“Can you buy me a pink pony?” my toddler daughter Holston asked when I told her I was going with “Grandpa Johnny” to Europe to shop for horses.
“Good mover AND good jumper!!” she added.
With the minions all suitably mounted and myself still a few years from wanting anything as big and fancy as what we’d be looking at in Europe, Holston’s tall order was my only one.
The objective of this hastily arranged trip was for my dad, a trainer and dealer, to try a young prospect for a client, while keeping an eye out for investments for himself. I tagged along for the learning experience.
Still, I checked my bank balance on the way to the airport, in case we stumbled upon a sensible resale project for myself. I had just enough money to fly one horse to the U.S. As long as it didn’t need a double stall. I started a mental list of traits I’d be looking for in an investment horse: No. 1 – free. No. 2 – narrow.
Accompanied by our friend and European agent, Darren Finkelman, we arrived in Munich as the sun was coming up and piled into the rental car as soon as we’d collected our luggage.
Using Darren as a translator, our host told us about the horse we’d come to see and a few others in the barn as we drank coffee in a lounge overlooking the arena. I listened quietly until we were led into the barn to take a quick look at the stable’s 30-odd horses—all for sale. As is customary, we were welcome to try anything that looked promising.
We chose six horses to see under saddle including the one at the center of the trip. I was studying the first horse on the flat when my dad’s voice pierced the arena with the only two German words he knew:
“FLEEEEEEGEN VEXEL!?” He twanged; both a question and a request.
There are literally Americans who cannot understand my dad’s thick southern drawl, so I was not surprised when the German rider’s face didn’t reflect even a glimmer of recognition. However, after a few moments of awkward silence, the rider cantered up the diagonal and asked for a lead change.
Ahhhhhh….Fliegenden wechsel; flying change. I giggled and instantly felt less intimidated.
Leaving the big barn empty-handed and in the dark was disappointing, even for me, the window shopper. My dad and Darren shook the disappointment quickly, noting that more often than not, you don’t find what you were looking for. But, our trip was optimistically planned on the assumption that our second day would be spent trying the horse a second time, so we had to regroup quickly.
Where Are The Unicorns?
The next two days were spent crisscrossing between the Netherlands and Germany. With each initial walk through a new barn I held my breath in anticipation between stalls—certain that the next horse was “the one.” I was happy to realize that even after decades of horse hunting, my dad felt much of the same excitement and hope.
This was most evident when we came to a diminutive but adorable youngster. Under saddle, his stride devoured the long sides of the arena and he looked on the verge of bucking his rider into the rafters through each turn, but he was an out of this world mover with a perfect natural fliegenden wechsel and an amazing jump.
My dad boomed “that’s enough,” after a few jumps and made an offer before the young rider could even get the playful horse settled into a walk. I was excited that a purchase had finally been made and anxious to see what the horse I named “Animal” (as in wild animal) would become!
By the last day, I felt less like a dreamy, horse crazy little girl and more like a level-headed professional. I settled into a state of cautious optimism and my confidence in the saddle grew.
My dad had happily left his boots in the car for the majority of the trip so I had benefitted from about 10 short riding lessons over the past 48 hours. I felt fit to jump the 3’6” course that was being set when I swung my leg over the first horse of the last day.
With an amateur friendly personality and an athletic jump, the mare was a dream to ride. When my dad rejected her, I accused him of being on a quest for a unicorn.
Our last stop was a stable that was too idyllic to be real, and when our host stepped off of a carriage drawn by two beautiful bay horses I felt like I had wandered onto the set of a Disney movie. Maybe this was where they keep the Unicorns, I thought.
Darren had already spoken with the owner about a horse with potential for the hunter ring; a big chestnut with a lot of chrome. My dad had nodded enthusiastically at the description—it was a look he described as “commercial.”
The horse was being braided when we walked into the barn and I was reminded of a toddler being dressed for church. His youth was evident in his tall but not yet full frame, the mane waiting to be wrestled into braids was unruly and the aforementioned chrome was actually copious amounts of white splashed across his face and up his legs.
He was a good mover but got stronger and faster as he went around the arena. He galloped to a small oxer and exploded into the air from a distance selected arbitrarily, ignoring the bit and his rider’s short rein. His knees snapped to his chin, his back rounded and for a moment we all forgot the wild approach.
My dad decreed that the horse was better than any we’d seen, but he wasn’t going to buy him. He would require too much time and training.
I had already decided that I was not going to ride him, so I was relieved that the trial wouldn’t go any further. But to my surprise, Darren turned to me and asked if I was ready to get on.
“I’m not riding that horse,” I said for the first time. “I won’t be able to hold him.”
He continued to try to convince me and finally made the one threat that would get me in the tack.
“They will think we are rude if you don’t ride him.”
Rude is pretty much the worst label you could assign to a Southerner, so I put my helmet on and climbed up. I offered a loose rein as I got situated and the enormous horse took a long, deep breath and walked slowly around the ring.
I left the loop in the rein when I squeezed him into a trot and then a canter and finally over some tiny jumps. The horse was more powerful than anything I’d ever ridden, but also kind and sensible.
His name was Paintball, and my mind wandered back to him as we ate dinner at an Inn a few steps from the stable. When we were leaving the table I whispered to Darren that I wanted to go see the horse in his stall. He agreed and we crept into the barn only to come face to face with the owner.
Happily, he invited us to visit the chestnut gelding and my enchantment only grew when I realized he was abundantly sweet and even more appealing without the awkward braids in his mane.
During the nine-hour plane ride home I tried to ground myself in the reality that Paintball did not meet any of my criteria for a project. Most notably, his price tag well exceeded zero.
Still, I researched the horse’s bloodlines (impressive) and showed my dad a few YouTube videos of his up-and-coming sire. Beyond that, there was little discussion about him until we were about to part ways in Newark.
“I’ll get that horse over here if you really want me to,” my dad said. “But you need to be careful what you wish for.”
I nodded, feeling guilty that I’d pushed hard enough for my dad to even consider acquiring Paintball. I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it again.
But a week later, he called me with a phone number for his contact at Horse Flight and instructed me to make arrangements and pay for Paintball’s flight to the U.S. The two of us would be partners with the owner in the Netherlands and work together to bring the young horse along!
Paintball traveled perfectly to the United States—in a single stall.
Jennifer Barker St. John grew up as the daughter of two hunter/jumper trainers and rode as a junior and on the Clemson University (S.C.) NCAA team, winning the individual championship in 1998. During her career outside the horse world, she showed her Rhinestone Cowboy to multiple amateur-owner hunter championships. You can read her hilarious introductory blog, “Living The Glamorous Life” to get to know her.
Now, St. John runs Congaree Show Stables in Eastover, S.C., alongside her friend Elizabeth Grove. They concentrate on students (or as, they call them, “minions”) from 7 to 17 years old who do well on the South Carolina Hunter Jumper Association circuit. “Among our greatest accomplishments: teaching them to wrap correctly and properly muck a stall,” St. John, who serves as the president of the SCHJA, said. She balances training and riding with raising her “sweet, polite, usually well dressed but always sort of dirty” toddler daughter Holston.