By: Pamela Young
Ilan Ferder is a genius when it comes to pairing horses and riders.
If horse dealing is a science, then Ilan Ferder is a scientist. Horse trading these days is a complicated matter. It’s not just buying and selling; there are lots of dots to connect. Find the right horse + match to rider + training + nurturing = winning partnership.
Ilan’s formula is both comprehensive and successful. He was responsible for creating the gold medal-winning North American Young Riders matches of Uno de Laubry and Karl Cook and Tucker with Aurora Griffin. He sold Cadett 7 to Ashlee Bond, who took him to two World Cup Finals.
This owner-trainer’s understanding of the natural phenomenon of a harmonious relationship between rider and horse is based on empirical evidence gathered from observation and a certain amount of experimentation. Born in Israel, a country in which equestrian sport exists in a niche, Ilan moved to Belgium at age 14 and enjoyed some success as a teenage jumper rider. National service took him back to Israel at 19 and following his stint with the Israeli Army he joined his family’s diamond company.
But his heart wasn’t in it and he hungered for the horses. At 23 he moved himself and two horses to California and spent seven years working for Pan Am gold medallist and two-time Olympian Mark Watring. After nearly a decade on the west coast, Ilan moved east in 2012 to hang out a shingle with Belgian-based long-time chum and business partner, Tal Milstein. They own the horses ridden in competition by Erynn Ballard and are hopeful one of them will go to the Pan Am Games this summer and help Canada qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
Do you come from a horsey background?
My parents loved the horses and always supported me, but I was the first and only one in my family to ride. I went on a trail ride when I was seven years old and that was it for me. Two months later I got my first horse. My parents built a nice barn for me in Tel Aviv; they saw there wasn’t much of an alternative, because there’s not much going on in the horse world there. There are probably only 500 horses competing and every second weekend there’s a nice show.
How did you transition from competitor to horse dealer?
When I decided to go back to working with horses, I took two to southern California and left the rest in Belgium with Tal [his best friend since they were six years old]. The first year I worked for free for Mike Edrick in Agoura Hills and then I got a training job with Mark and started selling a few horses here and there. People got to know me and one thing led to another.
Can you identify the turning point in your horse career?
Seven years ago, when I moved to Wellington. I figured I wasn’t going to be world champion – that’s not where I was going with the riding and I figured out what I do best and that was dealing. To be successful, you have to focus on what you do best. I think my gift is that I have a good vision about what horse will work and which one won’t for the individual clients and those that buy horses from me. My business partner of twenty years, Tal, searches for the horses all over Europe. He finds them and tries them and then we decide to buy them or not. I put them together with the client. Every horse and every rider are different. My job is to make the right matches. It’s a bit like physics. I would say my success rate is eighty per cent.
What’s your daily routine?
I like getting up early. I read and see what’s going on in the show jumping world. Not news; I stopped watching the news when I left Israel. My work day starts at six a.m. when I go to the barn and ends at six p.m. By seven or seven-thirty we are on our first horses and I’ll ride between seven and ten horses a day. In between riding I’ll teach or run over to the show ground to train or support my clients. My days are so full we barely get done what needs to be done.
I don’t enjoy competing so much anymore. I don’t have the passion for it. I prefer to watch my riders and the kids and the people that train with me rather than showing myself. If I really need to, I’ll show maybe four or five horses a week to get them ready for the client or iron out any little problems they may be having.
Tell us something about you that would surprise people.
I love old cars. I collect them. I’ve always been passionate about classic cars. I have a 1967 E-type Jag which is very special, a 1954 Porsche Speedster which is very rare, and a 1932 five-window Ford coupe – it’s beautiful.
If you could re-do a period in your life, when would that be?
I would like to have another go at WEG. I don’t think we did as well as we wanted or expected to. I think the knowledge we gained in Tryon will leave us better prepared the next time. The horse needed to be fitter for four days of competition. We learned a lot of little things that could have made a big difference. I would do it much better the next time.
How would you describe yourself?
Strong but soft. I think a lot of people are intimidated by me, but when they know me inside, they realize I’m a softy. I’m also an optimist. I am always thinking positively. I don’t have much negativity inside me. I’m not that type – I’m a happy person.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
I love skiing at Zermatt in Switzerland. I haven’t been in a few years, but it’s a place I really love. We used to go when we were kids. It’s close to the Matterhorn, so you can ski there in the summer as well.
Where would you most like to go that you haven’t been?
Alaska. I’ve heard really good stories about it. My parents took my daughter to Alaska for her bat mitzvah and it looked incredible.
When and where did you last go on vacation?
It’s difficult to get away during the winter, but this year, for the first time in eight years, we went to Aspen skiing for five days.
Do you have a health and fitness regimen?
Three to four times a week I go to the gym and at least three times a week I’ll do pilates in the evening. I play tennis once a week.
Can you recommend a book or movie you’ve read or seen lately?
I liked Bohemian Rhapsody. Rami Malek was fantastic as Freddie Mercury. I have always been a Queen fan.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Diet Coke – it’s like an addiction. I’ve really cut back in the last two months. I used to drink fifteen to twenty cans a day. Now I’m down to two. I woke up one night at three o’clock and went to the refrigerator to get a can and that’s when I knew ‘this has got to stop.’
If you had a life lesson to share with us, what would it be?
Be honest and true to yourself.
If a genie were to give you three wishes, what would you wish for?
Health, happiness, and for a horse of mine to win a medal.
If you were having a dinner party and could choose four celebrity guests, living or dead, who would you invite and why?
I’d love to meet Roger Federer and Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus … and Dustin Hoffman. He was superb in Rain Man. I could really identify with the character he played, as my brother is autistic.
Money or medals, what’s more important to you?
Medals. Money comes and goes.
What’s on the horizon for you in 2019?
We have ten horses competing regularly. I hope Erynn can go to the Pan Ams. We have two horses that can do it; Felini and Darcos Promise. We have a special bond with Erynn; I always thought highly of her and her riding and wanted to give her the opportunity to be where she is now.
I’ve been working a bit with the Israeli team and I want to do more going forward. Whatever they need, I will be there for them. We are a small group and we try to help each other in any way we can.
Other than that, we are looking forward to our first ‘Ten’ auction in the USA. We had our third in Belgium in April. It’s a unique auction, because we have just ten quality horses. It’s a black-tie event; it’s like no other auction you’ve ever been to. People are very happy with the horses, which are all competing at a high level. (Ed. – The Ten takes place on Sept. 13 during the American Gold Cup show at Old Salem Farm)
Do you have a burning ambition?
I always look to get better. I sit, I learn, I study, and I watch for hours what other people are doing so that I can improve myself. I’m a perfectionist.