Just “Go With It”: Why International Hunter Derby Finals Champ Tori Colvin Enjoys Every Round

Just “Go With It”: Why International Hunter Derby Finals Champ Tori Colvin Enjoys Every Round

Tori Colvin is not a fan of airplanes. The loud, metallic hum of the engines, the sudden ding of the overhead announcements, the headlong charge down the runway, and that sudden weightlessness of takeoff… As a constant fixture on the horse show circuit, Tori has had to accept that, like it or not, airplanes are a way of life. If you hope to get anywhere, and certainly to the show on time, then you’d better learn to roll with it.

“When I get on the airplane, I sit down, and I’m there. I can’t control anything; the pilot is in control of everything, so I might as well just enjoy the flight instead of stress, because what’s the point of that? It’s either going to be a nice flight or it’s not,” Tori says.

If, like me, you’re hoping to sleuth out a magic bullet from Tori – the secret behind that impossible, ice water-in-her-veins coolness that’s on display while she guides her horses around the most competitive hunter and derby tracks in the country – you’ll find only more of that same pragmatism. It was there in August, when Tori won her second consecutive USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship in Lexington, Kentucky, aboard Private Practice, becoming only the second rider behind Liza Boyd to claim the title more than once.

Yet while many top competitors cling to superstition, intensive visualization, recitation, or other mental coaching techniques to ride at the top of their game, Tori’s strategy can best be summarized by the Las Vegas Tourism Board: What happens in the ring stays in the ring.

“I don’t really get nervous at all. I have kind of the mentality that you go in the ring with your horse as well prepared [as you can], and you can’t change anything,” Tori says. “If something comes up, you go with it.”

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With a junior career that boasts two George Morris Excellence in Equitation Championships, the 2014 ASPCA Maclay National Championship, the 2015 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals and WIHS Equitation Championship, and wins in the WCHR WEF 6 Hunter Spectacular for four consecutive years, Tori has earned the right to her own brand of sports psychology. Round after round in the International Hunter Derby Championship this year, she proved that it’s still paying dividends.

Judges and commentators often try to characterize Tori’s riding; her unique ability to let her horses travel across the ground and jump in a way that appears both laser-focused and gracefully unimpeded. Perhaps the horses pick up on Tori’s laissez-faire confidence, or maybe it’s the mutual sense of trust she has in them. When it comes to her derby partner of less than a year, Private Practice, there’s no shortage of admiration on both sides.

“When I [first] rode him I was like, ‘Wow, this horse feels like he could win Derby Finals,” Tori says. He is a very special horse – he always tries to win. All the horses are good, but I haven’t ridden a horse that’s actually trying to win [the way he does]. If I were to make a mistake or something happens that’s off, he fixes it. He’s a gentleman of a horse.”

Owned by amateur rider Brad Wolf, the 8-year-old Holsteiner gelding by Lordanos, a recent jumper ring convert, burst onto the scene in March, winning the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at Deeridge Farm in Wellington. “Peter” won again at the Aiken Charity Horse Show and took fourth in July at the Great Lakes Equestrian festival in Michigan, wowing judges and cementing his claim as the complete derby horse package: a solid mover with an out of this world jump and the brainpower to hang tough in the handy rounds.

“[At Deeridge], there were some jumps you could criticize a little bit, but overall, he’s so beautiful to look at that it’s hard to [see that] in the moment,” Tori says.

Tori Colvin and Chagrand.

Along the way, Tori and Tom Wright, who also helps with Peter’s training, have developed a system that works for him. Though they typically give the gelding a week off after big classes and keep him on a light show schedule, overall (Tori estimates she’s only shown him seven or eight times this year), Peter needs a bit of special preparation before big classes under the lights.

“I ride him the first time before the class for about 20 minutes, and then Cara Meade, who also works for the Ingrams [where Tori boards and trains], rides him once for 20 minutes as well, and that’s about it. That’s our ‘extra preparation’,” laughs Tori. “If he’s fresh, he might shake his head and get a little excited – he’s not going to stop or spook. If he’s quiet enough, he’s quiet enough, if not, I don’t panic.”

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At home, owner Brad Wolf and Tori take turns hacking Peter to keep him fit. Their program: don’t overthink it. “This is going to sound funny, but we try to dummy him down a little bit,” Tori explains. “On my jumpers, I do things like half-pass and haunches-in, and he knows all that, but we don’t do that [lateral work with him at home] because it kind of amps him up.

