By Doris Degner-Foster
Being able to do 10 back handsprings in a row and vault over 20 people seems like an unusual ability for one of the country’s leading hunter riders, but that’s only one of the surprising things about John French. Another unexpected ability was revealed recently when he beautifully sang the National Anthem at the World Cup Qualifier in Thermal, California. While it may seem like John is full of surprises, these are actually lifelong talents — he sang professionally in an ensemble group as a teenager and even made some recordings. Although his singing talents are still in evidence, the middle-aged trainer and rider laughed when he said, “I don’t think I could do a back handspring now; I might hurt something.”
Although handsprings are no longer a part of his training, he is still open to other challenges. “I like pushing myself, putting myself where it’s a little bit uncomfortable and seeing if I can overcome that,” John said. “If I can [meet those challenges] I can do anything, so why not try it?”
John hasn’t had to look far for challenges. Until recently, he ran a large full-service show barn, often traveling to shows on the East as well as the West Coast.
Managing the Time
John grew up in the barn near his family’s home in Maryland. His mother was a trainer who instilled a good work ethic, encouraging him to make the most of his time. “She used to give me lists every day of what I needed to get done that day, whether it was to clean 10 stalls and tack up these horses for lessons and clean tack or whatever else,” John remembered. “On that list it would indicate how much time those things would take. If I wasn’t ready to go home on time, then obviously I’d been goofing around and not been doing the work.”
Those responsibilities and the freedom to ride out of the arena shaped John as a rider in a way that he feels that too many young riders of today have lost. “I got to practice on my own, not just during lessons. I could go cross-country, jumping over coops and natural fences and up and down hills — not just in the arena,” John remembered. “I think it helped teach me timing, feel and the love for riding. That’s where I had the most fun, getting on my pony and taking friends out trail riding. I think that’s what started the love of riding for me.”
Although he acknowledged that such unsupervised freedom in today’s world is not entirely feasible, he fears that too many young riders of today have lost that relaxed sense of play with their horses that has the added benefit of teaching a good feel for riding. He bemoaned the fact that many young riders of today don’t even ride unless they are having a lesson, and don’t have the opportunity to think and make decisions on their own. Some students don’t even tack up their own horses — let alone groom and care for them in the stable.
“I was always taught to be grateful to ride anything, whether it was my 15.2-hand palomino of unknown breeding or a nicer horse,” John said. “I was always happy to ride and I wanted to see how I could try to make the horse better.”
As a junior, John foxhunted and evented before he won the Maryland Equitation Finals and was Reserve Champion at the Virginia Equitation Finals. He met the requirements to achieve a B rating in Pony Club, but since he was too young then to be given the rating, he turned his focus to showing. He liked the precision of the hunters more than the jumpers.
“As a kid, I thought eventing and jumpers were less technical, and that people could just go in and run around and as long as they made it over the fence and didn’t knock anything down, they had a clean round,” John said. “I wanted it to be better than that. I didn’t like the fact that you could get the same score as somebody who didn’t ride it correctly and just happened to leave the fences up. I wanted to do all the jumps well.”
As John aged out of the juniors, he was ready to start right away in the horse business. “The first person I went to work for was Daniel Lenehan and his son Brian. They were such incredible horsemen about taking care of a horse, not just in training but behind the scenes with the feeding and grooming,” John said. He later worked for Patty Heuckeroth, whose father, Otto, was the manager of the Ox Ridge Hunt Club. John said that she is an incredible horsewoman who expanded his knowledge base. “Patty taught me how to pick out a good horse and about conformation — how to really be more than just a rider.”
After a few years of working for others, John started his own business in New Hope, Pennsylvania, with a small number of clients and horses. While looking for a horse for a client, he was invited to California to try several horses that might be suitable — and by the way, could he also help out because their trainer was in the hospital? While there helping clients at a show, the news came that the trainer was diagnosed with AIDS and would not be returning to work. John was asked to come back in a few weeks to help with another show, and another.
“The horses were not really getting schooled in between and it was hard to start a business in the East while running back and forth to California,” John remembered. “The trainer there had maybe 15 horses in training and I had three on the East Coast, so I thought maybe I should just start my business in California. Even though it was an unfortunate way, I stepped into their trainer’s footsteps and business and moved to California. I never planned it but that’s why I moved and I love it here.”
