Show Manager Hugh Kincannon - The Man with the Easy Style and Decisive Manner

Sunday, August 8, 2010
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In the early 1980s before his show manager days, Hugh Kincannon was being his typical outspoken self. “Back then I was still competing and when I went to the horse shows I was a complainer.” If the footing wasn’t right or the stabling or for that matter anything on the grounds wasn’t what he thought it should be, Kincannon’s voice was the one you heard above the rest.
At one show while complaining to anyone who would listen, one person piped up and said “if you are so smart why don’t you run your own horse show.” Well, that’s all Hugh needed to hear. Back then those who knew the man well also knew that he’d take you on if you challenged him and so it was in 1981 that show manager Hugh Kincannon ran his first show. Fortunately, as the tall, soft spoken man explained it, the show “was very successful but more because of blind luck. I had a grassy area where people rode and I just dumped the sand on it and we used it for the next 20 years. “

The road to those 20 plus years of horse show management began a bit earlier for Hugh who unlike most horse enthusiasts did not start riding out of the cradle. Instead Hugh climbed aboard his first horse when he was 18 years old. Also, unlike many others that first experience knocked some sense into him - literally. The man who moves deliberately but quietly around any showground started his path to now being Co-Manager (with David Distler) of the Show Jumping Activities at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Games the very first time he got on a horse.

Over the years his list of credentials are what led him to the honor of officiating at a World Equestrian Games. From 1982-2002 he was the manager of the Greater Cincinnati Horse Show. From 1987-2003 he managed the prestigious American Jumping Classic. From 1991 to the present he’s managed the Kentucky Spring Horse Shows. It was in 1994 that he took on both the Kentucky Hunter Jumper Show and the Bluegrass Festival Horse Show, which he continues to manage. He managed the Washington International Horse Show from 1995 until 2008. He also continues to manage both the Kentucky National Horse Show (started in 1999) and the Kentucky Summer Horse Shows (beginning in 2003). He was also manager of the USEF Pony Finals in 2002 and from 2005 to 2007 and presently is the Managing Partner of Kentucky Horse Shows, LLC which oversees all of his present shows.

During horse show season Hugh is on the go all the time so snagging him for even a few minutes is a feat. Yet, I had somehow managed to corner Hugh for an entire hour in his trailer at the Kentucky Horse Park during one of his horse show days. Anyone who knows Hugh also knows what an incredible achievement that was. I was glad for a chance to find out more about the man that I have seen so often over the years quietly maneuvering around horse show grounds from sunup to sunset ensuring everything is running smoothly. It didn’t take me long to figure out why Hugh is so good at what he does.
“I started quite late,” said Hugh as we began talking. “I happened to have a lot of friends who rode and I hung out with them. I gave it a try and quickly got hooked.

“It was on a school horse,” he continued. “He bucked me off and I hit my head on a concrete wall and had to go to the hospital. So I suppose I was truly hard headed because I kept doing it,” he continued as a grin crept across his face. “What really happened though is that it pissed me off and I wasn’t going to let that happen again.”

One has to wonder how getting bucked off the first time you get on a horse would inspire anyone to do it again but for Hugh it was all about the challenge.

So, Hugh sunk his teeth into learning the ropes and in the next three years he learned more than most people do in a lifetime. “I just did it and picked it up very quickly and seemed to have some talent for riding,” he commented.

Learning The Ropes
That learning curve began when he was 20 years old and spent six months in Michigan with Hungarian trainer Gabor Foltenyi, a lifelong friend of former show jumping chef d’equipe Bertalan de Nemethy.“He’s the best horseman I have ever known,” explained Hugh as he ventured on to tell me the tale of how he learned to ride.

“Gabor had about 30 horses in training and I had an eight hour riding lesson from him every day – eight on a short day that is. Every day I rode, worked around the barn, groomed and mucked stalls; I did everything. I probably got 10 years of education in six months. I can’t tell you how much I learned,” he emphasized with a slight shaking of his head remembering back to those crazy youth days.

Hugh even slept there in a little room at one end of the indoor arena so he could take advantage of every moment with Gabor. The riding truly captivated his attention, but when that stopped it was time to move on. “When we started going to horse shows I was just grooming. I quickly got tired of that.” So, the then hard headed and outspoken young man looked around for the next challenge.

