Buying a horse without riding it beforehand comes with unavoidable risks, even for the most experienced professionals in the best of circumstances. Buying that horse without even seeing it beforehand takes those risks to a whole new level. For Kristina Harrison-Antell, though, luck was on her side when she went shopping for a young horse in 2013.
She had videoed a particular young, gray horse that hadn’t been started under saddle in the yard of Dutch trainer, breeder and dealer Bert Rutten.
“When I came home, it didn’t matter where I went; everyone was like, ‘Have you seen Bert’s gray horse?’ So I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I need Bert’s gray horse,’ ” she recalled, so she called him to arrange just that.
But when the gray horse arrived in quarantine, he didn’t match the description she’d given the transporters.
“Jetpets called and said, ‘You didn’t tell me he’s a steel gray.’ I was like, ‘He’s not’—but he was,” Harrison-Antell recalled. “I actually did not know what horse I bought! Bert actually had purchased Finley after I was there. I accidentally got a totally different horse than I thought I bought. I had never seen him before, but I still remember my first ride very well. He was absolutely lovely to sit on.”
Nine years later, their accidental partnership continues to flourish. In their first year at Grand Prix, Harrison-Antell, Los Angeles, and the 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Don Jovi—Vashera Van’t Trinchelhof, Rubels) took top honors in the open Grand Prix championship (70.16%) at the Great American Insurance Group/U.S. Dressage Federation Region 7 Championships, held Sept. 22-25 in Burbank, California. Between Finley and the four other horses she competed that weekend, Harrison-Antell was either champion or reserve in every championship class she entered.
When Harrison-Antell bought him as a 3-year-old, Finley had less than 30 days of training under saddle. As a youngster, he struggled in the warm-up arena.
“He was terrified of other horses. A couple times I did actually go down the centerline without warming up, because I literally could not warm up,” she recalled. “He really was that scared of other horses. He [would] become so electric. Not dangerous in the sense that he would ever try to harm me, but there were a couple times I worried about him falling down because he would be more scared of the horse, and he would forget [me] out of self-preservation.”
Repetition, time and tactful riding helped work through Finley’s anxiety in the warm-up. Yet Harrison-Antell still tries to keep him out of situations that might worry him.
“I try never to put him in a bad situation of being pinned on the rail in a place where he’s going to feel uncomfortable, but sometimes in warm-up rings it does happen,” she said. ”But now he is able to deal with it. It’s not my main focus when I’m warming up anymore.”
These days, Finley behaves the same at shows as he does at home. In the barn he has a sweet personality; according to Harrison-Antell, he’s the kind of horse that can be braided lying down, and he nickers in hopes of soliciting a hand walk.
As a member of the U.S. team at the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Harrison-Antell had the experience to bring Finley up the levels. She also credits her trainer, Leonie “Button” Baker.
“I would say she is like family to me. She finds the good in every horse, and believes in them,” Harrison-Antell said. “She understands Finley, and she was really the missing link in terms of us becoming a partnership and me being able to produce him for the Grand Prix.”
Harrison-Antell traveled cross-country this year to spend February and March in full training with Baker in Wellington, Florida, thanks to The Dressage Foundation. As one of two Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize recipients in 2020, she received $25,000 toward her coaching and training expenses, joining an esteemed list of other riders who have won the prize, including Laura Graves, Adrienne Lyle, Olivia LaGoy-Weltz and Sabine Schut-Kery.
“Going to Florida was really an amazing experience for Finley,” Harrison-Antell said. “Down in Florida, where he could touch nose-to-nose with his neighbors, he actually made friends and became a lot more confident to the point where if I was passing the turnouts, and Quintessa [RLF], one of my other young horses, galloped towards him, all of the sudden he was like, ‘Nah, she’s my friend.’ It was a weird experience because it really did help him get through that problem in the warm-up.”
In the short-term, Harrison-Antell hopes to return to Florida with Finley this winter, after competing in a couple of CDIs at the Desert International Horse Park in Thermal, California, this fall.
Looking to the future, she has plans for Finley beyond regional accolades.
“The World Cup [Final] in Omaha [April 4-8, 2023] would be a dream goal, because obviously he’s still green at the Grand Prix,” Harrison-Antell said. “But we also have the Pan American Games. I have a couple horses that I will be targeting for that depending on what the criteria are. And then, Paris, for me and Finley. I definitely have my eye on the Olympics.”