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Rick Fancher: Training Hunter Champion Osczar

How respected trainer Rick Fancher's program brought one of the show circuit's all-time great hunters Osczar along from International Hunter Futurity success to become a star in both the open and amateur divisions.

By Sandra Cooke

Osczar (with Rick Fancher aboard) as a three-year-old in the International Hunter Futurity.
Photo courtesy of Dawn Fogel
Rick Fancher, whose Milesaway Farm in Louisville, Ky., is famous for finding and developing good hunters, didn't have to find Osczar. The chestnut Oldenburg that's now a legend on the show circuit "fell into my lap," in Rick's words.

Bred just down the road (and, as a 16.2-hand yearling, dismissed by Rick as "too big), Osczar came to Milesaway as a 17-hand/just-started-under-saddle two-year-old, to "continue his education" until his breeder, neighbor Maureen Martin, found a buyer.

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On acquaintance, Rick quickly changed his assessment of the towering chestnut. "I loved him from the very first ride. I'd never sat on a horse that big, at that age, with such phenomenal natural balance. He was always pushing fom behind and going up in front. You could canter across the ring, then just look where you wanted to go, and he'd change leads in either direction, just like breathing. A natural lead change is one of my pet things in evaluating a new horse; it shows me he operates on his hindquarters a bit more than average, which plays into maybe being a good jumper."

And, in fact, jumping came as naturally to Osczar as changing leads. "He jumped the first crossrail of his life in the same style he jumps today. He took his time, jumped up high in the air, and his front legs came up square."

Time to Grow Up
Rick arranged for his friend and former employee Ted Wright (then looking for a young horse to ride) to buy Osczar and give him time to grow up. "Ted made a pet of him, hauled him to lots of small local shows and trotted courses until Osczar felt comfortable cantering all the way around--basically gave him a good, solid start," Rick says.

Rick kept a hand in the youngster's training and, for mileage and a gauge of progress, rode him as a three-year-old in the International Hunter Futurity (IHF). "He went beautifully; didn't win, but he was good."

By 1993 Osczar was just starting to blossom, winning the IHF four-year-old competition and showing in (but not winning) "a very few" pre-green-division classes. And although Ted lacked the time and resources for the higher level of showing that Osczar was growing into, Rick had a student who was looking for a horse at that level: Dawn Fogel.

Dawn, who was then program director for the American Hunter/Jumper Foundation and a competitor in the under-35 amateur-owner division, had ridden with Rick sincer junior years. She found Osczar "quiet, simple and straightforward to ride." But his very talent--as well as the contrast between him and Clandestine, the black Thoroughbred she started riding in the amateurs at about the same time--made the big warmblood a challenge for her.

"Osczar respects the jumps very much; that's what makes him jump so high," Dawn said. "But he's a worrier who wants a secure, consistent ride. If you make a normal kind of mistake on him--such as waiting and adding strides--he gets nervous and backs off." Clandestine, on the other hand, although "not a particularly quiet horse," was less threatened by that kind of mistake.

As a weanling, Osczar was already huge--and friendly.
Photo courtesy of Dawn Fogel
Willing to Wait--And Work
Trust in her trainer and belief in a system that "puts the horse first" kept Dawn comfortable with watching Osczar from ringside and working to raise her skills to his level, while Rick rode him in the green working and green conformation divisions for the next couple of years.

"Rick told me I'd never be able to stay with Osczar's big arc in the air or keep him going forward to the jumps unless I got stronger, which would give me more finesse and technique," Dawn says. "So I started working out at the gym with leg weights two or three times a week."

"For a long time, it was a frustrating process," adds Rick. "Everyone Dawn talked to told her how good Osczar was and asked why she wasn't riding him more. She was riding at a pretty good level herself, but on some days she could feel like a beginner on Osczar. He's a big, powerful horse, more like a truck than a sedan, but sensitive in his own way--if you ride him too hard, that scares him. Fortunately, Dawn has a great work ethic; she's made a huge effort to build the strength and skills she needs to ride him well. Meanwhile, she's loved seeing him go in the ring and be happy and talented at something--nearly as much as she likes riding him herself."

Osczar's early showing program with Rick was based on "not expecting him to win," Rick says. "He always had a magnificent jump--you'd say, 'That's a really special horse,' even while you knew he couldn't win that day. You have to create his canter--but if you get too aggressive, he overreacts, goes way past where he wants to be at the jump, scares himself, and jumps up too high or changes lead. I can't tell you how many classes he lost by changing leads in the middle of the in-and-out, just getting ready to jump the second element."

Because Osczar already had the desire and the talent to jump well, the answer wasn't more schooling or extra showing, but time. "I'm a believer that you don't try to win every class. It should be a progressio," Rick says. "As he grew up and got a notch more relaxed, the mistakes began to go away."

By 1996, there could be no doubt how special Osczar was. One year after winning the green conformation championship at the 1995 Pennsylvania National Horse Show in Harrisburg, he came back to take reserve champion in the regular working division. During the same indoor season, he won regular working championships at the Capital Challenge and Washington International shows with Rick.

With Dawn, who'd begun showing him regularly, Osczar was reserve champion in the younger amateur/owners at the Capital Challenge, where Dawn earned the show's overall high-score award. The following year, competing with Rick in the regular working hunter division at 1997 Capital Challenge, Osczar made hunter-ring history with a round that scored a perfect 100 and drew a standing applause from the panel of judges.

This article is excerpted from "Keep the Jump Fresh" in the February 1998 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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