Although John’s calm, undemanding personality and his interest in precise rides were ideal for the hunter ring, he found new opportunities in the late 1990s. A barn he had his business in was sold and a client who was more interested in jumpers suggested that he come to work for them, and it proved to be a good choice. John hadn’t previously done much competing in the jumpers, partly because of his demands as a catch rider for the hunters and his responsibilities of schooling clients in the hunter ring.
“I thought I would help this one client and maybe just see how far I could get in the jumper ring,” John said. “The first year I was Rookie Grand Prix Rider of the Year and two years after that I qualified for the World Cup Finals. The next year I qualified again for the World Cup Finals and also for the Olympic trials. I was a second alternate for the Olympic team that year and I also rode on several of the Nations Cup teams in Europe.”
John credits Bernie Traurig with his successful move to the jumper ranks where he learned to ride precise, fast rounds. Applying those techniques when he returned to the hunter ring was helpful to improve his rounds and make him a better hunter rider. John won the 2009 USHJA Derby Finals and Hunter Derby classes at Thermal and Lexington aboard Rumba, a grey Danish Warmblood — the Chronicle’s Show Hunter Horse of the Year for 2009 — that he also rode in the Olympic trials.
While John enjoyed the excitement of riding jumpers, his personality is more suited to the hunters. “I love to pick out hunters and bring them along,” John said. “I want to try to do my best at one thing and I don’t think I’ll be able to do my best at both.” He has added more derby wins to his already vast accomplishments, winning West Region USHJA Hunter Derby Rider of the Year in 2016. Recently, John finished both first and second aboard Skyhawk and Center Court, respectively, at the 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby.
Being in the Moment
John’s calm, relaxed personality was a good fit for his busy business. He routinely took around 30 horses to the big shows with 10–15 clients to school, and he also managed to catch ride as many as 50–60 rounds in a day. John attributes sitting in the stands as a child, watching ride after ride while counting strides before each jump, to helping him develop a good eye. “When catch riding, you have to go off feel,” John said. “Not knowing the horse, you have to concentrate on the feel and not overthink.”
That ability to control overthinking was challenged recently. “I had a fall last summer, which was kind of a scary accident, when I was trying a horse in England,” John said. “When I got on, it went crazy and I could tell that I either had to try to get off or something bad was going to happen. The horse reared up and I fell to the side. It was scary but I didn’t think that it left a lasting effect. I’d hurt my ribs so I couldn’t ride for about a month, and when I came back to riding again, I didn’t realize how much it had affected me. I started worrying and just getting way too much in my head thinking that something bad could happen, and I never used to think that way.”
In the horse showing industry, being judged constantly can make a person start to feel that everyone is judging more than just their ride, which can contribute to anxiety. John credits being aware that he was just overthinking and his ability to focus on the job at hand to help control the anxiety.
A practicing Buddhist, John went on a retreat where meditation and yoga were taught and he found that he was not alone in being self-conscious or unsure of himself. He was relieved to find that it wasn’t just him or his profession — everyone can feel anxious about doing a good job. John said, “These retreats helped me to be happier with who I was and realize that you can be happy doing anything as long as you are happy with yourself, and not worry so much about what everyone is thinking. It was just what I needed at that point.”
John has recently moved from a barn near the San Francisco Bay area further south to Templeton Farms in Templeton, California, near Paso Robles, scaling back from a full-service show barn. Although he continues to be in demand as a catch rider, coach and clinician, he plans to have a select group of sale horses at home to train and compete.
“Before, when I was home between shows, everybody wanted to take a lesson and I didn’t get to ride my own horses,” John said. “For now, I would like to be able to have some young ones around to bring along and have some time when I am at home to ride them. I will take a few clients but I don’t want to have that number anymore. I’m just ready for a simpler life.
“I’ve often heard how important it is to just do whatever makes you happy, not try to please anyone else. In the long run that’s probably what we should all be doing.”
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds foxhunt club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she’s not interviewing fascinating individuals in the horse sport or writing fiction. Soon to be available is her middle-grade series about teenagers who ride and solve mysteries, and a mainstream murder mystery where a horse appears strangely to an ER doctor to help him through a crisis.