Kappler’s devoted to making his sport better

By Nancy Jaffer
September 4, 2016

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Chris Kappler at the schooling area of the Hampton Classic. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

You’ll still see Chris Kappler by the ingate or the schooling area at major shows, like last weekend’s Hampton Classic, but he won’t be on a horse.

His name used to appear regularly in the equestrian publication headlines. Now, however, his focus is on training others at his business, Chris Kappler Inc., run out of the former Hunterdon Inc. facility in Pittstown.

After working there for years with George Morris, Chris carries on the philosophy and tradition of the country’s most famous trainer. The facility is not flashy; it’s handsomely utilitarian and beautifully maintained, with attention to important details rather than meaningless frills.

Chris probably is best known to the public for his rides at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He earned a team gold on Royal Kaliber, a stallion he co-owned with Kathy Kamine that he brought to the top level of the sport. But in a jump-off for individual honors, Royal sustained a leg injury near the end of the course, where he looked as if he could have been on track to win, and Chris pulled him up. Chris got the individual silver medal, but that was overshadowed by tragedy. Royal went on to colic in the course of his treatment and could not be saved.

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Chris Kappler with the 2004 Olympic gold medal show jumping team of Peter Wylde, Coach Frank Chapot, Beezie Madden and McLain Ward. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

“Somehow, he was put into my life and we together achieved an incredible result, and he never had to prove anything again,” said Chris, who treasures many photos and a special painting of the horse.

“I think about him every day. He was the coolest horse to hang out with and enjoy. He did not have a hole in him. He was beautiful to ride. he had scope he was careful. Almost anything after that is a letdown.”

While Chris, with 100 grand prix victories to this credit, still rides several horses a day, his main job is helping clients achieve show ring success. The 49-year-old trainer also has served as a selector for the Olympic and Pan American Games teams over the last two years. Citing patriotism in his wish for America to do well internationally, he explained, “I want to be able to help in any way possible. If I don’t have a student who’s aiming for it (a championship team), then I’d love to be part of the selection process.”

After riding VDL Oranta to victory in the 2009 American Invitational, which turned out to be his last major competition, he was finding he no longer had the drive to participate in the arena himself.

To succeed in the sport, “like any athlete, you have to have an incredible passion,” he pointed out.

“You have to wake up so hungry to win every class.”

When that no longer was happening for him, he said, “I knew my time for competition was winding down.”

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Chris on Royal Kaliber at the 2004 Olympics. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

The world’s number four-ranked show jumper and Chris’ 2004 teammate, McLain Ward, noted that he learned a lot from his friend as he was moving up in his career.

“He’s been a consummate perfectionist and horseman and really an example of how the sport and horsemanship should be done,” McLain commented.

Chris, who splits his time between a condo in Flemington and a home in Wellington, Fla., turned some of his energy in another direction, serving as a founder and president of the North American Riders Group. A ground-breaking organization, it aimed to improve shows, naming the top 25 on the continent every year, with a critique about what they did right, and what they could do better. The shows at the top of the list crowed over their selection. Those further down on the roster aimed to improve.

“We stepped in as an advocacy group to promote the change we wanted to see in the industry. We tried to create a sense of competition and give the shows feedback. I think a lot of shows really welcomed it,” he explained.

Chris was joined on the NARG board by some big names; McLain, Beezie Madden and Murray Kessler, the retired CEO of Lorillard who will take office in January as president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation. Beezie and Chris also are on the USEF board.

“NARG raised the bar, stimulating creation of more FEI and 5-star shows. When we started (in 2009), I think there were four FEI events in America; now we have more than 20,” Chris said proudly.

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The barn where Chris has worked for decades has an understated elegance. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

With that achieved, NARG is continuing “in a very quiet mode for the moment,” Chris said, noting it is taking “a one-year pause” from rating shows.

As McLain commented, “NARG was a grassroots organization to change the direction of the high end of the sport in this country and North America. It was highly successful. I think what’s happened is the leadership of NARG has moved into the leadership of the USEF.”

Chris noted, “NARG stepped in as an advocacy group to promote the change we wanted to see in our sport as riders. Through that process, we were able to get Murray Kessler involved. What I like most about Murray is he came on board and said, `What do you guys want to do? I can help you execute, but I don’t want to tell you what to do. I want your agenda. You guys are the riders in the sport.’

