Steeplechasing (and Life) Lessons Learned from the Legendary Paddy Neilson :: Pennyslvania Equestrian - News for the Horse owner
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Steeplechasing (and Life) Lessons Learned from the Legendary Paddy Neilson

Photo by Douglas Lee

by Paul H. Langner, VMD

Louis "Paddy" Neilson is an exciting rider to watch, with his artful style and intense athletic competitiveness. But beyond that, Paddy is a trainer of horses and riders, a sire of riders and trainers and a developer of timber racing events. As a whipper-in for the Cheshire hounds of Unionville, PA, he continues in the tradition of fast chases over tall fences for which that pack is known. This kind of foxhunting is the womb which incubates outstanding timber horses and their riders, as well as cross-country eventers. Paddy's experience in this environment, which includes the Maryland circuit and his favorite race, the Maryland Hunt Cup, (with 21 rides he holds the record), has given him a breadth and depth of hard-won lessons to pass on to his aspirants. Like Mikey Smithwick before him, Paddy instructs by example.

It all started in 1948 when Louis Neilson III's parents decided he was old enough, at age six, to learn to ride. In 1958, he had his first mount in what are now sanctioned timber races. From that start, Paddy went on to become the man historians and fellow horsemen and women call the "…leading timber rider of his generation…absolutely fearless (but safe to race alongside)…an intelligent rider." Countless colleagues cite him as a superb trainer of horses and riders. What is he able to impart to his horses and jockeys about the harmony between rider, mount and course which makes their short journeys such a transcendent experience?

Detail, Fitness

It could be his attention to detail, or his stress on fitness for both horse and rider, or his strategic analysis of all aspects of a race. His view is brief and straightforward, beginning with "riding is simple but difficult" and "you have to be pretty good to ride other people's horses". Paddy himself is a fitness zealot and tremendously strong, and he emphasizes finesse for his trainees. "You can't outwrestle 1,000 pounds of horse," he says. Though your legs must have titanium quadriceps to maintain the position for 6-9 minutes of galloping, he stresses balance in rhythm with your horse. You should gallop your horse in the morning (and YOU should gallop him, not a professional exercise rider) in shorter stirrup leathers than you ride the afternoon races. The horses must be physically capable of jumping a 4 or 5 foot rail at speed and have the intelligence to respect solid timber and the flexibility needed for a close take off when necessary. Pace is vital, whether it's what the horse needs during a training gallop, or what he can maintain for 3 or 4 miles in order to finish first. The horse may pick up the correct lick on his own, but if not, the rider must handle the gas pedal as well as the brakes.

The application of these details is evident in Paddy's choice for best jumper, Haffaday, on whom he won his first of three Maryland Hunt Cups, and in best overall timber racer, Landing Party. Haffaday is shown in a photo jumping like a surface-to-air missile in pursuit of Landing Party, ridden by John Fisher in the 75th running of the Maryland Hunt Cup. Haffaday couldn't catch him on the flat, but Landing Party broke the record for the race that day because of the fact, Fisher said "…that Haffaday had been at his throat all of the way…"from the 8th fence to the finish. This kind of race, with the horses going flat out and taking every fence in stride is beautiful, but Paddy cautions his jockeys-in-training not to "…ask for a big one every time". The horse will then expect to always stand off his fences and will sooner or later make a mistake because of this and come to grief, especially a tired horse.

Paddy learned this the hard way, with a tuition cost of several teeth and multiple jaw fractures when Sir George made a last millisecond short stride, throwing up his head and smashing Paddy's face in the 1967 Maryland Hunt Cup. This almost happened again in the 1995 Winterthur open race with Paddy catching up to the leader at the last fence, only to have his horse, known for this kind of erratic jumping, chip in at the absolute base of the fence. Paddy was ready for it this time and got him away from the landing in time to win the race.

