Back From The Brink: Denzello Makes A Comeback And A Career For Kozel

Jul 14, 2020 - 7:58 AM

Jessica Kozel had been running her own training business for less than a year when she got the call about Denzello.

The last time Kozel had worked with the 18.1-hand Hanoverian gelding (De Niro—Romina, Rohdiamant), she was his groom. Kozel had spent nine years working for Olympic bronze medalist Lisa Wilcox, and Denzello and Wilcox had claimed a spot as second reserve on the team for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France), and the pair had campaigned around the U.S. and Europe. “Dino” seemed poised to make a serious run at the Rio Olympic Games.

Then he suffered a soft tissue injury to a hind limb in 2015, and his competition schedule was suddenly replaced by stall rest and rehabilitation. Due to the severity of the injury, two years later, he still wasn’t sound, and his owner, Betty Wells, didn’t know what to do.

“Betty’s Canadian, and here she was, faced with a once-in-a-lifetime horse that didn’t seem to have any career left,” Kozel said. “She knew if he was going to come back to the sport, it was going to take a lot of time off plus extensive therapy, and she couldn’t do it by herself.”

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Jessica Kozel and Denzello competing at the 2020 Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Fla.). Tori Repole Photo

Wells reached out to Jeevraj Grewal, VMD, DACVS, at Starling Equine Facility. She offered him majority ownership in exchange for taking over Dino’s rehabilitation on his farm in Loxahatchee, Florida.

Grewal was Dino’s veterinarian before his injury and knew the probability of him returning to his former level of competition was a long shot.

“It was fairly bleak,” Grewal said. “Several options were being thrown around—everything from giving him away to a young rider, which wasn’t great because he was still lame at the time, to euthanasia. It was an athletic injury—pretty common for upper-level dressage horses—but Dino is a special case. Some horses you can turn out, and they live a very happy life in retirement, but he’s not a horse that would retire well. He’s big, which makes him tough to maintain, and he’s wound a little tight. In a turnout situation, he could hurt himself even further.”

Grewal talked with his wife, Jessica Grewal, and they decided to take a chance. Which is why, shortly after their talk with Wells, they called Kozel.

Wild, Green Or Both

Kozel had been dreaming of a career in horses since her first lesson as a 10-year-old in Fairfield, a small town in southeast Iowa. Opportunities were limited, and her family didn’t have money to support much competing. She chartered her own “Prairie Jumpers” Pony Club with a couple of friends in middle school, graduating with her “B” rating, and she evented through preliminary as a teen.

She homeschooled in middle and high school so she could spend afternoons at the barn, where she worked for lessons and board.

“I was always the guinea pig,” Kozel said. “I rode a lot of off-the-track horses who were a little wild, a little green, or a little of both. All that made me into a kid who could do a little of everything and ride almost anything.”

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Even from a young age Jessica Kozel was horse crazy. Photo Courtesy Of Jessica Kozel.

After turning her high school tassel, Kozel launched into an equestrian career. Tired of icy buckets, she and her high school boyfriend high-tailed it to Calistoga, California, where he had a job.

Kozel worked at a veterinary clinic, a feed store and a barn where she taught English riding lessons. Soon, everything started to fizzle.

“You’re in love, you go out in the world, and then suddenly you’re paying your own bills, and you kind of have to figure out how to stand on your own two feet,” Kozel said. “Everything I was doing, and still I couldn’t make ends meet. And I wasn’t growing the way I wanted to.”

Kozel found an advertisement online posted by Betty McElvain, a Holsteiner breeder in Lemitar, New Mexico. She needed a colt starter for her young stock. Although she bred mostly for jumping, McElvain had a background in dressage that piqued Kozel’s interest.

“Dressage had always been something unpleasant you had to do to get to the fun things in life, but I had started to realize that I wasn’t the gutsiest person,” Kozel said. “I had a few falls where luckily I didn’t break anything, but it was enough to make me think I’d reached the edge of my comfort zone. When I started with Betty, that was the first time I’d tried dressage with really athletic, really well-bred horses, and I realized how much fun it could be.”

Kozel picked up a second gig starting Swedish Warmbloods for Carol and Norm Reid, whose Pembroke Farm sat just down the road from McElvain’s La Querencia stable. She worked for both breeders for two years. A clinic with Christine Traurig pushed her over the edge, cementing her interest in the sport.

After a stint as a young horse rider in Massachusetts and a yearlong gig as assistant to adult amateur Grand Prix rider Emmy Sobieski in New Jersey and Florida, Kozel found her ideal position: assistant trainer to Lisa Wilcox.

“Lisa had just come into the country at that moment and was looking for an assistant,” Kozel said. “It was very serendipitous how it worked it out. I got to build a really strong foundation there, and after nine years, it was just the natural course of things to move on. You grow up and think, ‘I’m ready to hang my own shingle.’ ”

Kozel started her business with one client and one young horse—and the knowledge that gaining more customers in a market as saturated as southern Florida’s wasn’t going to be easy. But she had the connection with the Grewals, whose personal jumpers she had been flatting for some time.

When they asked her to help rehabilitate her former charge, she jumped at the opportunity.

“They basically said, ‘Listen, here’s our plan. We think he’s still a super phenomenal horse, and we think it’s worth a try. If you’re willing to work with him and do the rehab with us, you can have the ride,’ ” Kozel said.

The Dream Team

Dino wasn’t the most cooperative patient.

“You’d think being such a well-traveled horse, he’d be pretty cool about everything. He’s not,” Kozel said with a laugh. “He’s the biggest baby on the ground. He’s very sensitive to his environment, at least until your butt hits the saddle. Then he’s all business. But managing him on the ground can be tricky. All that tack walking wasn’t easy!”

