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Rob Turner Is All About Horses

by Ann Bullard

“Trial and error.” That’s the way New Hampshire-based Rob Turner describes the way he learned to ride and train American Saddlebreds. His father, the late Ray Turner, made trips to Tattersalls, bringing home truckloads of horses to work and sell.

"My family has been in horses one way or another since before I was born," the middle of the seven Turner children said.
 “He ran auction companies, buying and selling a lot of horses. While he had many Standardbreds, Mother always liked American Saddlebreds.

"I had many a wild opportunity," Turner said of his primarily self-taught equine education. "Anything my father didn't sell, I rode. He kept some Saddlebreds around for my sister (Debbie Turner Mastromarino) and mother to show."


The now 80-year-old Jean Turner was 18 or 19 when her husband shifted her horse dreams from a Quarter Horse to Saddlebreds. They have been her favorite horses since that day. In the 1960s and ’70s, the senior Turners trained most of the family stock. He was in the heating business, but traded in and worked them as a sideline. All seven children rode.


“Our daughter liked showing the best,” Jean Turner said. “Robbie just tagged along. We never figured he was really interested; he never said he wanted a horse. He used to peek through the bars and watch her show. My husband said maybe we should get him one too.”


Turner had no lessons other than those his parents taught. He has worked for no one away from the family farm. According to his mother, he “just absorbed things.


Turner started training his pony at an early age.


“Robbie always read the magazines and knew everyone in the business,” Jean Turner added. “My husband was very prominent in the New England area. He had to have a business that made money and moonlighted with horses. I can’t remember how many we had – they came and went. We had every kind of problem in the world with every kind of horse. Robbie dealt with it. After Debbie began showing, he polished himself up a bit.”


Turner’s first show was before Bill Wise. He was thrilled with a third-place ribbon. Although Saddlebreds were the family’s primary focus, Turner showed all breeds, from a Shetland pony to hunters and jumpers as well.


Turner enjoyed every equine discipline.


“I started showing when I was about 10 or 11, riding anything my father didn’t sell,” Turner said. “I always had a horse to fool with. I started as a kid and never stopped. My father was quite a bit older and I ended up taking care of my brothers. I rarely had the opportunity to go out because I had obligations at home.”


Turner began training when he was “about 16, when people brought local horses of all kinds over for me to fool with. A lot of the time I did things with those horses that I shouldn’t be allowed to do. Looking back, if my son were doing things like that, I’d have a heart attack.”


Although he only is in his mid-40s, Turner has been training for more than 30 years. In his high school days, he cared for 15 head of horses before he went to class. When he got out of school, he worked and again cared for them. At 16, he finished school and took on other obligations, beginning his full-time training career. As he put it, “this whole thing just evolved.


Turner was prominent in the show ring as a teenager.


“I had always wanted to do Saddle Horses and just started with them,” he said candidly. “I loved them and got to go to some of the bigger shows. My parents took us to Lexington to see the big shots. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do. In the late ’70s or early ’80s, I started working just American Saddlebreds on my own.


“By no means was I big time,” he added. “My father still was buying horses at the spring and fall sales. He’d get colts, I’d work and show some and we’d sell them.


Happy Daze was one of Turner’s first Tattersalls experiments,

and one of the tougher horses he worked as a young man.


“We kind of outgrew the farm. We had no indoor facilities but just kept going.  I remember shoveling a path to work horses in the wintertime. We sold that farm and built a new one with an indoor facility.”


Turner rarely ventured far from the East Coast in the early years. In the late 1980s, he made his first Louisville trip as a trainer, taking Nelda Laws and Bi Mi Special Encore to the world’s championships for pleasure competition. In the early 1990s, he bought the typey under 15.2 hand Shelby Stonewall from Beth (Pittman) Hurst. Those who might not have known the talented young man from the northeast soon learned who and what he was.


Shelby was nine-years-old when I bought him in 1992,” Turner said. “He was a great horse that taught me a lot. Everybody in the world told me I didn’t want him. He was tough, tricky and all show horse. You had to be kind of nice to him and let him do his job. He taught me not to train on him. Shelby kind of ran the show; I stayed out of his way and kept him happy.”


Turner and his 13-year-old gelding began the 1993 season by winning the Three-Gaited Open and Grand Championship at the UPHA Chapter 14 Spring Premier.  It was on to Bonnie Blue and Syracuse where they earned three blues in four classes.


Turner’s personal Louisville debut with Shelby Stonewall was almost all he could have dreamed. They returned to New Hampshire as the 15.2 and Under Reserve World’s Champions. Two years later, Turner and Shelby won the under two title and a third in the world’s grand championship.


