At 13, William “Willie” White has done more with equines than many riders twice his age. A Gilman School seventh-grader, he’s foxhunted, steeplechased, shown, played polo and even competed in the occasional jumper class.
But it’s the foxhunting and steeplechasing that he enjoys the most, and it shows. The dapper young Monktonite is already a regular with both the Green Spring and Elkridge-Harford hunt clubs. And this spring, he won two junior jump races in the grandest of styles.
Which is why he was awarded the Governor’s Cup Junior Foxchasing Scholarship, created by the Maryland Steeplechasing Association to foster the traditional link between foxhunting and steeplechasing, and to support the nurturing of future horsemen and horsewomen involved in both disciplines. This year’s scholarship entitles Willie to free hunts with Howard County-Iron Bridge, Marlborough, Elkridge-Harford and Potomac.
An Equestrian Background
Willie’s family ties speak strongly of the equestrian life. Father S. Bonsal White is a stockbroker with both showing and foxhunting in his blood. Mother Constance – who hails from Connecticut – grew up hunting, Pony Clubbing and showing under the late, great Victor Hugo-Vidal.
At age two, Willie took to the saddle aboard an old, one-dollar pony lovingly nicknamed “Packaroni.” “He was a big white pony that was really shaggy. And he liked to drop his shoulder and get me off,” he recalled. That same pony, when fitted with a lead line, became his first field hunter.
After Packaroni, Willie competed in the short-stirrup division with a green but willing hunt-turned-show pony named Ladybug. “She won the Harford County end-of-the-year award in the short stirrup division,” Constance White said.
In between hunting, showing and homework, Willie found time to attend Pony Club and even take polo lessons.
His teachers have been many and varied, depending on the discipline. They include Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer D. Michael “Mikey” Smithwick, amateur jump jockey Joe Gillet, and top event rider Philip Dutton. Even locals Elizabeth Solter, Kevin Gowl, Allen Lohman, Katie Rose, Jonathan Thomas and Erica Gaertner have contributed to his education in the saddle.
Racing and ‘Chasing
But it was Mikey Smithwick who gave Willie his first taste of race riding on a pony named Jumping Jehosophat (“Jo-Jo”) in 1999. Although perpetually pitted against Garfield – pony racing’s own “iron horse” – the pair made out well, thanks in part to Smithwick’s tips. This, despite the fact that Jo-Jo could be “common,” according to Willie, and tough to hold in the hunt field. “What [Smithwick] would do it take me to his big field and have me race up the hill around barrels,” he explained, adding, “He also taught me a lot about starting.”
In many ways, Willie’s alliance with his legendary horseman was a family tradition in the making. As a young girl, Willie’s mother Constance traveled with her stepfather to Smithwick’s barn in search of her first horse. “I went to his barn, and thought, ‘This is the horsiest place I’ve ever been!’” she recalled. “And years later, when I came here to Maryland, [my husband] took me to Mikey’s barn and everything was exactly the same. So it gave me the biggest kick to be able to take Willie there when he was a kid. I knew that any kid going there would get this wonderful sense of horsemanship, age and tradition. And he felt the same way that I did.”
It wasn’t long before Willie had won his first race. Nor was Smithwick’s role forgotten. “When he was in the fourth grade, Willie had to pick a role model and do an interview,” his mother said. “So we took Mikey to dinner and did the interview, and Mikey actually went to Willie’s school by train. We had the best time.”
The young man’s next racing mount was a 15-hand cob named Hoodwink (“Winkie”) who proved a better jumper than Jo-Jo. “He was half Welsh and half Thoroughbred, and Willie hunted him for three years and did our first little Junior Hunt Cup with him,” said Constance, referring to the annual event at the Whites’ Fox Fire Farm each spring. “He would jump anything, but he had no speed, so Willie never won a race on him… but he was a good transitional mount.”
Then came JJ Hansel, a former Fenwick timber-topper whom Willie acquired two years ago. A handsome, leggy bay, the 10-year-old gelding has become a favorite, whether hunting, showing, or competing between the flags. “He takes care of you-and he takes a big spot when he jumps, and I like that,” Willie explained. Constance likes him, too. Besides teaching her son a sense of pace and rhythm, JJ is extremely rateable and very versatile. “That’s why we’re trying some of the horsemanship classes on him,” she said.
