During the late 1970s, the Swiss team came to our indoor fall circuit, and I made the acquaintance of Thomas Fuchs, who with his brother, Marcus, would soon become stalwarts for their nation’s team. Thomas was having a bit of trouble with a big gray horse at the National Horse Show in New York’s Madison Square Garden, and he asked me to help him.
As a result of the friendship we developed, I started to give clinics in Switzerland on a regular basis. This association lasted pretty much through the 1980s.
While in Switzerland, I made the acquaintance of Gerhard Etter, who’d also ridden on that fall circuit team. Gerhard was and is one of the biggest horse dealers in Europe, and I started visiting his place regularly to buy horses through him.
By 1983 I was back riding at grand prix, mainly due to the talent and heart of a gray mare I owned named Brussels. My “renaissance” was totally unexpected. I hadn’t ridden big jumpers by this time for almost 20 years, but Gerhard knew I was excited about being back at the top, and he had the order to find me another big horse.
Gerhard called me late in the summer of 1983. He thought he’d found me a horse. I flew to Switzerland and found that was only the beginning of the journey. The horse that he’d found was in Germany, northeast of Munich, near the Czech border, 10 hours away.
Rupert and Barbara Moll and their daughter Claudia, Rio’s owners at that time, were the nicest German family you could ever meet. They immediately took us out to see this bay gelding by Rasso. (Rasso was a Ramiro son.) I was so impressed that these nice people had given Rio his own personal paddock and run-in stall. I’d never seen anything remotely like that in Germany. Did I smell a rat? No! I guess I’ll always be naïve. Rio was turned out all the time for a good reason!
Rio was in his stall at the time. I looked in, saw this Thoroughbred, deer-like horse and fell in love at first sight. He was just my typeï¿½”long, rangy, angular, sensitive and quirky. From what I could understand, his dam was a Thoroughbred-trotter cross. At any rate, there was lots of blood there.
Rupert tacked the horse up, mounted, and rode down a road a short way to his jumping paddock. Once I saw the horse move, I liked him even more. When I saw the horse jump, I knew I had to ride him myself. Although not the best with his front end, this horse had immense scope and looked to be very careful.
No sooner had I settled into the saddle then this big horse flipped out. I had absolutely no controlï¿½”all I could do was turn. Spin is actually more like it. And as I kept spinning around and around, all I wanted was to get off, get back in the car, and drive the 10 hours back to Switzerland. But I couldn’t stop the horse long enough to get off.
Finally, to distract the horse and hope-fully settle him, I started “spinning” him over some very large fences. To make a long story a little bit shorter, I ended up having a fabulous school over some big fences.
Despite my most terrifying first ride, I told Gerhard I wanted to spend the night and ride “Rio” the next morning. I always ride a horse two days in a row when I’m really interested.
This time, the same thing happened, but not as badly. And I had my whirling technique down pat to control the situation. We had another great school, and I decided to vet and buy this horse. Although a bit crazy, I just knew this horse had all the ingredients to jump the big time. He also had a wonderful gallop and a lovely mouth. The horse always schooled and showed in just a plain, full-cheek snaffle. He was a rare horse.
Back home to New Jersey, I had to develop lots of little tricks to deal with this very special horse. Of course, we kept him turned out a great deal. (Now I realized why he had his own special paddock in Germany.) We had to be most careful, quick and quiet. Longeing first wasn’t good because the horse woke up. Believe me, I had some wild rides in my indoor ring mounting there.
I was lucky to have Dave Morris (no relation) working for me when I got Rio. Dave is a good horseman, and he’s big and strong. This was in October, about the time of the Harrisburg (Pa.) and Washington (D.C.) shows, so I took the horse along to ride and play with him during my spare time. I remember Kenny Wheeler watching me jump him in the outdoor schooling ring at Washington early one morning, over a very big vertical-oxer combination. I tried to get Kenny to buy the horse with me, but he wouldn’t. And his wife, Sallie, has chided him ever since. Kenny, of course, saw the potential. He just didn’t want a jumper.
Naturally, we took Rio to Florida in 1984. He schooled beautifully. In those days we always started with a pre-circuit show at the West Palm Beach Fairgrounds. It was a perfect warm-up show, with lots of com-motion and atmosphere. I started the horse in two divisions to get to know him, intermediate and open. Vince Dugan was judging and remarked on the horse. Ronnie Beard helped me warm up and set some very big fences. He also saw what the horse was.
