THE ECLECTIC HORSEMAN

Philip Richter has been “horsing around” practically since the day he was born.
His introduction to the show jumping circuit began in his childhood on Bedford’s Coker Farm. Show horses and retired horses, owned by his mother, the equitation and hunter trainer Judy Richter, dotted the lush landscape of his backyard. Although the cast of characters has changed with time, Coker Farm is still a New England retreat and training grounds for the best in show.

As a kid, Richter learned from watching horse enthusiasts come and go, including Andre Dignelli, who was Judy Richter’s working student before he became the great trainer he is today. (See related story.)

Given his childhood and family history – “My mother’s parents met on horseback in Kansas City in the 1920s. My father had lots of horses in his family (in Germany)” – it’s only natural that Richter became a rider, too. With the help of a team that includes rider Norman Dello Joio and his mother, he is able to balance the sport with his busy day job as a partner and managing director of the investment firm Hollow Brook Associates L.L.C.

Time permitting, Richter travels from his New York City home to ride his hunters and jumpers, like the Grand Prix horse Glasgow, at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., and the Devon and Hampton classics in the summer months.

But recently the horseman decided to take a turn at something new – Western-style riding. He quickly discovered that this competition ring is a far cry from the familiar circuit – and a lot of fun.

Urban cowboy

He traded in his tall polished riding boots for cowboy boots, albeit couture cowboy boots, and traveled to Stephenville, Texas, to compete in the Cowboy Capital Classic, which he discovered really is a whole other animal.

“It’s a really fun sport,” Richter said of reining – the western equivalent of dressage. “It’s up-and-coming. It’s very technical and it’s not an easy sport by any means. It’s very different than show jumping.”

His turn at reining was inspired by his fiancée, Sarah Willeman, who he describes as a “very accomplished equestrian. She won all the USET Medal Finals and the ASPCA Maclay Finals.” The two knew each other from the small world of the show circuit. He also speaks kindly of equestrian-friends Georgina Bloomberg, our cover subject, and Jessica Springsteen, Bruce’s daughter.

Richter always thought Sarah was really attractive. But the two didn’t start a relationship until he found out that she, too, was living in Manhattan. (Thanks, Facebook.)

Willeman went to Stanford University, where they had a reining horse at the barn.

“She got really into it and hooked up with the best trainers, Tom and Mandy McCutcheon. She started showing, and they became friends, so she bought Tom a horse to compete at the WAG in 2010.” (That’s the other WAG, as in the World Equestrian Games).

“Tom took (the horse) to the WAG and won double gold in the reining and actually, the horse – his name is Gunner Special Night – he was USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) Horse of the Year, which was the first time that a western horse was Horse of the Year, because normally it’s show jumpers or more English type-disciplines,” Richter said, beaming with pride.

“Western reining became a discipline about 10 years ago, and the sport is taking off. It’s like what show jumping was 10 years ago.”

Still learning

While acknowledging that he doesn’t yet know much about reining, he is thrilled by the sport and the Texan horse culture, where there are few New Englanders in sight. Six months ago he bought his first reining horse to show.

“They all have funny names, these horses. This horse is One Last Corona, because its mother was Corona Nita and she died shortly before this horse was born, and so this was her last baby and she was apparently a good producer. They do all embryonic transfers so the actual mother rarely carries the foal.”

He said that the body and feel, even the mental state, is widely different in reining.

“I’m not a super jock or anything, but I work out and I think it helps to be lighter than heavier for sure…. In show jumping, you’re trying to kind of feel the horse with every step. Your reins are tight on the mouth so you feel the mouth, your legs are tight on the horse all the time and you’re directing the horse all the time. In reining, you don’t touch the horse’s mouth. You put your leg on the horse and it slows down whereas in show jumping you put your leg on the horse and it speeds up. So it’s an entirely different feel altogether.

“And the reining horses are very sensitive to every move. You tell them to do something almost by thinking it, whereas with show jumping you direct the horse a little bit more.”

Richter said that while he learned the importance of developing strong bonds and remaining calm around the animals from a young age, he’s also “a big believer in sports psychology. I have a book in the tray of my tack trunk that goes to all the horse shows that I always look at before I go in the ring. It’s called ‘Thinking Body, Dancing Mind,’ and it’s about Taoism and sports. It sounds very basic, but it’s about visualizing success and giving yourself reaffirmations of success.

“You get to know these animals really well. You know what they like. You know what they don’t like and you try to avoid opening up the can of worms of things they don’t like,” he said, referring to his horse Firefly’s habit of scratching just before competing.

“It’s silly things like that. To me, it’s something he needs and I’m asking him to go into the ring and jump this big course, and all he’s asking me to do is let me scratch his nose, so why not let him do it?”

While taking a call to confirm the car pickup for that evening’s flight down to Austin to meet Willeman, Richter thought about it more and continued.

“Horses are very sensitive animals. They know when you’re on, they know when you’re off – at least my horses do – so you just want to be very level, balanced, centered and relaxed…. I don’t want to be worrying about my investment business when I’m in the ring. Horses know everything, and even reining horses maybe more so, because they have to be more intuitive almost than show jumpers to know the maneuvers.”

Richter coolly juggles a demanding business travel schedule, a newfound hobby in reining, a constant lookout for almost-ready-to-retire Grand Prix horses to buy and ride, plus the excitement and preparations building up to this summer’s Hampton Classic.

But there’s something else he’s happily preoccupied with even more so than work and play – and that’s the walk down the aisle he’ll make at his June wedding, which will be held right at home on Coker Farm.

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