Inspirational Riders Were At The Center Of The 2021 Stories We'll Remember Most

Dec 28, 2021 - 2:58 PM

While the writers at The Chronicle of the Horse always aim to produce impactful stories, we sometimes have especially meaningful encounters as we try to do justice to a person’s struggle or triumph or partnership with our words. Here are a few of the stories we wrote in 2021 that made a lasting impression on their writers.

“The Eternal Optimism of Federico Fernández”

My mother is a believer in the phrase “timing is everything in life,” and her philosophy has rubbed off on me over the years. I firmly maintain that certain people, animals and places weave their way into our personal timelines at specific moments to enhance our lives. This year, Federico Fernández was that person for me.

Federico Fernández rode his horse of a lifetime, Bohemio, to the silver medal in the 2003 Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic. Photo courtesy of Federico Fernández.

Within the first 10 minutes of talking with the Mexican rider, he blew any of my expectations out of the water by being an even more generous and kind man than I could’ve imagined. He’s risen to the top of the sport while overcoming more adversity than many of us will ever experience, yet he still maintains an open and contagious vivaciousness for living.

I learned early on that, each morning, Federico practices an important routine: He thinks of three, perhaps ordinary, things to look forward to on that specific day. He told me this tradition keeps him engaged, present and thankful. And after hanging up, I started implementing his practice and sharing it with my family and friends.

However, midway through working on this article, my old man, my faithful “I will stare at you until you give me a peppermint” retiree, my horse of a lifetime, Wally, started being betrayed by his own body. Over several weeks, I experienced emotions ranging from fighting to get him better, daring myself to hope when he slightly improved, acknowledging that pit in my stomach, to finally accepting the look in Wally’s eyes that asked us to let him go as I hosed off his face for the last time.

Through that heart-wrenching process, Federico’s triad of advice gave me comfort. As we chatted about spirituality, chapters in time, and healing one afternoon, I broke the journalism rule and confided in him. Blossoming into a friend and mentor, he gave me advice on how to grieve and imparted his philosophy of looking at life’s cycles.

His words and colorful accent provided more comfort than any hug and gave me the tools to find peace then and in future. In the months since “The Eternal Optimism of Federico Fernández” hit the press, I feel even more blessed for the hours of WhatsApp calls. He is, in my mind, one of those crucial souls that emerge, however brief, at the right time. For that, I am so grateful.

— Laura Lemon

Peralta Takes A Tumultuous Path To The ASPCA Finals Reserve Championship

My favorite stories to write are ones that remind me that, in a lot of ways, the process of training and learning horsemanship is ultimately about life, not horses. As horsemen know, the process teaches responsibility, discipline, work ethic, coping skills, teamwork, mental and emotional fortitude, and grit. Definitely grit.

Much of my job is writing about horses and riders who are winning at the top level seemingly effortlessly, so it was especially refreshing to have someone open up about her real trials and how they happened to pay off on the national stage.

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Catalina Peralta’s time practicing without her stirrups paid off when she nailed a test performed without irons and took the reserve champion at the ASPCA Maclay Finals at the National Horse Show in Lexington, Kentucky. Mollie Bailey Photo

It was an absolute joy to chat with Catalina and her connections, and there were conversations filled with candid revelations, genuine laughter and a few tears. Like so many young horse people who have endured challenges, Catalina seems wise far beyond her years, and she gained perspective I don’t often hear when elite equitation riders talk about national equitation finals.

“These are incredible events we’re so privileged to get to compete in,” she said. “You can become so casual about it, people don’t [remember] how crazy it is you’re there competing at an amazing event.”

