Cool and Collected: John French Explains the Catchride


Cool and Collected: John French Explains the Catchride

Feb. 18,2012
Erin Gilmore

In any other objective sport, competing at the highest level with a partner you’ve just been introduced to is unheard of. But for ProEquest Pro John French, meeting his horse at the hunter ring and riding straight to the win is all in a day’s work.

High profile owners and fellow trainers regularly hand the three-time World Champion Hunter Rider (2000, 2006, 2011) and Inaugural USHJA International Hunter Derby Final Champion their horse’s reins with the confidence that he’ll exhibit the best of their horses’ talents on the way to those eight perfect spots. For over ten years, John has been honing his talent for catchriding all the way to the top of the hunter game.

“There are good and bad things about catchriding,” he says. “When you’re on your own horse and know all the things it does, you can sometimes be in your head too much, thinking ‘I have to do this, I have to protect that, I have to watch for the swap,’ and you think a little too much.

“But on a catch ride, a lot of the time you don’t know those things so you’re just more or less going off of feel,” he continues. “You don’t have a lot of things going on in your head telling you to watch out for this or this or that.”

Photo ©Cheval Photos

That ability to ride from feel sometimes earns John 50 rounds during a single, busy show day. That’s enough riding to make anyone weak in the knees, but if practice makes perfect he is nearly there.

“A lot of people that don’t want to catchride, they like to know a horse before they show it,” he adds. “But I sort of like it. I think of it as a challenge to ride a horse that I don’t know, and figure it out as quick as you can. Sometimes I ride it the day before, but there are times where I just hop on and go.”

One of those times will present itself today, when John will compete in the highly competitive WCHR Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, this evening under the lights (the class will be broadcast online for free at Week 6 at the Winter Equestrian Festival has been all about the hunters and culminates with the Spectacular, a 3’9” – 4’0” hunter classic that attracts the best hunters in the country.

Directly from three weeks of competing his full string of horses on the HITS Thermal Desert Circuit, John flew to the East Coast for the Spectacular. With two byes (via his WCHR title and championship at 2011 The Capital Challenge), John hasn’t had to qualify for the feature class. But what he has had to do is find a horse to ride. By Friday afternoon he had one definite mount; trainer Larry Glefke and owner Jane Gaston stepped in to give John the ride on Clearly, a horse that he rode “once five years ago in California.” He knows that the first time he’ll sit on Clearly will be this evening, in the warm up ring before his round.

So how does he do it? In addition to that God-given talent and feel, John has also mastered the art of keeping his cool, even in the most high-pressure situations. As an up and coming rider, he developed pre-game methods to control any nerves, and in his biggest classes today, the still turns to them from time to time. Once he’s won the mental game, he knows that he can complete his round with confidence.

“I used to write down a list, and I’d keep this list in my pocket of 8 things that I could say to myself to take a little bit of the pressure off,” he explains. “Like, how lucky I am to be doing this, or you know, whether I win or lose it won’t change me as a person. Or I just pretend there’s nobody in the stands and I’m just up there schooling. Sometimes I’ll even pretend like I’m a different rider. I’ll pretend that I’m mimicking someone else’s style so that it’s like someone else going around the course instead of me. That sounds silly but it makes just a little bit of the pressure go away.”

John recalls that after he won the Derby Finals in 2009, it became more nerve wracking to ride Rumba, the gelding that he’d ridden to the title. An overnight celebrity, crowds would flock to the ring to watch Rumba go with the expectation that he and John would win every class they entered. Just knowing that the crowd was expecting greatness in every stride became an extra challenge for John, who continued to ride Rumba until his sale a few months after the ’09 Finals.

“At least there’s a little less pressure when you get on a horse you don’t know, because not everyone is expecting you to just get on and win the class,” he says.

That said, John knows the Spectacular will be no cakewalk. He’ll be up against some formidable competition; last year’s winners Louise Serio and Castle Rock have been a team since 2008, and have spent the first half of WEF winning or placing second in everything they’ve entered. Louise and the other riders will have the advantage of competing with their best horses, horses that they know very well and have deep connections with.

Meanwhile John is looking forward to “one of those get on at the gate, jump a few jumps and go times” this evening. But he already knows that as long as he keeps his cool, the catchride will play right into his hands. 

Photo ©Gail Morey