Typically, when professional equestrians choose a discipline, whether it be hunters or jumpers, they stick to it. Their careers become devoted to competing, training and breeding horses in that discipline with the goal to either show or sell the horses with their barn’s brand attached to it. Professional hunter riders turn around beautiful, even-strided hunters, and professional show jumpers produce quick, careful and agile jumpers. But recently, several of the world’s top show jumpers, including Alex Granato, Darragh Kenny, McLain Ward and Kent Farrington, are changing the status quo by investing in hunter horses. Such a diversion has piqued the interest of equestrians, and Phelps Sports had the opportunity to speak with Granato and Kenny about their motivation to invest in the hunters.
Granato and his business partner, Josh Dolan, are the owners of Mad Season, LLC, a show jumping barn that offers full-service training and boarding. Granato, the head trainer at Mad Season, is a professional show jumper who has represented the U.S. in Nations Cup competition and has won over 50 Grand Prix events around the world. Dolan, a professional hunter-jumper rider with numerous accolades, has a personal interest in the hunters, which is what sparked Mad Season’s investment in hunter horses. In his interview with Phelps Sports, Granato shared, “[Dolan] has a big interest in the hunters, he likes to develop young ones… so that’s a big part of our business. The ones that we personally buy are to develop and sell.”
Beyond Dolan’s interest in the hunters, Granato feels that young hunters make for a quicker, easier investment compared to young jumpers. “Hunters have become a pretty hot commodity because, in America, they’re a lot easier to buy, develop a bit, and sell as a young horse, as opposed to a young jumper. I find, in North America at least, if people are shopping for a young jumper there’s much more of a pull to get it from Europe. For me, the biggest thing is that it seems like a more timely investment than a young jumper.”
Granato elaborated that a horse’s show record plays a big part in their ability to sell it. “It’s much easier to sell a 4 to 6-year-old hunter than it is a jumper. I find when the young jumpers are in North America, the buyer wants to see much more of a record than they probably require with a hunter.”
Granato and Dolan have seen success with a number of Mad Season hunters, including Vibez, Goalz, Scorez, Dibz and Menelik, to name a few. Dolan recently showed Helen Signe Ostby’s Menelik, a 10-year-old Hanoverian stallion, in the USHJA National Hunter Derby on the grass field at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival grounds in Wellington, Florida. Vibez is another success story to come out of Mad Season, as the 6-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding was sold after just Week One of the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) when he claimed championship honors in the Young 3’6” Hunters 7 & Under Division with Dolan in the irons. Granato believes that their commitment to hunters is a fruitful part of Mad Season, saying, “As the investments have been getting better and better, we’ll definitely try to grow our sales side of the business.”
As far as the risk-reward factor, Granato believes that investing in the hunters is worth it. “I think there’s still a good risk. Any kind of investing that you’re doing in any industry, let alone in the horse industry, can be risky. It’s hard to determine a real time scale on getting your reward back, but I still find that the reward does outweigh the risk.”
A frequent competitor of Granato’s in the show jumping arena, Ireland’s Kenny agrees with many of the points brought up by Granato, saying, “We saw that there was an opening to buy good hunters in Europe and bring them over here to produce them a little bit further and sell them.” Kenny added that because he spends half of the year in Europe, it’s easy for him to search for young hunter prospects to buy while he’s there and send them to America to ultimately sell.
Along with his business partner Hardin Towell, Kenny relies on the expertise of professional hunter riders Kelley Farmer and Liza Towell Boyd to train Oakmont Stables’ hunters. “Normally, if we have a good hunter, we would either give it to Kelley Farmer or Liza Towell. At the end of the day, there are people that are better at stuff than us. We feel that they have a better program that’s more directed towards hunters, so we always think that since they’re going to do the best, why not let them do it?”
Kenny and Farmer have had success with several hunters, including Rarity, Precisely, Testify and Namely. Farmer campaigned Testify for Oakmont Stables at the Kentucky Horse Shows in 2019 and at WEF in 2020. Testify earned 10th place with Farmer in the irons in the Green Hunter Incentive – 3’/3’3” Championship Round at the 2019 Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship at the Kentucky Horse Park, then continued to show his talent at WEF in a number of divisions, including the Green Conformation Hunters and Large Junior Hunters 15 & Under.
Kenny had a similar standpoint to Granato when asked about the risk-reward factor of getting involved with the hunters, saying, “There’s a risk-reward factor getting involved in any event with horses. We enjoy having a good hunter, we enjoy having success, and we hope we get a reward out of it.”
The most significant reason that show-jumping professionals are beginning to dabble in hunters seems to be that the investment is worth it. Granato and Kenny both seem to agree that finding a young hunter in Europe to buy, train and sell in America is a smart investment for their respective businesses. So far, thanks to their keen abilities to spot talent as well as strong training programs and methodologies, both equestrians’ horses have been able to pick up top results in the hunter ring, adding a unique complement to their owners’ success in the jumper ring.