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I’m Not Your Stereotypical Equestrian

Split Rock Jumping Tour founder Derek Braun on making a career out of his passion

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On my third riding lesson ever, I had an accident.

A bad accident.

I was walking down the barn aisle where I was taking lessons and tripped on the mat behind a horse in the cross ties. The second my head hit the floor the horse stomped for a fly and crushed my skull.

I was bleeding internally in my brain and ended up in the ICU for three and a half days.

I was seven years old.

I don’t have a very good memory, but I remember that like it was yesterday.

As soon as I could get back on a horse though, I did. Once you get that horse itch, you can’t get it out.

* * * * *

I wasn’t born into a “horse family.”

My parents didn’t know a Quarter Horse from a quarter sheet. But my sister had a passion for horses and rode hunters from a young age, so I was exposed to them early on. All summer, my mother would drag me to shows with her. After a while, I just kind of thought that I could do it myself.

I started at a small, lower level barn on [Long Island] riding school horses—the way most people do—and I worked my way up.

By the time I was 12, I was showing a talent for it; I was moving up divisions and winning. Success has a way of lighting that fire, of solidifying your passion. I gave up soccer and basketball and started training every day after school. I knew even then I wanted to make show jumping my career.

Some people feel that coming from a non-horse family is a disadvantage in this sport. I don’t believe that’s true. My parents may not have known about horses but they were hugely supportive. Whether it was traveling to shows with me or putting me with the right trainers, they really helped me make the right decisions…Especially my mom, like when I was 14 and moved trainers to Bob Braswell in Ocala. Maybe it was luck that put me in the right place at the right time; or, maybe she knew what she was doing. But that changed my career completely.

I don’t think there’s a better junior coach in all the country than Bob. I mean, I’ve trained with everyone.

Bob’s system grooms you to become a professional. He teaches you to be independent; to learn on your own; to pick the right horses and right situations to shape your career. Most of the people I grew up riding with under Bob are professionals in some capacity in the industry today.

He gets results. Every major victory I had as a junior—the USET Talent Search Equitation Finals (2001), team gold at the National Junior Jumper Championships, the Prix de States at Pennsylvania National Horse Show in Harrisburg [2002]—it all happened under Bob.

That’s where it started for me.

* * * * *

Even though I knew early on that I wanted to be in the business, I also knew I’d have to get a proper education to make it happen.

Maybe that’s where growing up in a horse family is an advantage. You can carve your spot in an existing family business. I went to college to learn business, but I took a year off to train with Debbie Stephens in Palmetto, Florida, first.

I think of that time with Debbie as “pro-prep”, because she had a huge influence on my professional career. Debbie’s entire life revolves around her passion for the horse. She lives to ride—literally. I don’t think she could survive without sitting on a horse. It’s inspiring to be around someone like that.

She’s incredible when it comes to the details—knowing every inch of every horse, every spec that’s in the barn. It’s something I base my entire life around now. If you look at anyone who’s been really successful in this world, whether it’s riding competitively, running horse shows or whatever, it’s all in the details. They’re fanatical about making sure everything is in the right place at the right time.

I ended up living with Debbie and her husband Steve throughout college. Five years, all told. We’d compete in Europe in the summer and I’d ride around my class schedule during the school year. Let me tell you, it’s a winning combination, those two. That’s one great horseman and woman.

The second I graduated college I knew I had to start my own business. I’m an extremely independent person. I’ve always wanted to build things on my own—build my own legacy. Almost beyond my ability maybe, which is probably what has gotten me to this point.

I started off with a training business and grew it into 22 horses in full care and training and lots of clients and sale horses. Five years into it, I switched gears and started Split Rock tournaments. Now, I have my horse show business and my riding business, which is mainly my own horses, a few sale horses and a couple clients. And it fluctuates.

I try to keep everything to where I can do it to the best of my ability.

* * * * * 

Like I said, I don’t think that being from a “horse family” always gives you that big leg up.

It can obviously help in the beginning—in the quality of training you get, the quality of the horses you ride, the opportunities you’re exposed to early on. But as you grow up and you learn and you get more involved, there are different ways to learn about the business.

You look at riders like McLain Ward and Kent Farrington; they came from extremely different backgrounds. McLain’s family was embedded into the world. He learned from his father and really is the best because of that. Kent, the opposite. He built it on his own and his competitiveness took him to where he is.

But they’re both competitive beings no matter what they do. It’s their personalities—they’re extremely driven people. And that’s what gives them they’re competitive edge. Not anything else.

So, I think it completely depends on your own drive and what you want to do with this sport. If you have that love for horses, there’s no reason why you can’t make it to the top. There’s enough room for everyone. It’s a matter finding your niche—the area where you can be successful—just like any other business.

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For me, the success of competition and winning is what drives me to keep going. Whenever I “lose”, it drives me harder to go further, to get better, and to keep working at it.

It’s the same thing in the process of developing my shows. As a competitor who’s competed all over the world, I felt that I had a leg up to create something better than the rest. And I’m just as competitive riding as I am developing my horse shows.

At the end of the day, I’m a rider first and foremost—before I am a producer or any other business that I start—because it all comes down to a love of the sport.

* * * * *

Anybody who knows me knows that I am the ultimate planner. I have a plan for everything.

But right now, with my horses shows, I’m more open to anything than I’ve ever been. More open to details. More open to different opportunities. I’m not going to do anything that I don’t think is right for me and my family. But I’m excited to explore different possibilities.

When I started my first horse business 10 years ago, I had no idea I’d be where I am today. And I can’t predict where the next 10 years will take me, but I know what want.

I want to be running a successful horse show management business with events across America and I want to keep pursuing my riding career. I think they go hand in hand. I don’t think my show business would be as successful if I wasn’t a decent rider; and I don’t think I’d be as passionate about my shows if I wasn’t continuing to work on my riding.

In horses, things can change in a heartbeat—for better or for worse—but I couldn’t imagine a better life.

 

Split Rock Jumping Tour
Lexington International CSI3***
May 24-28, 2017
Split Rock Farm
4845 Bryan Station Rd.
Lexington, KY 40516


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