Tucked away in Cornelius, Oregon, is Warwicke Hill, home to World Champion Clydesdale stallion, Towerview Theo, and World Champion Clydesdale gelding, Oakwood Thistle’s Guinness. Warwicke Hill is owned by Jessica Crannell-Menard, an accomplished horsewoman driven by her desire to improve the quality of sporthorses and to shift bias against draft breeds.
It is said that one of the best ways to beat a prejudice is through imagery that runs contrary to a current belief. In the instance of Jessica and her Clydesdales, this means showing the world that Clydesdales and draft crosses are more than just hitch-horses. They can be light, forward, and move like warmbloods. And when she trots down centerline like she did at the World Clydesdale Show in 2018 to win Champion in Adult English Riding and Reserve Champion in Dressage, it’s hard to think otherwise.
While Jessica’s interest in drafts certainly lies in defending her titles at the next World Clydesdale Show, she is also interested in promoting the breed by offering her stallion for stud for purebred Clydesdales and draft-cross sporthorses, with the hopes of producing athletic, durable, and willing partners in the under-saddle disciplines. She doesn’t just believe it, she’s proven it.
Her achievements are notable. Towerview Theo, lovingly known as Nitro, is the 2018 World Clydesdale Show Champion in Adult English Riding, Reserve Champion in Dressage, awarded the Top American Dressage Horse at the World Clydesdale Show, is 5th in the world in Hunter Over Fences, and was the highest placed stallion out of any and all riding classes at the World Clydesdale Championship. Additionally, Jessica’s retired Clydesdale, Oakwood Thistle’s Guinness was World Champion in competitive trail in 2018. As Jessica puts it: “I am psycho proud.” And she should be.
Jessica’s pursuits began the way many of ours do: with an interest in animals. She earned a pre-veterinary degree in Animal Science and a minor in Agricultural Business Economics from Washington State with a specific interest in reproduction. After graduation, she accepted an internship in Lexington, Kentucky, under the breeder who won the 2008 Derby with Big Brown, and then took a second internship in Paris, Kentucky, studying Saddlebreds, learning all that she could about collections, semen, and managing stallions. She saw firsthand that from a breeding perspective the economics of successful breeders center around stallions.
She also learned that the economics of a breeding program don’t come cheap, and in 2011, while the United States was in the middle of a recession, she transitioned to work in accounting so she could afford her equine pursuits as a passion rather than a job.
This is when worlds collide. An accomplished equestrian, Jessica was helping a neighbor tune up horses when she was asked to ride a Percheron-cross, a 16hh paint who had a job as a track pony in his previous life. It was her first exposure to a draft-cross. “He had a great temperament, a great, thick body, but he could move.”
Jessica took him to a local dressage show and thought, “Wow. This horse could do really well.” A self-proclaimed natural entrepreneur, she began scheming, thinking about the benefits of a horse that can move well, but isn’t a super-hot thoroughbred or a luggy plow-pulling draft horse, but a hybrid that is willing and temperamentally suited for the riding that she loves. It didn’t take long to connect the dots between her experience with the draft-cross and her education in Kentucky. She said to herself, “What if I started breeding draft-crosses?”
Knowing full well she wasn’t going to stand thoroughbreds to draft mares, she had to go with a talented draft stallion in order to produce the kinds of unique crosses she thought suitable for dressage. Her brain immediately locked onto perhaps the most notable draft of them all: Clydesdales. Don’t be mistaken; Jessica saw an opportunity in a breed that is highly recognizable by the public and combined that notoriety with her other goals. Think of it as an intersection of business savvy and passion. In Jessica’s mind, the horses she wanted to work with have to move well, be trainable, athletic, and durable, but they also have to make sense in terms of a business. She found what she was looking for in Clydesdales. “I didn’t just pick the horses just for business,” she says. “It is my breed.”