2Mastering the tough Shelby Stonewall helped bring Turner

 into the Saddle Horse spotlight. They won the Three-Gaited

15.2 and Under Reserve World’s Championship in 1993.


Shelby retired from the show ring in 1997. At age 24, he no longer is ridden but spends his days at the New England farm.


“To this day, no one has ridden Shelby except me,” Turner said of his first great horse. “I look at him now and am surprised at how small he is. He looked as big as any 16-hand horse when he was going. He probably is 14.2 to 15 hands, with lots of neck. Shelby never looked small.”


Turner is modest about his accomplishments. A quiet, somewhat shy gentleman, he doesn’t like to talk about himself. His horses and riders tell the stories of his successes. Such junior exhibitor teams as Miriam Hirshon with Attache’s Spirit Commander and Beth Leach aboard Fortunately Mine represented their trainer in winner’s circles across the country. 


Beth Leach and Sara O’Conner both were successful junior exhibitors
for Turner.
O’Conner began her career with Lynn Harvey McNamara,
moving to Turner when
McNamara closed her public facility. Turner teamed
her with Red Oak’s Robin
with whom she had a good career in junior exhibitor
five-gaited competition. 
 Leach won a Three-Gaited Show Pleasure 14-15 and
the Three-Gaited Show
Pleasure 14-17 World’s Championships
in 1988 aboard Fortunately Mine.



Roberta Hirshon and her daughter, Miriam, have been making the trek from Maine to Turner Stables for 16 years. “Rob was a young whippersnapper actually,” Roberta Hirshon said with a smile. “Robbie was very, very shy when he was young. He couldn’t look at you, but at his shoes. I used to bring Miriam there one night during the week. We had dinner with Robbie and Jean and then went to ride.


“Robbie had a gift and a kindness for horses. He made Miriam into an incredible rider,” Roberta Hirshon said.


The Hirshons originally owned a Morgan. Turner quickly switched them to American Saddlebreds. In 1994, he teamed Miriam with CH Attache’s Spirit Commander in junior exhibitor three-gaited competition. They amassed an enviable record across the country, including a 1997 Junior Exhibitor Three-Gaited World’s Championship. Miriam will finish graduate work at William Woods this year. She will be the first of Turner’s students to enter the professional ranks.


“Rob had some foresight and helped Miriam all along,” her mother said. “It was fun. We all had a good time and learned as we went.”


Hirshon says Turner is pretty comfortable with kids but more reserved with adults. At a show, he is very stressed.


“It’s not pretty,” Hirshon said. “He gets so nervous because he wants the horses to be the best they can be. He puts them in the ring and wants to feel good about how they look.


“One thing about Robbie: he is incredibly kind to his horses. He may get upset at times, but he’s a talented man. Sometimes we have to put up with the personality stuff because he is so good at what he does.”


Despite his nervousness, Turner also can play at a show. “A customer had an Arabian at the barn,” Hirshon recalled. “He rode her horse in the costume class. It was pretty funny!”


He soon changed that customer’s focus to Saddle Horses, selling them Buck The Tiger. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he said with a laugh.


Judy Motley became part of Turner’s group when her former trainer, Tom Scott, moved to the Midwest. She has an Arabian as well as a Saddlebred background.


“I had been watching Robbie at shows and liked his horsemanship. He liked his horses and they liked him. I could see he had soft hands and was a showman in the ring.”


Those soft hands are responsible for what clients call “the Turner head set.” It’s one of many things they admire about their trainer.


Motley spoke of the Turner family and its closeness. “I know the family very well. Seeing them together and supporting Robbie the way they do is impressive. His mother and sister used to ride. His brother lives on the farm and comes to watch a show if it’s nearby. Every one of those kids rode at one time, but only Robbie stayed in it. His mother supports him totally. She sold a farm in Hamstead, bought land where it is now and built a facility for him.”


Turner’s nervousness leading up to the first show of the year stands out with Motley. “He’s on the client’s back beginning about six weeks before the show. He says, ‘We’re almost there … you’ve got to do it.’ He knows his clients’ capabilities and looks for the best horse for us. And he’s a nervous wreck if more than one of us is in a class.”


While Turner doesn’t admit to any horse show superstitions, like many trainers he second guesses himself about the best way to prepare a horse for a show. “I drive myself crazy,” he said. “I do a lot better with horses I break and make myself.”


Turner says his favorite part of the business is young horses. His ability with them is evidenced by people like Paul Rice in Tennessee and Bridget Parker sending him such horses to work.


