Last spring, Karl Slezak and VDL Ulando H were skipping around training level cross-country tracks. Less than one year later, Ruth Armstrong's VDL Ulando H (Corland—Fanieta, Ahorn) made easy work of the advanced course at Rocking Horse Winter II Horse Trials, winning the advanced test A division with Slezak in the irons.
But a few years ago, the future of “Ulando's” jumping career was in question. He started as a show jumper, competing in 5- and 6-year-old classes until he lost his confidence. “At some point or another, he kind of shut down and wouldn't even step over a stick on the ground,” said Slezak, 30.
Armstrong, Orangeville, Ont., bought him and started over with the chestnut stallion, taking four years of basics to regain his confidence. Once she regained his trust, she competed him in the hunters, jumpers and dressage and started his eventing career at the lower levels. “He'd had some bad memories, so I took him out and let him have some fun with life,” Armstrong said.
She handed the reins to Slezak early last year when Ulando's talent for the upper levels began to show.
“He won his last two events with me and dragged me around the course, and that told me he was ready to move on,” she said. “Karl's a fantastic rider, and the pair of them have the same gung-ho personality and will get the job done and have fun.”
Karl started 2011 at training level with the stallion and finished the season at intermediate. “Last year he came out in the spring and really wanted to play. He was enjoying his job,” he said. The 10-year-old Dutch-bred Canadian Warmblood finished his season by placing tenth in his first CCI** at Fair Hill (Md.) last fall.
Rocking Horse, held in Altoona, Fla., Feb. 17-19, was Ulando's first advanced. The pair sat third after dressage with a 33.1 and put in an easy clear show jumping round to move up to second. “He jumps for fun and has springs for legs,” Slezak said. “It's a game for him.”
With only 2.8 time penalties on cross-country, they took the win over Karen O'Connor on Veronica. “He just skipped around. He jumps really well out of stride, and he's very adjustable. It takes nothing to set him up for a fence,” said Slezak. “Sometimes he jumps really big over cross-country fences and loses a bit of time, but this time he jumped everything out of stride and carried on. It was dead easy for him. I wasn't pushing at all.
“He's always looking for more confidence from me, but I think we have a great partnership. He's always trying for me. Every time out he's learning something different,” Slezak added. “This is a real horse. I'm really excited about his future and our partnership.”
While Ulando stands at stud, he doesn't take time off from competing for breeding. His offspring are still young but are already showing potential as show jumpers and eventers. “I would love to ride some of his offspring. I haven't sat on any yet because people keep buying them before I get to them!” said Slezak.
Despite being a stallion, the chestnut is easy to handle. “Ruth's young daughter handles him all the time. He's got great manners,” said Slezak.
Ulando will continue his season at advanced at Poplar Place (Ga.) in March, followed by The Fork CIC*** (N.C.) Slezak’s hoping to do the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) in May.
Little-Meredith Finds Success With A New Partner
Like Ulando H, Marilyn Little-Meredith has enjoyed a meteoric rise up the levels. Little-Meredith had only imagined tackling the advanced course at the Rocking Horse Winter II horse trials last year. She was just months into her eventing career and was thrilled to win a preliminary rider division. This year she returned with a new partner, RF Demeter, and much more experience, to capture a win in the advanced test B division.
“It was a hoot! As I was walking the preliminary course here last year and watching the advanced, I only dreamed that I would have two horses at the level, let alone with the ability to lead after dressage,” she said.
It's been a whirlwind year for Little-Meredith, who competes at the top levels of show jumping but decided to try eventing a little over a year ago. Last fall she won the Plantation Field CIC*** (Pa.) and finished ninth in her first CCI*** at Fair Hill (Md.) aboard RF Rovano Rex. In December, she purchased “Demi” from Dutch eventer Raf Kooremans.
Little-Meredith spent the early part of January in the jumper ring at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., getting to know the 9-year-old Oldenburg mare in the 1.30-meter classes. The pair competed in their first event together at Ocala Horse Properties Winter II (Fla.) the week before Rocking Horse, where they finished sixth in a large open intermediate division.
Two Months In A Dressage Saddle
At Rocking Horse, Little-Meredith topped the dressage with 24.7 penalties on Demi, just edging out the mare’s stablemate, RF Rovano Rex. “I thought Demi was fantastic. I was really tickled, but this is a starting point, and now the tests can really be improved as well. It's always nice to know that there's still a lot more on the table,” said Little-Meredith. “When she trots down centerline, she wants to win. She wants to be pretty, she wants to listen, and she tries hard. She's very clear in her mind on what she needs to do. You can feel her turn it on.”
Little-Meredith, 30, admitted that historically dressage has been her weakest phase, but she's made steps to improve herself and her horses this winter.
“It's been a focal point, perhaps to the detriment of the other phases, for the past few months! I came down to Florida quite early in order to work on my dressage. For November and all of December, I was in a black saddle. That's a big commitment for me, for a jumper rider, to live in a black saddle and make every jumper I have go in one here in Wellington at the peak of our season. There was a lot of dressage happening, so it's nice to reap some of the reward,” she said.
A clear show jumping round kept Demi (Rubin-Royal—Patricia, Kanudos xx) and Little-Meredith, Frederick, Md., on top of the leaderboard heading into cross-country. “She jumped clear, but I'm looking for that to become even more consistent when she's more familiar with our system,” she said.
Heading out on cross-country, Little-Meredith knew she had a few points to spare, but wanted to keep a steadier pace. “I took it pretty easy the first five or six jumps. Coming into some of the combinations, I really slowed down to make sure I dotted all my Is and crossed all my Ts to keep anything from going wrong,” she said.
Demi—who competed through the CCI*** level with Kooremans—didn't disappoint, finishing with just 7.2 time penalties to take the win over Little-Meredith's trainer Karen O'Connor on Mr. Medicott.
“She looks for the flags and wants to do the job 120 percent to the best of her ability. She studies her combinations and is cat-like in her footwork. She's really quick away from the jumps and good in the water,” said Little-Meredith.
Demi and RF Rovano Rex are both headed to the Red Hills CIC*** (Fla.), The Fork CIC*** (N.C.) and, if all goes to plan, the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. Although it will be Little-Meredith's first four-star, she's hopeful that come April, she and Demi will be ready.
“This mare has come from a very good program. She's the type that wants to have somebody to believe in and is actively trying to make the partnership work out. She can't wait to make the partnership work out. We might not be speaking the same language yet, but we're both trying,” she said. “My mother [show jumper Lynne Little] always says you have to wait three months to know what you really have. Well, we're two months in, and I'm thrilled, and I hope it keeps getting better. Every day is something new.”