By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Kirsten Hannah
Growing up in Texas, Jake Evans didn’t take long to become fascinated with horses. While sitting in his car seat, watching the world pass by, Jake couldn’t get enough of horses.
“I’d stare out the window and watch the horses grazing in their fields. As soon as we passed one field with them, I couldn’t wait until the next field filled with horses,” Jake said.
Jake’s world would dramatically change at age 4 when he was diagnosed with childhood leukemia. In an instant, Jake went from a horse-obsessed and seemingly healthy child to a child fighting for his life.
“I remember my parents telling me goodbye like it was their last goodbye. They had been told since I hadn’t shown any normal symptoms along the way, that I was very sick and it was basically too late,” Jake said.
Jake’s mom, Stacy, refused to give up on her son. She put her life on hold to advocate for Jake’s survival. “I’ve never seen a woman so determined as she was when they said I might not make it. She refused to stand idly by and let her child die,” Jake said. “I definitely get my fighter mentality and spirit from my mom.”
In a world prior to smartphones, Stacy set alarms to manage all of Jake’s medications. Oftentimes her maternal instinct would wake her up right when the next dose needed to be administered. “Throughout the whole ordeal, she was late with giving me one pill. To this day, when she talks about it, being late with that one pill still brings tears to her eyes,” Jake said. “Her devotion to me truly made the difference.”
After constant intensive chemotherapy, Jake’s cancer went into remission at age 9. “I owe my entire life to my mom and everyone at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. It’s an absolute miracle, which the doctors still to this day don’t understand, that I survived leukemia given how far gone I was when it was discovered,” Jake said.
While most people would be angry their childhood was disrupted by cancer and view it as an impediment, Jake feels like it was a blessing in disguise and one of the best things to ever happen to him.
“If I hadn’t had cancer, the sequence of events that played out in my life for God to close certain doors and make others open wouldn’t have happened. If one piece of the puzzle had been changed, my life wouldn’t be where it is today,” Jake said. “I can’t imagine my life any other way or doing anything else. So, to me it was God’s way of using some bad things in my life to open doors for greater things and opportunities to come.”
Cancer not only took a toll on Jake’s health, it took a toll on his education. Jake was forced to miss a lot of school as he spent time in the hospital battling leukemia. Once he was in remission and back in the groove of being a “normal kid” again, Jake’s parents made the decision to move to an area where there were nicer schools so he’d have a better shot at catching up on his studies.
“That’s where my riding story begins. When we moved, our neighbor was Merilee Braley, a rider who introduced me to horses,” Jake said. “Until I found my niche with horses at age 12, I didn’t really feel like I fit in anywhere.”
With Merilee leading the way, Jake began his equestrian journey at the Texas Rose Horse Park in Tyler, Texas. “Merilee mentored me and eventually introduced me to her trainer Peter Pletcher, whom I then started riding with,” Jake said.
From the first lesson he took at 12 years old, Jake wanted to become a professional. “I didn’t care how much money I made in life. I thought if I could ride and work with horses every day, I would do it with so much love that I would never feel like it was work,” Jake said.
When Jake was 14 years old, his parents bought him his first horse, Catuse. After showing him successfully in the Junior hunters, Jake sold him 11 months later. Jake used the money he got for Catuse to pay his parents back for purchasing him initially, and he kept the rest to fund future equestrian endeavors.
“That was the start of my financial independence. I quickly gained a grown-up mentality where riding was more than just an activity, it was about learning a business,” Jake said. “There was no turning back to ask my dad for money or help—as getting him to buy the first horse was like pulling teeth and I didn’t want to go through that again!”
Jake didn’t just view riding as his passion, he viewed it as his path to freedom. He knew if he worked hard to gain an equestrian education, he would be able to make his passion his life’s work.
“Getting up at 4 a.m. to go to the barn in the dark and ride my horse before school was worth it, because I knew the afternoons would be filled with homework and tutors. I was willing to put in the extra effort in the early hours and do whatever it took to keep moving forward in the sport,” Jake said.
Sink or Swim
After turning 17, Jake made the decision to move to Europe to stay on a forward trajectory in the sport. “I was at a point where I wasn’t quite good enough to get catch rides at other people’s expense and I didn’t have the personal funds to succeed and become a professional,” Jake said. “When Peter Pletcher encouraged me to spend time in Europe to broaden my horizons and skill set, I seized the opportunity knowing that I had the tools, both practically and personally, to get out of my comfort zone.”
When Jake arrived at Paul Schockemöhle’s barn in Germany, he found himself knowing absolutely no one and truly alone across the Atlantic. “There was no backing out at that point. It was ‘suck it up and figure it out’ because I wasn’t going to get a do-over. It truly was sink or swim,” Jake said. “My whole life has been a little bit of sink or swim. I have never once sunk.”
While Jake was accustomed to putting in long hours and riding tough in the States, he was in for a surprise when he got to Europe. “I was not prepared for the amount of work and actual horsemanship I was going to need to learn to be able to produce an animal versus just getting on and being a passenger,” he said.
