When Sarah Forster bought a young horse named Caillou, she couldn’t have known that the then-5-year-old gelding would help her move through heartbreak just a few months later.
Forster, 41, who is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, was looking for a young horse to bring along as her 21-year-old Thoroughbred Tall Tower moved to a lighter schedule. She expected her search might take a year, but then she met Caillou, an Austrian Warmblood (Contez—Sydney Vprst), on a trip to Florida.
“I kind of fell in love; he has a goofy, sweet personality,” she said. “He was a lovely mover. He has both jumping and dressage bloodlines.”
She brought Caillou home to St. Louis on Oct. 22, 2021, and just a few months later she lost “Tower” to colic.
“He was very special to me, and I took his loss hard,” she said. “The day he died, I went out to see Caillou, and he rested his head on my shoulder for a long time. It was like he knew. Having a young horse to ride and look after definitely helped me through the grieving process.”
In the months that followed, Forster worked to develop a relationship with the young gelding, but it wasn’t until she took him to Aiken, South Carolina, and started riding him at small shows that they really clicked. The partnership only continued improving, and most recently they earned the adult amateur training level (71.89%) title at the Great American Insurance Group/U.S. Dressage Federation Region 4 Dressage Championships, held Sept. 8-11, in Lake Saint Louis, Missouri.
“He came out, and he was fantastic. I could not be happier with how he performed,” she said. “We typically do a lesson on site the day before to ride in the arena and walk around. He’s typically a little bit up and not wanting to settle, but then the day of the competition his game face comes on. I don’t know how he knows, but I swear he knows it’s go time.”
Forster grew up riding and competed on the equestrian team at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. Her first duty station after graduating was in Alaska, and she went on to complete two deployments to Iraq, the first from 2003 to 2004, and the second a five-month period from 2007 to 2008.
Horses continued to be an important part of her life, and one she worked hard to nurture despite the demands of her career. She bought Tower, who was her first horse, when she was in her mid-20s.
“I kind of make the riding work around getting moved all over the country, so that’s been a fun challenge,” she said.
In her current station in St. Louis, Forster is the commander of the contract management agency and works out of an office downtown.
“I view my horse and my riding time as my therapy,” she said. “It’s incredibly therapeutic and relaxing to be able to go out and to focus on the goals we have and to have things to work on in our riding sessions.”
She does a lesson or two a week with her trainer Brianna Zwilling, and she enjoys being given exercises to work on as homework with Caillou.
“He’s incredibly powerful, and trying to control that power and recycle it has been a little bit challenging because he’s a big horse,” she said. “He was also a little bit out behind, so we’ve been working on his balance and really just getting him to come under and come through.”
In addition to the regional dressage championships, the pair qualified this year for the USEA American Eventing Championships in the amateur beginner novice division but opted not to compete because of the distance to Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana.
“I think he kind of loves both [disciplines]. He really does light up when we are out galloping on the cross-country field,” she said. “When I take him into the show ring for dressage, I feel the same energy. He just always brings his A game.”
No More Nerves
Harper Neerhof, 14, and Norremarken’s Sir Facial topped the junior/young rider first level (72.15%) and earned a fifth-place spot in the junior/young rider training level (70.60%) at the Region 4 Championships, a goal she’s been working toward this year.
“I used to be very nervous going into the ring, but I’ve gotten much better over the past few shows,” she said.
Riding “Fritz,” an 11-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding (Sunny-Boy—Spanggaards De Fascinacion), has been a big change for Neerhof, who has a background competing on the Pony of the Americas circuit.
“He’s a very chill horse. He’s not at all hot; he’s very willing,” she said.
The family bought Fritz in July 2021, and after doing some shows over the winter, she moved him to Paradigm Farm in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, to train with Shelly Reichart and Jackie Zimmermann. Over the summer, Neerhof worked at the farm several days a week while getting regular lessons on Fritz. She hopes to move up to second level soon.
“One of the things I’m currently working on the most is my position,” she said, adding she’s also working on improving her sitting trot. “My horse has a very bouncy trot.”
Neerhof started her competitive journey when she was about 6, riding POAs in both English and western classes. In 2019, she was the senior western pleasure winner with one of her ponies at the POAC National Congress. That same year, she started doing dressage with Poco, one of the family’s POAs, which was new to her but something her mother, Trisha Fasse-Neerhof, a veterinarian, has a background with. “It was very new, but there were a lot of things to learn, and you can never stop learning,” said Neerhof.
Their search for a dressage horse led the family to Megan McIsaac, who operates Lindinhof Equine Sports Zentrum in Oregon, Wisconsin, and was competing Fritz at third level for his previous owner.
“He’s a very kind horse. He loves people; he loves animals,” Neerhof said. “He’s really sweet.”
As she’s moved to dressage with Fritz, one of the biggest adjustments has been going from a pony to a horse.
“I feel like it’s very different,” she said. “I think the biggest challenge was the fact that riding a bigger horse is obviously much different than riding a small pony.”
But the bouncy trot and bigger gaits aside, she said there are advantages to riding a horse. “Personally, I feel like my horse is much more willing to do work because ponies are ponies. I guess as much as I love them, they are tiny little devils sometimes,” she said.
Learning to ride on those occasionally mischievous ponies made her a better rider, she said. Her two POAs, Poco and Prine, live at the barn at her house, along with her mother’s two horses and one barn cat. The high school freshman split her time this summer between Paradigm Farm, where she arranged to stay at her trainer’s while she worked, and home.
“It was really great,” she said. “I have many fun memories of the people at the barn, and it was a great learning opportunity to have lessons with Jackie and Shelly.”
As for what’s next, Neerhof is going to keep Fritz with her trainers through the fall, opting not to travel to the U.S. Dressage Finals in Kentucky this year.
“I’m mainly going to work my hardest over the winter and hopefully that will be the goal next year,” she said.