Go Signal

Paddy describes a "positive go signal" that the rider must give the horse when approaching in the last few strides before a fence. Not necessarily a lot of movement on the rider's part, but whatever the horse understands-a sound, a nudge with calf or heel, a shake of the reins-to mean "here we go". This is NOT a big move in the last stride when the rider thinks he sees a "spot" from which the horse should take off. The rider signals at least two strides out and then sits still, closing his eyes if need be (Paddy's facetious advice) to avoid interfering. The horse learns through schooling, foxhunting, any kind of cross country jumping, as well as racing, when it feels right to him to leave the ground. The rider must encourage but not interfere with or try to "place" the horse. Paddy likes to start green horses in races such as the Piedmont Hounds' point-to-point whose course has stone walls and other solid obstacles with not much daylight in them and good ground lines. Post and rail courses can come later after the horse gains confidence at racing speed.

Racing speed of 30+ miles per hour leads again in top the question of fitness. A tired horse or rider is a danger to himself and others on the course, in Paddy's mantra. His personal fitness program is designed to toughen him enough to be able to rebound from hitting the ground at a 30+ mph lick if his horse falls. The proof of the program's effectiveness was proven in the '95 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup races when his first mount in the novice race crashed over the last fence and left Paddy lying unconscious for a few seconds on the turf. He recovered fully and rode in the feature race. In that race, he had to perform an acrobatic feat when his horse bobbled the last fence, leaving him hanging down the side of the horse by one leg over the saddle and a handful of mane like a Cheyenne warrior galloping around the wagon train. Within half a dozen strides he pulled himself back to "…a leg on each side…" of the horse and went on to nearly catch the leader. Those are some of the details of the Neilson method.

Difficult Horses

Paddy is also noted for success with the most difficult horses. Fort Devon is a prime example. Betty Bosley had the horse and gave him to Paddy to take cross country foxhunting when no one else could handle him. He subsequently won the Maryland Hunt Cup "…sailing in great arcs…" over the fences under Buzz Hannum.

As a sire, Paddy boasts his "…third crop of foals…" who is daughter Emily, a rider of pony races at a young age and now off to college. Paddy and eldest daughter Sanna, from his first of three marriages, are the only father and daughter pair to win the Maryland Hunt Cup. Sanna won in '91 with her father finishing up the track. Just to prove she didn't need her father along, she won again in '93, on a different horse and without her father in the race. She and her sister Kathy are both successful trainers in their own right. The relationships appear to be close. Kathy walks courses with her father before races and Sanna is often heard to quote Paddy ("My Dad says…"). All the children seem to have survived and flourished with Paddy's serial monogamy and maintenance of close family ties.

Revived PA Hunt Cup

As a developer of race meets, Paddy was instrumental in reviving the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup in its new venue at Unionville in 1964. More recently, he is a developer of the nearby Plumsted Farm Races.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Paddy's career was his retirement in 1977, after twenty years of racing, in 10 of which he was leading amateur rider in North America and the leading rider in history over timber. The change was described, cryptically, as being "…to reorder life's priorities." They were reordered again in 1986 when Paddy returned, leaving a plush brokerage job in Philadelphia for the life of a public trainer with few horses and almost no help. On days when there was no one else to muck stalls, Paddy would cheerfully make a joke of a full wheelbarrow, saying that his degree from Princeton was in how to load manure. At age 44, Paddy became known as something of an iron man, galloping five or six horses every morning and doing whatever it took to keep his yard going. The change, from dropping by to gallop one or two of someone else's horses 2 or 3 times a week to rolling out every morning, rain or shine, 95 degrees hot or 9 above zero, responsible for all the needs of the stable, is a big leap.

This is perhaps the window into Paddy Neilson's soul. Paddy is not an angel, he can exhibit the faults that artistic impresarios and top flight athletic coaches are prone to, but he is true to his calling. To ride out of his Rockaway Farm (named for the Rockaway Hunt, co-founded by his grandfather in the 1870's on Long Island) is to ride in the hoof prints of generations of English and Irish horsemen who trained in the countryside, up hill and down dale, sun baked or rain soaked and fog-bound, day in and day out. For many of them, it was all they knew-they had no other choice of livelihood. Paddy, on the other hand, could have chosen an easy, comfortable life in an office, but instead he chose his true vocation.

Former PA resident Paul Langner rode some races, showed some horses and dreamed about a career in 'chasing. He first met Paddy Neilson, whom he had long admired, while shopping for a timber horse. Paul currently resides in New Mexico, where he is one of five veterinarians caring for 200+ government-owned retired chimpanzees in a colony that originated with the space program. He is hoping to spearhead a movie on Paddy Neilson's life.

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