This adult amateur took her trainer’s injured gelding from retirement to her first Grand Prix.
When Liza Broadbent loaded Victorious onto her trailer four years ago, it seemed like their horse show years were behind them.
Broadbent and her husband Chris Broadbent already had two unrideable horses pastured at their farm in Middleburg, Virginia—a mare recovering from EPM and a gelding with severe allergies and chronic lameness, among other issues. Treating their multiple ailments had exhausted Liza’s horse budget. Devastated but resolved, she told her trainer Lauren Sprieser that she thought it was time to quit.
Two days later, she got an email.
“Lauren wrote to me: ‘I have this crazy idea,’ ” Liza said with a laugh. “Then she told me about Midge.”
“Midge” was Sprieser’s not-so-affectionate nickname for Victorious, a Dutch Harness Horse (Patijn—Koriene, Farao) whom she helped break during her last summer as a college student. Charlene Pinkerton bred him in Wisconsin, and he was still a stud colt when Sprieser started riding him. He was also her least favorite kind of ride—strong, downhill and small, in addition to picking fights with the geldings he was turned out with, which led to the tiny biting fly comparison.
Sprieser returned to school in the fall and didn’t give Midge a second thought until her mom called to say his owner had passed away. And that she had bought the gelding.
“My mom said, ‘Oh, he’s so cute! He can be a partnership for you and I to go in on. You can put a year on him and then flip him,’ ” Sprieser remembered. “So I said, ‘OK. He has one year; then he’s out of here.’ ”
Sprieser promptly had Midge gelded, and during his 4-year-old year he behaved like a perfect gentleman. But the moment Sprieser started to market him things went sour.
“He became the most unrideable, difficult little turkey,” Sprieser said. “He would stand up and just stay there—you could hear the seconds ticking by. It was never the scary, life-threatening, ‘Hi-ho Silver!’ rear because he was so balanced. But you would ask him, ‘Hey, are you going to land?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I’m fine here. Thanks.’
“He stayed that way until he turned 9,” Sprieser continued. “I remember the day that was the turning point because I got on and said, ‘Uh oh. I think he’s sick because he’s being wonderful!’ ”
Midge’s change of heart proved permanent. He and Sprieser went on to win the 2010 Col. Bengt Ljungquist Prix St. Georges Senior Rider B Finals and claim fourth in the Markel/USEF Developing Horse Grand Prix Championship in 2012. He went from being her least favorite 3-year-old to what she describes as “my first love-of-my-life horse,” not to mention one of the most promising rising stars in her barn.
They had just won a Grand Prix class at the national show at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Florida) in 2013 when Sprieser felt something not quite right.
“It ended up being a safari to figure out exactly what was wrong,” Sprieser said. “Eventually we laid him down for an MRI and found there was no cartilage left in his hind fetlocks.”
The fetlocks improved with treatment, but in the process the rest of Midge’s now-towering 16.3-hand body seemed to go into system failure. Sprieser spent two years rehabbing the chestnut before her heart couldn’t take the disappointment anymore. She turned the 12-year-old gelding out to pasture at Kristin and Joe Hickey’s equine retirement facility in Millwood, Virginia, at the end of 2014.
He’d been there six months when Liza told Sprieser about her decision to quit riding, and Sprieser had her idea.
“Nobody knew if he was sound, but Lauren was willing to let me try to bring him back,” Liza said. “If it didn’t work out, he’d go back into retirement with nothing lost, so driving out there to get him, I was trying to keep my ambitions modest. I kept saying to myself, ‘I’ve never sat on a Grand Prix horse before, so you know what? Even if I get in the tack, and he’s not even sound at the walk, I got to sit on a Grand Prix horse!’ ”
But Liza’s low expectations didn’t temper her seriousness when it came to Midge’s comeback. After a few days she determined the gelding was at least walking sound, and she immediately enlisted the help of Dr. Cricket Russillo, DVM, at Virginia Equine Imaging.
Russillo designed a meticulous six-month rehabilitation plan, and Liza followed it to the letter.
