If Cassanto were a person you wouldn’t be surprised to see him on a Wheaties box or on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He’s the whole package: athleticism that even a non-horse person can appreciate, consistent year after year, and he’s got personality to boot. Make no mistake, this horse knows he’s a star and reminds everyone around him of that fact often, but he’s also charming in a way that keeps you coming back. After all, what’s a top athlete without a few quirks?
Cassanto and Maggie Hill were nearly unbeatable in the junior hunter ring in 2019. His season included championships at Devon (Pennsylvania), USEF Junior Hunter National Championships—East Coast (Pennsylvania), Capital Challenge (Maryland), Pennsylvania National, Washington International (District of Columbia) and the National Horse Show (Kentucky) to earn the USEF Horse Of The Year title in the large junior hunter, 16-17, division as well as the grand champion junior hunter, 16-17, honors.
But Stella Styslinger’s 13-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Canto—Stefania) is much more than a super athlete; he’s also Hill’s best friend, with a goofy, and opinionated, personality to match. Go behind the stall door with us to get to know the horse that was named the Chronicle’s 2019 Overall Horse Of The Year.
• Cassanto is a giant love. Any and all attention is good, please.
“He loves when people touch him,” said Hill. “He just loves every attention that he can physically get. He is such a smoosh that way. He’s the first one in the barn to put his head out, and if you don’t [love on him], he kind of, he gets really aggressive about it sometimes, so sometimes little kids are taken aback by him.”
“If you whisper into his nose, he’ll breathe. You know how horses talk that way?” Hill said. “I tried to do it to O’Ryan once, and O’Ryan was like ‘Whoa!’ He whipped to the back of his stall, and it was like it gave him anxiety, but [Cassanto] loves it.”
• Cassanto is far from a picky eater, but there are two things that he loves above anything else. Strawberry-frosted donuts and Hill’s favorite snack: bananas and peanut butter.
“I used to get the guys donuts in the morning if we had early mornings, and he kept eyeing them. I don’t think there’s anything bad in it, so I gave it to him,” Hill recalled. “Loved it. And I was like, OK I guess I’ll give him one tomorrow, and it was just a glazed one, and he was just like, ‘OK, that’s stupid. That’s really not what I want.’ ”
Hill didn’t think Cassanto really liked banana peels, but while we were visiting his stall at the National, he spotted a pair of bananas Hill had placed on her tack trunk to give him later, and he wasted no time stealing them and devouring them whole, peel and all.
• There’s no question Cassanto knows he’s great, and he’s got an ego to match his extensive resume.
“He’s the most cocky animal,” said Hill. “He’ll march around with his head up in the air, and he gets this big, puffy neck like how a stallion gets. He’s like, ‘Oh I’m Cassanto!’ There was a speech with a wrestler, and he was like, ‘I am the best! This is my stage.’ And I’m like, if Cassanto had a mirror, this is what he would say to himself every night right before bed. He’d be like, ‘I am the greatest thing to grace the world!’ That’s what he thinks he is. ‘You were born to be this. This is your calling.’ ”
• With an ego that big, Hill has learned how to manage it. It’s fine if Cassanto thinks he’s hot stuff—as long as it’s after the show.
“We can’t give him treats before he shows because he’ll jump really, really big,” she said. “So before junior hunter finals we were loving on him because we’d done well the first day. We gave him so much attention. The next day he thought he was really, really cool, and he jumped HUGE! It’s almost scary big over the oxers. It’s great, but you’re like, ‘Oh wow, you really tried your heart out,’ so you have to try to manage it just enough. My mom said he’s like that pretty boy that you dated in high school, the jock, the quarterback.”
• Cassanto expects his people to rise up to his level. As a result, he’s bucked both Hill and trainer Liza Boyd off after they’ve made a mistake.
“He’ll do that big jump, and he’ll get really cocky, and then he’ll buck you off on the other side,” Hill said. “He’ll literally just be like, ‘Oh that was great, time to go.’ He did it to Liza in the night class at [the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida)]. They were having a beautiful round, and he gave this huge effort at an oxer, and he was like, ‘OK, bye.’
“He did it to me a lot. If I chip really badly, I’m off of him, every single time. He just stops,” Hill continued. “Literally he’ll land, and he’ll just stop, and you kind of fall off. He doesn’t mean it badly, but he was like, ‘That wasn’t cool.’ Or he’s like, ‘I’m amazing, and you deserve to be on the ground.’ That’s what we were afraid of at junior hunter finals because he was jumping so big and so beautiful, and Liza was like, ‘I was just hoping you stayed on on the other side!’ ”
• Each year before indoors Hill purchases each of her horses a lucky stuffed animal from The Tack Room in Camden, South Carolina. They’re only used for the four indoors and then Devon the following year. Cassanto’s furry friend for 2019 was a fluffy pink unicorn.
“I get them to match their personalities,” said Hill. “I think pink and fluffy, I think he would like that; he’s kind of pink and fluffy. That’s kind of his spirit animal. I have a little box [in my room I keep them in]. All the guys think I’m so annoying because I’m like, ‘Guys, did we get the stuffed animals?’ when we leave every horse show. I’ll put them in the stalls and see if they like them for like one horse show, and then if they like them we bring them to all of the indoors. It’s an elaborate process for something really, really small. He really likes it. I’ll come in in the mornings, and he’ll be sniffing it, and he’ll lick it sometimes.”
• He gets neck rubs before every single round in the ring. Trainer Jack Towell puts his hands on the eighth and 12th braid and gives the gelding’s neck a good shake. Cassanto loves it, licking and chewing each time he gets his special neck massage.