Jessica helped Kozel handle Dino’s daily needs, while Jeevraj administered medical care.

“We identified the lesion, the source of lameness, and targeted our therapy specifically to get that lesion to heal,” Jeevraj said. “We did several rounds of [platelet-rich-plasma] treatments, a minor surgical procedure, extracorporeal shock therapy, laser therapy, cold therapy and corrective shoeing from farriers Terry Ott and Matt Yacobellis. A combination of those therapies over time, and the lesion started to heal, and he started to come sound.”

Yet Jeevraj maintains the medical treatments only tells a small part of Dino’s recovery story. He remembers many days when his wife and Kozel would go trotting through thunder and lightning, or tack walking in 100-degree heat, just to keep to the meticulous exercise schedule he devised.

“I didn’t know if we were going to succeed, but I knew that if we were going to succeed it was going to be with this team, Jessica and Jessica and our farriers,” Jeevraj said. “More and more, I think that the people are just as important to recovery as the horse. I think we’d have a lot more success stories if people were as dedicated as they all were.

“And I have to give credit to the horse,” he added. “Not every horse has a heart like Dino’s.”

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Denzello recovered from a soft tissue injury to return to the Grand Prix ring. Tori Repole Photo

In time, he graduated from 20-minute tack walks to hour tack walks, then from short trots to long, and finally to easy walk-trot-canter sets.

“Regularity was very important, very key,” Kozel said. “Keeping work very normal, nothing collected, nothing extended. Conditioning, body building stuff. Everything was very methodical and very slow.”

For all the early pacing, when Dino entered the show ring again, he came back swinging. In March of 2018, he carried Kozel through her first Grand Prix at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida. A month later she earned the U.S. Dressage Federation gold medal she’d coveted since watching Traurig’s clinic more than a decade prior.

“Our initial goal with him was just to see if we could get him back, and I had nothing to lose,” Kozel said. “Riding those two Grand Prixs, it felt like a dream come true. As a dressage rider, your ultimate goal is to canter down that Grand Prix centerline, and I think that was true, especially being newly out on my own and trying to train so close to Wellington, which is a very small pond with a ton of huge fish. What he gave me, it was huge.”

A Bond Of Gratitude

Kozel, 41, and Dino completed their first season of CDIs at the AGDF in 2019, winning a CDI Grand Prix class with a 69.23 percent in March. By the end of season, Kozel was ranked 14th for highest prize-money winnings out of 45 Grand Prix riders, many of whom had more than one horse competing.

But she left the festival with more than a handful of checks.

“Dino has, for me, been a career-making horse,” Kozel said. “When people see you in the FEI ring under the lights on Friday nights, it elevates you to a different level in their minds. Because of Dino, I’ve had clients that acquired three other horses for me to bring along—two younger ones and another FEI horse. I’ve been able to put together a syndicate to purchase a young stallion. I have Dino to thank for that. Seriously, I owe that horse everything.”

Jeevraj believes Dino owes Kozel something, too, after the hours she logged nursing him back to health.

“I’ve never been a proponent of sending horses away to be rehabbed,” Jeevraj said. “For one, I think you get a better sense for when the horse is actually getting better over a period of time, so you don’t get too down on the bad days, and the good days don’t get you too high. But I also think that when a rider who’s going to compete a horse does the rehabilitation, and in this day and age that doesn’t happen very often, but when it does—I think the partnership between horse and rider is going to be that much stronger.

“It doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, so maybe I’m a bit old school, but I think it’s very important,” Jeevraj concluded.

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“He’s the kind of horse that needs a lot from you on the ground. Then as a result, he gives you everything he has in the ring,” Jessica Kozel said of Denzello. Queca Franco Photo

In 2020, the partnership has grown stronger than ever. Kozel said Dino is more relaxed in his movements and better able to recover from bobbles. She can feel the difference most in their freestyle, which features a popular version of Whitney Houston’s “Higher Love,” remixed by Kygo.

“I call him my dancing dinosaur,” Kozel joked. “He’s so big, but he really is light on his feet, and I can feel him starting to dance with me now. All those hours icing and wrapping and unwrapping, and walking and walking and walking, we really did establish a strong bond, and I can feel him now just leaning into that, especially when there’s a lot of atmosphere. He gets very attached to people. Even though I had been his groom, Betty had been the one to travel with him—she’d been the one to hold his hand. I needed to become that as a rider.

“He’s the kind of horse that needs a lot from you on the ground. Then as a result, he gives you everything he has in the ring,” Kozel added.

Jeevraj acknowledges that Dino’s comeback is more the exception than the rule.

“It’s one of those things you do it 10 times, sometimes you feel like you do it 100 times, and this is the one time it turns out good,” Jeevraj said. “That one time though, that’s why you do it. You do it because you always hang on to the memory of the Dinos. You just have to try and keep trying. If you have to explain why to somebody, they’re probably not going to understand. If you’re a horse person, you’re nutty, and you already get it.

“It’s the Dinos,” he concluded. “It’s the Dinos that make us do it.”

Kozel and Dino finished their season strong in Wellington. They broke 70% for the first time in the CDI3* held during Week 10, just before the AGDF shut down due to the coronavirus. Schooling at home, they are focused on gymnastic exercises to keep Dino’s gargantuan body soft and strong, particularly now that he’s 17.

But no matter when they canter down centerline again, Kozel plans to soak up every moment she can.

“Dino has really taught me that you don’t take anything for granted,” Kozel said. “Horses are so fragile when you think about it, and it takes so much physical strength and conditioning and agility to be able to complete a Grand Prix test. I’m so grateful that I can do this with him at all.”


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 kloushin@coth.com with their story.


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