John “J.T.” Taylor embodies the phrase, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Taylor, 66, has built a career as a respected Fédération Equestre International (FEI) official, but he considers it more an honour than a job to be able to watch top horses and riders perform.
“I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the horse show world,” Taylor said. “I get to do exactly what I want to do. I spend seven months at home and five months down in Wellington, Florida, and I get to watch horses every day. How lucky can one guy be?”
Taylor’s love of horses began as a child growing up in what was then the British colony of Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. Life led him to England, then to settle in Canada in 1976. He took a break from the horse world during his first 15 years, pursuing a career with the large Canadian retailer Dylex, but his wife, prominent trainer and judge Barbara Mitchell, brought him back to working with horses.
Together, they ran a thriving boarding and lesson business, first with Leitchcroft Farm in Thornhill, ON, and then their own CornerStone Farm located at Leitchcroft until 2004. Taylor and Mitchell also managed hunter/jumper and dressage shows, including the dressage portion of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. Taylor has been an FEI-licensed official for more than 15 years and has served on the ground jury at such venues as the FEI World Equestrian Games Tryon™ 2018, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, and, most recently, the 2019 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final in Gothenburg, Sweden.
You recently judged at the 2019 Longines FEI World Cup™ Final. What was the most memorable moment of that Final for you?
“It was phenomenal jumping, which is always fun to watch. For me, the most memorable thing was the audience and how knowledgeable and enthusiastic they were. They do synchronized clapping, which they did for every Swedish rider and also riders they liked, such as Ludger Beerbaum and Beezie Madden. They were impartial about what country they came from; they just liked cheering on top riders. And in contrast to what happens in North America, they stayed right through the prize-giving. Gothenburg is a phenomenal show with a great facility, wonderful organization, and the best jumping.”
What horse shows are your favourites at which to officiate?
“The Royal Winter Fair is one of the highlights on my calendar because it’s one of the last remaining shows that’s a black-tie, formal affair for 10 days, which makes it sensational. I get to work at a lot of other great shows, such as the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, FL; at Palgrave, ON; Split Rock in Kentucky, and others. They all have a unique flavour. Each one has something that makes you say, ‘Wow, this show is great.’”
What’s involved in being an FEI-level jumper judge?
“At the international shows, we do a lot of things besides just marking down rails and faults during the competition. We oversee the horse inspection, and there’s also quite a few administrative tasks. We make sure all the riders are properly qualified and entering the proper number of horses. We ensure the horses entered in the grand prix are qualified.
“We also are responsible for ensuring there’s no abuse. We’re very diligent about blood on a horse’s flanks. One of the judges is always in the warm-up area watching. We observe the stewards when they check boots. There’s a lot that goes on for us behind the scenes.”
What’s a challenging problem you’ve had to solve while judging horse shows?
“One of the hardest things we have to do is to fail a horse in the horse inspection, or the jog. That’s always a touchy moment because nobody wants to believe that four people [of the ground jury] looking at their horse think it’s not fit to compete. It’s never an easy moment. That’s the most difficult problem.”
What’s rewarding to you about judging cshows?
“I love to watch great horses jump, doing what they love to do; that’s my favorite thing. If somebody wants to hire me to do that, that’s the most rewarding thing. When you look at some of the best horses, like a Hickstead, or a Big Ben, or an HH Azur, who absolutely love their job, it’s just a privilege to see. It’s rewarding to see a rider that clicks with a great horse and the performances that result.”
How did you get into judging, and who was a mentor for you as you were getting started?
“My wife, Barbara Mitchell, has been a senior hunter, jumper, and equitation judge for years. She got me started doing it and then the late Doug Catto, who was an FEI ‘O’ judge, really took me under his wing and helped me get into the international shows. Those were the two biggest influences, and Marjorie Dennis has also encouraged me for years to progress in the FEI judging.”
What riders would be in your dream jump-off for an Olympic gold medal and why?
“It would be Eric Lamaze, McLain Ward, Kent Farrington, and Beezie Madden. It would be fast; they’d have to run to win it! Of course, it all depends on the horse they have. There are so many great riders.”
What are some of the most memorable performances you’ve been witness to as a judge?
“Steve Guerdat winning the most recent FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final was brilliant, but McLain Ward winning the World Cup Final in Omaha [in 2017] was one of the best I’ve ever seen. That was absolutely sensational.”
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you while judging?
“Just a few weeks ago, I was judging at a show where we were pre-loading, which is when the next rider comes into the ring while the current horse is jumping the last few fences. So the next rider had already come in, but the rider on course was clear and moving on to an immediate jump-off. We rang the tone for her to continue to the jump-off, but the pre-loaded rider started jumping his course! The poor jump-off rider was so confused. Funny things do happen.”
Tell us about your background in horses. What brought you to Canada?
“I lived in Africa, in Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe, for 25 years. We did everything with our horses – jumpers, eventing, and dressage. Then I went to England and did all the British Horse Society exams. I moved to Canada in 1976 and didn’t really work with horses again until Barbara and I took over Leitchcroft, which was a barn in Toronto.
