By Doris Degner-Foster
How many people could say they had dealt with the trials of a broken collarbone, a kidney stone, Legionaires’ diseaseand the joy of welcoming a new baby, and still won five Grand Prix competitions, all within a year? The formidable Todd Minikus could!
With over 100 Grand Prix wins in his 30-plus years of competing, Todd speaks modestly about his successes, which have been mixed with just as many challenges.
Joys were mixed with challenges from the start of Todd’s career. He’s come a long way from competing a former Canadian racehorse named Thriller to win enough money so that he could buy a truck and trailer and go into business for himself. After Thriller tragically died in a trailer accident, Todd trained another Canadian racehorse that he named Thrilling. He went on to set records for the number of wins at the Washington International Horse Show with Thrilling while competing two other horses at that show and working as his own groom.
Discounting the idea that he’s an independent self-starter, Todd said emphatically, “Anybody who tells you that is [saying] a bunch of crap because you get a lot of help along the way. You can’t do anything on your own. There were people that gave me a job for a few years until I finally got a horse that could win enough money for me to get a truck and trailer. They supported me along the way until I finally got lucky and found that horse. So, that’s not self-made; I got a lot of help.”
It seems that Todd earned the help he got. Even as a child, he learned that riding lessons came with certain responsibilities. “When I was 10 years old, my job was to water the horses every night after school. It took quite a long time, an hour and a half to water all the horses. That was my job and for that I got my lessons,” Todd said. With a chuckle he added, “Basically, that’s the same job description I still have, to tell the truth.”
Todd’s life was especially challenging in 2011. After recovering from a kidney stone, he broke a collarbone in a training accident, then caught Legionnaires’ disease a few weeks later. Todd adds, “And I put my best dog to sleep, and we had a baby, our second child.” Obviously, a baby is a joy, but a lack of sleep also means more stress.
Todd points out that no one is without problems of some kind, and that it’s important to not give up. “There are all kinds of roadblocks and barriers that you have to deal with along the way that are just life. I think it’s that way in any occupation, whether you’re a race car driver or a golf player,” Todd said. “If it’s not a horse’s injury, it’s your injury or it’s being financially strapped. It’s always something and although sometimes you feel like you should, there’s no crying in show jumping.”
Todd acknowledges that a riding career can be all consuming, but that balancing it and family life has many rewards. He said, “At the end of the day, show jumping is not as important as you think it is.”
Todd and his wife, Amanda, have been married for six years and have a son, Colt, who is 5, and a daughter, Langley, who is 3. “I think the time you get with your kids is actually more important,” he said. “We call Florida home and that’s where we really are the longest period of the time so the kids don’t have to travel. It’s fun that when I’m riding in the ring the kids can be playing in the backyard and yell, ‘Hi, Dad!’”
At 52, Todd jokes about being an “old dad,” but Amanda said, “Todd loves playing with his kids; I never think of him as being an old dad. After he has ridden horses all day long, he has no problem with coming home and jumping on the trampoline or playing catch or soccer with them, and he’s always willing to go tack up the pony and take the kids if they want to ride.”
Todd’s relaxed perspective seems to have worked well for him. He bounced back just six weeks after surgery to repair his collarbone injury in March 2011, winning the $31,000 Winter Equestrian Festival Challenge cup in Wellington, Florida, riding Pavarotti. Just a few weeks after that, however, Todd mysteriously caught Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by a specific bacteria that can only be positively identified through lab tests. The disease manifested itself as a severe pneumonia that put Todd in the ICU before it was diagnosed. Following his release from the hospital, he sprang back into action after he had been riding again for only two months when he won the $75,000 Woodlea Farms Grand Prix in Lake Placid, again aboard Pavarotti. A few weeks after that, he added three Grand Prix wins at HITS Saugerties, New York.
