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January 30, 2009

Throwback Thursday: Graf George—What I Remember

In the January 30, 2009 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, Paul McClellan, DVM, shared his experiences and lessons learned as the veterinarian for star dressage horse Graf George.

In November of 1995 I’d taken a lengthy vacation to Africa. It had been my lifelong dream to experience the Serengeti. All of the contrived complications of my civilized existence seemed to dissipate in the rising heat on that primitive and expansive African plain.

I convinced myself that the moment I landed on American soil, I would wrap up my life as I knew it and move back to Africa. That escapist thought lasted all of five minutes after landing. I fell back into my groove with the first message on my phone. It was from Jane Brown: “Come see our new horse as soon as you are able.”

Dick Brown had taken up riding dressage, his lifelong dream, after he retired from the jewelry business. Jane, the consummate organizer, supported Dick’s hobby and arranged the meticulous details of the care of his horse Jubilee.

The Browns also sponsored Guenter Seidel, a young and upcoming star for the international dressage scene. The Browns were the type never to set their sights too low, and sponsoring a horse and rider at the Olympic level was a goal they hoped to achieve. 

Graf George was their candidate for Guenter’s attempt at this very exclusive level of competition. George had already participated at the Barcelona Olympics in ’92, but that success didn’t guarantee a repeat performance. It’s a grueling road for horses as well as human athletes. Few have what it takes to repeat as Olympians, and George did not exactly score high marks during the due diligence of the pre-purchase exam performed while I was away.

My first morning back to work, I drove to the stables to see this Olympic prospect. Dick and Jane were all smiles. Hope springs eternal in this business, and that hope of Olympic glory was beaming from their eyes as I walked up to greet them. Then Guenter, with an excited grin, led a prancing George from his stall. 

I looked the stalwart gelding in the eye. You can understand a lot about a horse from its eye. I saw boldness, determination and brilliance in that horse. Then my gaze drifted down. “Good feet,” I exclaimed. It’s an old adage that states “no foot, no horse.”

In methodical fashion, my eyes moved from his hooves up his legs recording every deviation from the ideal. There was the obvious ringbone, the enlarged suspensory and the unusual knot on the side of his right knee. I was not about to extinguish the delight of Guenter, Jane and Dick, so I muted any negativity and concluded he was a great choice. 

Back at my office, I perused the medical record sent to me from George’s previous veterinarian. It was extensive, and I felt I should consult my mentor Dr. Dan Marks.

“George definitely has some issues here. What am I going to do Danny?” I asked.

“Whatever it takes. What have you got to lose?” he replied sanguinely.

Danny, with his short quip, was right on. He often reminded me when we were working together, “You can fix far less than what you think, but you can manage most all of it.”

George’s health issues would be no different. We would learn to manage his problems. The road to the top is one of attrition. The last man, or horse, standing gets the glory. Nothing is a given for anyone. You get what you work for…sometimes.

Hard Work And A Little Bit Of Luck

Guenter had his Olympic goal clearly in sight. He spent a great deal of time with George early on to acquaint himself with the nature of the strong gelding.

The natural gaits were exquisite, and Guenter’s routines developed the brilliance George possessed. I performed many exams on George in the first few months, assuring myself that I knew how to manage the physical issues and gaining confidence that George would hold up to the rigors of international competition once again.

Because I didn’t know the horse well, I worked closely with the groom. Grooms develop their own interesting relationship with their charges. They give encouragement to the horse when needed, they dote on the little physical details—like a small skin rash that would get totally out of hand if unnoticed, or the fact that the horse doesn’t eat certain foods so well.

Competition day is not the time to discover idiosyncrasies about a horse’s appetite, or the usual stiffness in the first few steps as he exits the stall. Managing these details is essential to achieving top performance.

The ’96 Olympic trials were in Gladstone, N.J., and “Team Brown” was in attendance. When I arrived, I had a meeting with Dr. Midge Leitch who would be the team veterinarian for the Olympic dressage horses. I turned over the medical history, confident that I knew how to manage George’s health.

At this level, even if a horse displays the top performance, he may be passed over if the risks of unsoundness are too great to be maintained at the Olympic venue. No organization wants to be left with half a team or to suffer the embarrassment of sending an unsound horse to the Olympic Games only to be turned down at the initial veterinary inspection.

It’s been my conviction that you can send your four best horses or you can send your four soundest horses, but they are not the same. Someone has to make risk assessment judgments about the individual candidates so that the best possible team arrives for competition. Part of that assessment is accepting that there will always be health issues that must be managed, and managed without the aid of banned medications. High scores are only part of the equation to selecting a winning team.

The first night in town, I had dinner at a nice restaurant in Peapack with the Browns. Dick, being the straight-faced businessman that he is, came right to the point. “Doc, what do you think our chances are?”

I replied, “Dick, there is a real chance he may not make it.”