— Mollie Bailey

“Thomas Heffernan Ho Is Making History For Hong Kong”

Every time an international championship comes along, I scan the entry list for riders I’ve never heard of. I love to learn the stories of those who’ve come from different backgrounds and less-horsey countries to make it to the top of their sport, so my eyes stopped when I reached Thomas Heffernan Ho’s name on the nominated entry list for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

I understand the trepidation from some to allow smaller equestrian nations to join the Olympics, but through his experience this summer, Thomas served as an ambassador for his sport of eventing in his home country of Hong Kong and inspired riders around the world with his partnership with the diminutive Tayberry.

Thomas Heffernan Ho became the first eventer from Hong Kong to compete at an Olympic Games when he finished the Tokyo Olympics aboard 20-year-old Tayberry. Photo

The 20-year-old gelding was only meant to be a schoolmaster for Thomas but took him to places he never though he’d go in his career and gave him so much confidence.

At the time I spoke with Thomas, I was still reeling from the tragic death of my longtime event horse at 21, who still had so much life to live and more competition years to go.

Tayberry reminded me a lot of him—just when you think it might be time to retire them because of their age, they remind you just why you shouldn’t with an amazing ride or a giant spook!

“He’s never really ready to retire,” Thomas said. “I go back to Hong Kong every winter, and every time I come back I always expect him to behave a bit better, but he seems to get worse as he gets older! Then it just fills me with confidence because I know he’s not ready to retire.”

Thomas and Tayberry are proof that age is just a number, and where you come from doesn’t always dictate where you’ll go.

— Lindsay Berreth

“Dan Kreitl Demonstrates Patience, Positivity And Perseverance”

Dan Kreitl’s name caught my eye earlier in the spring eventing season when he competed three horses to advanced. Anytime a new name competes at the advanced level, I’m intrigued, so I was eager to speak with him.

Dan Kreitl and Carmango finished second at the 2021 Jersey Fresh CCI3*-S after completing their first advanced earlier in the year. Lindsay Berreth Photo

Through our conversation I learned that Dan has a lot more than horses going on in his life. He’s got a full-time job running his own company, and he’s also got a family—two small children and a wife, Alyssa, who’s been battling cancer this year.

Throughout it all, Dan’s kept his positive attitude according to those who know him best.

“He has such optimism,” said Sharon White, Dan’s coach for the last two years. “I think optimism can get you anywhere, and it will get him through what for anyone else would be a very tough period of time right at this moment in his life.”

— Lindsay Berreth

“ ‘It’s Bloody Nice’: Martin Masters Inaugural Maryland 5 Star”

There was an electric ripple in the air as Boyd Martin and On Cue headed into the show jumping arena at the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill. The top three competitors were within less than a rail of one another, and the crowd was pulling for U.S. victory. As Martin picked up a canter, I gripped my camera just a little bit tighter, hoping I wouldn’t screw up any of my shots. “Cue” rattled her way around the course, fraying my nerves to near a breaking point. We’d been here before with Boyd. He was within inches of a possible victory at Land Rover Kentucky when a rail dropped and moved him from second to fourth. This time, miraculously, all the fences stayed up, and that dream stayed alive.

When Tim Price had a rail my journalist side was torn. I wanted Boyd to win, but if he didn’t, I was eager to write about Tim, as Oliver Townend had won Kentucky every time I’d gone. I was itching to write about someone new. But the night before I’d looked over show jumping records, and I knew that while Cooley Master Class had rails before, the odds were that he’d jump a clear round.

Boyd Martin, accompanied on the podium by sons Nox and Leo Martin, raises his fists in victory standing atop the Maryland 5 Star podium. Kimiberly Loushin Photo

Even so, I prepared myself for a possible mad dash to the warm-up ring to find Boyd. When Oliver and Cooley Master Class sent a rail clattering, I made a break for it, ducking so that I wouldn’t obscure anyone else’s cameras as I did so. Once I was in the clear, I channeled my inner Usain Bolt. I am not a runner—in fact an attempt at a “Couch to 5K” program quickly left me crippled—but I was willing to risk it for the chance at an epic celebratory shot.