“She’d been a full-time pro for years and when we took over that facility, I gave up my real job and started doing horses. Then we carried that to our own CornerStone Farm. I did a little bit in the jumpers and a little bit in the hunters. I was always an okay rider, but I was never going to be great. Gradually, I got into the other side of the business, managing the boarding and lesson facility. I ran some horse shows and started judging.”
How did you meet your wife?
“We met at [Canadian eventing rider] Stuart Black’s first wedding. Arthur Tateishi, who is an eventing guru, introduced us and that was it. We got married less than a year later. That was 27 years ago.”
What was your role when you ran CornerStone Farms and what did you enjoy the most?
“I did all the administration and bookkeeping. I never did any of the teaching. CornerStone was a big lesson barn. We gave about 300 lessons a week and produced many top riders. Nikki Walker, Wesley Newlands, and a lot of other young Canadian jumper riders came through our facility and learned how to trot on the right diagonal with us.
“We had a great riding school, and it was a good time. With my background in the retail business, I enjoyed running everything, making sure things happened on time. My wife will tell you I am a British Virgo, which is the worst kind of Virgo. We’re so particular and detailed and precise. Keeping everything on track is what I like to do.”
What did you enjoy about managing shows?
“Managing shows was kind of a natural progression from running the lesson barn. Craig Collins from Equestrian Management Group (EMG) encouraged us to start managing some shows in Ontario, so we ran some hunter/jumper shows and then some dressage shows. The dressage shows became CDIs and selection trials for teams but it got to the stage where we couldn’t really compete with the big, full-time shows that run 12 or 15 weeks a year, so we’ve moved on to other things.
“Barbara and I also managed the dressage for the Pan American Games. That’s a totally different experience; instead of dealing with everything yourself, you’re now dealing with committees that are dictating every detail. The Toronto Pan American Games at Palgrave were spectacular, and we enjoyed doing it, but it’s a very different skill set. I now have great sympathy for anybody who runs a championship!”
What hobbies do you have outside of the horse show world?
“Horse shows are somewhat all-consuming, so not much! I do read a lot. I’m currently reading one of the Peter James books. He has a series of about 16 books about a detective called Roy Grace, and I’m on number 13 of them. They’re great light reading, but great mysteries. Also, I probably watch too much television. I’m fanatical about British mysteries and detective series. I’m addicted to most things British on the TV.”
Do you still ride horses?
“I haven’t ridden for three or four years. We used to always have a young hunter or two to bring along and sell, and while they were nice horses, they were three or four years old. At my age, it’s probably not the best thing to be riding young ones. One day I decided it wasn’t worth the risk of falling off and being out of action, so I’ve given it up. I do miss it. Barbara’s dream is to buy a beautiful Quarter Horse and some Western tack and to hack it around the shows.”
What horse has been the most memorable in your career, your “horse of a lifetime?”
“I had a horse in Africa called Welcome who was so good for me. He won all sorts of things. He went eventing and jumped the puissance and did some dressage. He was great. We also just sold a hunter named First Watch, who was pretty spectacular and won all sorts of things for us.”
You’ve held many administrative positions within the sport. How have you seen the sport evolve in Canada over the years?
“The sport has become much more of a business than a sport, in my mind. The horse shows are big monopolies. While that has a good side to it, I’m not sure it’s 100 percent healthy. We’ve lost a lot of the stand-alone one- or two-week shows. There are some good exceptions – Ottawa is a great show, for example. But so much of the year is just weeks and weeks of shows in the same spot. I think we have to be careful we don’t lose the special shows with a really unique character. Also, the prize money over the years has become so enormous. The days of cutting a grass field the day before, sticking up a yellow rope, and jumping are over.”
What improvements do you think should still be a priority?
“I think it’s important to make the sport accessible to all levels of people. At the moment, it’s very hard for a young rider without big funding or big sponsorship to get to the top. I think it’s an issue. These days it’s not enough to have talent; you have to have talent and backing. The days of a talented rider coming from their backyard with a homebred horse and winning the grand prix are numbered. I think that’s something we have to stay aware of.”
If you could ride any famous horse, alive or not, which one would you pick?
“If I had the skills to ride them? Hickstead would be everybody’s dream, I think.
“He’s an interesting horse because we always thought he was so unorthodox, and yet when he went to the final four in the [Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games] in Kentucky, he was so good for all the riders. I was talking to Eric that morning, and he said, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine. Everyone will get on with him.’ And he was right! That horse just told each of them, ‘I know how to do my job, just hang on.’ I think he’s the most amazing horse we’ve ever seen.”
What famous person, alive or not, would you most like to have dinner and conversation with?
“I would say [British eventer and show jumper] Anneli Drummond-Hay [who won both the famous Badminton and Burghley Horse Trials in the 1960s]. She springs to mind because she’s a fascinating woman, and at age 82, she’s still showing in the 1.40m. Probably most people would say, ‘Who the heck is that?’ But she was such a hero for me.”