From 1966 to 1967, Hugh worked for the Master of the Hunt and then from 1968 to 1970 he went into the Army and was stationed at Fort St. Houston where they did Modern Pentathlon and schooled the horses. That was at the same time as the Vietnam War and so working with the horses seemed a better way to spend his days then in the jungles of Vietnam. It was there that he formed lots of friendships with such well known veterans as Mason Phelps, George Dawson and Jimmy Wofford. I can just imagine the kind of mishap those three created while working together. One day I’ll have to do an article on just their Army days because I’m sure the threesome left an imprint somewhere.

After the Army, Hugh went back to working with the Master of the Hunt in Columbus, Ohio while at the same time going to college at Oakland University for a couple of years.

It was during his college days that he met Cheryl and they were married in 1971.

Over the years he did six month stints here and there with Gene Delaney, Max Bonham (an old time horse trainer), Howard Lewis and Rusty Stewart.

He then ventured into running his own business, first in California but then in 1976 he and his wife moved to their home for the next 30 years. They operated Ridgewood Stables (OH), a hunter/jumper stable, until 2005. During those years there were a few horses that made a name for themselves that either he or his students rode.

“I had the good fortune to be involved with some talented good horseman from the get go, which was an advantage.” People like Rodney Jenkins and other well known horsemen were all part of his circle in those days.

“As far as horses, my favorite was a Canadian Thoroughbred mare called Aspen Glow. I took her around for one year with Rodney and did all the big jumper shows including the Jumper Derby. The second year in the big Derby we had 8 or 12 faults. I was so tired I couldn’t even hold the reins coming down the final stretch,” but obviously that horse made an impact because I had five people following me out the gate and sold her the next week.

“Other horses that come to mind are Good Time Charlie and the Surrealist (First and Second Year hunters), both of whom were shown by Gene Delaney. There were also such phenomenal horses as The Banker, Seven Seas and Hoodwink, which were owned by the Lindner Family, a remarkable family from Cincinnati who Hugh has known since the early 70s. We helped Gene, who was their trainer, at the horse shows.”

Horse Shows Take Over His Life
Once he managed that first show in 1981 his life took on a new direction. “I very quickly got into management. I did less and less riding and even that fazed out after 1990 because I got more into the management.”

Then the Lindners decided they wanted to have a horse show, but not just any horse show. With their backing in 1981 Hugh started the Kings Mills Charity Show at the College Football Hall of Fame where there was a stadium and a piece of property out behind.

“We built rings and that evolved into The American Jumper Classic in 1998 which we did until 2003, when a school was built on the property.” The shows found new homes at arenas and racetracks and even more shows were added to the mix, one of those being the well-known American Jumping Classic which was held on Saturday night.

“It was if not the best class, it was probably only exceeded by the American Invitational in its day,” Hugh commented. “It was only a small field of never more than 30 horses. We would spend an entire week setting up for two hours."

Listening to Hugh talk about this event left an impression on me. It was clear from that conversation that even now looking back it continues to be the American Jumping Classic that he is most proud of. Hugh remembers it as a truly first class event with all the veteran show jumpers in it (Margie Engle, Chris Kappler, Katie Prudent).

It was a sad reality for Hugh when the Classic took its final bow in 2003 because they were going to lose the stadium. It was owned by a public company and the land was worth a lot of money. So that precious piece of land was sold.

“It was a shame,” Hugh sighed. “It’s been sorely missed.”

Nowadays Hugh and Cheryl are no longer humming the “On the Road Again” tune because all their shows are at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where they now call home.

“During the 80s and 90s I started the shows here in the Spring,” he explained. Slowly one by one Hugh moved all of the shows he continues to manage to this one prime location. Until a year ago the only show outside of Kentucky on his roster was the Washington International Horse Show. For two years while I was doing the PR for that show I got a chance to watch the man in action.

I admired his easy style and decisive manner. No matter what was thrown at Hugh he never seemed to get ruffled by even the most traumatic of situations and always seem to pull rabbits out of a hat when they were needed.

Hugh and Cheryl moved to Lexington in 2005 and after submitting a proposal for him and David Distler to be co-managers of WEG they ended up getting hired for that position.