JJ’s arrival came soon after the North American Point-to-Point Association’s introduction of a new series of junior jump races patterned loosely on after foxhunting. The new format found an instant convert in young Willie, who had already tried it on his home turf at the 2001 Maryland Junior Hunt Cup. “I used to ride in the flat pony races, but when they started the Field Masters’ Chases last year, I started with that,” he explained.
The pair’s first 2002 stop in this division was Howard County-Iron Bridge, where they finished a good second to Rosi Napravnik and French Revolution. But Willie considers his next stop – the Junior Horse Field Masters’ Chase at the inaugural Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point – his favorite race of this spring. “It was my first win on JJ,” he explained. “And I liked the [Shawan Downs] course a lot.”
He would finish the season with a win in the Maryland Junior Hunt Cup, contested in his own back yard. But the Green Spring race was particularly memorable because Joe Gillet had prepped him for it, teaching him how to support his horse, perfecting his stretch-riding technique on a mechanical horse, and showing him some old Maryland Hunt Cup films. The result: Willie and JJ defeated Napravnik and French Revolution in a thrilling stretch battle.
Gillet – who, together with Smithwick, is one of Maryland steeplechasing’s most dedicated mentors – remains a big fan of his pupil. “I think that Willie has a bright future in steeplechasing if he stays light enough,” he said. “He has worked very hard on his riding and has taken lots of lessons to perfect his show jumping style, which will put him well ahead of some of his contemporaries who have only worked with racehorses. He’s also doing a lot of foxhunting, which is the best thing to teach balance and patience. He’s got a very good attitude and wants to learn, so I hope he stays with it.”
One Discipline Helps Another
Like many riders, Willie finds that foxhunting has given him the experience and control to race confidently over fences. “It helps me jump, because I jump just about everything out there,” he said. “And a lot of times, we hunt over some of the places where we race.” And does steeplechasing help his foxhunting? “I guess it does – for the fast runs!” he observed.
Interestingly, both disciplines apparently improve his polo, a sport he pursues at the nearby Maryland Polo Club. “If you’re not worried about how fast your horse is going, you can just concentrate on the ball,” Constance explained. “And polo helps me racing, because when I [go to the bat], I can hold my reins in one hand,” Willie added.
Recently, this talented young rider had also started working with greener horses. “Our last homebred is here, and he’s four. Willie’s teaching him how to jump and do his lead changes,” his mother said. Of course, as she pointed out, “Willie’s never really had a totally made horse – he’s always had to kind of finish them.”
Clearly, the challenge is something he enjoys. It’s difficult, but it’s satisfying when they do it [right],” he confided.
Hunt Night and Beyond
Willie spent the summer perfecting JJ Hansel’s flying changes and keeping JJ from pinning his ears when they gather abreast for the finale. Now that the Foxhunters’ Championship Series is over, and Willie was one of the Best Overall Juniors triumvirate he’s looking forward to taking advantage of his Foxchasing Scholarship.
Clearly, the sky’s the limit for this adventurous young man. His next goal: foxhunting in Ireland, where the sport has an allure few American Nimrods can resist.
Mind you, Willie has other interests besides horses. He’s played lacrosse for seven years and is a published artist who delights in drawing everything, everywhere. Indeed, he hopes to pursue a career in art one day.
But whatever his aspirations, Willie’s mother hopes that the confidence riding has given him will carry over into all aspects of his life. It has certainly given him the opportunity to meet a lot of different people, which is always a valuable experience. “And it’s so much fun to be able to hunt with him,” she reflected.
Ultimately, Willie says he enjoys riding more than any of this other pursuits. The key, his mother feels, is keeping things interesting. “I think that for boys, if they don’t have fun, they won’t keep riding,” she explained. “So that’s why we’ve taken the scatter shot approach,” she said, referring to the wide variety of equestrian disciplines to which Willie’s been introduced.
And while other sports – like motorbike racing – might be satisfying to some boys, nothing quite compares to that close personal relationship one develops with one’s mount. After all, as Willie pointed out, “…motorbikes don’t have personalities.”