In The Wake Of Tragedy, Horses Are Saving Grace For Pellegrino

Jun 30, 2021 - 8:01 AM

Kristiane Pellegrino likes to make sure her horses are well-versed in a wide variety of disciplines, from polo to fox hunting to eventing, so when she was asked about competing in a jumper division at Upperville she figured “why not?”

“I have no experience in rated shows, and I had no idea what to expect,” Pellegrino says. “I’m a fish out of water in the jumper ring, and I was incredibly nervous because I am really bad at memorizing courses.”

To her surprise, Pellegrino and White Oaks Joyride won the Take2 Thoroughbred Championship.

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Kristiane Pellegrino and her off-the-track Thoroughbred White Oaks Joyride won the Take2 Thoroughbred Jumper Championship at the Upperville Colt and Horse Show earlier this month. Photo Courtesy of Kristiane Pelligrino

“I just kind of went in with a very casual attitude, and it was just such a thrill,” she says. “I was excited for myself, but mostly I was really proud of this young horse.”

While Pellegrino’s win surprised her, simply making it to the show was a victory. Her husband, Greg Pellegrino, suffered a heart attack and died unexpectedly in late April, throwing Kristiane into an unexpected personal tragedy and turmoil that come with the loss of spouse.

“Obviously my mind was pretty occupied, but riding was the only thing that would take my mind off of everything,” Kristiane explains.

Riding has been Kristiane’s source of solace during this challenging time. Fittingly, it is something she credits Greg for bringing back into her life two years ago, after a 15-year break from the saddle.

“It was all about funding, just really not being able to afford it and the way I wanted to do it,” she explains. “I was a struggling young adult, and I had to pay off college loans. I was also a working student most of my life—working for training and board—and I think it was a combination getting burnt out and just being practical that I needed to get a job, and horses are very expensive and time-consuming.”

During her time away from riding, Kristiane stayed connected with the horse world as the founder of Bespoke Education, a tutoring company through which she worked with young riders in Middleburg, Virginia, and Wellington, Florida.

“For the first couple of seasons, I was working at my full-time job as a competitive intelligence analyst at an aerospace and defense firm and tutoring in the evenings, early mornings and weekends,”  she says. “I eventually moved into tutoring full-time with my own company, and I would also work part time for Upper Echelon Academy, based in Wellington  (Florida). For one season, I flew back and forth to work with the Middleburg clients, but mostly they would Skype me while I stayed down there.”

While she considered riding seriously again some day, it was her late husband who ultimately encouraged her to get back in the saddle.

“It was hard to be away of course, but as time progresses, you just don’t miss it as much,” Kristiane says. “Even when I met my husband, and he was so supportive, I actually wasn’t sure that I even wanted to get back into it.”

But Greg was a horse person himself, who enjoyed playing polo and owned a horse property in Middleburg, White Oak Farm, where he kept several polo ponies. So, when they married in 2018, everything was in place, if and when Kristiane decided to re-embark on her riding journey.

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Kristiane and her late husband Greg Pellegrino enjoying polo, his horse sport of choice. Photo Courtesy of Kristiane Pellegrino

“He didn’t push, but he was just very supportive, so I kind of got into it a little bit … and then I went from one horse to six horses in a year,” she says with a laugh. “I really credit him for the whole thing. I wouldn’t have done it without him. He just made it possible.”

Now, in his absence, Kristiane is even more grateful for his unwavering support of her passion, as it has been a way to help her deal with his sudden death.

“It has been a terrible few months,” she says. “But horses just let you focus on one thing, and that takes your mind away from everything else.”

The Power Of Horses

Her love of riding began as a small child, when her parents decided to put her and her brother in a two-week summer riding program near their family home in Sonoma County, California.

“I was literally 4 years old, and then I just never stopped,” she says.

She started with small pony hunters, then joined U.S. Pony Club around age 8. Pony Club lead her to eventing, which became her primary focus until college.

Neither of her parents had any prior horse experience, but they both supported her passion wholeheartedly.

