Caring for Performance Horses with Cayden Hill
We recently sat down with Cayden Hill of the Millar Brooke South team to talk horse management, philosophy and what it is like to work on a team and coordinate care for performance horses.
How did you get involved with horses? What was your first “horse job”?
I got into it through my family. My mom has always been into horses and we started out just riding ponies as kids in the backyard, like I think a lot of people do. We showed a little bit with the ponies and slowly moved up to horses. I didn’t really take a break from it, but I’ve always been a little bit “intermittent” with it due to school and university. It’s something I’ve always come back to. I had a couple of working student positions. The first was when I was 16, in Ocala, Florida with a trainer I was working with at the time. I did two seasons as a working student, one with an Ontario based trainer. Since then, it’s really been riding focused, trying to pick up rides wherever I can that fit in with work.
My background and previous full time career were not based in horses until I got to Millar Brooke South. I used to work in team building in consulting and operations management. So horses had been a hobby for the most part. I guess about 8 months ago I decided I wanted to take a break from the corporate world and take a stab at riding again, and through a couple of friends was able to make a connection with Kelly and Jonathon, and it all just fell together.
Did you have anyone who was a mentor to you when you first started working with horses?
Definitely my mom, because that’s how we really started into it. So my core horsemanship skills and knowledge all started in the barn in the backyard, basically. She taught my sister and I right up until our teen years, and our first ponies were a 2 for $500 type deal that we trained ourselves and really all learned together. So it all mostly came from her, and even now I would say my relationship with my mom through horses is incredibly strong. We’ve both done it in different aspects now, we’ve both had professional jobs in it, and we’re constantly on the phone talking about everything from nutrition to how the barns run; we bounce ideas off each other that way. She still continues to be a role model for me.
How did you develop your philosophy of horse care?
Everything for myself comes down to “horse first.” I think one of the benefits to not really entering into a professional career with horses until now is that as a passion and a hobby I could keep it a little lighter and really enjoy horses, just from wanting to enjoy horses and be around them. I would say having that freedom, where you’re not constricted to being in a professional role and the certain demands that come with that, has allowed me to put the horse first and develop that way. Even today, even though it is a very professional environment at Millar Brooke, we place a huge emphasis on why we’re doing this in the first place.
We’re all here because we love horses, so we’re trying to provide the best environment for them and the staff that we can. We try to create our results by developing an atmosphere that’s based on passion and enjoyment – why we’re in the sport in the first place.
Can you talk about your primary role at Millar Brooke South?
I assist Jonathon and Kelly in the coordination of the horses, whether that is at a show or around the barn, organizing the staff, and I groom and ride for them as well. I have 3 or 4 horses in my direct care, and we collaborate on general care for the barn. It’s a pretty diverse role, which is great. Everyone at the barn wears a few different hats, so we can jump in wherever needed. Everyone has their core set of skills, but we’re all pretty well-versed on each other’s horses and we have them all on the same program, so it always comes back to “are they happy, healthy, and sound?” It makes it very easy to move from horse to horse.
When you’re managing performance horses, is there anything particular you pay attention to in their everyday care?
Their behaviors are the biggest indicator of how the horse is actually doing. Are they maintaining? We pay attention to everything from their bowel movements all the way to how they behave in the field. Do they seem happy? Are they interested in what they’re doing? Are they getting sour at all? Are they lethargic when you’re leaving them out? You can boil it down to a few different things, but obviously when a horse has been on the road for a certain amount of time, we do see changes in their behavior. So we monitor that and at the end of the day, are the horses happy, healthy and sound? If they’re checking those boxes then we’re happy.
You can watch how they interact with each other, how they interact with the staff, and we know all the horses very well. Each horse has its own checklist that contributes to the overall theme of “are they happy and healthy?” So we all know what to look for in these specific horses and we can act on changes pretty quickly. We can discuss what could be causing it and if we should change anything.
Going through the stalls in the morning, we look at their poop from the night before, see if they’ve laid down, if they’re drinking water, and if they’re eating their food and hay. All of that can show us individual things about the horse and collective things about the barn. We always talk about it because if it’s just one horse, it’s something that requires a little more focus. If multiple grooms have horses that are acting a similar way, we can say ‘Okay, what have we changed with all of them in the past week or so?’
