For a blue-collar boy from rural Pennsylvania, Thoroughbreds were his ticket to an elite world of competitive show jumping that put him and his ex-racehorses on the map.
On board his all-time great Thoroughbred Ilion, Jimmy Paxson got to do things most people only dream about doing. Including riding a 17-hand gelding over a seven-foot three-inch wall in 1966 to win the puissance (high jumping) at the Youngstown Charity Horse Show.
“That’s the highest I ever jumped,” says Paxson, 63. “That wall started out at four-foot nine-inches and was raised in three-inch increments until it got to over seven feet.
Sire: I Am
Foal date: 1955 “I cannot say enough about the specialness of that horse. A lot of horses don’t’ want to jump something if they can’t see what’s on the other side. But he would, because he was a Thoroughbred, and they have tremendous heart.”
Paxson and Ilion charged to victory so often in the 1960s and 70s that he loses count of all the championships, trophies and ribbons won against some of the classiest horses of the day.
Suffice it to say, “That horse went up against the best horses in the world. From Germany, France, Ireland, Argentina,” he says, noting that the pair showed against great horse rider teams including, Kathy Kusner and Aberali, Untouchable and That’s Right; Mary Chapot and Anaconda; Dave Kelly and Windsor Castle and Gone Flying; Rodney Jenkins and Australis, and many others.
Pretty good for the son of a produce merchant whose entourage used to roll up to the rarified horse show circuits looking like “a band of gypsies.”
“We’re blue collar working people who have been lucky to develop a little bit of expertise with some really great horses off the track,” he says. “In the early days we went to horseshows in campers. We had a 1966 Ford truck with a slide-in trailer, and when we pulled up to some very exclusive areas, I think people thought they were being invaded by gypsies.”
All that changed as Paxson and Ilion racked up victories at some of the most prestigious shows of the time, including The Washington International Horse Show, where he won the 1968 national championship.
“That’s the only horseshow in the country where someone like me could compete against the top riders in the world,” Paxson says. During one of the years he showed at the Washington International, ‘The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit’ was filmed. There’s a scene where Ilion can even be seen in a background shot of the movie.
Purchased by his father straight from the track, the Thoroughbred held the lead role in Paxson’s household. He was first trained for foxhunting before going onto a show jumping career. And the outdoor rambles remained a big part of Ilion’s routine.
“My father loved that horse as much as I did. When he came home from work, he would get on and go for a ride,” Paxson says. “The horse had a wonderful life, and he lived to be 31.”
And what Ilion taught Paxson about the heart of a Thoroughbred has rippled through other parts of the equestrian’s life. He went on to see that many other Thoroughbreds possessed the talent and good brain to compete, but also, to develop training methods that incorporate woodsy rides in the country and foxhunting into a horse’s routine. To this day, he credits Ilion’s outdoor activities as a major ingredient in their successes. “I don’t think you should take a horse and pound it for two hours. If you’re going to work in the ring, do something, make it intense, and then reward him by going for a ride,” he says. “Don’t bore them to death.”
Today he oversees River Hills Fox Hounds, a nonprofit in Pennsylvania that utilizes ex-racehorses, and he also trains top-level riders on Thoroughbreds.
“We’re not running a rescue. We just don’t take horses to take horses,” he says, noting that he works with local racetracks to identify horses that might be suitable for foxhunting.
Currently, he has 16 ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds in his operation, including three very competitive, victorious equine athletes. Excess Baggage, La Grange and Judge Beautiful are all former racehorses following in Illion’s footsteps.
Ridden by one of his students, grand prix equestrian Priscilla Godsoe, the three are moving up the classes and proving themselves to be great horses.
And with each ribbon won, or jump cleared, they underscore the worth and value of Thoroughbreds who were lucky to find another career.
“These easily could have been horses that could have wound up at auction houses, and God knows where they would have wound up,” Paxson says. “If somebody doesn’t take these horses, they can end up in trucks heading to Canada or boats to France, where they eat horses.
“I have a real hard time with that. But I can’t take them all.”