Jack Hardin Towell, better known as Hardin to his friends, is one of America’s rising show jumping stars.
Humble, grounded and infectiously enthusiastic, the 29-year-old American has been quietly smashing his goals and rising through the levels to where he is now counted as one of the top show jumpers in the world. Ahead of LGCT and GCL Miami Beach, the Longines Global Champion Tour caught up with Hardin to talk teams, tactics and taking stock of how far he’s come.
Hardin, just give us a little background—your family is one with a history in the sport…
That’s right, my father is a professional; I grew up riding and my sister is also a professional—she competes in the hunters. I’ve been riding since I was a kid although I actually didn’t like it that much when I was younger, I liked to play baseball and football! But I grew up and I realised that this is what I was going to do for my living—I wasn’t going to make any money playing football or baseball so horses it was!
Was there a moment then where you said, “Ok, this is for me, it’s time to put the bat down”?
I wasn’t great when I rode ponies but then I started to improve a little bit. I had a little success when I was around 13 or 14, I started to enjoy it and saw that what I did was pretty cool. That’s when I decided that it was what I wanted to do.
We’ve seen you on the Longines Global Champions Tour these past few seasons, what has been your experience of it and what differentiates it from competing on any other type of circuit?
The shows are amazing. The destinations are amazing. I was lucky enough two years ago to win one of the big classes in Miami Beach on the first day. Everywhere you go on the GCT if you win classes or have success it’s very highlighted—there’s a lot of publicity. They’re great shows. I’ve been lucky to take part these past two years and this will be my third year competing in the GCT and my second in the GCL.
Do you think the event in Miami Beach changed the game a little bit here in the United States?
I do. I think there are a lot of Americans who are taking part in the GCL, and I think Miami has helped with that. People got excited last year—it was the first GCL—and I think it has helped a lot.
Last year you travelled to quite a few of the LGCT events. Which ones stood out for you and what was your best experience?
Well, last year I won a big class in Shanghai, so that would be the best one for me! Mexico City was amazing, and Miami was great as always. I did Shanghai, which I liked—maybe because I had a good week! And I also did Vienna, which was very nice. I was lucky enough to be on a team with Laura Kraut and Emma Heise for the GCL Rome Gladiators; they gave me a nice opportunity and it was a very good experience for me to be able to compete.
Tell us a little about the Rome Gladiators, the team with whom you were competing for the GCL last year. What was your experience of that?
I really liked it. The first one I did was Mexico City, and it was tough. It was bigger than I think a lot of people expected and a new format. I didn’t have a great result so I wasn’t thrilled with how I performed for the team there.
In Shanghai my horse jumped well, but I was still a little disappointed in myself so it was nice in Vienna that Laura Renwick and I ended up second and I jumped double clear. I felt good that I could put in a nice effort for the team and I could contribute. I went into Vienna very focused on the team event and I’d brought my horse specifically for the show with that in mind and it worked out.
When you ride second in particular there is a lot of pressure. There’s no drop score and you want to do the best you can for the team, so it’s fun—I really enjoyed it last year and I’m looking forward to it again this year.
Our team [the Paris Panthers] this year will be great. We have Jennifer [Gates] who I can’t wait to ride with, Darragh Kenny who is one of my best friends, Lillie Keenan as another U25 American and Nayel Nasser who lives in California. We know each other very well and it’s a good group. Two of the riders, Jennifer and Lillie are U25 and then the rest of us are under 30 so it’s a cool, young team and I’m looking forward to it.
What do you think the GCL offers to fans of the sport?
It can bring a new following to the sport. It’s a new concept. Last year was great but it was the first year. This year the format is a little different—and I think the way it is going to work this season will be even better. There is serious money and world ranking points so I think you’re going to see people using their best horses and really fighting for it.
Your team sounds strong…
Yes, and we’re not coming to a competition without trying to win! We all have different horses. Nayel’s horse is very careful and I think would be great for Monaco and the smaller rings. So at the moment we’re going over the team dynamic, which horses are going to suit which venues and we need to be strategic about it. Hopefully it pays off!
I MIGHT NOT HAVE THE TALENT THAT THOSE GUYS DO, BUT IF I POINT TOWARDS A CERTAIN GOAL WHEN MY HORSES ARE GOING RIGHT, ON ANY GIVEN DAY I CAN STILL BEAT THEM.
You also train Jennifer, how will it be competing on a team with her?
I’m looking forward to it. In the past couple of years it’s been quite fun as both Jenn and I have reached the next level. It’s actually sometimes more difficult for me when she’s showing as I’m so nervous for her! It’s nice that we’re going to be able to do this together. It does [have a family feel], we’re all good friends so it’s going to be fun.
What advice would you give to someone looking to compete on your level in the future?
It hit me last year actually when I was talking to one of my friends as I was leaving Mexico. I was frustrated with how my results had been, and he said “you know what, Hardin, take a deep breath—look, you’re showing in Mexico, you’re showing at the best events in the world, enjoy it a little bit.”
You put so much pressure on yourself that you don’t get to enjoy the ride sometimes, and that’s where I’ve recently tried to take a deep breath and realise if I keep doing what I’m doing with my horses, it’s eventually going to happen. You’re going to have rough times where you’re not going as well but if I look back to five years ago, I never thought I’d be jumping these shows. That version of me would be delighted to be competing at this level. With this sport you just have to keep going and working hard—you’ll never know when you’ll find a great horse and move up the ranks.
One thing to remember is you need to take time. You won’t get from 1400th in the world to the top 30 overnight. You need to have a plan.
Two years ago I said to myself, by the end of Spruce Meadows I want to be in the top 100 in the world’ and then by the end of that year I wanted to be in the top 50. It’s been a few months now and I’ve stayed in the top 50. You have to pick stepping stones and then look at the final goal.
You’re also very knowledgeable about the sport…
There are riders like Bertram Allen or Darragh [Kenny] who are amazing, absolutely amazing. They can do anything. Then there are other people who don’t have as much talent but have worked hard and are smart—it’s like with any sport; smart with how they point themselves.
I feel like you need to know, you need to be a fan of the game. I might not have the talent that those guys do, but if I point towards a certain goal when my horses are going right, on any given day I can still beat them. You need to understand the sport and be a fan of the sport, especially as it’s evolving—even in my lifetime if you go back and watch videos from the Olympics in 2000, it’s crazy to compare it to what it is now. You need to understand the sport to change with the times.
Photos and text courtesy of the Longines Global Champions Tour.