Tenacity In Top Form How Hunter Rider John French Paved His Way To The Top
By Jessica Brighenti
A professional rider with a reputation that precedes him, John French is known for his natural talent, horsemanship and, of course, many appearances in the winner’s circle. As one of the sport’s most accomplished hunter riders, French has been a prominent figure in the equestrian community for decades. He is now excited to permanently call the equestrian destination of Wellington his home.
Raised in “hunt country” outside of Baltimore, French learned the importance of horsemanship from an early age as the son of a riding instructor.
“I wasn’t in the ring all the time or competing. We did more riding cross country or over to my friend’s house,” he recalled. “We’d go on trail rides together in the woods, jump over logs and go fox hunting. I think growing up that way really helped me get a feel for the horse and a natural way of riding the show hunters.”
French enjoyed early success in the Green Pony Hunter division with a pony his mom bought for just $500, but once he moved to horses and set his sights on larger shows with stiffer competition, the cards were stacked against him. “I got discouraged and said I couldn’t do it,” French said. “We didn’t have the funds to show at that level.”
Determined to improve as much as he could, he sent a photo in to George Morris’ popular column at the time in Practical Horseman Magazine. In each month’s column, Morris would critique riders’ photos over fences and provide pointers to both them and the readers. French’s photo was chosen for inclusion, and although Morris was initially critical of French’s “long hair” and the untalented jump of his 15.2-hand-high Palomino, he made a remark that would forever change the trajectory of French’s riding career. “He said, word for word, ‘All in all, this is the best example of classic hunter seat equitation I’ve ever seen.’ That’s when I thought, maybe I could do this if I just had a different horse,” French said.
At the age of 16, French hooked up the horse trailer, picked up his friend’s horse and headed to the Maryland Equitation Finals. He not only won the championship, but he did so all on his own without assistance from a trainer — propelling him on the ride of his life.
From then forward, people asked him to catch-ride horses and ponies for them, allowing French to work for some of the most knowledgeable horsemen on the east and west coasts for decades. Before officially hanging up his square jumper saddle pads for the fitted show pads of the hunter arena, French went on to represent the United States around the world in multiple Nations Cups and FEI World Cup Finals.
After residing on the west coast for a little over 30 years, French packed his bags and headed to Wellington to join forces with a fellow powerhouse in the equestrian business, two-time Olympian Kent Farrington. “Kent called me up only six months after I moved to Seattle and said, ‘I heard you left California. How about working together with me?’” French recalled with a laugh.
He politely declined the offer at first. “I had just bought a house and said, ‘No it’s not going to happen.’ Kent and I talked at Washington [International Horse Show], and he invited me down to Florida over Thanksgiving that year to check out his barn,” French said. “Just like my initial move to California, it wasn’t my plan, but it looked so enticing to work with him and to be able to have such a strong operation and people to work with, so I thought, ‘Maybe this is the time I move back to the east coast.’”
Since pairing up with Team KPF in 2020, French has continued his success in the show ring with a few special hunter mounts and has been able to focus the rest of his time and energy on his clients. “I take pride in [my students’] successes. We keep the program small and select, but I am really enjoying teaching and working with them,” he said.
When asked what advice he instills in his students and to those who may be in similar financial situations to him growing up, French expresses the importance of horsemanship and gaining knowledge first and foremost. “Don’t be in a rush to start a business. Before you hang up your own sign and have your own clients, learn from as many people as you can. It’s important to find horsemen and get as much experience and knowledge as you can from them,” he said.
Look beyond the top trainers to learn from, he noted.
“They may not necessarily be trainers, but maybe barn managers, vets or blacksmiths. You can learn something from all of them,” French said. “A lot of people also just want to ride, but you have to pay your dues first and do more than that. Work hard and learn from your mentors. It’s going to make you a better horseman for when you do get to be a rider.”
This conversation took place just six months after French suffered a serious riding accident.
“I was riding a young horse. He jumped the fence nicely, but dropped his head on the other side, and lightly hit the rail with his hind feet. His head never came back up, and there was nothing in front of me,” recalled French, who fell off and broke his femur in two places, which resulted in a full hip replacement.
The doctors at Wellington Regional Medical Center worked diligently to get French out of the excruciating pain he was in and back into the saddle as quickly as possible. So quickly, in fact, that French was not only riding six weeks post-operation, but he went on to win the 3”/3’3” Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Incentive Championship aboard Suzan Moriconi’s Wyatt three months later in August.
“If I didn’t like my job and working with Kent, the clients and the horses we have as much as I do, I don’t think I would’ve been able to come back so quickly,” French said. “It’s what keeps me going, and what will keep me going in this business for a long time to come. Otherwise, I would’ve maybe thought that it’s time to stop riding.”
Luckily for all lovers of hunter competition, French doesn’t plan on going anywhere soon. “I feel fitter and healthier now, instead of three years ago. I feel like instead of coming to my end [after the accident], I have a new beginning here in Wellington and working together with Kent,” he said. “I can see myself going for many more years.”
When asked about his longevity in the sport, French declared, “I’m never going to be done. I will keep training and judging, and have more time to work with committees and things that give back to the sport to make it better. Even if I’m not riding, I can go to the show to train and help out. When it comes to horses, there will always be something to do around here.”
Learn more about John French at www.johnfrenchkpf.com.