Written by: The Carolinas Equestrian Published: 30 January 2019
Deep River Farm, owned by the Willard Family, is located in Oak Ridge, NC, which is a small town located about ten-minutes northwest of Greensboro. Originating in the 1940’s by Frank’s grandfather, Dan Whitaker, the farm was initially home to American Saddlebreds, fox hunters and show hunters. Dan was also the Master of the Sedgefield Hounds for many years.
In the 1970’s, Frank took over and transformed the farm exclusively into a show hunter facility. “I was fortunate to have some great customers who provided me with some great horses,” offers Frank. “It was a different business in the ‘80s and ‘90s as horse owners, Jane King and Cameron York, sent me horses to show and sell. They bred them for that purpose and I loved doing it. As the business changed to everyone wanting to ride and show, the shows obviously had to change to accommodate them. “We were married in 1984,” shares wife Vivian, “and I rode as an amateur owner for several years until our daughter Caroline came along in 1986. She was on a horse as soon as she could sit upright!”
Some of the earliest highlights for the farm that came from both the horses Frank showed and the horses they sold over the years:
- ‘Double Murmur’ winning the Medal Finals at Pennsylvania National Horse Show (Harrisburg).
- ‘Timeless’ winning the Three Year Old Hunter Futurity Championship for his owner Cameron York, then going on to be Horse of the Year in the Green Conformation Hunter Division
- ‘Bachus’ Fourth in the Medal Finals at Harrisburg with Heather Caristo on board
Caroline has enjoyed much success through the years, beginning with the short-stirrup division. “First show, right off the bat, she is champion at a HITS Ocala on a 16.2 hand horse named, ‘Marble’!” exclaims Vivian. “Much of Caroline’s success is attributed to Susie Schoellkopf and Jennifer Alfano.” Susie arranged for Caroline to team up with her incredible medium welsh pony, ‘Farnley Rutile.’ This partnership began with the short-stirrup division in 1997 to a Reserve Champion National Title in the medium pony division in 1999. Additionally, they were Zone Three Medium Pony Champions in 1998 and 1999 as well as North Carolina Hunter Jumper (NCHJA) Year-End High Score and Grand Pony Champion. Some of the other highlights in Caroline’s junior years included a partnership with Cameron York’s, ‘Winifred.’ She was a 17 hand plus chestnut mare that Caroline rode to the Zone Three Year End Championship in the Younger Large Junior Hunter Championship.
“Caroline and her amateur-owner horse, ‘Hypnotiq,’ were an amazing team,” offers proud dad, Frank. “They were together for five years and just one of the headlining accomplishments was that they were the Younger Amateur Owner Grand Champions for four consecutive years and Overall Grand Amateur-Owner Champions for three consecutive years at the Blowing Rock Charity Horse Shows.” Additionally Caroline has won the North Carolina Hunter Jumper Association (NCHJA) Equitation on Ponies Finals, the EJ Haun Finals and the Bryan Jones Adult Equitation Finals. At the time, these were the only NCHJA Finals, and she was the first and may still be the only rider who has topped all three!
“We thought she would work in the ‘real world,’ and be an amateur/owner rider,” ads Frank. “So, with that thought in mind and Vivian and I wanting to slow down – we sold the original Deep River Farm consisting of 50 acres and 20 stalls for development and purchased a much smaller farm (12 acres and eight stalls) which we thought was suitable for an amateur. Well, as you might guess, Caroline decided to become a professional in 2012! Our 12 acres has become home to 18 stalls and a rented four stall barn a mile away, and her business has grown by leaps and bounds. Now that Caroline’s business has expanded, she usually takes around 12 horses/ponies to the ‘AA’ shows 20-24 weeks out the year.
“There have been so many changes through the years in the horse show world,” agree both Frank and Vivian. “Some personal and some from the ever evolving horse industry. On the personal side, our daughter taking over the reins of Deep River Farm has been a major adjustment. Caroline married Jacob Briles in October 2017 and since then has been molding Deep River into her own show barn. It is however, still a family operation. As Vivian and I keep the books and organize the shows to help free Caroline up to do what she does best – ride, train and teach!”
Highlights Since Caroline Turned Professional:
- 2017 Leading Hunter Rider at the Duke Jump for the Children Horse Show in Raleigh, NC
- Grand Green Hunter Champion with Tara Rein’s ‘Baron de Ley’
- 2013 Zone 3 First Year Green Working Hunter Champion with Addison Byrd’s ‘Too Cool.’ This pair was also NCHJA and South Carolina Hunter Jumper Association (SCHJA) Year End Champions.
- 2012 Caroline finished third in the World Champion Hunter Rider (WCHR) Developing Pro Finals
A typical day at Deep River Farm is Caroline riding 10 to 12 horses in the morning then teaching five or six amateurs and juniors in the afternoons – a full day! “Our specialty is attention to the individual!” affirms Vivian. “We like to keep our numbers small so we can build a custom program that meets the needs of each horse and rider as a team. The horses’ happiness is so important to us. Happy horses like their jobs and make great show horses!”
Since 2017 Caroline has been paired with Alex Steven’s ‘Sky Pilot,’ and this team has racked up numerous wins in the national hunter derbies as well as champions in the performance hunters divisions. This spectacular horse has also had many wins with Alex, and in 2018, the duo met a 30 year dream by winning the Masters Adult Hunters Grand Championship at the Blowing Rock Charity Horse Show. “I’ve been with the Willards for close to 40 years,” he beams. “It’s far more than just horses … it’s about sharing a love of horses with your family.”
Another Deep River focal point is that of competing specifically at the World Champion Hunter Rider (WCHR) shows. Caroline has been the Southeast’s Developing Pro Hunter Rider Champion four times and her students have won numerous awards as well. Carly Rein topped the children’s hunters division in the Southeast, and her sister, Cassidy, was third in the low junior hunters.
The future for Deep River is very exciting! Of course, they will continue with the horse showing, but they are also proud to be in a partnership with Alex on a young stallion named ‘Myle HI!’ So far ‘Myles’ has proven to be a fantastic show hunter, with many championships in the baby green hunters. He will move up to the pre-green hunters in 2019 (which technically begins in December) and then they are looking for him to show in the green conformation hunters in 2020. In addition to his competitive career, the Willards are eager to soon open his door in a breeding stallion capacity.
The 2019 schedule currently includes the WCHR Finals at the Capital Challenge Show as it’s always a goal for them, along with Devon, Harrisburg and the National Horse Show in Kentucky. They will also include a trip to the shows in Florida for the winter and lots of fun, hard work and great ribbons for their junior and amateur riders.
Photographs courtesy of The Willard Family