It’s not unusual for preparation for the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event to get derailed a little bit. After all, horses will be horses, and even an ill-timed pulled shoe can force you to change your plan. But for Joe Meyer, the thing that upset his spring training with Johnny Royale was a bit more dramatic than a minor horse mishap. On March 28, his truck was hit from the side while he was towing a horse to go cross-country schooling in Ocala, Florida. The horse made out the best with just a minor cut, but Meyer suffered more serious injuries.
“I got pretty busted up and broken from it,” said Meyer, 49. “I broke some ribs, and [Chattahoochee Hills (Georgia)] was supposed to be my last run before Kentucky, but I just couldn’t do it; I had no strength, so I thought I better go around [the Ocala International Festival of Eventing].”
The change of plan ended in victory for Meyer and the 11-year-old New Zealand-bred Thoroughbred gelding Johnny Royale (His Royal Highness—Chivaney, Tights). Meyer rode “Johnny” to the win in the intermediate division, adding just 1.2 cross-country time penalties to their dressage score of 30.2.
“I didn’t ride him all week leading up to the event, and I scratched the other horses I was thinking of taking, so I could just compete him,” Meyer said. “Luckily my dressage trainer Anna Marek and my girls at the barn were able to ride him, and he felt amazing for me. He jumped fantastic and could have gone a lot faster on cross-country, but we just wanted to have a really good round before Kentucky.”
Meyer has been riding Johnny for the past three years since the horse was imported from England.
“He was bred by a really famous race horse trainer in New Zealand, John Wheeler, and he raced a few times, but he didn’t do any good. He was actually pulled from one race and disqualified for bad jumping form,” Meyer said.
A record like that might give most riders pause when looking for an event prospect, but Johnny’s quality was enough for British-based eventer Lizzie Green to give the gelding a chance. She produced the horse through prelim before a sales barn in Ocala imported him, and then Meyer got a look.
“I really liked the horse. There were some holes in his flatwork, and really he was just very weak in show jumping too. He’s taken a long time to build up his strength, but it was obvious he was going to be a good horse,” Meyer said. “So we got the Team Johnny Syndicate together behind him.”
Meyer started Johnny at preliminary in 2016 and moved him up the levels from there, stepping out at advanced in 2017. The pair entered Kentucky in 2018, but Meyer withdrew Johnny in the holding box at the first horse inspection.
“Last year before Kentucky he had an accident at home in the field and got a piece of wood in his hock,” Meyer said. “And we treated it and thought it was all fine, but then on the way to Kentucky I think it sort of flared up, and that’s what made him not jog up.”
The wound healed over, and Meyer was thinking about what to do next with Johnny, but then the horse opened it up again in turnout.
“I think his body rejected whatever little wood particle was left in there,” Meyer said. “So we took him in for surgery, and they said, ‘There isn’t anything left in here,’ and we said, ‘Good! Let’s get him closed back up and healed!’ It was the oddest little injury, but he’s over it now.”
This year Meyer aims to finish the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event and follow that up with a possible trip across the pond for another five-star depending on the result in Lexington.
“We’ve done a lot of work building up his strength for this because the hardest thing about him is you have to identify that he’s not essentially a lazy horse, but he’s more of a weak horse,” Meyer said.
While Johnny’s jumping form still isn’t the snappiest, Meyer thinks the strength training has made it much better.
“We’ve done a lot of cavalleti work and grids and exercises just to get him quicker and work on his footwork, so he can pat the ground a lot easier. He’s tremendously scopey, and he wants to be careful,” Meyer said. “He’s one of those ones that would jump a bit higher instead of pulling his knees up, and I’d like him to bend his knees a little more, but because he has the scope he uses that. He has a tremendous hind end on him over jumps, and sometimes that overpowers the front a little bit, so it’s been about trying to teach him balance and strength.”
As for Meyer’s Kentucky prep, a lot of downtime is on the docket to make sure his ribs are fully healed before he heads out on course at the Kentucky Horse Park.
“I will be all right by the time it starts, but right now I’m failing the sneeze test,” Meyer said with a laugh. “When I sneeze it’s like someone is stabbing you in the back, and to add insult to injury I was trying to catch a loose stallion the other day, and it ran me over, so I was hobbling around from that for a couple days, but everything seems to be getting better.”
While Meyer’s truck, a much loved old three-ton dually he called “Black Thunder,” was totaled in the accident, Meyer is ensuring the old farm vehicle lives on in its new counterpart.
“We found another big black truck, and we’re taking some of the cool bits from Black Thunder like the tool box and things and adding them to it,” Meyer said. “We’re going to call it ‘The Black Pearl.’ ”
Meyer is in good spirits about the whole ordeal.
“I’m very, very lucky the wreck wasn’t worse, and with all this rest I should be ready for Kentucky,” he said.