I had just turned 18. I’d shown a bad Prix St. Georges on a borrowed horse the summer before I started college, and I’d gone to school horseless, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to really dedicate myself to horses or just ride for fun.
Two weeks into my first semester of college I realized the huge mistake I’d made, and I begged my parents for the opportunity to try for the FEI North American Young Rider Championships. The decision was made to shop in Europe, so off my mom and I flew to Frankfurt, Germany, driving the three hours to Warendorf, and arriving late in the afternoon. It was January, and bitterly cold, and dark. And the agent with whom we were shopping said he had a few horses to see that night, if we were up for it. I was so excited I couldn’t even see straight, but my mom wanted to stay at the hotel and catch a nap, so off I went.
I returned a few hours later declaring that I’d found my horse—the first one I’d seen. My mom laughed. Sure, sure, she said.
But 15 horses later, Bellinger or “Billy” still had my heart. So he came home with us.
Bellinger (Maizauber—Belle Petite, Habicht) was too small for me, particularly after I gained the Freshman 15… and then some. He was skinny, a horribly hard keeper, hot as the devil and head shy, with a terrible mouth. I loved him immediately. And that love would last 17 years.
Billy was a Trakehner, with all that came with the stereotypes of the breed—lean, hot and smarter than all of us. I have an amazing video of our first show together, where the judge sat in a two-horse trailer as a judge’s booth, and you can watch Lendon Gray leading me past it because Billy would have NO PART in that nonsense. Once the test started, we never made it to C.
He was fantastically difficult about clipping and about grooming his face. I’d like to think Billy started the trend for leaving a horse’s whiskers unclipped, because there was no getting near him with even the quietest of clippers. He was a horrendously difficult keeper and a picky eater to boot. And he was HOT. My sloppy teenaged seat and leg made for an interesting few years.
But through it all, he was an unbelievably patient and tireless teacher. I learned. We spent four months in Germany when I was 20, working for Monica and Georg Theodorescu, who took my stirrups away for much of that time and taught me to sit down. He taught me about introducing piaffe to a horse who’s been well confirmed in passage, and the challenges therein. He showed me how to teach a horse the one-tempis. He showed me how to improve a tight walk and ride a hot horse.
He took me to two NAYRCs and two U25 Championships. At that point, his back announced that it was Very Much Done being a Grand Prix horse, and just as I’d thought of retiring him, a client said she wanted something to lease while she horse shopped for a more permanent solution. He was 16 and finally vaguely civilized then, so I said, “Hey, take Billy, and just pay me week-to-week. Whenever you find something of your own, send him back, no questions asked.”
Week-to-week lasted four years.
The lease fees paid for Fender, then a fractious and silly 4-year-old (part Trakehner!). Fender grew up into the most marvelous small tour professor I’ve ever known, and Fender paid for Danny, the best horse I’ve had, and for Dorian Gray, who became an equally wonderful teacher and paid for the down payments on my truck and my house. (I still think of it as Billy’s truck and Billy’s house.)
Billy returned to me at 20, and at the time, I had a splendid little kid in my barn, 11 years old and a heck of a rider, from a family of normal means. They’d outgrown the pony they were leasing, but they didn’t really have the resources to buy something else. I arranged a free lease for Billy, figuring he’d let her have something to ride for the winter, maybe show second level.
She did. And then third level, to her USDF bronze medal. To the inaugural USDF Finals at second level musical freestyle, the freestyle divisions being the only ones open to youth riders, where she placed sixth, beating professionals decades her senior. And then to the FEI Junior level, to a sixth-placed finish at the USEF Dressage Festival of Champions, before fourth level, Prix St. Georges, her USDF silver medal, and wins at the regional championships.
When she won regionals, Kristin decided to brave an awards ceremony with him. He was notoriously unrideable in awards, pretty darn dangerous—I’d done them on foot his entire career—but he’d made it clear that the end of his riding career was near, and I thought, “Hey, maybe he’s quiet enough.” Nope! He snorted and launched his way through the whole thing, wild-eyed and legs flying.
He kept being a riding horse for a few more months, but at 23, he’d become an increasingly bad roarer, and he was essentially no longer able to breathe on the bit, though remarkably presentably sound, particularly after an 11-year FEI career. He retired to spend nearly five years in a field in the brilliant care of my friends Joe and Kristin Hickey, surrounded by other old, smart men, many of them Grand Prix horses in dressage and jumping. I thought often about the stories those wonderful old souls must have told at night.
Every year, before I leave for Florida, I drive out to visit with him. I smother him in kisses and shove him full of carrots, tell him that I love him, that I’m so, so grateful for him. I tell him that if he needs to go while I’m in Florida, to go ahead and do so. It’s OK. I’m with him, even when I’m not with him. And every year before he’d given me That Look: “OK, stupid biped. I’ll do that. But I’m going to live forever, and I don’t need your emotional smooshy nonsense. I’m busy chillin’ with the oldies.”
But this December, I knew. His breathing had gotten really bad. And there was just something off, just a little less light in his eyes, just a little less soul. He was, in December, still perfectly happy and not remotely dire. But I just knew that it wouldn’t be long.
I’m so, so grateful. Having gone through this with much more dire circumstances more times than I could possibly have imagined in the last few years, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to arrange the circumstances. And in true Billy form, he’s giving, even to the end: his last act on this earth will be to teach the next generation of veterinarians, as his body is given to science.
May we all be so lucky as to have good circumstances when we pass ourselves. And what a privilege to be able to give back one last bit of grace to an animal who has given me so, so terribly much. The accolades. The tools for my training toolbox. Confidence. A scar on my elbow from my being a terrible teenage brat and then getting dealt with accordingly. And the memories: of Lendon Gray telling me that Billy was one of her all-time favorite horses, of Kristin earning her many awards, of Anne Gribbons writing on a test once that I was “tactful, brave and not influential,” of centerlines and character building, of my first taste of having to be gritty and brave. He was the one that started it all, that let me believe that maybe, just maybe, I could make a career of this.
He is with me every time I put my leg on a hot horse, or keep a following elbow in the walk, or look where I’m going in a canter pirouette, or give the inside rein. He’s with me every step, 17 years later. And I am so, so grateful.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, Beverley Thomas and her Ellington, and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.