When we got over to the old showgrounds at Palm Beach, I made a big mistake. I realized I had a great horse and made him precious. I didn’t want to overwork him. I entered him in only one division and didn’t ride him in the morning. He was getting crazier and crazier, dangerously “scooting” his fences, something he’d never done before. I was devastated and just about ready to give him to a dealer to unload, accept my losses, and forget about him.
However, I decided to give it one last shot. And the next morning I walked him a good 45 minutes on the flat, including some work over poles. I did this the next few days, and he was fine again in the ring. He obviously didn’t do well when fresh. For the rest of his career, I always rode the horse for a minimum of 30 minutes of flat work in the morning and never varied this routine, no matter how quiet he’d been the day before.
All during 1984, I showed Rio in the open division. He had some big success and some green moments. It was the spring and summer before the Los Angeles Olympics, and our courses were especially big. In hindsight, I should have given him a year at intermediate.
That summer, my old friend Hugh Wiley found me at a show in Cleveland, Ohio. He was part of the Rex Group, which wanted to syndicate some grand prix horses. He wanted to purchase my horses for the group so I could keep showing them. What a deal! I couldn’t refuse. In August, Rio became the first horse to ever win a $100,000 grand prix, in Culpeper, Va.
Rio then went on to the fall indoor shows, but he never was as good indoors as outdoors. His brain and front end were a bit slow and he backed off too much.
In 1985 we were back in Palm Beach. The Rex Group, who bought Brussels outright, announced they couldn’t consummate the deal on Rio. I immediately returned the down payment and Jane Clark, under the advice of Frank Chapot, had the horse vetted and bought within a couple of days.
Some 25 years after I’d last ridden internationally, Rio carried me to a double-clear round in the Nations Cup in Falsterbo, Sweden, that summer. He also won the prestigious Wiley Trophy at the Dublin Horse Show (Ireland). And in September he finished third in Charlie Ziff’s $250,000 U.S. Cup Grand Prix in Culpeper. I went too slow to the first fence in the jump-off and lost to Melanie Smith on Calypso and Anne Kursinski on Kino d’Andelu.
By the spring of 1986, Rio had really come into his own. I even felt we had an outside chance to make the World Championship team that year, held in Aachen, Germany. But it was not meant to be.
We were all schooling over my field before Valley Forge (Pa.) in early May. I had just finished my school when Hap Hansen and Juniperus had a horrendous fall. It was quite a warm day, my horse was tired, and, although my sixth sense told me not to do it, I wanted to dismount and help. It was a big mistake. Rio bolted, and I fell off backwards and shattered my femur. In fact, I almost died. Bits of bone got into my blood stream. By the way, Hap and his horse were fine.
To my good fortune, Conrad Homfeld, who had ridden the horse on the spur of the moment before, took over the ride. He took him as a second horse to the World Championships and ended up winning the Saturday grand prix at Aachen.
Conrad, with his incredible tact, did well with the horse and showed him until the following spring, when he also fractured his femur in a fall in Tampa, Fla., with Abdullah.
It was now May of 1987. I was finally back in the saddle, and we were at the Royal Windsor Show in England. We were working on the flat, Rio slipped on a turn, I fell off, and he galloped all over the showgrounds. Nevertheless, we jumped around that show (and it was big!) as if we’d never missed a beat.
The following week was Hickstead, England. The horse was in top form, but I under-rode the notorious Hickstead Hedge. We had a world-class fall, but it was in no way the horse’s fault. I was out of action again, this time with a broken neck and a “halo” for another three months.
The highlight of “Rio’s” career was in 1988. The horse always liked and went well at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Canada. That year he won the $500,000 du Maurier Inter-national. Therefore, I believe he was the first horse ever to win a $100,000 grand prix and also the first to win a $500,000 class. José Padilla was taking care of the horse at the time, and it was one of the highlights of my life to see José lead the horse into the ring.
The Baltimore, Md., show in 1989 was Rio’s last show. He was only 13 but he’d had a suspensory ligament that had plagued him for years. Jane Clark, a great horse lover, felt strongly that we should retire him. I couldn’t disagree.
Rio lived the last 12 years on my farm in relative luxury. He was turned out with Chris Kappler’s great campaigner Concorde until our veterinarian, Brendan Furlong, humanely destroyed him on May 2. He is buried on my grand prix field, where he had so many great schools.
I will never forget this horse who gave me so many ups and downs. In his own way, he was a great one.