The Last One

Most professional horsemen can look back across their career and find examples of horses that were "meant to be." I'm no exception. Despite all the careful searching for good prospects, some of the best horses simply popped into my life at unexpected moments. Just such a circumstance arose in the spring of 2002.

vincere_1.jpgKatinka was a wonderful, Dutch mare that was part of a great competitive year in 2000. Owned by Julie Ballard Haralson, she went undefeated at Second and Third Level, including the Second Level Open Championship at the USDF Region 3 Championships. Our dream season concluded with a 4th place finish at Second Level in the USDF Horse of the Year Awards with a median score of 72%. Her gaits always earned an 8 or 9 and many judges commented on Katinka's beautiful expression and movement.

After the show season Julie decided to breed Katinka to KWPN stallion Olympic Ferro.  Following an embryo transfer, Julie competed the mare the next year. At a show in 2002, Julie ran up with a big smile and announced, "Katie is a mom!" We all cheered the safe arrival of a fuzzy-nosed foal but Julie admitted disappointment that it was a colt. She only kept fillies so I knew this little guy's future would be with someone else. At the time I had no interest in buying a baby.

A few weeks later one of my students mentioned that they were interested in the Ferro colt. I grew curious and decided to meet him before he sold. We drove to Julie's farm and saw this beautifully put together foal walking in pasture next to his Clydesdale, surrogate mother. Sneaking through the gate, I tried to get close without frightening the little guy. A horse's eyes speak volumes and the foal had the same uncertain eyes I saw in Katinka when we first met. Kneeling on the ground, I waited for him to approach. Slowly, inch by inch, he made his way over and touched the top of my head. His conformation was nearly flawless. I looked over to my husband and shrugged my shoulders with a look saying, "He's perfect." Knowing how much I adored Katinka, Scott knew what that meant.

vincere_2.jpgWe left a deposit and Julie gave me a big hug. She was so happy that the colt was going to be owned by a friend and trainer. 2002 was a "V" year for the KWPN studbook. Many of the obvious names starting with "V" had been used but we happened across the word Vincere which is the Latin root for "Victor or Victory." As fate would have it, Victor was my late father-in-laws middle name. The word Vincere has both Italian and Latin pronunciations. I prefer the Italian "vin-chair-a." Arriving at Touch ‘n GO that winter, he was dubbed Vinny around the barn.

Buying a baby brings a lot of worries and uncertainty. There are so many ways for a colt to get hurt. The next three years were surprisingly peaceful and trauma free. 2005 rolled around and I had an elegant three year-old to start on the longe. Vinny proved to be as smart as he was athletic. As the mares came into season, he also proved to be all male. I considered Vinny to be a wonderful, unexpected gift and did not want to spend the early stages of our working relationship fighting. So, I did something for the first time in my life. I sent my talented colt to a trainer to be started under saddle.

viiny3_web.jpgVinny left in August of 2005 and headed north to Pennsylvania. Long-time friend Belinda Wertman recommended Roddy Strang, a trainer just around the corner from her farm. He had a good reputation and worked with dressage prospects. Roddy had Vinny under saddle in a few days and began showing him the Amish countryside. I paid them a visit during Christmas and couldn't believe how quiet and reliable the colt had become in such a short time. Vinny returned home in January of 2006 and we began building a relationship. 

I kept the riding light and easy with a clear focus on sound basics. After a fall from a client's horse I decided not to show for the remainder of the year. Vinny and I spent the next twelve months working without the pressure of competition. I continued to schooling him on the longe and didn't worry about riding him on contact. Six months into the training he started "seeking the bit" which is an essential skill all horses I train must develop early.

Vinny was smart and athletic and tried to be a willing student. I worked with his psychology the best I knew how but his physiology proved to be an obstacle. The colt had the linage and confirmation to be considered a stallion prospect but I've never wanted to be a breeder and decided to geld him. We dropped Vinny at the University of Georgia in October. I wanted him collected before surgery so I could have options for the future. Dr. Fayrer-Hosken said the powerful, four year-old was quite a handful and had trouble learning the collection process. Six weeks later he came home intact and bursting with energy after such a long period of stall confinement.

vincere_4.jpgThe unsuccessful trip to UGA made for a long winter. Unwilling to stop his education, I kept working with my frustrated man through the winter. In January 2007 I rode with SRS Bereiter Herbert Sieberl who loved Vinny's natural talent but made it clear that he would not ride my spirited colt. "I have to go to work next week!" he explained.

In March we welcomed Karl Mikolka back to Merichase Farm. It was the first time Karl had seen the horse and he was favorably impressed. We worked on the basics but also spent time working in hand and on the longe. Karl and I were both sore after the lessons and he agreed that Vinny would be much easier to handle as a gelding.

