When Andrea Leatherman heard Mr. Poppers tick the last rail in the novice horse division at the Nutrena/U.S. Eventing Association American Eventing Championships, dropping it to the ground, she knew she’d lost the championship title.
But the weekend was about more than winning a ribbon and prizes as she rode the 6-year-old Canadian Warmblood gelding in honor of his owner, Christine Brown, who died last year after a fall while she was schooling at home.
Brown’s husband, Stuart, was in attendance to watch the horse she picked out and trained and that meant the world to him.
“It’s so gratifying to see him accomplish the things that [Christine] saw in him when she got him,” he said. “He’s become a wonderful horse and Andrea’s done such a fabulous job with him all season.”
Leatherman and her fiancé, four-star eventer Buck Davidson, knew Christine well and they were struck hard when she died last year.
After a conversation with Davidson last fall, Stuart decided to send “Sam” to his barn in Florida and Pennsylvania for Leatherman to campaign.
“This has been a really great thing for them to give to me in terms of giving this horse a chance to sort of reach out and reach his potential,” Stuart said. “He’s been in great hands and there’s something really divine about this whole experience—for them to do this and especially in terms of a lasting legacy for Christine.”
“I just feel honored to ride him for Stuart,” said Leatherman through tears. “Every time you ride Sam, you know Christine picked him out because he makes people smile everywhere, the same way she did. It really makes you appreciate life. There’s not a day that goes by when you ride him that you don’t think of Christine and how precious life really is. I think that fact that Stuart is doing this for Christine just shows how incredible their relationship was and still is.”
Sam, who is technically a Shire/Hackney cross, got his show name because he resembles a penguin and, according to Stuart, “the fact that [Christine] always thought his step was a little poppy all the time. I quite remember the excitement in her voice when she hit on his name and thought it fit him so well.”
Leatherman said he’s a gentle giant in the barn and he even has his own fan club, with everyone from children to four-star riders saying hello at events.
“He has the most gentle personality,” she said. “He’ll try to eat you, he’ll try to eat the trash can, he’ll try to eat everything around. I think he would crawl into your lap if he could! He tries! He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. Everyday he works hard and he tries hard and everyday he’s better—jumps higher, moves better, puts more into it. We have a lot of four-star horses in our barn and I think he’s most people’s favorite.”
The pair led the dressage and cross-country at the AEC but a single rail in show jumping dropped them to third.
“He put in his best dressage test that he’s done,” she said. “Christine did a great job training him up. Cross-country, he loves it. You wouldn’t think he’d be that fast for how big he is but he’s incredible. He’s brave, he loves it, his ears are pricked the whole time. Show jumping, he jumped amazing. I got to the last fence and thought we had it and it was my fault. I should have put a little more leg on him off the ground. He makes you smile when you ride him.”
Stuart, a veterinarian who specializes in reproduction at the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., is happy to spend time with Sam whenever he can make it to a competition so he can have a reminder of Christine.
“I like to work it out so I get to spend some time with him,” he said. “I think the great thing about this horse is that he just embodies Christine’s personality. He has a hoppy step to him and this great personality, which is no surprise for a horse that she had.
“It’s just truly special,” he said of the weekend. “It’s priceless. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It’s hard when you go through something like this to even be able to get back to the things that you cling to, but this has given a lot back to me.”