By Doris Degner-Foster
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
If it wasn’t for the lure of horses, highly successful hunter trainer Scott Stewart might have ended up on Broadway.
When he was in his early 20s, Scott sang and danced in musical plays in summer stock such as “West Side Story,” “Guys and Dolls” and “On the Twentieth Century.” But since he decided on a career with horses, his singing and dancing talents only show up occasionally. “I sang the national anthem a few times way back when Gene Mische was involved in running the shows,” Scott said, then added with a laugh, “Other than that, I’m not very good at many other things.”
But Scott is very good at riding and showing horses, as well as training young horses to reach their full potential. A successful rider and trainer for decades, Scott won first place in the WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular during World Championship Hunter Rider week at WEF 2017 riding 10-year-old Catch Me, and piloted 6-year-old Private Life to second place.
His Cousin’s Pony
Scott might not have made it into the horse profession to begin with were it not for the fact that his cousin got a pony. “I didn’t start riding until I was 11 years old after my cousin up the street got a pony to keep in the backyard. We lived in the suburbs of Norwalk, Connecticut, and I’d always wanted a pony,” Scott remembered. “My dad rode a bit in Canada, not seriously but he knew how to ride so it was a little bit in the family. After my cousin got a pony, I worked my way into getting my own pony in my backyard.”
From the humble beginnings of acquiring a backyard pony, Scott went on to train with Bill Ellis where he focused on equitation, making the finals for the Maclay in 1981 and 1982. At the young age of 18, he began working at Ox Ridge Hunt Club near his family’s home, and it was during that time that he decided to continue working in the horse business and left aspirations of performing in New York behind. But he likely took with him the timing and rhythm that he learned while singing and dancing, which may have been beneficial as he worked on pace and rhythm while riding.
At Ox Ridge, Scott benefitted from lessons with legends Bill Steinkraus and George Morris and learned the importance of practicing basic flatwork every day, which laid a foundation that has stayed with him. “I’m always trying to get a straight line when going down a line or off the rail,” Scott said of his focus on flatwork. “When you get a straight horse, you get a straight, perfect jump.”
Scott rode jumpers occasionally while at Ox Ridge, but he worked with juniors who were focusing on equitation with the Medal and Maclay in mind, which evolved into teaching and riding hunters. “George (Morris) teases me that I’m supposed to be one of the top jumper riders, but for financial reasons, I needed to get a job and it moved me toward the hunters and that’s where I was successful,” Scott remembered. “So I stayed with hunters, but I enjoy it. I’ve done a few jumpers in my life and some of the smaller grand prix but the hunters are where I really focused.”
“I started [as a professional] quite young, working at Ox Ridge Hunt club. I had a huge group of juniors and clients to train there for 12 years, then I moved on to Old Salem Farm for several years, again with a huge group of clients,” Scott said. “I enjoyed it but then after a lot of years of that, I stepped down from there and my main goal was going to be to start young horses and slow down a little bit because I just wanted to focus on my own horses and not have a huge base of clients.”
Even with that goal in mind, Scott and his partner, Ken Berkley, have approximately 80 horses at their Rivers Edge Farm in Flemington, New Jersey, and more in Wellington, Florida. Scott has developed his skill in finding talented young horses with potential, and they also breed some of their horses at River’s Edge Farm. Developing their own young horses is also beneficial to keep a steady supply of mounts available for Scott and Ken to ride and show as they progress in their training.
“We wanted to keep the business small but a lot of the time we have a nice horse that a customer buys and wants to leave it with us, so the business grew from there,” Scott said. “Several customers who come to us have the same philosophy of enjoying the young horses, so they’ve stayed.”
It has been said that a Scott Stewart horse has a distinctive look that many can spot at the shows. In addition to being conformationally correct, Scott said, “I think that you can take a pretty normal-looking horse and develop them. A lot of hunters are fat and out of shape but our horses are really fit and muscular. Our horses go on the gym, they get ridden properly and really develop a nice top line and they start to look like more of the Thoroughbred type.”
Time for Living
Even though his business isn’t as small as he may have wanted it originally, Scott has scaled back in other ways. He doesn’t keep as busy a show schedule as he did in the past, and he relies on others, especially Ken, his partner of over 20 years, whom he credits with helping to keep so many horses in training.
“It’s a team effort, and I think Ken and I work well together. With so many people working for us, I’d get very overwhelmed but he’s really good at that and it’s allowed me to focus more on the horses,” Scott said. “Over the years we’ve been able to have a nice group of young horses come up the following year when other ones go on to do a different job, which I think is the advantage I have over some other riders.”
There’s a large staff working at Rivers Edge Farm, and many are riders who have been with them for several years. Scott rides about 12 to 14 horses each day, and with such a dependable staff at home, he doesn’t have to ride his made horses on a daily basis and can spend his time on others.
Having a dependable team was especially needed last year when Scott dealt with an injury. “During the Florida circuit last year, I was schooling a horse at home over a low jump and the horse just landed, tripped and went down,” Scott said. “It wasn’t even a scary accident; it was only a 3-foot jump and he just landed and went to his knees. I actually stepped off the correct way, but it was fast and that’s when I think I did something to my neck and shoulder. Although nothing was broken, I had pain and muscle weakness in my arm.
Following the accident, Scott experienced worsening weakness in his right arm to the point that he couldn’t grip the reins well. He also noticed muscle atrophy. When doctors couldn’t find anything specific, he turned to acupuncture. “I’d never done it before and I wasn’t a huge believer in it but I’d go for treatment every Monday. I would do it again, it really helped a lot.”
Scott said that being physically compromised affected his self-confidence. He didn’t feel that he could safely ride the young horses and chose to ride the horses further along in training where he felt more confident. Previously, in addition to riding, Scott worked out in the gym, running and lifting weights but with a weakened arm, weights weren’t helping so he felt even less confident about himself physically.
“I think I always wanted to ride when it was happening, but I just had to be mentally more careful about what I did. But during the high performance jumps, you have to be mentally able to be at your best to do your best,” Scott said. “So I think I got through that but sometimes you just have to fake your confidence and trust your horse. I think everybody who has had a crash knows it takes you a little while to get over it and stop thinking about it. I had to stop myself from thinking about it, from mentally going there.”
Scott happily reports that with acupuncture and physical therapy he feels back to normal, but admits that it took a while to get there and credits mental focus to building his body and mind back to being 100 percent. He also credits his horses. “A good horse gives you confidence. I’m fortunate enough, especially this year that I have so many great, experienced horses and I’m so pumped to have them. With these amazing horses I have, it gives me confidence every day.”
Photos by Shawna Simmons, SAS Equine Photography, www.shawnasimmons.com, unless otherwise noted