Hunter Jumper Trainer Jerry Dean, Canton, New York
I catch up with Hunter Jumper trainer Jerry Dean on a Wednesday morning as he is preparing indoor arena setting jumps for the horses’ afternoon work. It is the first day there has been a hint of spring and last night’s snow zips off the roof of the indoor arena as I move from jump to jump with him. Dean is full of energy with a warm and generous smile. He moves quickly- with purpose and care- setting the jumps precisely, knowing each of his horses’ strides to the lines and where his students will be most challenged. As he sets jump cups, we talk about taking chances, his philosophy for empowering a younger generation of riders and the shaping of his Grand Prix competition dreams.
While pursuing his dream of Grand Prix level competition, Dean bases operations at Rein Tree Stables in Canton, New York, a 70 acre facility with 33 horses in residence. For a kid who grew up in dairy farm country of Heuvelton, New York, the A level show ring was many miles away. He had always liked horses and a few unschooled backyard ponies wandered into his life from time to time, but Dean had few chances to ride as a child. “I was just a broke college kid, coming into horses at a time when many riders have already had years of lessons and ponies,” says Dean. So when a local racetrack placed an ad for stall help, he applied. Soon after taking the position, the track owners took note that Dean was picking up quickly on leg soundness and spotting problems before they ended a horse’s career. Coincidentally, Dean was keen for more saddle time but as luck would have it, he was just slightly too tall for a career as a jockey. When he heard a nearby Eventing barn was looking for help, he jumped at the chance. After doing stalls for a few weeks and demonstrating a natural talent for riding, the owner noticed Dean’s positive attitude and his way with people which led to an offer to try teaching. Dean didn’t know it at the time, but his life was about to be changed forever. “One of the facility’s instructors was certified by the American Riding Instructors Association and she really pushed me to consider doing the same.” Dean received his American Riding Instructor Association certification in 2007. The certification came at a pivotal point in his career and gave him the confidence to purchase his first farm.
In 2008 he bought a small farm in Edwards, New York. “We had a few stalls in a converted shed and an outdoor arena.” But when the days grew shorter and fall slid into winter, Dean was out of luck teaching outdoors, forced to trailer to a nearby farm with an indoor arena. Winters found him trailering five horses six days a week to teach. Trailering in harsh weather took its toll, and Dean worked several jobs to save for a property with an indoor arena and continue the teaching he so loved. In 2012, the facility he was trailering to suddenly came on the market and he found himself asking if he had what it took to manage his own large facility. Dean remarked, “when I bought this property, a door opened. It gave me the courage to say I can do this now. I had the opportunity to move into the next phase of my career and I took it. It was a huge leap of faith.”
The following year brought challenges: fencing and footing needed to be improved, new stalls had to be built, and his schooling string had to be built up. Dean added to his schooling string and undertook the significant task of making every single one of his school horses. When some of them came to him, they were unrideable. And in this way Dean has learned to train and ride- really ride- in the style of the grand old catch riders who could get on any horse and bring out the best in each one.
Empowering a New Generation of Riders
When designing his lesson program, Dean thought carefully about the vision he had for teaching, keeping the end result in mind, “I wanted my students to have my individual attention and not get swallowed up in large group lessons.” While demand has grown past availability for lesson spots at Rein Tree and several riders drive many hours once a month to train with Dean, he keeps group lessons at two to three students. Keeping his lesson program lean in terms of riders is something he is passionate about. Exposing them to A level shows is another passion of Dean’s. His young show team, having ridden at the new facility for less than a year, was put to the test during several recent A Level shows. They attended the New York State Fair in August and the Green Mountain Horseman’s Association annual summer show in Vermont. His students’ success represented another milestone for Dean, measuring his excellence in the education of riders who could succeed in the highest levels of competition.
His philosophy of educating riders is apparent, when, during a recent lesson, he watches as a young student struggles with a stride to a diagonal line. He has purposefully set the line to ride shorter than a full stride, requiring his riders to plan ahead in order to take off in the right spot. “I like it when the kids have to work out the problems; I think it teaches them to be thinking riders.” Dean looks for tact and diplomacy during the rider’s adjustment, but the student misses the spot and her pony chips in. “Again,” says Dean. “I want my riders to be sharp and not take anything for granted on course.” He is bringing along his younger riders in a traditional way: the students must earn the privilege of showing at each Hunter level, working through the Equitation classes before landing a spot in the Jumper level classes.
When I ask Dean about what has changed during his ten years in the field he reflects, “In some ways, the golden age of the Thoroughbred has passed and now we are seeing the warmbloods dominate the field. No matter the breed, I enjoy what the more sensitive, hotter rides can teach the kids when they are ready- and what they teach is the finesse- the finer points of sitting a horse to a fence. I have a desire to get the best out of my students and really push them to their limits. Those horses help them do that.” He is passionate about passing along what he has learned from all of the horses to a younger generation. Several of his students are already researching careers in the equine industry and Dean actively mentors his working student, Amber Fury, who is mapping her career.
A Dream Takes Shape
Jerry’s Dean’s dream is to enter the Grand Prix ring and every single minute of his waking day, he makes choices to prepare for that moment. Later that morning, I watch as Dean takes a chestnut Hanoverian gelding up to 3’9 for the first time. His amateur owner competed him in the cross rail division last summer. In a year’s time, a lot of work has gone into prepping the gelding to debut at a much higher level. Dean is able to get his horses focused quickly and has a knack for knowing when they’re ready for the next step – something that his many horses have taught him over the years. “For a long time, this horse stayed right at 2’6 and then toward the end of the time we lifted him up. I just felt he was ready.” Making the choice to wait until he felt the gelding was ready pays off: he jumps brilliantly, with tremendous heart and height, clearing the fences with room to spare.
Much of Dean’s career has been influenced by his longtime mentor USEF trainer Pat Swift. Swift, who has trained many young riders over the years, believes something sets Dean apart in the equestrian world. “When I first began to teach Jerry, he was struggling on top of a balled up frustrated Thoroughbred cross trying desperately to contain all that energy. Five years later, his legs surround the barrel of a relaxed trusting horse allowed to move freely forward with almost invisible aids. The change from being a novice rider to an accomplished professional has been almost indescribable. From learning correctly how to circle a horse and jump cross rails, to jumping 4’3″, not on lesson horses, but on problem horses with their own agenda, has been quite a journey. He always seemed to get the horse that he needed to learn from at the optimum time, from the fearful to the rusher to the diva, and because of this variety, he learned sensitivity and confidence,” says Swift, who expects she will soon see him competing at the international Grand Prix levels. “He’s that good.” she says with a smile.
Dean puts his foot into the stirrup and gets on one of his largest horses, a 17.2 hand thoroughbred named Rio. As the big black gelding lets out a squeal, I catch Dean smiling as he moves through the morning workout. A moment later, a large chunk of snow and ice, the last visible sign of winter, slides off the arena roof, sending the gelding into a series of playful bucks. He keeps smiling, allowing him to work through the extra energy before settling him back into his work – joyous, free of tension, and ready for flight over the morning’s course. Fitting then, when I ask Dean what he loves in a horse, he looks over and replies without hesitation, “I like a horse with a lot of spirit and a huge amount of heart. I love a horse who doesn’t give up.” For Jerry Dean, these are qualities he not only looks for in a ride, but embodies and cultivates within each of his students every single day.