Dick, I believe, always preferred I not, in any way, color my opinions to assuage his emotions. He was aware that the likelihood of achieving such a difficult goal was low. I wasn’t about to confuse the issue with banal remarks. I always felt my job was to be reasonable, cautious and objective when it came to making predictions.

But in regards to George’s care, I tried to be aggressive, imaginative and attentive to every detail. You simply cannot do enough for these talented horses. Moreover, there’s no manual to consult. It was my good fortune that Dick and Jane clearly understood this and never once said no to any request I had regarding the care of their horses.

George had a spectacular Grand Prix test on the first day of competition. That evening, however, fate took a strange twist. George came down with colic in spite of all the necessary preparations taken to avoid any calamity while at the competition.

In the late hours of the night after preliminary treatments failed to subdue his colic, I made my way to the Browns’ room to break the news. George would have to miss the rest of the competition and be shipped immediately to the New Bolton Center Hospital in Kennett Square, Pa.

At that moment, George’s life hung in the balance. No one expressed any angst over missing the Olympic Games, only the hope that George would recover.

And just as quickly, fate’s ill wind reversed. George survived not only the two-hour trip to the hospital but also the long night of intensive medical care. He recovered without the need for surgery or the development of any other complications. On the strength of his single performance, he made the team for the Olympic Games.

More Than Mission Accomplished

The greatest spectacle of our times, the Olympic Games, is the result of a rigorous, unending onslaught of
preparations and demands on the participants before, and during, the Games.

From that blur of activity, the only memory that sticks with me is the moment in the sunshine watching Guenter complete his dressage test on Graf George and realizing that those few moments were the culmination of an extraordinary amount of practice always focused on a singular hope, the realization of which was not guaranteed.

At that moment Dick, Jane and Guenter had realized their dream. And the fulfillment of their dream reached beyond the three of them. Those eight minutes of performance by a great horse and accomplished rider would fuel the aspirations of thousands.

The Olympic Games were not the end of the road for George, however. After a brief respite from his training routine, I attended to George while he prepared for a successful performance in the Netherlands for the ’97 FEI World Cup Final. In 1998 he again competed for the United States at the World Equestrian Games in Rome, Italy.

For me, the most memorable performance I witnessed was George’s freestyle test at Gladstone in preparation for the ’98 WEG. By this time Guenter and George had become the fusion of what horse and rider should be.

Afterward, numerous insiders in the business stopped by George’s stall to congratulate me as well.

“Never seen the horse look so good” were the kind of comments that came my way. I felt then that I really had been part of a unique team, that I had indeed made a difference. In competition, veterinary care is worth only 3 percent of the total effort, but that 3 percent is the difference between a good performance and a winning performance.

I felt deeply a part of something special at that moment, far more important than the medical care I had provided. After the WEG, Dick, Jane and Guenter conversed over George’s future and concluded having him go out as a champion was the noble thing to do, so George was retired.

Graf George was a great horse. But what is it that makes a horse be considered great?

Conformation is a sought-after trait, and George was a handsome, good conformed horse. I often told Dick that it was a big reason for George’s athletic longevity.

Stamina is also necessary. Watching Guenter and George going through their routine one morning for more than an hour, I commented to Dick, “This horse has no bottom.” Guenter would wear out before George would begin to flag; he was that tough.

The expression of talent is an indispensable necessity. Jane and I often sat together at the competitions during those years marveling at George’s consistent performances at the highest level of the sport.

Disposition, though, seems not to be an essential ingredient. I have known great horses that were gentle and others that were savages. I knew George as very personable and exhibiting a bold presence.

In the final analysis, talent, good looks, stamina or personality is not enough. I believe greatness comes from the creation and infusion of rare moments into the lives of others that inspire them. Those moments become the best part of who we are.

In that perspective, George was a great horse because he created rare moments in the lives of so many people through their knowing him or simply knowing of him. Achievement that inspires others is the distinction of greatness.

Dec. 20 was George’s time to say goodbye.

Guenter stood with George, and I studied the aging frame of this champion for a few final moments. He was now just a shadow of the physical grandeur of his prime. 

But the lessons of George’s achievements are undiminished. By accepting the challenge of George, I had the good fortune to play a small role in the expression of a compelling truth. We are civilized when what we aspire to achieve for ourselves lights the path to excellence for others as well. 

With George’s departure, I have come to understand more profoundly that all the moments I experienced with George, Guenter, Dick and Jane have made me a better person by being a participant in the pursuit of greatness. And for that I am grateful to the big gray Hanoverian. 

Paul McClellan

Paul McClellan, DVM, is the owner of the San Dieguito Equine Group, Inc., in San Marcos, Calif. He graduated from the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine (Ind.) and has been practicing in Northern San Diego County since 1982. He has worked with horses competing at the highest levels in dressage, eventing, racing and jumping. He was Dick and Jane Brown’s veterinarian for 16 years.

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