Jimmy Wofford once wrote, “Ralph Hill could find his way around Rolex blindfolded.” That's because Ralph rode at least one horse at Rolex Kentucky 3-day event every year from 1978 through 2006, a 29-year reign—unmatched by any other rider—that earned him the nickname, “the King of Rolex.”
At the 1978 World Championships, spectators were asking,“Ralph who?” after the unknown twenty-six-year-old “smoked” a cross-country course that eliminated 26 of the 49 starters. Called “the sleeper of the competition” by Sports Illustrated, Ralph came in fourth in his first international competition aboard Sergeant Gilbert, a nine-year-old thoroughbred he and his father, Francis “Hilly” Hill, had trained from a two-year-old.
Two years later, when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics, Ralph rode with the team at Luhmuhlen, Germany. He set a Puissance record in Texas; and he represented the U.S. in eventing, competing in South America, Europe and England. In 1991 he finished tenth at Blenheim, the highest-placed American rider.
Without deep pockets or a major sponsor, Ralph rode whatever came his way. Jack LeGoff called him “one of the best catch-riders I have every met,” and Mark Phillips said, “As a catch-rider, given the opportunity to ride someone else's horse at the last minute, he is riding what he is feeling underneath him, rather than expecting a horse to go a particular way. The best horsemen in the world ride a horse the way it feels.”
Famous for singing as he rode cross-country, Ralph joked that he sang so badly, his horse would run faster to try to get away from him. “If everything was going great, I'd be singing rock 'n roll; otherwise I'd be singing hymns.” The crowds reveled in his exuberant love of the sport, and the chance to catch a high-five as he rode by.
Then in 2007, just weeks before Rolex, a catastrophic accident at Poplar Place left him in a coma for eight weeks, with multiple fractures and head trauma. It's been a long road back, complicated by a second accident in 2010, when a fall from one of his young horses left him with a broken neck.
While the first accident changed his life, Ralph hasn't let it define it. Instead his Christian faith and a determination to lead life differently are what guide him. Today he paces himself, giving no more than two clinics per month, as he criss-crosses the U.S. from his base at Leprechaun Lane Training Center in Newberry, Florida, to Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota and Montana.
“Ralph didn't always have the best horses at Rolex, but what he did was take an average horse and make him believe that he could do it—and the horse would, and would end the course feeling he could do more,” says Eric Dierks of Renovatio Farms in Tryon, North Carolina, who first rode with Ralph as a Young Rider. “Ralph does the same thing with riders. He's one of the best coaches because he makes you and your horse believe that you can do it. He took an average Area III Young Riders team and brought them all the way, and he did the same with Area IV and took them to gold. He has so much enthusiasm, compassion and insight. He teaches his students an appreciation of the horse and what the horse does for you. He's bigger hearted than the horses, and he always gives each person 110 percent.”
Today, Ralph is preaching the same positive horsemanship that made him successful. “When I was competing, if we'd gotten around a course well, and my horse came in feeling good about himself, I felt like I'd won. That what it's about: you and the horse as a team. Now I want to help people and their horses, and pass the torch to the next generation.”
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