“My dad was raised on a dairy farm in Denmark, and he used to work with the farm horses to plow the fields, so he always had a passion for horses but not as much experience, so he was excited to get involved with me,” she says. “He really is the one that wanted us to live in the countryside and to have horses at home.”

Over the years, her family accumulated an array of young horses, many from family friends and neighbors.

“I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so obviously I didn’t have access to European imports or fancy horses,” she says. “We were always getting these young horses and risky project horses. At one point, we got and broke a small pony. I was young, and he was young, and we trained him, and he became a small pony hunter champion.”

When Kristiane was 12, a family friend decided to breed his mare and gave her and her father the foal to train.

“He was just supposed to be a backyard project, and I ended up breaking him and training him and taking him to the preliminary level of eventing,” she says.

Two years ago, when she made the decision to get back into riding, her upbringing with project horses inspired her to take on White Oaks Joyride, a 6-year-old, 15.3-hand off-the-track Thoroughbred. The first part of his name comes from the name of the Pellegrinos’ farm, but the second part of his name refers to how enjoyable he is to ride.

“He is so much fun to ride, and I taught him to event, fox hunt, jump, play polo and he’s just such a joy to pilot around,” she says. “His jockey club name is Melon Man, but I didn’t really like that name.”

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Greg Pellegrino, in the foreground, photographing Kristiane and “Mel” at the Loudon Hunt Pony Club Horse Trials on the day he died. Photo Courtesy of Kristiane Pellegrino

“Mel,” as he is known in the barn, came to her through internationally renowned polo player and family friend Juan Salinas-Bentley.

“I think he raced three times, but every race he was dead last,” she says with a laugh. “He ended up with somebody in Ocala, Florida, to become a polo pony, but he was a little bit too big for polo.”

Salinas-Bentley knew she was back in the barn and looking for a horse, so he told her to take a look at Mel.

“He brought him up from Florida, and he was supposed to be a sales horse, and I started riding him,” she says. “He was broke for racing, but he didn’t really know how to do much else. He was very, very green.”

Kristiane soon began working with a number of trainers in the Middleburg area, including Lynn Symansky, Martin Douzant, Adriane Alvord and David Matisz, to help turn Mel into the horse she felt he could be.

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Greg Pellegrino took this picture of Kristiane and “Mel” competing at novice at the Loudon Hunt Pony Club Horse Trials in April. Photo Courtesy of Kristiane Pellegrino

“We started fox hunting, and he has done some dressage and schooling jumper shows and evented up to the novice level,” she says. “We just kept going, and I was so amazed by his talent. Mel was my first horse when I came back, and we have been through so much together now. He is technically still a sales horse, but I’m not sure I will actually sell him.”

A Growing Herd

Since taking on Mel, Kristiane has acquired five more horses, all OTTBs or rescues, including White Oaks Conbrio, who was found abandoned and starving last year in an old cow pasture in Ocala. Since joining Kristiane’s herd, the gelding of undetermined age and breeding has evented through novice level, done some dressage schooling shows and jumper classes up to 1.0-meter, even joining Mel to compete at Upperville.

“I really love giving these horses a second chance at life,” she says. “There is something really satisfying about taking these horses that no one thought were special and giving them an opportunity to show what they can do.”

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Kristiane Pellegrino found White Oaks Conbrio starving in a cow pasture in May 2020. A year later, they competed in schooling jumper classes at the Upperville Colt and Horse Show (Virginia). Anne Gittins Photography Photo

After their win at the Upperville Colt and Horse Show in June, Kristiane is uncertain of what is next for her and Mel. While she would like to get him competing at training level in eventing, she has begun looking into more jumper shows, too.

“I’m totally torn a between eventing and jumpers right now,” she says. “But I do love cross-country, and it would be really hard to give that up.”

What is certain, however, is that she has no intention of stepping away from horses ever again.

“Horses are so therapeutic,” she says. “There is something so cathartic about riding and being around them. Going back to these horrible past two months, it was the only thing that would take my mind off of everything. It really saved me, and I would say that was true many times in my life.”

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