Indeed. The love Jessica has for her horses is undeniable, and she truly believes in the hidden talent simmering in draft breeds for work under saddle. “It hasn’t gotten mainstream yet, but more and more people are starting to compete with their crosses and accomplish more. And there are USDF All Breeds awards for draft-crosses. You have these animals competing at high levels, and not just in dressage.” Jessica feels the market for draft crosses has been simmering for a long time. And while she gets a lot of questions about whether she has any two or three-year-olds, she says the trend for breeding is picking up steam. “The more I compete and travel, the more I see how interested the community is.”
While Jessica selected her own horses to produce good crosses and believes there are a lot of draft combinations that can produce strong competitors, she is also a full, red-blooded advocated for the purebred, ridden Clydesdale. “That is a hill I will die on,” she says. And she continues to showcase her horses’ talents by showing exactly how athletic and capable they are.
Clydesdales are born to pull, but hers aren’t 20hh brickhouses with wide chests. They move more like warmbloods with bulk, and they have good joints and stellar breeding that provide durability so their bodies maintain well into their senior years. He retired Champion Guinness is still moving well as an eighteen-year-old. “They are bred to work all day long. These horses have a stellar work ethic and they love to please.”
Jessica’s list of things she loves about Clydesdales is winning. Her horses, and to large degree draft-crosses in general, have unflappable nerves and tend to be easy going work horses who like a job. They are also, in general, extremely kind and excellent on trail. Jessica will tell you it is a nice departure to leave managing the emotions of a hotter horse behind when the wind picks up at a show or a group of ducks land in a pond near the warm-up ring. She simply doesn’t have to worry about details that would send a hotter horse through the roof. Her boys are gentle giants, and she has trained them beautifully.
If dressage is about biomechanics, the best way to bring a draft or draft-cross into the sport is to get them off their forehand and onto their haunches. To some degree you are working against genetics, which does produce a horse that can be heavy on the hand and behind the leg, but when trained and understood, draft horses excel.
“They will out work anybody. In their mind they will go all day long. And they want to please so much. It’s all there. Not spooky. Great for beginners, and great for people who are a little jaded from a crazy past experience.” Simply put, riders who want a safe and willing partner should prepare themselves to fall in love.
Jessica is grateful for a trainer that understands motivating and producing a draft dressage horse is somewhat nontraditional. Her workouts consist of a lot of transitions to keep the job interesting for Nitro and to keep moving his weight off the forehand. To hear that a purebred Clydesdale can go FEI might shock some people, but not Jessica or her trainer. “Nitro is going to go FEI.”
And while the reaction from the community isn’t wholly supportive, Jessica finds that most people are curious about the experience of riding a Clydesdale and want to see them do well. Still, there is bias. “Whether it is perceived by me, or it is actually this way, the dressage world immediately places limitations on my horse.” She feels her critics have low expectations. In this way, the pressure is always on. It just so happens, Jessica and her horses excel when the stakes are high.
She approaches every outing ready to wow spectators and judges both in and out of the ring. “You won’t see my stallion act out in public.” She also is keenly aware that people are ready to apply judgment to the horse because of its breed instead of say, rider error during a test. “I don’t want Nitro blamed for being a Clydesdale because I rode the test wrong,” she says. And because people are very eager to apply judgment, I always want to be advocating for the breed. We try to be perfect. We don’t want to give anyone a reason to say anything other than WOW.” In this way, she is advocating not only for her business but for Clydesdales and draft-crosses everywhere. They can do it, and she has proven that.
Jessica hopes to continue showcasing her horses and draft-crosses by defending her titles at The Clydesdale World Championships in 2021. She hopes to see more and more draft-crosses compete in dressage and to some extent jumping, and is working tirelessly to prove that these gentle giants are worthy competitors, by accepting nothing less than World Champion level riding.
“My advice for people wanting to get into this breed or drafts in general would be to find a trainer that doesn’t have any ego and who understands how to work with horses that aren’t just warmbloods and who might be a little bit different.”
When “different” = special, like it does for Jessica and her Clydesdales, the result is a World Champion.
Learn more about Jessica and Warwicke Hill at: www.warwickehill.com
by Kim Curzi