By Nancy Jaffer
Sept. 13, 2016
“Breeding is a humbling profession,” said Ilona English, stating a truth that goes with the territory for anyone trying to produce their own sport horses.
But at this point, Ilona is experiencing the flip side of that with her homebred, Powell. He added a victory in the Adequan Advanced Gold Cup Finals at this month’s Nutrena USEA American Eventing Championships to his increasingly impressive resume under the guidance of U.S.-based Australian Ryan Wood.
The AECs marked the debut of Mark Phillips’ cross-country course at the Tryon, N.C., International Equestrian Center, and that turned out to be quite a test. But Powell was up to it.
“Out on cross-country, he handled all of the questions very well. He read everything and was just spot-on there,” Ryan said.
Ilona did not attend the event, instead watching the live stream on her computer. The tension built in the final phase, the show jumping, and Ilona literally was on the edge of her seat.
“As we all do sometimes, I talked to the screen. I was so close to the screen over the last two jumps and when I watched the one (rail) rock a little bit and then it stayed, I completely started crying. I yelled, ‘We did it,’ I was so happy for Ryan and Powell. He’s an American horse and a Jersey bred.”
Next up for Powell, who won the Jersey Fresh CCI 3-star in May, likely is the 2017 Rolex Kentucky 4-star.
It’s all part of a long-held dream come true.
Ilona, 65, worked as a project finance officer for people building skycrapers, but “as a kid I always wanted to have horses. We couldn’t afford them. Later in your life, you should be doing what you really want to do,” she said, explaining her current devotion to breeding event horses.
She has had 40 foals arrive at her farm in Ringoes, delivering 38 of them (including Powell) herself.
“I believe horses really have to be cross-trained to be competitive and have to have turnout for their minds and bodies,” stated Ilona, whose operation is called Summit Sporthorses.
Looking back on her own riding career, she observed, “When I started in the hunters, it was totally different than it is now. We used to jump out of the ring, jump back in, nobody counted the strides. It’s totally mechanical now.
“These horses are like potted plants. Even in the dressage world, they keep these horses in (their stalls). Horses need to be horses, that’s what makes them the best horses. Their ability is better because their minds and bodies are happy.”
When she was riding dressage, she took a jumping clinic with Bertalan de Nemethy the legendary coach of the U.S. show jumping team.
He told her, “A horse shouldn’t be jumping a fence unless they can do a solid Second-Level dressage test. They have to be able to move forward, backward and sideways.”
That comment stayed with her. By the end of the clinic, Ilona was jumping a big course (noting she never would jump a course like that again.) She was inspired, reading about the old masters of horse sport and spending time in Germany.
She participates in how her horses are trained, noting, “My partnership with Ryan is outstanding. He is a true horseman. We work together on the type of training for each horse.”
Powell, an Oldenburg, is by Pablito out of Dinara, one of Ilona’s homebreds. She notes that her bloodlines include thoroughbreds, of which she is a fan.
Although the mare never competed, “She’s like the goose who laid the golden eggs,” said Ilona.
Another Dinara baby, Powell’s half-sister Ruby (by Royal Prince), was 10th out of 54 in the Intermediate division at the AECs.
Waiting in the wings is another half-brother to Powell, Ben Nevis (by Bugatti), as well as a group of other interesting youngsters.
Ilona is on the board of overseers for the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, which has been taking a look at the demographics of the horse industry.
“The flats (thoroughbred racing) and the trotters are going down. There is going to be a void there that we (non-racing horse sports) could fill if we had the support of the states involved in this. This is an industry that is actually growing and has a lot of potential financially, especially here in New Jersey,” she declared.
She’s hoping to speak with the state secretary of agriculture, Douglas Fisher, about it.
Here is the message she wants to give him: “This is what we should be focusing on. We can fill the void We need to have a program and a plan for this.”