It was good news for NARG that one of the new USEF strategic plan’s priorities is going to put teeth into show standards with its new compliance initiative that will have trained officers judging whether the shows are meeting the standards. There will be help for those that want to improve and penalties available if they don’t come up to snuff.

Don’t assume NARG has been disbanded, however.

“We can fire this thing up at any time if we feel it’s necessary,” said Chris, who noted the board wanted to create something the federation and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association could pick up and run with.

Elections are planned for NARG, which will have its annual meeting in February as usual.

“We completed our agenda, but new blood may come in (at NARG) and pick up a different agenda,” he observed, adding that meanwhile, the leadership of USEF and USHJA has “become very dedicated, very focused and has a great vision for the future.”

There are still things that should be done. He believes it’s necessary to figure out how to keep shows under the umbrella of the USEF and the USHJA, and get those riding in unrecognized shows more connected to the sport.

“They need to know the value the federations (USEF and USHJA) bring. The rules are in their best interest, the welfare of the horse, the welfare of the people.”

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Breeding and bringing along young horses is one of Chris’s interests. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

That future also includes “some really interesting up-and-coming riders” who are “going to Europe, getting on the tour.” He likes the fact that he recently saw several aspiring U.S. young riders at a 3-star show in Belgium, “trying to get European experience, developing their strings (of horses) and honing their skills.”

Chris also is involved in the USHA’s Emerging Athlete Program. When he went to Atlanta to give an EAP clinic earlier this year, he noted the kids were enthusiastic about having access to instruction from top trainers.

“They were so thirsty for the knowledge and the information and the riding opportunity. I could see the hunger in their eyes and the desire,” he said.

He hopes the young people who watched the Olympics and saw Nick Skelton and others getting their medals after years of work realize that competing isn’t enough to succeed; “you have to be a horseman.”

Much of his time, naturally, is devoted to the 28 horses at Hunterdon, most owned by clients, with a few sale horses and other prospects in the mix. Chris is assisted by Sarah Segal, who became a full-time rider after graduating from Princeton, and Kevin Mealiff, who is from Ireland.

Among the horses showing from Hunterdon are Cantara, who is jumping 1.50-1.60 meter courses; Performance, a 7-year-old and Zelda, bred by Allison Robitaille and owned by Robbie Greenberg Kabnick, a Hunterdon client for 24 years.

The stallion Maserati is in residence at Hunterdon, and Chris is involved in breeding “on a very limited basis,” noting, “it’s “so incredibly expensive to do.” He would like to see American breeding succeed in a big way.

“There are a lot of breeders in America, but they’re not connecting with the riders,” said Chris.

“The whole world flocks to Belgium, Germany, Holland and France to buy their horses. We’ve got to unlock that.”

He noted that Lisa Lourie of Spycoast Farm, whose main breeding facility is in Kentucky, “is starting to see the fruits of her labor in a good program. She’s a great model to follow. I do it on a very limited basis. We need to encourage America to breed.”

He’s a fan of the horse ID and microchip, knowing it’s so important to be able to see a horse’s lineage to know what’s working and what isn’t.

Overall, he said, “We’re trying to make showing better, more accessible and less expensive to develop horses and riders to keep people in the sport.”

He emphasizes its pluses, mentioning, “It’s a sport where there’s something for everybody on every level. It’s a sport where men and women compete equally. It’s a sport that’s always evolving, because the horses change, and it’s something families can do together.”

In the years that he’s been in the sport, one of the developments he appreciates is the growth of competition possibilities. In the old days, there were only a few divisions. Now, with a great variety of classes for every ability, people are “not having to wait to get to some minimum level to compete.”

Chris is “really hopefuf that the sport continues to grow, that we get more people participating and watching.”

Like other leaders of the horse world, he wants equestrian competition to stay in the Olympics, knowing there’s always the threat that it will be dropped.

“The acquired skils it takes to ride a horse around a course is why I believe it still belongs in the Olympics. It’s not just another sport. There’s no other sport that’s doing what we’re doing with another living creature. At all costs, we ned to protect our position with the Olympic games.

“It’s the ultimate sporting event. It’s the most immediate recognizable level of achievement at the highest level. You tell someone you won the American Invitational, and they say great. You tell someone you won a gold medal, and they say, `Wow, I’m standing next to an Olympic medalist.’

I felt like I achieved everything I was trying to work for. I’d love to help more people achieve that.”

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