When Michael Tokaruk was 15 years old, he got the greatest gift of his life the day before Christmas: Gary Zook called and offered him a working student position for the coming summer, and it was the first of many jobs which would eventually produce a professional who loves the hard work of the sport as much as he loves the horses themselves.
We spoke as he was making the 14-hour haul from the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington to his home base in Collierville, Tennessee with a pit-stop in Ocala to do some horse shopping, and Michael was just decompressing from a long and successful stint at WEF with his talented crew and clients.
“We had a real good group of students. Some that had been there already and some that were there for the first time, but virtually everybody got some good ribbons,” Michael told JN. “We had some champions, some reserves. And we were jumping into some serious divisions. I was proud of the group and the horses. We didn’t just hold our own, and that’s not easy at the most competitive show in the world across all the divisions.”
A grand prix rider and coach will wear many hats in a day – teacher, trainer, competitor, buyer, boss, groom, long haul trucker and therapist – and Michael wears them all with pride. He knew from the beginning that it was a nonstop lifestyle, and one to which he is well-suited.
Michael was born into a horse loving family with a mother who rode and owned horses, and soon he and his siblings were all getting barn time of their own. By 14, he knew this was what he wanted to do with his life. His family didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to sink into the best horses, so he began strategizing how to trade his work ethic for an education.
“I made a VHS tape of my riding and sent it off to a list of trainers I knew from the magazines and wanted to ride with. I remember reading a Practical Horseman article about Meredith Taylor winning the AHSA Medal Finals as a working student for Ken Berkley and Gary Zook and I said ‘if she can do it, I want to do it.’”
Michael and Baton Rouge. Photo courtesy of Draper Therapies.
Gary Zook made that fateful phone call Christmas Eve, and Michael was off to chase the dream just as he had planned. His experience with Gary – who passed away in 2012 — was invaluable in lessons, contacts and experiences, but also because it gave Michael the opportunity to dive into the full experience of the business.
“It was a dream come true for me. I tried to work hard and do the best I could and do anything and everything to ride a horse. They just kept putting me on different horses and I just kept trying harder and working harder.”
The work ethic, ability, and good attitude led to Michael connecting with Geoff Sutton, who at the time had a string of elegant junior jumpers that Michael was able to utilize and show off in his final year as a junior rider. Numerous trainers offered assistance and Michael was able to take some big equitation wins at Devon, Palm Beach, and he was in the ribbons in the Medal Finals, true to his goal.
Like many promising junior riders, Michael had intentions to go professional, but also had big decisions to make about his future. There were less programs even ten years ago than there are now (the Emerging Athletes Program, the U25 Divisions and trainer certification programs) and as a good student, higher education was looming.
With the strong encouragement of his parents, Michael pursued and completed a degree in Political Science at George Washington University in Washington D.C., but he never stopped riding during that time, and took a year off to work the barns. In the summers he worked abroad with Roeloef Bril in the Netherlands and got to see the business across the pond.
When he graduated he immediately went to work as a professional rider at Spring Mill Farm for David Pellegrini and eventually started his own business. Hanging his own shingle is a dream that has had its ups and downs since he first went pro, but Michael has always done whatever it takes to succeed in one of the toughest careers in the world.
“Not just show up and ride, but be there early mornings, late nights, every day, every night. I loved it and I still love it, I can’t get enough of it.”
Today, he passes those philosophies on to his numerous students, and his reputation and winning record have allowed him to partner with supportive owners and fellow trainers like Hardin Towell, Richie Maloney, and Charlie Jayne in producing exceptional Grand Prix horses. His only regret seems to be wishing there were time to attend every circuit in an 800 mile radius of Tennessee.
He’s coming off a great year in the Grand Prix ring, taking home wins and prize money with Cupid Shuffle, Eminem, and Baton Rouge, all of whom were sales horses.
According to plan, each of his Grand Prix mounts was successfully moved into new competition homes, which is a bittersweet part of the job. They complete the objective of moving the horse along, but Michael and his team clearly love the horses in their care. This week he acquired a new ride as a project for Richie Maloney, and plans to add to his string when the winter circuits start to wind down.
“I’ve been able to build relationships throughout my career and connect with some really great people that have faith in my riding and my program. I can take their horses on, ride them myself, represent them for sale and hopefully get them sold in a different market.”
One thing was clear from our conversation: Michael Tokaruk doesn’t take a day of his career for granted – from putting in hours as a working student and then as a hired rider to now keeping his business going for the past decade, he never took a shortcut or turned down a golden opportunity and that has made him the trainer he is today.
TSS has found a winning formula for thriving in the sport, and the 2017 season will bring a full slate of opportunities to keep the machine moving forward. Michael and his team will be regrouping at home for a few weeks before heading to the Gulf Coast Winter Classic series in Gulfport, Mississippi, followed by Pin Oak Charity show in Houston, Texas and then to the Brownland Farm spring series close to home in Tennessee.