Three years ago, Canada’s David Ziegler wouldn’t have believed competing in a CIC** at the Jersey Fresh International Horse Trials (N.J.) would be in his cards, especially not on a four-star veteran like Critical Decision.
But even at 18 and after a serious injury, Missy Ransehousen’s former ride, who’s contested the biggest events in the world, still has it in him.
Ziegler grew up in Beiseker, Alberta and picked up eventing through Pony Club with his sister Katelyn and twin Courtney. By the time he was in high school, he was serious enough about it that he took his preliminary horse Peninsula Top Man to winter in Ocala, Fla., taking online classes while training with Olympian Leslie Law.
After graduating high school, he decided to make a change and started as a working student with Ransehousen at her Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, Pa. and Reddick, Fla. in 2011.
“My horse just wasn’t really progressing in his program so I had talked to one of my coaches at home, Lorraine Laframboise,” said Ziegler, now 21.
Laframboise, the former coach of Canada’s Olympic eventing team, had a sister-in-law who rode with Ransehousen, and she put them in touch. “There were kind of six degrees of separation, too, because the man in Ireland that I imported my horse from—Paddy Hughes—Missy imports all of her horses from," he said. "So our paths had kind of been crossing but we never had a formal introduction.
“At the same time, ‘Toppers’ was actually deciding that he did not want to be an event horse. He did his preliminary and his one-star; he was great, his natural scope got him through it but anything beyond that—he was too spooky.”
Although his disinclination for jumping thwarted Ziegler's goal of moving Toppers up and through the U.S. Eventing Association Young Riders program, and developing a new young horse in time seemed out of the question, he didn’t give up, he just played a new hand.
“Missy and I were hacking [Critical Decision] and my horse out one day and I asked her what her plan was with him, and if she thought he’d make a good Young Rider horse because I still wanted to keep jumping and all that,” said Ziegler of the gelding whom they call ‘Big Guy’ or ‘B.G.’. The Oldenburg had pulled a hamstring on cross-country at Poplar Place (Ga.) on their mission to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games and he was rehabbing.
“Missy had made the difficult decision that he was kind of done from major competitions,” said Ziegler. “So I sort of started taking over the ride then and bringing him back and bonding, and it all just kind of fell into place.”
Ziegler purchased B.G. as a formality; he wouldn't have been able to compete an American's horse at the FEI levels as a Canadian.
After a tough first year, the pair began racking up good placings. This spring, they placed eighth in the CIC** at the Cloud 11-Gavilan North LLC Carolina International (N.C.) and took fifth place in the open intermediate at Fair Hill (Md.)
Around the same time that Ziegler started riding B.G., he began competing in pure dressage with Toppers. They qualified for the Adequan FEI North American Junior and Young Riders Championships, but contrary to Ziegler's original goal, they'll compete in the Irish Sport Horse's newfound niche.
The pair has been competing at Prix St. Georges under the tutelage of Ransehousen’s mother, Jessica.
And while he hopes to qualify B.G. for the Canadian young rider team as well, adjusting to the new ride hasn’t been easy. His recovery was complication-free, but “he’s the most difficult horse I’ve ever sat on,” said Ziegler. “Missy’s actually agreed with this as well because he changes so quickly. He can be so dead and at the same time he can be so unbelievably hot. He has a lot of anxieties, so he takes a very quiet ride but at the same time you have to be strong and then back off really quickly.”
Despite a few quirks like leaping over unexpected roads or changes in terrain on the cross-country course, or the occasional “explosion” in dressage, the gelding loves to jump. And thanks to some new physiotherapy implemented by Doug Hannum this year, the partnership has really clicked.
“We call ‘Dougie’ a wizard,” joked Ziegler. “We don’t really know what he does, but he does a damn good job at it! This year’s the best B.G.’s ever felt for me, so I keep saying he’s on the ‘fine wine program’—just better with age.”
So while the duo sits in 18th after dressage at in the CIC** at Jersey Fresh on a 60.2, their best phase is yet to come.
“At Fair Hill [Md.] a couple weeks ago I was walking the course with Missy’s mom, and she’s 75 and has been a dressage queen her whole life and she’s having an absolute panic attack at, like, a corner,” he said with a laugh. “We think it’s easy and she’s freaking out about it and I kind of just chuckle and walk by it without giving it a second thought. Like, ‘It’s B.G., he’s got this.’ If I point him in the right direction, he’ll jump it.”
B.G.’s extensive upper level experience also helps Ziegler train Toppers for the challenging movements. “I’m in the warm-up doing pirouettes with B.G.—all the cross-training helps,” he said.
“I can’t even measure the difference it’s made in my riding; it’s been an absolutely incredible opportunity to ride him,” he continued. “Everyday I’m thankful for it and it’s always kind of a surreal moment sitting on him, [thinking], ‘You’ve run three Rolexes, a Burghley [CCI****], Pau [CCI****].’"
For more news and stories from Jersey Fresh, click here.