He has the stunning beauty of a cover model and the ring presence of a seasoned pro. But at heart, Fortunato H20 is just an oversized puppy. When he’s not making waves in the show ring, “Tuna” is at home making everyone laugh at his antics.
Owner and rider Lehua Custer had been shopping for her next horse for about two years when she came across a picture of “Tuna” right after he’d been born. The snapshot depicted a bleary-eyed chestnut colt—all legs and with a brilliant blaze—and was enough for her to pull the trigger.
“He hadn’t even stood up yet, and I was like, ‘This is the horse I’m going to buy,’ ” she said.
The now 7-year-old Oldenburg stallion (Floriscount—Raleska WF, Rascalino) was bred by Kendra Hansis in New Jersey. He went to the breeding show at Dressage At Devon (Pennsylvania) that year with his dam by his side, and after he was weaned flew to California where Custer was based at the time. In 2019, Custer moved to Wellington, Florida, and Tuna made the cross-country journey as a 3-year-old. He showed at Dressage At Devon for a second time that year, earning the reserve colt/gelding championship. Over the next two years he showed under saddle less than five times before heading to Devon again, where he earned the grand championship in the breeding show.
As he was solidifying his career with Custer as a performance horse, Custer commented to U.S. para-dressage Chef d’Equipe Michel Assouline that she believed he’d be a good a para horse in the future.
“Tuna was 5 at the time, and he’s really an honest riding horse and a really willing horse with a super walk and a good ring presence,” she said. “He wants to show off in the ring. I casually said to the coach … ‘This might be a para horse one day.’ ”
“One day” proved to be 2022, as she got a call asking if she’d be willing to let Tokyo Paralympic gold medalist Roxanne Trunnell try Tuna when her main mount Dolton needed some time off. While Custer knew Tuna would be solid as a riding horse, she was concerned about whether he’d be patient during the mounting process, which took more time.
As it turned out, Trunnell and Tuna got along swimmingly. The pair dove right in and made their show debut at the Gold Coast May Dressage (Florida) in late May. In June, Tuna made his FEI debut at the Tryon CPEDI3* (North Carolina) and qualified for the Orifarm Health FEI Para Dressage World Championships (Denmark). There, he and Trunnell contributed to a team bronze medal.
This year the pair have been undefeated, helping the U.S. to two gold-medal performances during the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, most recently during Week 9. Meanwhile, with Custer, he debuted at fourth level in February and participated in the Markel Horse/USEF Young Horse Development Clinic last week.
We caught up with Custer and Tuna at their base in Loxahatchee, Florida, to get to know this rising star better.
• Tuna views his stall as his own personal playhouse, and he keeps himself entertained.
“You have to get his feed pan from out his back window every single morning to feed him his breakfast. It’s always out there. And I’ll watch him do it. He’ll take it, and he’ll shake it around, and then he’ll take it out the back and shake it around for a while, and then eventually he gets bored and lets it drop. It’s not like he’s throwing it out on purpose. It’s more he wants to look around, and it falls. Then he’s disappointed because he doesn’t have a toy.”
Tuna is also up for an enthusiastic game of tug-of-war with his feed pan.
• While he’s not the stall cleaner’s dream horse who only relieves himself in specific places, he does like to keep the other items in his stall very orderly.
“If his water bucket gets empty or low, he’ll poop in it, or he’ll lift it off the hook and put it in his Porta-Grazer and then stack his feed pan on top of that,” Custer said. “He’ll literally stack everything up, and it’s all in the corner. He’s very tidy that way.”
• While some stallions require a firmer hand on the ground, Custer said that does not apply to Tuna.
“Dealing with him, [he’s] very submissive naturally and very kind of looking to the person to see what they want, and very playful. Very childlike,” she said.
• Naptime is serious business. Very serious. Don’t even think about disturbing his rest.
“He sleeps like he’s dead. Like all feet straight out, head down, snoring,” she said. “You can go in and lay with him. He will not get up. If it’s his naptime you’re not getting him out. He’s just going to take it real seriously. We have his half brother, same dam, in the barn, and he’s exactly the same way. Flat out—if it’s naptime, that’s it. You’re not going to disrupt that sacred time.”
• If you put him out with bell boots or boots, he’s sure to remove them.
“He’ll walk over and hand it to you from his mouth,” Custer said. “And you can lead him home, and he’ll hold it like a dog with a toy; he’ll hold the bell boot in his mouth the whole time.”
An oversized flysheet with a neck makes it harder for him to see what’s on his feet. Custer has discovered it is the best way to make sure his protective equipment stays where it belongs.
• If you ask Tuna, turnout time is for playing, not for quietly grazing.
“Normally he’d grab sticks or palm fronds and wave them around or trot around with them. He has a good time,” Custer said. “Anything’s a toy. He’s had cones as toys. He’s had balls. They just all go out the back window, so we end up not being able to have them for very long because he throws them out. He’s definitely like a little child in the highchair.”
• The best spot for scratches is his withers, and if you find the right spot, he’ll try to groom you in return.
• Tuna is the king of compartmentalization. He wears a lot of different hats between being Custer’s mount, doing para-dressage with Trunnell and being a breeding stallion, and he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do for each task.
“He goes from playtime to work mode like a light switch,” Custer said. “Very clear about his different tasks, about what he’s allowed to do, and the different parameters in different circumstances.”
• Tuna keeps a busy schedule during breeding season. On most days, Custer schools him in the morning before he goes to the veterinary clinic to get collected. He then gets turned out until Trunnell arrives in the afternoon with her trainer Andrea Woodard to train. He enjoys Sundays off, and twice a week he’s only ridden once a day.
• All that work means Tuna has the appetite of a teenage boy.
“It’s unbelievable how much he eats,” Custer said. “Constant eating. That’s stallions probably in general, but he’s also big. He burns a lot of calories. He has a Porta-Grazer. He has hay in that 24/7, and I take that everywhere we go, so there’s consistency in the eating for him. I feel like it’s a little healthier for the gut and decreases to me that risk of stress and change, so it went with us to Europe. It’s just trying to keep all of that all the same all the time. He eats a fair amount of grain. I try to keep it low starch and healthy, but he likes to eat a lot of it. He’s got a lot of food he eats.”
• Tuna is a big fan of dogs, particularly a dachshund puppy in the barn.
“They’ll lick each other—well, the dog’s mostly licking him—kind of nuzzle and play. It’s very cute,” she said.