What are some ways you help keep a calm environment for performance horses?
It’s important to us that the horses get time to eat in a quiet space without anyone working with them, and the appropriate time to digest and process the nutrition we care so much about. So we start about 45 minutes early and throw hay and refresh water, then feed grain about 20-30 minutes later. This helps us do what we can to control a relaxed environment for all the horses.
How do you balance care of different types of performance horses that may have varying needs like hunters and jumpers?
Most of our work with the horses is consistent for turnout, feed, etc., they’re all on the same plans. I guess with the hunter and jumpers it comes down to changing the way we school them, of course, but the overall theme beyond the horse care stays pretty much the same. The hunters may not require the same level of cardiovascular fitness as the jumpers, and maybe require a little more prep in the rings in the morning before a show, but otherwise it is fairly the same. They all see the same therapies. They all get the chiropractor, we use the magnetic blanket on all of them, acupuncture, things like that. We don’t do too much differently between the hunters and jumpers.
How is it working with the team at Millar Brooke South and what makes everyone work well together?
What links it all together is we’re all doing it for the same reason. We love being around the horses, and like I said, we keep the environment as positive as possible.
We’ve got the donkeys and the minis and the ponies, so there’s a lot of different stuff that makes the days enjoyable. The majority of us in the barn actually hop on the horses from time to time, though obviously the more high level ones are mostly worked by Jonathon and Kelly.
Because we run a very team-oriented environment, everyone is expected and able to jump in and fill multiple roles. We don’t run it as a “if your job is done, you get to go home.” We try to keep the horses on the same schedule, so if, for example, the hunters need to get started earlier and fed earlier, we will feed all of the horses earlier, which means all of the staff comes in earlier. We don’t isolate people to just what their horses need. We schedule as best as we can to keep the horses on the same schedule, even though at a show you’re at the mercy of their scheduling. You are able to help other people out and jump in to do whatever needs to be done. That flexibility and versatility is what makes everyone fit well together. You don’t see anyone coming up short handed, everyone always has help.
Can you talk about how BioStar’s whole food supplements are integrated into the program for performance horses, and what are some of your staple products?
We use quite a lot of BioStar products. All of the horses are either on the Optimum EQ 2.0 or the Optimum Bars. Optimum GI is one that is consistent across all the horses. We use the Tri-Gard EQ for the ones that are anxious at the shows. The Alixir we use on a lot of the performance horses for recovery. Quantum EQ is one that we started using quite a bit lately and the horses are going really well on that. Most of the horses are on Circuvate EQ and Thera Calm EQ.
Biostar definitely makes up the majority of our feed. We feed a general alfalfa base, and then BioStar is the topping on that. All the horses are on the Empower EQ hemp seed oil, and quite a few on Gold Star EQ as well. So it definitely is the majority of their feed.
Tigger came over to look over the horses with us, and I shared her insights over which horse needs what. When we get new horses in, I give her a call and we chat about “hey, this is what this horse is on and what we think it needs to be on, what are your thoughts?” She’s super helpful with that so we can get everyone’s nutrition on track super quickly.
That’s something that Jonathon, Kelly, and myself talk about quite a bit, and play around with the feed a little bit depending on how they’re feeling. Between the grooms, we discuss how they’re digesting everything, what looks different, what looks normal, has there been any changes since we introduced something? The communication goes in every direction. We’re very happy with where all the horses are.
What has been your proudest accomplishment with Millar Brooke South, and what are you excited about for the future?
I really enjoy working with the young horses, and we’ve had success with a few of them lately with quite a few more coming down the pipeline in the 3 and 4 year old stage and quite a few being born this year as well. It will be very exciting to see how that grows and develops as we begin producing more of our own horses. That’s definitely what excites me, along with looking at different ways to continue making everything more different and enjoyable. It’s kind of pushing “how good can we get.” So trying new things is one thing that I love.
Jonathon and Kelly have their traditions but are very open to trying new things. Having that flexibility for all of us to collaborate between the horses makes it a much more enjoyable environment to work in. We’ve had a lot of really great results, especially this summer. Those are great in the sense that it acts as a marketing tool, and keeps everyone happy and pays the bills, but at the end of the day it is validation for all the work we’re putting in. The hours and time we spend with the horses is paying off. Going over the small details is contributing to these results.