Jake soaked up all he could at Paul’s barn. “You name it, I did it. I learned the ins and outs of riding some great horses of varying types and did all the care, bathing, mucking stalls, grooming, etc.,” Jake said. “I was fortunate to work with and learn from Paul and Franke Sloothaak, who are both legends in the horse industry.”
Jake’s time in Europe not only helped him gain valuable horsemanship skills, but it also helped reframe his mindset on what kind of horseman he could be. “It was the first time in my career where riding wasn’t all about showing; it was about producing horses for clients. I realized that you don’t have to show 45 weeks a year in order to be successful,” Jake said. “You can do the work at home and the horses can learn just as much, if not more, getting fine-tuned at home.”
After nearly seven months in Germany, Jake decided to head back to the States to finish up his Junior career. Jake became a working student at Castlewood Farm in Wellington, Florida.
“At Castlewood, I picked up right where I left off in Europe and continued to be a hands-on horseman. It’s not just about riding; it’s important that every rider and trainer knows about the fine details that happen behind the scenes to make everything happen,” Jake said. “There wasn’t a thing I wasn’t involved in—grooming, tacking up, driving the truck and trailer, handling vet appointments. I learned a lot during my time there.”
As soon as Jake aged out, he was able to make his dream a reality and turned professional. As a newly minted professional, Jake began his career working for Richard Cunkle in Wellington, Florida. Although Jake had visions of showing and traveling the circuit, that’s not what Richard’s program was about. Instead, Jake used his time with Richard to learn how to help make horses winners for their riders.
“Richard taught me so much about how to prepare a horse for a client and how to make horses successful for Junior and amateur riders,” Jake said. “This is no easy task, and it was the first time I really saw this side of the sport.”
After learning some valuable insights from Richard, Jake decided it was time to head to the West Coast and see what the horse scene out there had to offer. While in California, he worked for John Bragg and Lee Flick at Bridgeport Farm and Archie Cox at Brookway Stables.
“John and Lee really exposed me to the intention and organization required to manage a large staff, dozens of horses and owners. Their systematic approach to care, training and management still resonates with me today,” Jake said.
While his time at Bridgeport Farm gave Jake the management skills he would someday be able to use in his own business, it was his time at Brookway Stables that had a huge impact on Jake’s teaching style. “Archie is adamant that students, regardless of their ability, always want to ‘get it right.’ He encouraged me to always frame my instruction from that vantage point and to use positive, affirmative language and communications at all times to instill trust with students and pour confidence into the rider,” Jake said.
Jake feels very lucky to have been able to be part of both Bridgeport Farm and Brookway Stables, as each operation has a long history of success in producing top equestrians and equine athletes. “The exposure to both of these machines continues to inspire my passion, productivity and organization in my own business,” he said.
In the midst of the 2023 winter circuit, Jake had yet another sink or swim moment when he decided to open his own business, Empire Lane in Ocala, Florida. “I’m definitely too stubborn to start sinking now. I hit the ground running hard and clients quickly started to come in,” he said.
Empire Lane is home to a variety of levels of hunters, jumpers and equitation horses. Jake’s focus today is reminiscent of those early moments when he watched horses pass by while in his car seat. He wants his riders to enjoy horses and the sport.
“I want my riders to have fun but work hard. Regardless of if they win or not, if they’re having a good time, that’s all it’s about in the end,” he said. “I want to create an atmosphere that pushes riders out of their comfort zone to challenge themselves, but not to the point where they are miserable when they make a mistake.”
Jake’s life is a lesson that things don’t always go as planned, but that doesn’t mean you can’t smile through the challenges. That’s why he never wants his clients to feel they let him or themselves down if things don’t go according to plan. “I tell them I will never be upset if they make a mistake; as long as they’re trying, that’s what matters. Each time we walk in the ring, we’re chasing an achievement or victory, but winning only happens about 5% of the time. The other 95% of the time doesn’t make you a loser, it’s just practice for the next time,” he said.
When Jake’s customers come out of the ring after making a mistake, he allows them to view their video once and then they delete the video. “We don’t need to harp on the negative things that happen. That doesn’t help anyone move forward,” Jake said.
Jake’s taken his own advice to heart. “In the past I would overanalyze small mistakes in the ring, to the point of detriment. Since adopting a mindset of positivity, I’ve seen more success in the show ring,” he said.
It’s having this approach in the industry that Jake hopes will make him irreplaceable. “I never felt like I was the most talented rider in the world, but I’ve worked very hard at it and learned how to be a mentor to others. I truly love teaching,” Jake said.
Jake loves playing a part in creating core memories for his clients. “Having a rider canter for the first time or jump their first 1.50m jump makes all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up—being able to be a part of something that they will remember for the rest of their life,” Jake said. “Not many people can say they had an impact or ability to see someone’s passion and love come to life. When it does, it’s magical.”
Follow Jake on Instagram @jake_louis_evans and @empire_lane
Photos by Kirsten Hannah, kirstenhannahphotography.com