Todd and Pavarotti went on to success in the bronze in the Pan Am Games and in shows in Europe before the horse passed away in April 2012. Without another Grand Prix level horse, Todd was sidelined from top level competition until a friend sent the mare Quality Girl over from Belgium for him to ride and show. After the mare’s potential became evident when she won nine Grand Prix classes, a group was formed to buy the mare so that Todd could continue to ride and compete her. Among their more recent wins was in March 2014 when Todd and Quality Girl made the cross country trip to California and placed fifth in the AIG Million Dollar Grand Prix at HITS Thermal.
Currently, Quality Girl is Todd’s top horse and hopes are high for the complete recovery of Macoemba, a 10-year-old KWPN bay gelding who fell in competition in April 2013 and broke the back of his knee. He’s showing again, thanks to the rehab he got at home at the Todd Minikus, LTD farm in Florida under the care of Amanda, who is Todd’s barn manager. Macoemba began showing again at the end of 2013 and one of his more recent wins was the .35 class in Kentucky in May 2014. Hopefully, he’ll soon be competing again at the Grand Prix level.
Todd chooses to treat setbacks and injuries as a learning opportunity. He says about falls, “When you’ve had enough of them, you learn to feel different things. I don’t think there’s really a fall that [scared me], but you definitely remember certain scenarios. I think that’s what makes you a good rider. You recognize [that if you can’t] make it perfect, you fix the disaster that’s coming, and that’s what gives a little maturity to riders.”
With over 30 years of competing, Todd has some maturity and experience that influences his decisions about what horses he rides. He assesses horses as individuals, taking into account their individual athletic capability. Todd is known to be very hands-on and likes to groom his horses himself, partly to better locate any discomfort a horse has before it can develop into a problem. Perhaps it’s a carryover from when he had to do his own grooming in his early years. Now he has a dedicated staff and says that their work speaks for itself. “It’s a team effort, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s just like having a race-car team. The guy that’s changing the tires has to do his job properly or else you lose time in the pit stop. Everything has to coordinate together.”
Another source of help is Todd’s numerous sponsors. For his horses, supplements are provided by Vitaflex, protective leg boots by Bergus, and feed by Purina Mills. Draper Therapeutic Wear provides products for both horses and riders. Other rider equipment is provided by CWD saddles, Charles Owen helmets, Animo clothing, and Pelani boots. Premier Equestrian supplies his jumps.
Although a dedicated staff that works well together is imperative, Todd emphasizes the importance of knowing how to do the work himself before expecting somebody else to do it. He says, “This is a problem I have: Young professionals today don’t know their own horses and don’t know how to take care of their horses. How in the hell are you supposed to hire people to take care of them if you can’t do it yourself, and can’t teach that person how to take care of your horse?”
He strongly feels the same way about riding instructors and the importance of being able to ride to demonstrate an example. Todd said, “If you cannot get on and show somebody, it’s hard to teach it. That’d be like me trying to give golf lessons.”
Todd acknowledges that a riding career can be all consuming and that balancing a personal life with it takes effort. When asked if he would have done things differently, he’s quick to say, “No, absolutely not. This is something that I still love, getting up every day, riding and [taking care of] the horses, so I couldn’t imagine doing something else. I’m very fortunate. I think anybody that does this is extremely fortunate.” Although he admits that some days can be difficult, he feels blessed to be able to ride and travel. He sums it up by saying, “It sure beats sitting in a high rise.”
Even when traveling to balance home and work, Todd’s personal attention to his horses that was instilled early in his career is evident. He remains actively involved with all his horses’ daily care, even if he’s traveling, by communicating with the members of his team. In some ways Todd remains as involved as he was at the start of his career. Just as he said about his early responsibility of watering the horses every evening, “Basically that’s the same job description I still have, to tell the truth.”
It seems Todd wouldn’t have it any other way.
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds in Tulsa when she’s not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She’s working on a murder mystery novel where a horse strangely appears in different people’s lives to help them through a crisis. Check out her blog, Notes From the Field on the Sidelines website.