“He’s such a sweet animal that it doesn’t matter who rides him. You could probably ride him bareback and trail ride him and he’d never do anything to harm you. If you give him a couple weeks off, and then you get on him, he’s perfectly fine.”


Tori Colvin still wears a necklace around her neck with the word “Dove,” inscribed on it. It’s the barn name for Scott Stewart’s former mount, World Time, and Tori’s first International Hunter Derby partner back in 2010. Dove was sold shortly after Derby Finals, but Tori hasn’t forgotten him (“he was my baby,” she says), or the ringside lessons she’s learned from longtime mentor, Stewart. “I helped Scott out in the [professional divisions] when he was showing and I was always around. I would model for him at Devon if he had an extra horse, and things like that.”

In 2016, Tori made the leap from junior wunderkind into the professional ranks, a transition, she says, that wasn’t as difficult as one might expect. “When I was a junior, I rode [in the professional divisions] a lot, so when I went professional, I was already used to it. I kind of melted into it,” she explains.

“If I had just shown as a junior in the equitation, and never in the [professional divisions], and never in derbies, then it would have been tougher, I think. But I kind of grew up with those aspects.

“What has been different is that a lot of the top hunter professionals have been doing it for 20 years or more, and I’m not there yet. They’ve been doing the same horse shows, horses, and courses [forever], so it’s just a bit [harder] in that respect.”

Tori Colvin and Private Practice.

Tori has always felt right at home on the derby field, though, perhaps because she’s been a part of the competition almost from its inception. Ten years on, the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship has become a permanent force in the hunter ranks, with more than 600 competitions held since 2008. In 2018, nearly 280 horses were enrolled in nationwide competitions, a new record in a single year for the sport. For Tori, who’s equally comfortable in the hunter and jumper rings, International Derbies offer a kind of marriage between the two disciplines.

“Derbies, to me, gear more toward a jumper aspect of the hunter class. I love the hunters, but I did do the juniors for what feels like an extremely long time,” she says. “It was kind of the same rounds: single, diagonal, outside, oxer. Sometimes, the horses would throw you for a loop, so it was never boring, but in the derbies, every course is different – you never have the same round.”

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This year’s Championship courses, designed by Alan Lohman and Danny Moore, featured, among other things, a one-stride, two-stride, or bounce in-and-out option in the handy round, and a triple combination in the first round of the classic. “[That combination] excited me more than anything else,” Tori says. “When I went and rode in the ring, I couldn’t believe it. It was something different and it made me so happy. I’ve never done a triple combination in the hunter ring!

“I feel like a derby horse should have that background. In [a real derby setting], you used to have to get off and open gates and then jump back on. So I think things like combinations and bounces and having those options is fun, especially for me.”

By her own admission, Tori doesn’t spend much time walking International Hunter Derby courses, triple combinations or not. But in spite of her notoriously calm demeanor in the ring, you don’t get to ride at the grand prix level – where Tori has been successfully campaigning the 10-year-old mare, Zambia Mystic Rose – or win the ASPCA Maclay Finals by some happy accident. She’s put her time in on and off the horses, and advises aspiring professionals to do the same.

Colvin and Private Practice.

“Just being around it and putting yourself in different situations [grooming or training] is kind of the most beneficial thing you can do. If you’re standoffish or timid to go up there and put yourself out there, you won’t learn,” Tori says.

“[Before a class], I learn my course, I school, and I do always triple-check my course again just to make sure. Even if your trainer [goes over it with you], I feel that you should always look at your course yourself,” she says.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned about how we can all ride a bit more like Tori Colvin, that may be the secret right there: do your homework in advance – two, three times if you need to – so that those final two minutes in the ring become a simple matter of rote learning. By that point, and whether you’re sitting down in your Beval Butet or the passenger seat of Boeing 747, it’s all out of your hands, so you’d better learn to enjoy the ride.

It makes me wonder just how many off-course disasters it must have taken Tori to obtain that kind of wisdom during the heyday of her pony and equitation years. I ask, but quickly realize I should have guessed the answer before.

“I’ve gone off course, I think, twice in my life, and it was tragic,” Tori jokes.

Twice? Just twice in her whole life?

“One time, I went off course, and one time, I missed the timers in the jumpers,” she continues. “I landed and went left, and they were to the right!”

When I point out that missing the timers isn’t really going off-course, technically speaking, Tori just laughs. “Yes, but it still does count! Now, when I walk into the jumper ring, I’m always like, ‘Oh my gosh, where are the timers?!’”

See? Even Tori Colvin has to worry about something.

All photos by Sportfot.

Written by Douglas Crowe

Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.