In his diverse career, he’s been a champion steer rider and calf roper, an Olympic show jumper, and, at age 58, the winner of Thoroughbred racing’s most prestigious race, the Queen’s Plate. Hugh Graham is a horseman of many talents. But the secrets to his success is the same in each. As told to Carley Sparks at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto.
I’ve never had a riding lesson.
But I watched the pros, I watched the stars, I watched everyone. I watched and made decisions on what I wanted to practice.
One rider I spent a lot of time watching was Jimmy Day. When I first started in show jumping, I went to work at Sam-Son Farm in Milton, Ontario and Jimmy was the rider. This guy was a genius in the ring. He was way ahead of his time as a show ring rider. He had a very smooth way of negotiating the course. You know, he had nice horses, but he was very sophisticated in the way he approached the course—he gave the horses confidence.
I was impressed with him. I watched him, I studied him. I tried to copy him and adapt it to my own style.
When I couldn’t figure something out by watching a rider, I’d asked questions. And I’d analyze the answers.
One time I was watching a rider I highly respected, John Whitaker. We were at Spruce Meadows and he won the class doing this turn back on a wall that I just couldn’t believe. It was so tight! But the thing that intrigued me the most about the turn was that he wasn’t looking back at the jump. That night at the party I cornered him
“John,” I said, “that turn you made was amazing. How did you do it, you didn’t even look at the jump?”
He said, “I looked at the ground.”
John is not a man of many words, so I couldn’t get any more information from him.
He looked at the ground.
I thought about it. I tried to understand it and I finally came up with what he was telling me. He was looking at the arc on the ground. As he was coming around the turn, he had the jump in his peripheral vision and was looking at an arc on the ground that would put him in the right distance in front of the jump.
I took that information and I went home and I worked with it. I practiced it. I didn’t practice it on jumps at first, I practiced it on poles. I practiced and I got better at it. But I never used it in the ring for three or four years.
Then one day I was at a horse show in Quebec and the horse that was leading in the Grand Prix was dynamite fast. I thought to myself, the only way I can win this class is to do John Whitaker’s turn to the last double. I did and I won. That was 1990 and I’ve been using it ever since. I can tell you it has won me an amazing amount of classes.
So, it’s good to watch other riders and to ask questions.
They don’t even need to be the best riders in the ring.
You can learn from anyone if you pay enough attention, from their mistakes along with their successes.
I was training a very nice hunter a long time ago and I was having the most frustrating time getting him to do the lead changes. He was a great jumper. He was winning a lot. But I just couldn’t get these lead changes, so I taught him to land the lead in the air and 90% of the time, he would get it.
Then it was time for this amateur rider to show this horse. What do I do now? I can’t teach this guy to land the leads. I can hardly get him to stay on course! So, I just sent him to the ring. Well, he jumped the course and made three or four of the slickest lead changes just sitting up in his go position. He’d get to the corner and let the horse do it naturally.
I learned that not every horse learns lead changes the same way. Since then I’ve modified my lead changes to suit horses.
That horse, by the way, was called Don’t Tamper. How perfect is that?
I think, though, one of the biggest reasons for my success in show jumping is that I put horses into divisions where they belong and didn’t over face them.
I had a horse called All Music. We bought him for a hunter and showed him as a first-year horse. He was a Thoroughbred. It took a lot of work to get him quiet. After a year, I said, we have to stop. Even though he was competitive, because he was a good jumper, I thought it’s too hard on this horse. It’s too much work.
I suggested that we make him a jumper and the owners went along with me. I started him in the green jumpers and he won pretty much about every class. This horse was so talented and so careful and quick. But he had trouble with the oxers. I knew I had to have pace at the oxers.
The next level up was preliminary. I was worried he might have trouble, but we moved up and he again won nearly every class. The next year, when you’ve won so much prize money, you have to go into the intermediate division. I was really concerned, but, once again, we got it done. We were zone champions in all three divisions in Ontario.
Where do you go after intermediate? I put him in two World Cups and he pinned in both classes but I realized the oxer-oxer combinations were going to take the heart out of this horse. He was such a great horse—I didn’t want to do it.
So, I made him a speed horse and, I tell you, he won practically every speed derby he went in. He was so fast. I could almost tell you by looking at the course whether it was my class because he rarely ever had a rail. Twice I won cars on him and I never did the World Cup! I did the Welcome Stake and the Speed Derby or in one case it was a Speed Derby and the Six Bar. He won the Six Bar at 6’9” because they were all verticals.
We retired him 10 years later and his win percentage was probably close to 90%.
That’s why I say, put them where they belong. A lot of riders will move a horse up a division and then back down when they lose confidence. I see this happening way too often, especially with amateurs and juniors. I think moving them up, over-facing them and having themselves scare themselves then moving them down, it’s only negative. You end up setting them back, maybe forever.
Move them up in small increments. When you get to where you feel their comfort level is maxed out, stop. Stay there.
My last piece of advice is to dream. And dream big.
When you have dreams, you have goals. And when you have goals, you have something to work towards. Then it’s a matter of how hard do you want to work? How much effort do you want to put into it? You only get out what you put in.
I dreamed of going to the Olympics. I dreamed of winning the Queen’s Plate. I dreamed of beating Jimmy Elder at a schooling show! It happened. I worked hard for it. Simple as that.
What am I dreaming about now? I dream about getting that horse I never had. I’ve had a lot of great horses but I’ve never had a super horse. I’m still on the lookout. I’m dreaming that I’m still going to get it and I’m going to go out there and kick everybody’s butt!