By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Michelle LaVasque
Do what you love, love what you do, do it with whom you love. If Joey and Cristal Brumbaugh’s Free Flight Farm in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had a motto, that statement would definitely fit the bill. For the past 30-plus years, Joey and Cristal have been partners in every aspect of their lives.
Since the hunter-jumper duo first met, they’ve wed, built a business, raised their own family, created a barn family, got their judge’s cards and today continue to train the next generation of riders. “We’ve worked hard; nothing has been a gift. We’ve had some really good successes, some failures. We’ve traveled, been to indoors and been competitive,” Cristal said.
The Brumbaughs are such a humble pair, you’d never know 2011 Maclay Finals winner Sarah Milliren grew up riding with Joey and Cristal at Free Flight Farm. “We’d love to take all the credit for her, but she came out of the womb riding like that,” Joey said.
Sarah disagrees. “They are amazing at what they do!” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did without them.”
The Joey and Cristal story started in summer 1983 when they met at Victor Hugo Vidal and Mark Mullen’s To and Fro Farm in San Juan Capistrano, California. After Victor had seen Cristal and her mare Velour at a show in her home state of Hawaii, he encouraged Cristal to come to California for the summer to show. “It was a wonderful summer; I sold Velour at the end of the circuit and met Joey,” Cristal said.
After a fun summer, Cristal moved to Florida for a few months while Joey stayed in California and continued working at To and Fro Farm. Upon Cristal’s return, she went to work for Dennis Henderson at Industry Hills Equestrian Center and Joey soon joined her. Four months later, they decided it was time to move on and start their own business. Joey and Cristal were hired by Kay Love to work exclusively for her and moved from Southern California to Nogales, Arizona.
“We stayed in Arizona through the winter circuit, and then decided to sell our horses and live as ‘normal people’ in Oklahoma,” Cristal said. Joey traded his breeches for a briefcase and went to work for his father’s mortgage firm. “We had a baby, bought a house, had a mower and an edger. After a year went by we wondered what ‘normal people’ saw in being ‘normal,’” Cristal said. “It was pretty boring!”
That’s what launched Free Flight Farm in 1985, aptly named after Joey’s first grand prix horse, Free Flight. “We were young enough it was an adventure,” Cristal explained. “We were having a good time. We’d just pack up our youngest, Dillon, take him to the barn and hang out.”
Tenacious and hardworking, Joey and Cristal gradually built up their business. With polar opposite personalities — Joey is extremely laid back while Cristal is more high strung — they learned how best to partner to benefit everyone at Free Flight. “My strengths are his weaknesses and his strengths are my weaknesses,” Cristal said. “It’s always worked out really well to make training our customers a group effort. Joey trains the jumpers, while I like to focus on the flatwork and equitation.”
Barn Built on Life
A few years after opening Free Flight for business, Joey and Cristal bought the farm they still call home today. An old racetrack barn, there was nothing fancy about the property when it was purchased, but over the years, Cristal has put her own special touches on the property.
“Everywhere you look, there’s something fun that’s important to me and Joey. In our big field, there’s a red door that came from our kids’ first house. While some people have crystal chandeliers hanging in their barns, we have an old iron fitting that bits hang from,” Cristal said. “It’s an unusual collection of life moments that make us smile whenever we see them.”
Not only have Joey and Cristal built a barn that feels like home, they’ve fostered an environment that makes their customers feel like family. A relatively small barn by some standards, Free Flight is typically home to 17 to 20 horses at any given time. “With most clients having multiple horses, we’re able to keep lessons and goals more individualized,” Joey said. That personalized attention helps make everyone feel like a valued member of the barn family.
In a world where riders are often overscheduled and running from activity to activity, Joey and Cristal encourage their riders to be in the moment at the barn and enjoy the horsemanship aspect of the sport. Although there are grooms at Free Flight, riders are expected to be able to jump in and care for their horse if need be. “I’ve always said it was like owning a restaurant. If you walk in one day and everyone quit, you’ve got to be able to know how to do everything,” Cristal explained. “If our grooms decided not to show up, our girls would be fine and able to take care of their horses properly.”
Attention to details both on and off the horse is another lesson taught at Free Flight. “When I first started riding at Free Flight, I would show up at the barn or show and couldn’t find my trunk,” Sarah said. “I soon learned that was Joey’s way of telling me I needed to be neater and more organized. If we didn’t clean our tack at home, Cristal would hide it or take our stirrups away. That taught us to never forget about cleaning again!” By caring about these details, riders who go through Joey and Cristal’s program are able to put their best foot forward whether stepping into the show ring or in their everyday lives.
Joey also instills the importance of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to grow and learn. “Quite often Joey would tell me to try things that would make me stand out in the show ring, whether it was an inside turn here or a hand gallop there,” Sarah said. Go big or go home is a lesson you can apply to all aspects of your life.
While Joey and Cristal are keen on their riders presenting themselves in the best light, they both stress the importance of not taking yourself too seriously. After all, we’re all human. “Blue ribbons are nice, but sometimes we get so hung up on them we forget why we really do this sport,” Sarah said. “Joey and Cristal taught me that the love of horses, the people around you and the life lessons we learn are really why we do it.”
Judging and Learning
Joey and Cristal are not only playing an instrumental role in their customers’ futures, they’re thinking about their futures and giving back to the sport they love through judging. “Honestly, just looking down the road, we realize we aren’t going to be able to horse show all our lives and we wanted to find something to supplement our income. Yet we still wanted to be involved in something we love,” Joey said. “We all love to watch nice horses go around.”
Joey and Cristal both believe every professional should take the opportunity to pursue their judge’s card and sit in the judge’s booth from time to time. “Sitting in the booth really gives you an understanding and better idea of how difficult judging is. You don’t get to just watch a few horses and then be on your way; you have to watch and pay attention to the entire class,” Joey said. “You also learn how horses are jumping, what’s out there and what you can improve in your business.”
Judging isn’t all work and no play for the Brumbaughs. The duo really enjoys getting to judge together a few times a year. “We don’t really judge together a lot, maybe two to three times a year, but we love the opportunity to be on the same panel and travel together,” Joey said.
“It’s like a mini-vacation where we’re able to learn to improve the business,” Cristal agreed.
While Joey and Cristal try to schedule judging around the Free Flight show schedule and alternate when one is gone and the other is home, they also rely on an amazing barn manager, Ashleigh Siska, to keep the home farm running. Most importantly they are thankful for customers who understand if they need to leave to judge.
Free Flight Farm isn’t just focused on helping their riders spread their wings in the show ring; it’s about giving them life lessons so they can be successful wherever they fly to in the future. “I hope the horsemanship skills we share teach our riders about responsibility and trickle down into their lives,” Joey said.
Sarah is just one of the birdies Free Flight has set free to fly. “Joey and Cristal taught me life lessons that have stuck with me from my childhood to adulthood and into the beginning of my career with horses and without,” Sarah said.
With a strong customer base, Joey and Cristal have no plans of slowing down anytime soon. “We are just going to keep moving forward,” Cristal said. “We enjoy what we do and when we stop enjoying what we’re doing, it will be time to seek something else.”
For more information, visit freeflightfarm.net/
Photos by Michelle LaVasque, www.michellelavasque.com/