It's Not All About Talent: What Canadian Team Veteran and Clinician Jay Duke Really Looks for in a Horse

It's Not All About Talent: What Canadian Team Veteran and Clinician Jay Duke Really Looks for in a Horse

Written by Lindsay Brock/Jump Media.

Even when he was young, Jay Duke had a knack for finding equine talent from unusual sources. Duke has developed successful horses that originated off the race track, in a field, or in the show ring at a variety of levels. Duke piloted many of those horses himself as a member of Alberta, Canada’s 1986 bronze medal show jumping team at the Continental Young Riders Championships before ending a prosperous junior career in 1987 by winning the Junior Jumper Championship at the Spruce Meadows National and the Junior Grand Prix at the Masters.

As a professional, Duke rode for the Canadian Equestrian Team and developed many notable young horses, including one mount named Mindful. Grappa, as the horse was called when Duke competed him, went on to become one of the winningest High-Performance Hunter and USHJA International Hunter Derby horses in North America.

So what is Jay Duke’s secret formula when it comes to finding the best of the best?

Photo by Totem Photographics.

Lindsay Brock: What ‘type’ do you look for when you’re trying horses?

Jay Duke: I would like to think that I do not look for any particular “type” of horse when trying horses. If that happens, then you are definitely going to miss out on some wonderful horses. In saying that, of course, I have my preferences when looking. My first impression of the animal goes a long way when influencing me. Within the first 30 seconds, I get a feel for the horse's demeanor, presence, athleticism, and conformation. I admit I do prefer an attractive horse, and they are much easier to sell when that time arrives.

LB: In your opinion, what are the top three factors that make a horse a successful show jumping mount?

JD: The will to win, a great work ethic, and soundness. Talent does not equate to winning in the show ring.

In show jumping, just as in other sports, there are horses that just consistently end up in the winner’s circle. These horses have the desire to be the best and they know they are better than their competition.

The great horses work hard at what they do, and they love their job. Without this work ethic, horses will not reach the top of the sport. Also, soundness is key to success. It takes years to develop a winner and you can't win if you're not in the ring.

"The great horses work hard at what they do, and they love their job"

LB: Looking back on your string of horses, what first impressed you about each of them?

JD: With Silhouette, it was her power and athleticism. The first time I watched her in the ring, I couldn't take my eyes off her. She simply out-jumped every other horse - her hind end was special.

King David was the ultimate winner. He won at every level and he loved it. An off-the-track Thoroughbred, he was the quirkiest horse I have ever worked with by far, so his entire program was very unique and tailored for his eccentricities. He was the kindest, most gentle animal I have ever met and would do anything for his rider. If you made the jump-off, which was often, the class was over. He would not be caught.

Mindful (Grappa) made everything look easy. The first time I saw him was as a four-year-old in the 0.90m and he made it look so easy. In the five years I worked with that horse, he came out with a great attitude every day. He loved people, loved attention, and loved his job.

LB: You have found some successful horses in “untraditional” ways. What are some of the most memorable?

JD: King David was a great stroke of luck. When I first saw him as a five-year-old at Spruce Meadows, he was “interesting” to say the least. His coat was long, he was severely underweight, and in a western bit. He wouldn't go near a warm-up jump if someone was standing beside it, and he would rear at the gate to go in the ring. Oh, and he was a roarer.

David showed that week with an amateur rider and did not touch a rail all week. I rode him on Sunday of the show in the 1.10m classic and it was a ride unlike any I had done before. He was a very sensitive horse and basically rode with no leg and no hand in a light seat. I just pointed him at the jumps and went with it. We won the class easily, so I took him home for a trial. The thought was he would make a fun kid’s horse, but it turned out that no matter how high you built the fences, he wouldn't touch a rail. Even though he was the spookiest horse I have ever known, he never refused a jump in his two-year career. King David went on to win countless 1.45m classes, be the top horse at the FEI Children’s Championships, and USEF Amateur Jumper Horse of the Year.

"Talent does not equate to winning in the show ring."

Mister Brown was another OTTB. My mother and I would try about 30 horses from the track a year and end up buying three or four. Mister Brown was a 17.2-hand lanky three-year-old that I loved from the first jump. He rode more like a warmblood than Thoroughbred, with lots of power and step. He progressed very quickly and at the end of his five-year-old year, I decided to take him to the Spruce Meadows Masters where the lowest division was 1.40m. On the weekend, we had a first- and second-place finish, and he jumped it easy. As a seven-year-old, I used him as my speed horse while riding for Team Canada and we had many top-five finishes.

LB: What are your go-to exercises to use when trying a horse for the first (and possibly only) time?

JD: Mostly flatwork. I want to feel how the horse moves and uses its body and how the horse responds to the leg and hand. I definitely jump some oxers with width, a line, and a combination that tests length and adjustability of the stride. Nothing tricky or fancy, just the basics.

"Be very detailed in your evaluation of the horse; every aspect of the horse is important."

LB: When you’re trying horses, are there any deal breakers?

JD: Yes! They cannot refuse a jump under any circumstances. If they rub a rail, they cannot do that again. In a 35-jump trial, two rubs would be the max I would accept.

LB: Are there any lessons you’ve learned or tips you would pass on to fellow horse-shoppers?

JD: Do your due diligence. Be very detailed in your evaluation of the horse; every aspect of the horse is important. Buy a horse with good conformation. Most importantly, purchase a horse that is suitable for the rider. That is more important than talent.

If I really love a horse – meaning I am considering purchasing it – then I spend a quiet minute with the animal. I put my hand on his head and look into his eye, and that is when I decide if I will move forward with the purchase.

Feature photo by Forever Photography.

Written by Editorial Staff

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