Two weeks later Vinny went to UGA to be collected and gelded.  Once again, he had trouble getting steps A, B and C in the correct order and it took six weeks to complete the task. Gelding a four year-old leads to questions as to how much calming effect the "brain surgery" will have on an older horse. One boarder said it best when she described the results, "It wasn't a castration. It was an exorcism!" Vinny was finally the quiet gentleman I wanted and our relationship blossomed.

vinny_foirstshowpet_2x3_100dpi.jpgFollowing five weeks of recovery, I decided to get my gelding (hallelujah!) to a horse show so he could gain exposure to the excitement and commotion that goes with competition. While I expected Vinny to be nervous I didn't think we would have to walk him for five hours the first day! He was never relaxed enough to consider mounting him.

Saturday we walked three times and his eye began to soften. I mounted and had Cassidy and Scott escort me to the warm-up arena. It was a warm day and the class was running late. We just sat there in the sun roasting and waiting. When the bell rang Vinny went down centerline like a trooper. He spooked a bit at the judge's stand but I walked out of the ring relieved and satisfied. As he munched hay in the stall, I looked Vinny that evening feeling relieved along with the realization that he would become a reliable, competition partner.

Sunday was a bit more relaxed but the edgy gelding still needed some pre-test walking. We finished the show with a 69.2% from Axel Steiner in the Training Level qualifier. I was mentally and physically spent but trip home was filled with a sense of accomplishment.

June offered another opportunity to let Vinny experience different showgrounds. Poplar Place Farm is a horse-friendly facility close to home. This time we hauled him with Cassidy's mare Hannah and they traveled well together. Friday afternoon Vinny was still pretty horrified at the constant activity but the walking-out-the-nerves didn't take five hours. My goals centered on giving my horse a positive experience away from our farm but the 73% qualifying score from Lois Yukins was a pleasant surprise.

The summer took on a relaxed tone as my much-calmer gelding became a willing student. Schooling stayed simple and centered on basics but Vinny's athleticism and intelligence led to noticeable progress. Cassidy set the goal of qualifying for the 2007 USDF Regional Dressage Championships almost a year earlier. When she succeeded in earning the necessary scores I was more than happy to take her to Florida in October. If Hannah was going, so was Vinny and he need more experience away from Touch ‘n GO. September offered a great opportunity with three, back-to-back events in ten days. 

vinny_07reg3_trot_3x2_150dpi.jpgKarl came back for another clinic and was pleased with the horse's demeanor as well as training progress. Riding Vinny for my Mentor was much more relaxed and enjoyable. With his reassurance that I was one the right path, I took Vinny home for two days before leaving for the Georgia International Horse Park and the KWPN keuring.

It wasn't my idea to present Vinny to the Dutch inspectors but Julie Ballard-Haralson bred him and good scores would benefit the dam Katinka. The in-hand and at-liberty presentations went very well and Vincere was graded First Premium and awarded the Ster predicate. I rode him in both the IBOP and DG Bar Cup tests. He easily passed the IBOP criteria and scored well in the DC Bar Cup test. Final results would have to wait until the keuring tour concluded.

Two days of rest following the inspection and we were back to the Horse Park for the Good Horseman's Fall show. I focused on First Level for Vinny and Cassidy's preparation for the finals. The changes weren't dramatic but it was evident that my Dutch boy was growing up. Some nervousness remained and I never let my guard down. Still, I could see Vinny maturing and taking another step towards becoming a trusted competition partner.

The First Level scores were respectable with the highlight being a 71.33% in test 1. Judges rewarded Vinny for his natural gaits and movements we performed well. I looked at the show just as I had the others. At this point in Vinny's life it was all about building experience. The scores were good but I knew there was a lot more in him. 

The 2007 competition season ended for us at the USDF Region 3 Dressage Championships in Florida. Frankly, I wasn't all that enthused about showing Vinny in the Training Level Championships but Cassidy had reached her goal of qualifying for the finals and I had to let her compete. If I was hauling Hannah seven hours down the road, Vinny was going as well.

vinny_07reg3_halt_3x2_150dpi.jpgThe trip was unsettling for him and he didn't relax as much as the last show in Georgia. In the end, we managed a descent test but nothing spectacular. The 64.8% placed 9th in a class of twenty. Vinny also earned a 68.67% in the First Level open test. The ride home was uneventful and as we walked to his stall I let Vincere know he had done a great job in his first show season.

Later in the fall I received certificates from the KWPN indicating that Vinny was Reserve Champion in the "Dressage Geldings & Stallions" class as well as Third place in the DG Bar Cup for five year-olds.

I have to say that this young, talented horse is keeping this old trainer honest.  Buying a baby with the intention of making a FEI horse comes with tremendous uncertainty and a long list of things that can go wrong. One thing is certain. Vincere will be the last young horse I train from green to ????.