Jimmy Paxson takes a deep breath and exhales slowly as he settles into the saddle. “It’s the first thing I do every time I get on a horse,” he says. “The horse will either turn its head slightly with one eye to you or twitch one ear back to you.”
Establishing a rapport with horses comes to him naturally. Paxson started riding at age 10 and began showing at 12. “I’m not just a rider,” he says. I’ve been a horseman all my life.”
He showed grand prix jumpers throughout the 1960s and ’70s. He notably guided his mount over a seven-foot, three-inch jump at Youngstown (Ohio) Charity Horse Show a half century ago. “It takes a helluva horse to jump a wall when you can’t see on the other side of it,” he says. “Thoroughbreds have more heart than any horse out there. If you can figure out how to make the connection with a thoroughbred, whether it’s racing, jumping or foxhunting, it’s magical. You are one.”
Now 70, Paxson hunts four days a week as Master of Foxhounds at River Hills in Chester County, Pa., where he lives with his wife, Doris, and 16 thoroughbreds. He’s been outriding at timber races and steeplechases since 1989. Outriders lead racehorses to the post—and Paxson adds serious panache to the role, bringing foxhounds to the meet. Last year at Winterthur, Del., two of his team members donned high hats and traditional ladies’ riding habits and rode sidesaddle.
“A favorite of our guests, Jimmy and his team of outriders from River Hills Foxhounds show beautifully,” says Jill Abbot, Winterthur’s race director. “They’re the experts who keep our jockeys, horses and spectators safe during the races. They ride on decades of knowledge and tradition.”
Paxson is modest about his popularity with meet organizers. “They like the way we handle ourselves and how our horses behave,” he says. “In outriding, the horses have to be able to follow through on the motion of the rider. You ride a horse with your brain and with your eyes and you need a horse who will take you where you look.”
Paxson has always been partial to grays. Eight of his thoroughbreds range in color from charcoal to smoke. “Most people think grays are too hard to keep clean, but they’re not,” he says.
His go-to horse for outriding is a 24-year-old chestnut gelding with a distinctive white blaze. Northpole Cat is big, but he didn’t have the speed for flat racing. So Paxson turned him into a hunter. “We put him with the horses who are hardest to handle,” he says. “He has a calming effect on them.”
Years of experience have made Paxson a fine judge of such things. “I like a horse with nice, rounded rump and high hips,” he says. “The higher their hips, the better jumpers they are. They call them mule hips. If you’ve ever seen a mule jump, it’s amazing at how high they can go.”
Paxson assembles eight outsiders in scarlet coats on mounts with breastplates and snaffle bits. In addition to their escort role, they assist the horses and jockeys in the paddock. They’re also tasked with catching loose horses who’ve thrown their riders. “There’s a lot of adrenalin on that course,” says Paxson.
The outriders have family members and other supporters who come to the races with necessities riders and horses need. They’re a constant presence in a sport that goes on regardless of the weather. “It could rain, it could be sunny—so we’re all prepared,” Paxson says. “No matter what, we love it. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.”