“I met Robbie 15 or 20 years ago when I went to look at some horses. He is just about as good as they come - a hell of a nice guy and a good horseman. I have sent him several horses over the years and he has some training horses for some of my clients,” Parker said, pointing out that David Latham usually had a few colts with Turner.


“You just can’t beat him,” she continued. “He’s a hard worker and conscientious out the wazoo. There’s no negative side to Robbie that I know of, and I don’t say that about people very often. Everybody that I know loves him. Robbie is very serious and could be as good as any of them … he will be. There’s no question about that.”


Dianne Tambussi happily spends five hours in her car every Saturday getting to and from her Suffolk, Conn., home and Turner’s barn. She has kept this schedule for six years.


“I have to admit it’s worth having the day totally gone to go see and ride my boy,” she said with good humor. She currently shows Mystery Guest in Amateur Three-Gaited Park. He is the third horse Turner has trained for her. Like Turner, she is a quiet person.


“Rob can be hard to get to know because he is extremely professional. He is all about the horses. He eats, breathes and lives the horses and knows them inside and out. I think he was an American Saddlebred in a former life,” she said. “He puts 300 percent of himself into each one. Being the type person I am, I know there is no way in heck I could deal with all the different personalities he has to deal with on a regular basis, especially at a horse show. The majority of us are women, yet he takes it all in stride.”


She spoke of Turner’s getting ready to show. “When he’s at a larger show, with a number of horses going, watching him get ready for the evening is comical for some of the customers. He plans things out, talking to himself and the horses. We’ll catch him and ask, ‘Who are you talking to?’ He responds, ‘Myself, just ignore me.’”


Tambussi’s favorite memory of the years she has spent with Turner goes back to the 2006 Roanoke Valley Horse Show. She had won the Amateur Three-Gaited Park qualifier aboard Mystery Guest.


“I was thrilled to death. Rob still had issues with the way the horse could look. He knows what it can do and how it’s supposed to go. He gave me a pep talk and told me a lot of things he wanted me to do or try to do. I don’t usually get nervous but I was about pleasing my trainer. Right before we hit the ring, he made eye contact and said, ‘Go in and do your best. Have fun.’


“I went in, rode hard and ended up winning the championship. When he came down to put the ribbon on Sam, he said, ‘Now that’s the way you ride your horse. I’m very proud of you.’ I thought I had died and gone to heaven because he said that. I knew I had made my horse look like he was supposed to be.”


Turner’s life is pretty typical for a horse trainer. He starts working horses about 8 a.m., hopefully finishing by 5 p.m. His academy program is entrusted to Jessica Savinelli Verrill, a recent William Woods graduate he says Gayle Lampe made him hire. She teaches 30 to 40 riders a week, works a few horses and shows some for him. It’s an arrangement about which he has no regrets.


Turner sees his 10-year-old son, Bret, three days a week. The youngster has little interest in horses. He rides when he wishes but has never gotten hooked on them.


“He’s always into sports,” Turner said of the fourth-grader. “I go watch all his baseball games. That’s tough during the [show] season. I make a lot of his football games, too.”


Turner’s life away from the barn is predictably quiet. As often as possible, he spends time with Holli Esposito, the lady in his life and owner of several horses. In the evenings he goes home, puts his feet up, watches television and, with Esposito’s help, handles the farm bookwork.


Rob and Holli Esposito at Lexington Junior League.


When Esposito moved from Morgans into Saddlebreds, she happened to buy one Turner had trained. She worked the horse herself.


“We went to the UPHA [Chapter 14] show and I liked all his horses. That drew me to New Hampshire. I realized if I were going to do horses at that level, I needed a nicer one. I’ve bought a lot of colts with Robbie and have a walk-trot horse, Sightline. Robbie is a great horseman who works very hard. He’s very nice and sincere and somewhat on the shy side. People think he’s standoffish, but that’s not the case.”


Turner has many talents. One of the more outstanding is his ability to match a horse and rider. “A trainer is only as good as the stock he has to work with. We’ve taken a lot of inexpensive horses and made something out of them. More often than not, a good horse makes you look good.”


Turner has what he calls a lot of promising young horses this year. The middle of April, they will load up and head to Springfield, Mass., for their first show of the season. Horses such as Mystery Guest, Worthy’s World To Know, Charm’s Top Cat, Charm’s Choice and Stephen King occupy stalls that once housed such champions as New Trial, Reason Supreme, Worthy Of The Name, Digni-Phi, May Bay and Town Achievement (better known as Bazooka Joe.)


It should be an interesting year.

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