The warm-up area is one of my favorite places to be after major victories. Emotions are high as everyone celebrates these moments, exchanging hugs, high fives and pats on the back. While Boyd was ultimately too far away in the initial moments following his win, I still captured plenty of exciting images, and a few fun ones as his younger son, Leo Martin, completely oblivious to the momentous occasion, played ring-around-the-Rosie around his father.

In the following minutes my phone buzzed frequently as friends and coworkers sent enthusiastic text messages. Sitting in the press room afterwards is always difficult for me in these moments. At championships and five-stars, it’s not always easy to tamp down the adrenaline enough to put together a good story. But being there in person, that’s something you can’t ever replace.

— Kimberly Loushin

“Throwback Thursday: Sonny Brooks Broke Records And Barriers”

It took me about two seconds to sign up to write about Sonny Brooks. Here was someone I’d only read a few snippets about over the years, and there wasn’t much information out there beyond his Show Jumping Hall of Fame plaque, but whenever a photo of him surfaced online, those who knew him had nothing but praise to share about their old friend.

Sonny Brooks and Manon Fairfield 1962 Budd
Sonny Brooks was a prominent show jumper in the ’50s and ’60s and is the only Black rider in the Show Jumping Hall Of Fame. Budd Photo

This wasn’t going to be an easy project, and much of my research relied on others’ memories rather than written records. Hours spent flipping through old Chronicles from the 1950s and ’60s produced little information—a mention here or there, but often just a sentence or two, rarely more than a paragraph. I lucked into finding one of Sonny’s great-nephews on social media, and I sighed in relief when he agreed to talk to me and even pulled a few photos from his family collection.

Talking with Kevin Sells helped breathe life into the story, giving me small details of how Sonny would be by his mother’s house for dinner when she started cooking his favorite meal. Sells and others also helped give me context to what it was like being a Black show jumper during the height of segregation: the difficulty finding a place to stay at shows, the harassment he faced, not being allowed to attend gatherings because they took place at “whites only” locales.

This article took a little extra digging, and even if I had more time to investigate, I’m sure there’d still be holes in the tale, but I was happy I was able to finally tell his story in the Chronicle, though decades too late.

 — Kimberly Loushin

Buck Davidson Shares His Favorite Memories Of Ballynoe Castle RM

It’s hard to imagine what was left to be said about Ballynoe Castle RM, Buck Davidson’s longtime five-star mount, when he died peacefully in his field in April 2021, just a few days shy of his 21st birthday. We asked Davidson for his favorite memories from his long partnership with the Irish Sport Horse gelding, and of course they included moments like winning the Rolex/U.S. Equestrian Federation National CCI5*-L Championship at Kentucky in 2013, and being the top-placed Americans at the Badminton CCI5*-L (England) in 2011.

Buck Davidson and Reggie needed some last-second heroics to secure third place at the 2014 Rolex Kentucky CCI5*-L. Sara Lieser Photo

But was most notable to me was how many of Davidson’s treasured recollections about this incredible athlete revolved not just around his competitive accomplishments, but the people who were responsible for and shared in his success. People like his owners, Carl and Cassie Segal, who he described as being “like family,” and he recalled seeing Carl jumping up and down at the Badminton finish line like a kid on Christmas morning. Or his dedicated groom, Kathleen Murray, with whom “Reggie” had a relationship that Davidson said was the closest he’d ever seen between a horse and a person. (And Davidson has had a front seat to quite a few exemplary horse-human relationships.)

It’s a reminder that, although our sports revolve around and celebrate the horse, there’s a whole army of people behind every successful athlete who are just as integral to its success, and share just as deeply in its successes and disappointments. It was heartwarming to hear Davidson describe just how important those people were in this remarkable horse’s career.

— Erin Harty

Check out the rest of our Best Of 2021 coverage, and make sure you follow @chronofhorse on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to stay up to date with everything happening in the horse world in the new year.

Category: Blog Entry

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