“We walked more miles than I can count,” Liza said. “I remember my excitement when we got to do just a splash of trot. But I think it was really crucial that we didn’t have any kind of timeline for getting back in the arena. It’s not like I had this one competition horse, where every day felt like a lost opportunity. For me, my entire focus was making him sound and healthy. Every day was just another day I got to ride.”
After six months of monitoring each footfall, Liza trailered over to Sprieser’s Clearwater Farm for her first gentle walk-trot-canter lesson with Midge.
But first things first.
“Lauren walked into the arena, and the two of us spent five minutes squealing like 13-year-old girls,” Liza said with a laugh. “He wasn’t even up to full speed yet, but everything was going so well!”
That fall, Liza moved Midge to Sprieser’s facility in Marshall, Virginia, and began training in earnest. Liza assumed that in due time, Sprieser would take the reins again. But around the time they started schooling third level Sprieser approached her in the barn aisle with a single piece of paper in her hand.
“I looked down, and it said she was selling Midge to me—for $1,” Liza said. “I’m going to cry just talking about it! I completely did not expect it at all. Lauren said she just wanted to make sure he was sound enough before making it official. I never, never thought he would be mine.”
Liza and Midge started out at third level, where Liza earned her final score for her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal. From then on, Midge showed her the ropes.
“I actually only started dressage after moving to Virginia in 2000,” explained Liza, who evented as a young adult. “I think my slow journey as a rider really helped him. It’s not like I was thinking, ‘Oh, as soon as this horse is ready I want to start doing FEI work.’ I had to learn, and that made it kind of an enforced multi-year journey. And I think that worked in our favor.”
Midge never returned to his youthful antics with Liza, but he never became an easy ride, either. Feisty and hot, he required consistent work and “more leg than you can imagine” out of Liza, which, combined with her busy schedule as a software designer made moving up the levels an exhausting process.
But the biggest challenges were always mental.
“The toughest part of the journey has been the daily weight of responsibility: balancing the work required for me to learn with concern for Midge’s health and happiness,” Liza said. “Is he sticky on his changes one day because something isn’t right, or is my timing off? Are the canter pirouettes rushed because I don’t have enough inside leg (Lauren would tell you I never have enough leg), or is he uncomfortable? It’s made me more than just a little paranoid for sure, but more often than not, if I’m worried enough to call Cricket, we’ve usually found evidence of little problems that are normal for any horse working at this level, and treatable with the right therapy.”
Some of that therapy has included corrective shoeing, time off for a high suspensory injury, and a fair share of wellness visits just to put Liza’s mind at ease. But in May, almost four years to the day since she first picked him up from a retirement pasture, Liza cantered him down centerline for her first test at Grand Prix. At their next show, they earned the last score Liza needed for her gold medal.
“I’m not sure who cried more—Liza or me!” Sprieser said with a laugh. “He’s just one of those magical horses that really put you through hell and end up being the ones you can count on most when the chips are down. He and I have seen some things together; we’ve seen some times! And it’s made him the kind of personality that he really knows his job is to teach other people.”
Midge maintains a professorial attitude in the barn aisle as well. Aloof and reserved, he resists Liza and Sprieser’s doting with comical austerity. He expects two Minty Muffins after every ride and has deadly accuracy tossing his feed bucket if his grain appears behind schedule.
All in all, he’s the definition of high maintenance—in the tack, on the ground and especially at the vet clinic. But given the chance to start again, Liza wouldn’t hesitate.
“I am grateful every single day for the privilege of having such an amazing horse to ride, and more than anything else I want to make Lauren proud,” Liza said. “We wouldn’t be here without the incredible support we’ve received—from VEI, Scott Brouse for shoeing, Colleen Meyer from Advanced Saddle Fit, massages from Meghan Brady at Equine Solutions.
“But more than anything, I will be forever grateful to Lauren. And my incredibly, really insanely supportive husband, Chris,” she added with a laugh. “I couldn’t have done any of this without him!”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.