On Sept. 12, at the Maryland Horse Trials starter trial, Catherine Paladeau held her breath as she entered the start box atop Luckaun Quality. The Irish Sport Horse gelding, who competed to the five-star level with Paladeau’s boss Tim Bourke, was known for being difficult at the start of cross-country, often needing a multi-person entourage to get him in the box.
Paladeau, 27, expected “Obie” (OBOS Quality—Colwyn Bay, Cavalier Royale) to charge out, so she was surprised when he calmly walked forward and required a kick to get going.
“He was like, ‘Oh, I thought we were just hanging out,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we’re doing this!’ ” said Paladeau, barn manager and head groom for Bourke Eventing. “The first three or four jumps I was waiting for him to take off, and he never really did. He got a bit strong by the end of it, but when he’s strong, it’s just because he’s excited. It sounds crazy, but I always know he’ll make the right decision. He’ll either chip in, or he’ll leave it out. Even when he’s running off with me, I know he’s going to make the right decision, and I know we’re going to be safe. And I’ve never really had that with any other horse.”
After crossing the finish of her first starter trial, Paladeau was elated with happiness over Obie’s return to sport following his health scare with equine protozoal myeloencephalitis in 2018.
“We went from a place where the horse could barely walk to cantering back around a cross-country course, and it felt very full circle,” said Paladeau. “It felt like that part of the journey was complete of him being sick.”
Bourke and Obie were slated to be first reserves for Ireland at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games in Mill Spring, North Carolina, but the horse was diagnosed with EPM—a neurological illness brought on by parasites that affects the central nervous system—several weeks before the championship.
“It was pretty bad,” said Paladeau. “There was a while there that he struggled to walk, so basically we did every medication possible. We did all the therapies that are recommended, and basically, what’s worked has been giving him time out in the field. About a year ago, one of the girls that works for us—we had a storm, and a tree went down in his field—she called me and said, ‘Obie just cantered across the field and jumped the tree.’
“That’s kind of when we knew that he was ready to start riding again, and Tim just basically handed over the reins to me,” added Paladeau. “It’s been a year of trying to figure each other out to the point where we now got to do a starter trial.”
Bourke developed Obie from a 4-year-old, and Paladeau took to the exuberant bay from the moment she met him in 2015. She will never forget the Christmas of 2017 when Bourke gave her a leg up on Obie as a holiday gift.
“I could barely get him to trot over a pole on the ground,” said Paladeau. “He just kept trying to canter and jump it. Tim just set up a little grid and was like, ‘OK. Canter through that, and we’ll be done.’ I was like, ‘OK. That was great. Never happening again.’ ”
Paladeau has enjoyed learning the ropes on a horse of Obie’s caliber, but the gelding has never appreciated being told what to do.
“We were down in Aiken [South Carolina] and schooling at [The Vista Schooling and Event Center], and it was just not going well,” said Paladeau. “I just kept pulling and pulling and then missing to the jump, and he would run off with me. Tim just told me, ‘You’re sitting on one of the best cross-country horses in the country. Why do you think you know better than him? Why are you trying to tell him what to do?’ It was kind of like a lightbulb moment.
“He basically just said, ‘You have to make sure you have a good quality canter so that he’s in a good position to jump the jump. Show him which jump to jump and keep your shoulders back and out of his way, and he’s going to do the job. Stop trying to dictate every stride with him.’ That was really when everything changed for us,” she continued. “It was kind of like I stopped trying to be in control and just started having fun with it again.”
Now 15, Obie is the perfect ride for Paladeau.
“It’s been really incredible, getting the chance to work with him,” she said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve turned into a real scaredy-cat. I don’t ride all that much, but with him, I completely trust him.
“He’s an absolute beast on the cross-country,” she added. “His stride length is twice a normal horse’s. His instincts for cross-country are incredible, and I think that learning off a true cross-country machine was like nothing else.”
