antonio described the cultural differences from some Americans when it comes to family ties. “Family for us is a priority and when I came over to the U.S.A. at 14 and I started meeting new friends, family did not seem like much of a priority for them; everyone was doing their own thing,” Antonio said. “I saw some of my teenager friends roll their eyes, and if I would have rolled my eyes at my mom or my dad when I was young — and probably even now — I would get in big trouble.”
Antonio explained another reason his flight from the family nest seemed harder. “When I was 4 years old I had a really bad accident. I fell off the roof of a three-story house and broke my skull in eight pieces,” Antonio said. “I was in a coma for a month and a half. They told my parents that I was gone, but they kept trying and here I am.”
So making plans to venture out on his own was difficult because he felt like he was betraying his family. “At the time, I was the youngest child to leave the house and I was the only one that was still riding every day [in the family business] so it made a huge impact,” Antonio remembered.
Running a Business
For several summers, Antonio’s mom, Carol, had traveled from Venezuela to the United States to help run summer riding camps at Vick Russell’s farm in North Carolina. His dad — also Antonio Martinez, who goes by Tony — had coached several riders in Venezuela who had reached the top of the sport, such as Andres Rodriguez, who was a role model for Antonio. So moving to Florida in 2004 was a positive step professionally for both father and son. However, the move didn’t come without a few adjustments.
“In Venezuela everyone has their own horses, but they are stabled out of country clubs. My parents were employed by the country club so all they had to do is make sure everything was running right [with the care of the horses], and schedule their lessons and horse shows,” Antonio said. “But coming here was a big change. Here everyone has their own farm so you have to operate your own business and buy and maintain all your own equipment, which we were not used to doing because in Venezuela that’s all run by the country club.”
While his parents were adjusting to the additional business responsibilities, Antonio was dealing with high school in a new country, and he didn’t speak English. “Not knowing the language was a big struggle,” he said. There were also the differences in culture and the independent lifestyle. His contemporaries’ attitudes and disconnect from their families was foreign to Antonio, who was working closely with his family in their business.
Father Knows Best
Antonio worked alongside his dad to get the business established, learning important techniques as he grew older and taller. “Being tall is an advantage because if you know how to manage your balance, [the extra height of the rider] is actually helpful to the horse,” Antonio explained. “You don’t have to move around much in order to accomplish much. But it’s a huge disadvantage if you don’t know how to manage your balance over the horse, because the taller you are the smaller the margin of error gets. Anything that you overdo has twice as much of an affect as someone shorter than you are.”
He incorporated lessons learned in the show ring into life lessons. “My dad told me, ‘If you have a rail down during the course, ride the rest better so you won’t have another,’” Antonio said. “And I apply this to my life outside of horses as well. If you make a mistake, don’t look back — learn from it so it won’t happen again.”
From watching his father teach, Antonio could see that amateur riders can get mentally overwhelmed and that every rider can’t be approached the same way. “It’s important to take the time to find out how they feel about things,” Tony advised. “You can make people ride the way you want, but it’s better to work with their style and improve it.”
Antonio also learned from his dad how important it is to be patient when developing horses; they all learn at their own pace and it doesn’t happen overnight. Although Antonio said that one of the best parts of his life was when he was training alongside his dad, producing young horses while competing at Grand Prix level on the East Coast, he eventually wanted to spread his wings, experience different techniques and “see what was out there.”
Flying the Coop
Antonio’s unsure feelings about leaving the family business were soon behind him when he took a job with accomplished Grand Prix rider Aaron Vale, whose farm and business, Thinkslikeahorse, sums up his philosophy. While Antonio was working for him at his farm outside Ocala, Florida, Aaron’s good horsemanship and ideas became a valuable part of his own way of thinking.
Along with learning to take the time to understand what motivates the horse, Aaron said something that has stayed with Antonio, especially when working with a hot or anxious horse: “It’s almost impossible to put that much energy into one little box,” said Antonio. “It’s better to let them work in their brain some days. Do simple work and don’t be demanding with the horse; let it go until tomorrow.”
After more than two years with Aaron, Antonio was ready to continue to broaden his horizons and acquire more experience, but he had some concerns. “I was really scared to leave Aaron because he was my first actual job other than working with my parents,” Antonio remembered. “But as soon as people heard I was leaving Aaron’s, the job offers started to come in.”
Antonio chose the offer last fall from Kyle Timm of Apex Equestrian Center in Apex, North Carolina, working as a rider and trainer. Kyle employs two other people who ride and train at his barn, and keeps a busy show schedule including Florida, the East Coast and frequent buying trips to Europe. Antonio also helps train the daughters of the facility’s owners, following his dad’s advice to take the time to listen to riders to utilize their own style and help them improve.
Although he’s enjoying his current position, he confesses that his next goal is to be on the Venezuelan show jumping team, and his long-term plans are to work with his dad again. “My actual trainer has always been my dad,” Antonio said. “Every time I’d do a big class, it has always been with him.”
Perhaps with the right horse, the 2020 Olympic Games may be in Antonio’s future.