“David and I are good friends,” he explained, “and with me living here and him having FEI experience we are a good combination. And it is working very well.”

A Day in the Life of Hugh Kincannon
We had talked enough about work and so now my curiosity was coming into play. I wanted to know more of the non horse details of the man that was born on March 2, 1945.

I discovered that both his parents are deceased. Hugh lost his dad, Hugh Sr., when he was only 16 years old from a Cerebral Aneurysm at the age of 51. His mom passed at the ripe old age of 93 which was in 2001 when Hugh was 56.

The loss of his dad at such a young age was tough, there’s no getting around that.

Hugh recalled the memory vividly saying, “We were at home and he started feeling a little funny. It turned out he had a stroke. He was taken to the hospital, went into a coma for a week and died.”

For a few years Hugh was a lost kid. “It was a very difficult time for me,” he admitted. “The week at the hospital was traumatic because you held out hope even though there didn’t seem to be too much.”

Part of the difficulty was that it was so unexpected. “It affected me for a couple of years. I was a little bit of a lost child. We were close. my dad and me,” he added, as he quietly gazed, his mind recalling those memories that had been silenced for a long time now.

It took time but Hugh was able to move on. “I got through it very gradually. We all do heal,” he added, the intensity of that past part of his life clearly vivid in the contours of his expression.

Some of that healing process was helped along by the fact that he had two older sisters (Pat and Margaret) and lots of family with that warm southern hospitality.

“Our family and extended family was from southern Tennessee and Mississippi, which is where we went after my father died.”

Years later when Hugh had to accept the loss of his only remaining parent it was another tough blow but not quite the same. “It was not as unexpected. She had been having health problems, but it was still difficult to deal with,” he reminisced.

These days, while he doesn’t recall his father as much, he remembers his mother vividly, and her passion for mothering. “My mother was a southern lady and as we got older whenever you would visit her it was a food orgy. You would get up and have a full breakfast at 8:00 a.m. By 10:00 she’d be offering you a little snack. And it was that way all day long. She never gave up the mothering roll,” he explained about the petite 5’4” woman.

Hugh’s mom had the strongest impact on his life. “My mother was a wonderful person. “She taught me the value of hard work,” he explained. His mom was a school teacher who worked until she was made to stop. “She was always the first one at the school in the morning and the last to leave. She taught me to do whatever you do the best that you can and she also taught me integrity. I hope to live up to the standard she set.”

Hugh paused for a minute remembering a moment he wanted to share with me before saying, “right up until the day she died she kept asking me when I was going to get a real job.”

Life at Home and In Private
Now that Hugh and Cheryl usually only travel for pleasure and not business there is more normalcy to their lives. Hugh generally gets up at 5:30 and if there is a show going on he likes to be on the grounds between 6:00 and 6:30 to make sure things are going well. “I am very hands on,” he interjects.

If there is no show he still gets up early and works at home. He is not much of a breakfast eater but likes his morning coffee. Although, occasionally he does have some cereal with a few blueberries tossed on top. As he mentioned that, he pointed to the box of cheerios on the shelf and the refrigerator where the milk was kept. We were in his trailer at the showgrounds and so this makeshift breakfast was fit in between the office he’d setup.

From then on it is the day that does the bidding as he reacts to whatever the day brings. He admits that the weather is a huge factor in how he plans his day. He keeps a constant eye on the weather patterns and has become an expert on knowing where to go on the internet to find what he needs. He’s most concerned about if lightning is being predicted.

“In the old days I went out and looked at the sky. Now we are so much more sophisticated,” he said with a grin.

The end of Hugh’s day is often dictated by whether or not there is a night class. When the shows are on the days and weeks are long, probably 12-14 hour days but then he gets nice breaks in between. Whenever he can, bed is generally no later than 10 because those mornings come quickly.

“I am fortunate and enjoy what I do but then we have six months where we don’t have any horse shows.”

During that free time he and Cheryl travel and usually their destination involves having a golf course nearby because that is a sport he enjoys. Golf was a sport Hugh picked up when he was younger in the days when he did a lot of caddying. Yet, somehow work took over and the golfing disappeared from his life until more recently.

