Photos by Jim Graham
Jimmy Paxson shares the inside story on outriding, which involves escorting competing horses from the paddock to the racecourse.
For many of his 65 years in the saddle, Jimmy Paxson has been a competitor, reaching the loftiest levels of puissance, the time-honored sport of show jumping. For more than 30 years, he’s led the corps of outriders at steeplechase events. These skilled and savvy equestrians keep horses, riders and spectators safe.
Outriders escort competing horses from the paddock to the racecourse—but their duties don’t end there. If a horse throws his jockey, the outriders’ job is to catch it before the riderless mount injures fans, other horses or itself. If a horse is wobbly, an outrider mounted on either side will help the animal off the course.
Outriders escort competing horses from the paddock to the racecourse. If a horse throws his jockey, their job is to catch it before it injures fans, other horses or itself.
Paxson also views outriders as ambassadors for the sport. Dressed in bright scarlet coats, they represent both the tradition of steeplechase racing and a passion for horses. “Between the races, we go between the rails at various spots so the little kids can pet the horses,” Paxson says. “All our horses know what to do, and they love being petted.”
The logistics of outriding are large-scale and complex. In addition to trailering in the horses and their tack, Paxson hauls his own water. He’s a stickler about that. “Horses seem to like their home water,” he says. “Sometimes they won’t drink water that comes out of a hose.”
Paxson began riding as a lad of 10 and started competing at 12. In the 1960s and ’70s, he won scores of championships, trophies and ribbons, besting some of the finest horses and riders of Europe and South America. He won the National Grand Championship in 1968 aboard Ilion, a once-in-a-generation jumper. Two years before, he guided Ilion over a wall of more than seven feet to win the puissance at the Youngstown Charity Horse Show in Ohio. “That wall started out at four foot, nine inches and was raised in three-inch increments until it got to over seven feet,” Paxson recalls. “The horses who jump those walls successfully kind of curl over them. They have tremendous thrust from their high end.”
Ilion lived to be 31. Paxson buried him on his farm.
Paxson has been outriding at timber races and steeplechases since 1989. Today, at 75, he rides out 100 days a year, weather permitting. He lives on a 50-acre farm in Lancaster County with his wife, Doris, 15 thoroughbreds and 51 Penn-Marydel hounds. At night, the only lights visible from his house are the moon and stars.
Paxson is master of the River Hills Foxhounds, a recognized private pack. River Hills territory encompasses the farm and forestland of southern Lancaster County and southwestern Chester County in Pennsylvania and northern Cecil County, Maryland, where horses and riders can gallop across fields and jump over streams and fallen trees. “The idea is to chase the fox, not to get the fox,” he says.
Karen Kennedy began riding to hounds with Paxson more than 20 years ago. She doesn’t foxhunt much since suffering a back injury but stays close to River Hills, taking pictures and helping with the dogs. “Jimmy is friendly, encouraging and extremely knowledgeable,” she says. “He loves his thoroughbreds and has a great feeling for them.”
Paxson has bee outriding at timber races and steeplechases since 1989. Today, at 75, he rides out 100 days a year.
Amanda Howe is a whipper-in, responsible for bringing stray hounds back to the pack. She’s been riding with Paxson since she was 12 and joined the ranks of the outriders at 18. Now 24, she rides Tristan, a striking eight-year-old dapple-gray gelding. “Jimmy made me a better horsewoman,” she says. “He knew I could be a good outrider because I listen and I don’t panic in difficult situations.”
Sometimes, retrieving a riderless horse is as simple as picking up the reins. Other times, the job at hand is more challenging. “We’ve had several horses who jumped over fences and went into neighborhoods. Knock on wood, we’ve always been successful in bringing them back,” Howe says. “It’s a lot of work, but we love every minute of it. There’s nothing like having a front-row seat to the races.”
Jill Abbott, Winterthur’s race director and chair of the race chairman’s committee of the National Steeplechase Association, sees Paxson and his team as masters of NSA races. “Jimmy and his outriders spend every weekend volunteering their time and talents to keep horse and rider safe at every event,” she says. “The races wouldn’t happen without them, and their commitment is a true labor love for horses and the sport of steeplechasing.”
Paxson is a distant relative of Adele Warden Paxson, a socialite, philanthropist, conservationist and champion breeder of thoroughbred racehorses who was an avid horsewoman and competed sidesaddle at the Devon Horse Show. He frequently enlists foxhunters who ride sidesaddle to join the outriders at steeplechase meetings, a special treat for spectators. “In a beautiful, sweeping habit and a hat with a veil, a woman riding sidesaddle is the ultimate eye candy,” he says.
Paxson adds more panache when he brings his Penn-Marydel hounds, a breed developed in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware that’s prized for its slender athleticism, intelligence, courage and loyalty. At one time, Paxson kept 80 hounds, but he gave more than two dozen to the Potomac Hunt in Maryland.
On the steeplechase circuit, Paxson rides Basten. The 14-year-old gray gelding is a thoroughbred who came off the racetrack, as have all his horses. He attributes Basten’s prowess in outriding to the experience he gained foxhunting. “In flat racing, it’s all about going fast,” he says. “Foxhunting teaches horses to wait, to know where their feet are, how to manage different terrains. The horses we outride on are quick but stay sane.”
At home on the farm, Paxson tends his hounds and horses and loads hay into the barn. He’s a go-to guy in the equine community, helping to place thoroughbreds in need of homes. He’s ever at the ready to share his love with others, most recently leading the River Hills group in a parade of horses kicking off the Christmas market in Chesapeake City, Maryland. “I have good health and good horses under me,” he says. “I have everything a man could want.”