Friday, Mar. 1, 2024

Behind The Stall Door With: Spoken

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After 17-year old Raina Swani laid down a solid trip in the junior hunter, 16-17, stake class at the 2023 National Horse Show (Kentucky) aboard Spoken, all that was left to do was watch and wait. She had gone second, with 13 more pairs still to compete after her. 

“I was praying to God that I didn’t get bumped down to third place,” she said. “On the first day [of the division], I won both classes and then placed third in the hack, so I knew I would be champion. But in order to be grand champion, I also had to be first or second in the stake class—it really came down to the wire.”

She and her trainer Geoffrey Hesslink stood near the in-gate and nervously watched the remaining exhibitors’ stake rounds. When Swani heard her name announced in second place, a huge smile spread across her face before she and Spoken headed into the ring to accept their stake ribbon. With that second place, they had clinched the large junior hunter, 16-17, championship; the grand large junior hunter championship; and the grand junior hunter championship.

An emotional Raina Swani gives Spoken a kiss after the pair won three championships, including grand junior hunter championship, at the National Horse Show (Ky.) in November. Kimberly Loushin Photo

“To wrap up my junior career on that note was so special to me,” Swani said. “In 2020, when I was champion in the 3’3” juniors on Knightly [at the National], I tied for grand champion, but I lost the tiebreaker. To come back and have that first big grand champion win be the last big win for me [and Spoken], it felt very full-circle.”

Swani and Spoken’s partnership began earlier this year. At the beginning of 2023, Hesslink was on the hunt for a special large junior hunter for Swani to compete on, and he spent several weeks eying “Stewie” as he competed in the 3’9″ green hunter divisions with Michael Britt-Leon. 

“There was something about ‘Stewie’ that I really liked and was drawn to,” Hesslink said. “He really wasn’t for sale; [owner and amateur rider] Kelly Sims did not have interest in selling him, and she and Michael were not keen on the idea either. So I just kept asking Michael week after week, ‘What would it take, what can we do?’ until they gave in.”

Swani first tried the 8-year old Brandenburg gelding (A’lee Spring Power—Oriane) in February during the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida), and she instantly liked him. 

“It was a match made in heaven,” she said. “He’s the most amazing horse; we really clicked immediately.” 

“It was a match made in heaven,” Raina Swani recalls of riding Spoken for the first time. “He’s the most amazing horse; we really clicked immediately.” Kimberly Loushin Photo

They began leasing Stewie late spring, and then Swani showed him for the first time at the Old Salem May II (New York) show, claiming the championship in the large junior hunter, 16-17, division.

In their eight months together, Swani and Stewie became a competitive team. Some of their past achievements include: the championship in the large junior hunter, 16-17, division at the Saratoga Classic (New York); the championship in the large junior hunter, 16-17, division at the Bluegrass Festival Horse Show (Kentucky); and the reserve championship in the large junior hunter, 16-17, division at the Capital Challenge Horse Show (Maryland). In addition to wins with Swani, Stewie was the large junior hunter, 16-17, champion with catch rider Avery Glynn at the 2023 Adequan/USEF Junior Hunter National Championships—East (Michigan). 

Stewie also competed with Hesslink in the 3’9” green hunters, earning multiple circuit championships throughout the year at WEF, Old Salem and Traverse City (Michigan). 

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Easy-going, adorable and comes complete with a little kissing target snip on the end of his nose. What’s not to love about Spoken? Kimberly Loushin Photo

“He’s such an easy-going horse,” Hesslink said. “He’s very laid back and quiet; he’s smooth and calm, and he’s fit into our program extremely well. Stewie is such a good horse for the kids to do in the big classes and big events, because if they’re a little nervous, he’s going to be like, ‘No problem, I got it.’ He’s given nothing but good experiences for them, and I can’t thank him enough for that.”

Although 2024 is technically Swani’s last junior year, she will be taking a step back from qualifying for Devon (Pennsylvania) and indoor finals to focus fully on her senior year of college-prep school. 

“I will still show for fun, but I’m not trying to collect points for anything serious,” she said. “That’s what this year was for.” 

Stewie will remain in the Hesslink Williams program to compete in the 3’3” junior hunters in 2024 with his new owner, Lily Sonneborn. 

Go behind the stall door to meet the National Horse Show’s junior hunter grand champion, Spoken. 

Stewie strikes a pose. Kimberly Loushin Photo

• Stewie is very attached to Swani’s other junior hunter, Small Occasion, who also lives in the Hesslink Williams barn. Stewie will whinny once to “Cleo” whenever she gets taken out of her stall. 

“I think that Stewie is much more into Cleo than Cleo is into Stewie,” Hesslink said with a laugh. “Every time she leaves, he’s very curious about where she’s going.”

“If you’re riding or showing, ‘Stewie’ always gives 110%,” Swani says of Spoken.

• Swani’s favorite parts about riding Stewie are that he always wants to please and that he has a great canter. 

“If you’re riding or showing, Stewie always gives 110%,” she said. “For me, the best feeling is to know that he’s with me 100% of the time. I can always feel him pointing his toes and trying as hard as he can. At the canter, Stewie has the biggest, lopiest stride; it’s so fun to gallop around on a loose rein with him. Once he’s into show mode, it’s like you’re on a couch—he’s so comfortable.”

• Stewie takes his beauty rest very seriously; if he’s not competing or getting ridden, he’s probably taking a nap in his stall. 

“Stewie really understands sleep better than my other horses and I do,” Swani said. “When we’re showing, he likes to rest in his stall. He also loves to cuddle when he’s sleeping and lying down—I have so many pictures of him and I when he’s lying down.”

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“Stewie really understands sleep better than my other horses and I do,” Swani says of the champion junior hunter. Photo Courtesy Of Raina Swani

In addition to napping, Stewie also enjoys his downtime between shows, both at the farm in Connecticut and in Wellington. 

“He loves anything where he can relax,” Swani said. “He’s a really happy horse, and he likes to get turned out and go for trail rides.”

• Both Hesslink and Swani agree that Stewie is one of the most laid-back horses they’ve ever met. 

“He’s so unfazed about everything,” Swani said. “When we went in for the winner’s pictures at the National, he didn’t care about all the ribbons, lights and people in there. He’s so calm, [with] the most relaxed demeanor about him. He was like, ‘This is cool; this is great; what are we doing next?’ He’s one of the most approachable horses in the barn, and his ears are always forward, watching and looking at his surroundings.”

Swani and Stewie spending a little quality stall time together. Photo Courtesy Of Raina Swani

• Stewie likes to play with toys, especially Jolly Balls and Uncle Jimmy’s treat balls. 

“He’ll play with anything, honestly,” Hesslink said. “We got him a Jolly Ball and one of those treat balls, and he basically didn’t stop eating or playing with [the treat ball] until it was gone. He’s just a funny guy; he has a very playful personality. Stewie is kind of like a kid; he’s very interested and engaged and always looking at something.”

• Groom Freddy Sanchez is one of Stewie’s favorite people. 

“Freddy is one of our top guys, and he takes care of our top horses, including Drumroll,” Hesslink said. “He takes a lot of pride in them, and he’s very close-knit with them. The horses really like him.”

• Stewie is also very keen on food. Some of his favorite treats include apples, Mrs. Pastures horse cookies and the occasional donut. 

“I suspect you have a treat for me,” Stewie says. Kimberly Loushin Photo

“I’ve never come across anything he won’t eat,” Swani said with a laugh. “Donuts are also very popular in my barn. He’s had one of those before and really liked it. I used to bake horse cookies for my horses all the time; maybe I’ll start doing that again!”

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