“I didn’t play for 30 years because I got involved with horses,” he admitted. It was finally about ten years ago that he again picked up the golf clubs. “I really enjoyed it. It takes me away from what I do normally. It’s physical. It’s a challenge and a difficult game plus when you travel a lot of golf courses are in nice places like Hawaii and Pebble Beach.

In addition to golf, Hugh enjoys reading mysteries, watching sports, and some gardening. Hugh also likes music and the day we spoke he told me about a DVD that he looked everywhere for until finally a friend found it for him. It was the 2008 Library of Congress Salute to Paul Simon, who won the first Gershwinn Award. The DVD is of various artists doing Paul Simon’s songs. He had seen it on PBS and was mesmerized. He’s been playing it ever since.

Hugh has an eclectic taste for music, including Country, and often tapes a lot of concerts. He especially likes Alison Krauss adding, “her voice is so wonderful. When you go to heaven and the angels sing it should be her voice.” She is one of the artists on the Paul Simon DVD. He also talked about the TV series, Crossroads, where Country and Rock & Roll bands get together and sing and play each other’s songs.

Continuing on his daily journey our conversation turned to the end of the day. He emphasized that he prefers dinner at home since he’s had enough of eating out on the road and because Cheryl is a great cook. Whether it’s a show day or not they generally eat a bit later just because they’ve gotten used to it from the lifestyle they have led. And when I asked him what his favorite meal is he was quick to respond, “Cheryl’s lemon chicken.”

A Bit More About the Man
In addition to turning to Cheryl when he wants to be guaranteed a good meal, he also turns to her for advice. “She is smart and has a different viewpoint and I value her opinion. We know each other so well.”

Cheryl also supports him in whatever his goals are, which now are focused on perfecting the facilities he uses at the Kentucky Horse Park. “For sure once we are finished and the Games are over this will be the best facility in the world,” he commented.

Along with developing the facilities, Hugh also believes that developing an audience should also be a priority.

When you think about how far things have come for Hugh it’s obvious that there are those that have similar aspirations of being a show manager. Hugh suggests that they mimic what he did and come at it through a competitive background. “You have a better understanding of the exhibitor’s needs and problems when you’ve done that. It’s been very valuable for me,” he remarked.

Hugh will admit though that it can be tough. “Exhibitors can be demanding and sometimes rightfully so.” While I’m sure he prefers it when there aren’t an abundance of requests he also insists that it’s okay “if what they want has the potential of being achieved.”

Hugh takes great pride in the events he manages. “It’s important to me that the competitions are fair and that the rules are followed. I don’t make decisions lightly about any changes but rather try to look at it from the standpoint of everyone my decision is going to affect. Some people will generally be inconvenienced by changes so I try not to do that unless there is a compelling reason that in the end will benefit more people,” he added as he carefully thought about each word.

It’s a no brainer to realize that having a good show or seeing things done well is something that Hugh enjoys. “It’s that feeling of satisfaction when we’ve done something well. For instance the recent changes we made in the footing. I rode on a lot of bad footing and so that has always been the most important thing but sometimes when you are using a public facility you don’t have control over things like that.

With the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games coming Hugh emphasized the importance of the footing and in fact it became the impetus for a lot of the changes. “I realized last May we had to do better and so we went to the Horse Park and said we’ve got to fix the other rings and to their credit they stepped up and did it.”

When the hunter riders felt they were getting snubbed, Hugh even invested some of his own money into improving the footing in those rings. “Now my days are so much easier,” he commented. “In our sport if you don’t have these surfaces that can handle water and are also good for the horses to jump on you will be at a disadvantage.”

I had learned a lot from Hugh, who patiently answered all my questions, despite the lineup of queries needing answers that surely waited for him once I walked out the door. Before we ended I had just one more question for him. He told me what made him happy but I wanted to know what made him sad.

“When I see someone having a tough time in whatever aspect of life it is especially the loss of friends and acquaintances which as we get older happens more and more often,” he commented, undoubtedly thinking about the loss he’d had so young in his life. But as he told me earlier he repeated now using different words. “Life has a way of moving on.” How true those words are for all of us and for Hugh right now his life is right where he wants it to be.

Article and Photos by Diana DeRosa.