A Blank Slate
Paladeau was born in California and moved to the Netherlands at age 7 when her father got a job with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. She convinced her non-equestrian parents to sign her up for riding lessons at a local barn, and, to their surprise, her horse phase turned into a budding passion. In high school, Paladeau found a project in a friend’s Arabian named Amichio.
“It was the closest I had ever come to having a horse of my own rather than constantly cycling through lesson ponies,” said Paladeau. “He was the first horse that I ever really had a connection with, and he gave me a lot of confidence in my riding as well.”
Paladeau graduated high school in 2011 and moved to Alabama to attend Auburn University, where she earned a bachelor’s in science.
She was determined to pursue equine veterinary medicine until a taxing first-year with chemistry changed her plans. To explore other careers in the horse industry, Paladeau took working student positions, first at a therapeutic riding center and then at a show barn. While in school, she also worked with the Auburn Horse Unit, the facility that houses the Auburn Equestrian Team, learning horse care basics for three years.
“I knew I wanted to work with horses because it’s truly been the only thing that’s ever made me happy,” said Paladeau. “I did a couple working student positions over the summer, and at one of those positions, I met Tim Bourke; he was teaching regular lessons. He happened to be leaving [Sharon White’s Last Frontier Farm] at the same time that I was graduating school, and basically my boss from one of my working student positions told him that I was a hard worker. He was like, ‘Well, do you want to come be my groom?’ I figured, well, I don’t really know what else I want to do, so I can go do this for a year, and then I’ll probably figure it out. It’s been five years.”
When Bourke started Bourke Eventing in Berryville, Virginia, alongside his wife Marley Stone Bourke in 2015, Tim had just four horses. Now they have 26.
“It was just Tim, Marley and me doing everything in the barn together; I’ve been there ever since,” said Paladeau. “He knew that I knew nothing about the sport. He knew I had the basics of horse care, but he told me during my interview that, ‘It’s OK that you don’t know anything because I’ll be able to teach you to do things the way that I want, and I’ll make you into the groom that I want you to be.’ ”
In her first year with Bourke Eventing, Paladeau cared for the farm while the team traveled to competitions.
“There were so many moments where I got very overwhelmed, but I think I was actually quite lucky in that when I started, the barn was still quite small,” said Paladeau. “As the barn has grown to where we are now, I was growing along with it. Tim’s a great boss. He loves his horses, and he’s very particular about what he wants, but it’s never a barn where there’s a lot of yelling and a lot of anger about anything. It’s all about how we can do something better the next time. You’re never scared to make a mistake and learn something.”
Paladeau recalls the moment she realized she’d found her horse industry calling. It was late 2015, and Tim was scheduled to attend a dressage lesson with Obie. Paladeau loaded the horse on the trailer and packed his tack, mistakenly including the wrong saddle.
“[Tim] got back from his lesson. He sat me down and goes, ‘That saddle does not fit him. He’ll probably be sore in the morning, and that’s something that you have to be on top of,’ ” said Paladeau. “He’s like, ‘You have to stop treating this as just day-by-day. You need to start looking at the big picture.’
“He said, ‘I’m aiming to go to the [World Games]; I want you to come with me, and I want you to know that you got that horse there just as much as I did,’ ” Paladeau added. “That was a moment where I was like, ‘This is my career. This is what I want to do, and I need to buckle down.’ I think that was a game-changer conversation for me.”
Once Paladeau gained more confidence, she attended her first away show at the Carolina International (North Carolina). In 2016, she was boots on the ground with Tim and Obie for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
“It was truly incredible,” Paladeau said of that week at Kentucky, where Tim and Obie finished 11th. “It was really a trial by fire. That was my first ever jog, and I had no idea what I was doing. I did feel very intimidated, but it was incredible that Obie was amazing that year. It was a really tough cross-country, and he ran it clear with just a little time and ended up having just one rail.
“I vividly remember the feeling of watching him jump that last jump, and there was just so much joy and pride,” she added. “You can’t describe the feeling of the five seconds after they jump that last jump until they cross the finish line; then you’ve got to start worrying again. I knew I was going to be chasing that feeling forever.”