Remembering Rocher: The Greatest Grand Prix Ears In The World

Dec 7, 2018 - 2:26 PM

She was known for her extended trot, and she was known for her presence and expression. But almost more than anything else, Grand Prix dressage horse Rocher was known for her ears. German magazine Reiter Und Pferde even called them the “greatest Grand Prix ears in the world.”

George Williams and Rocher, a Westphalian mare (Rolls Royce—Fränzi, Frühlingsstern) owned by Joann and Chuck Smith, spent several years at the top of the U.S. Grand Prix rankings. After placing fifth at the 2003 FEI World Cup Dressage Final (Sweden), they won the Dressage At Devon (Pennsylvania) Grand Prix freestyle three times and topped the U.S. Equestrian Federation Grand Prix Championship in 2005. Rocher was named the Chronicle’s dressage horse of the year in 2003.

“Although we were born 36 years apart, both Rocher and I were born in odd-numbered years,” said Williams. “Over our time together, I began to learn that there was significance to this fact.”

Though the pair’s best seasons never occurred on the even-numbered years, meaning they didn’t attend an Olympic Games or FEI World Equestrian Games, they still earned plenty of Grand Prix victories and also won over tons of fans along the way.

Williams and Rocher last competed together in 2009, and the mare had an official retirement ceremony at the 2013 Dressage At Devon. There Williams led her around in front of an adoring and emotional crowd, before untacking her one last time.

She retired to the Smiths’ Gypsy Woods Farm in Ohio, enjoying endless treats and grooming sessions with the Smiths’ grandchildren. Rocher died on Dec. 5 at age 27.

We sat down with Williams to talk about his memories of this grand mare.

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“It’d been four years since I’d seen her, and it was an emotional reunion, no doubt about it. I’d like to think she recognized me,” said George Williams of Rocher’s 2013 retirement ceremony at Dressage At Devon. Lisa Slade Photo

COTH: How did your partnership with Rocher begin?

Williams: I’d left Tempel Farms, and I’d always wanted to compete internationally—it had always been one of my goals. The Olympics, they come and go, and after the fourth or fifth one you look in the mirror and say, “If you’re going to do this, you need to do it now.” So that really motivated me. I knew if I was going to do it, I had to change my situation and try to put myself in a position where it’d be more attainable.

I ended up working for the Smiths, outside of Columbus, Ohio. They had expressed an interest [in owning a horse for me], so that’s how the search began. So much of it is luck; you have to be at the right place at the right time, and then there still is a lot of luck involved. My advice to young people is always to keep working and getting as good as you can, because when you do get that opportunity, you want to not just take advantage of it, but you want to rise to the occasion and be worthy of the opportunity.

I think we made three trips to Europe. We looked at a lot of horses and drove all over Germany and some of the Netherlands. I happened to be in a meeting in Gladstone [New Jersey], with the U.S. Equestrian Team Dressage Committee. I spoke to Guenter Seidel and told him what we were doing, and he said he knew of horses that Klaus Balkenhol had shown him. We had a trip planned already, so we added looking at those horses.

I tried two horses primarily, and I was going back and forth on which horse. Rocher belonged to a young rider who was graduating out of young riders and going to dental school. Klaus took us over, and I rode her. I thought the first horse I looked at was a bit easier to ride, and I was kind of learning towards that horse. Klaus said, “Come back and ride her tomorrow.”

That next day, Klaus rode her first, and we were standing there, and our jaws dropped. You could see her talent from the beginning, and her personality, both were so obvious. We ended up purchasing her, and she arrived in Florida for the season in January of 2001.

COTH: Were you able to quickly form a partnership with her?

Williams: She was challenging to me when I rode her in Germany, but she definitely got easier over time, and our partnership grew over time. By the time we went to Europe to train [in late 2001], the partnership was really beginning to form, and by the time we came back it was quite solid.

From Day 1, she was impressive. Stephen Clarke judged her at Dressage At Lamplight [Illinois], our very first show, and he loved her trot. I remember his comments were very positive. So I think from the beginning at those shows, people saw her as a special horse.

We made it to the [USEF Festival Of Champions in] Gladstone that first year and did well enough to receive a grant to go to Europe and train with Klaus. That was the beginning; once we got to Klaus’ farm it really took off. Debbie McDonald was there with Brentina, and Guenter was there, and Sue Blinks was nearby with Flim Flam, and Steffen Peters came in and out. They were all terrific to me. Debbie really took me under her wing at the first competition, which was the CDI at Oldenburg [Germany], because I’d never competed in Europe, and I didn’t know the system. I felt very fortunate.

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Rocher and George Williams won the 2005 USEF Grand Prix National Championship. Sara Lieser Photo

COTH: What are your favorite competition memories of your time with Rocher?

Williams: The first Oldenburg CDI, the first German competition, was an experience I’ll never forget. She was good; we ended up second, and you’re kind of pinching yourself the whole time. No one really knew me, and they didn’t really know who she was, so being an American that came out of nowhere, that definitely was memorable. It was right after Sept. 11, and there was tremendous support of Americans at that time.

The ride at the [2003] World Cup was also one I’ll never forget. The Swedish audience absolutely loved her. The season going into the World Cup, she was really very easy to ride, very competitive and very settled into the performances, so that season kind of sticks in my head as a highlight.

The 2005 Dressage At Devon, our third year at Devon, that freestyle ride and the response from the audience was just amazing. She was very responsive; she was right there, and you knew going into a pirouette it was going to work. You know you have to ride, but know if you do ride that it’s going to be good—that’s a feeling of confidence and security that’s a real pleasure. You don’t really have doubts that way.

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Rocher always had a lot of presence, and she knew it. Sara Lieser Photo

COTH: What do you remember about Rocher’s personality outside of the ring?

Williams: No doubt she was the ultimate diva.

One night at Klaus’ she somehow let herself out of her stall, and there was some straw piled at the end of the aisle. When the stable help came in the next morning, she’d made herself a nice nest in the straw in the aisle. She had shavings in her stall, and you got the sense that the shavings weren’t good enough; the straw was what she deserved. She knew she had a presence, and I think she loved performing. It became so obvious at the retirement. It was obvious that she loved the limelight.

COTH: What did Rocher teach you?

Williams: She taught me a lot about throughness. She brought it all to a different level, which really gave me appreciation for the degree of throughness one really needs and the degree of collection. There was so much about the refinements of riding I learned, and with that, the refinements of showing. I could really focus on the details of the test.

The Smiths provided me with a wonderful experience and opportunity, and I’m very grateful for that.

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George Williams and Rocher at the mare’s retirement ceremony in 2013. Lisa Slade Photo
Category: Dressage
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