Monica Spencer remembers the first time she saw Artist in her home country of New Zealand.
“I was at a show, and I spotted him from the other side of the warm-up,” said Spencer of the moment she saw the 4-year-old Thoroughbred gelding being ridden by his then-owner Polly McDonald. “I trotted over to Polly and said, ‘Is he for sale?’ And she said, ‘No. This one is special.’ ”
Not to be deterred, Spencer convinced McDonald to let her take a ride on “Max” (Guillotine—Maxamore, Satin Blush), who was at his very first show after “being sacked” from the racetrack and rehoming with McDonald. However, a week later, Max had a new home—with Spencer.
“He’s just a beautiful build of a horse, and his movement is pretty exceptional for a Thoroughbred,” said Spencer, 36. She has an affinity for Thoroughbreds, having spent years training and producing them through the upper levels of eventing after they left the track.
“I just love their engine and knowing you’ve got gallop in the tank when you need it,” she said. “And I love their trainable nature.”
Max, now 12, has come a long way since that fateful day in the New Zealand warm-up ring. He and Spencer recently flew nearly 14,000 miles from Taupō, on New Zealand’s North Island, to come to the United States. They contested the Plantation Field International CCI4*-S—finishing fourth on a day when not many finished at all—as preparation for the Mars Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill, to be held Oct. 19-22 in Elkton.
“I think she’ll be the dark horse in the field. They’ll have a top finish on the podium is my guess,” said Boyd Martin, a three-time Olympian who won the inaugural Maryland CCI5*-L in 2021 with On Cue. Spencer, her husband Andrew Spencer, and their son Gus, who will be 2 in November, are staying in an RV that’s parked at Boyd and Silva Martin’s Windurra USA. It’s located next door to Somehowe Farm, owned by Cindy and Doug Howe, where Max is staying.
“It’s a real family affair. It’s a little like a traveling circus at the moment,” Monica said, describing how when Andrew and Gus arrived three weeks after she and Max, they bought the camper they’re now living in. “Boyd and Silva have been amazing. Boyd’s been really supportive, and I’ve enjoyed meeting loads of people here and some really talented riders.”
Boyd met Monica last September when both were competing at the 2022 FEI Eventing World Championships in Pratoni del Vivaro (Italy). Boyd was riding for the U.S. team, which finished second, while Spencer was making her debut with the New Zealand team, which finished third overall. Individually, Boyd and Tsetserleg TSF were 20th overall, while Monica and Max finished in 21st.
While Boyd is always aiming for a top finish himself, he said he thinks Monica is a “red-hot favorite” to win in Maryland.
“She’s the real deal,” he said. “She’s an unbelievable rider, and I think the sky’s the limit for her here in America. She’s got a spectacular horse. I watched her ride around at Pratoni, and they’re everything you want in a five-star combination. He gallops like the wind and jumps the moon, and she’s a rider without fear.”
Monica’s visited America before, but this is her first time bringing a horse and competing. It’s long been a dream.
“I’ve always been drawn to America. I thought I’d do something different since it’s normal for us Kiwis to head up to England and base there,” she said, adding that having two five-star events in the U.S. is a draw, as is the location. “You’re kind of halfway to Europe, so it’s a lot more achievable to shoot over and go to one of those events.”
After the Maryland 5 Star, the Spencer family will head home to New Zealand, where Monica will compete with her string of six horses. Max will stay in the U.S. with Edward Ewbank, Monica’s close friend and an elite New Zealand eventer, show jumper and dressage rider who’s been in the U.S. nearly a decade and is based out of Little River Farm, located between Middleburg and The Plains, Virginia. Monica has her sights set on coming back to the U.S. with a few more horses, maybe to spend the winter in Ocala, Florida, and then migrate to Virginia, from where she’ll campaign for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
“I’ve always been very keen to come and base in America for a period and allow my horses to change hemispheres and get in sync,” she said. “I think by coming over early, if there are going to be issues, we’ll get those out of the way rather than [have them happen] in the lead-up to Paris.”
Travel is long and rigorous from the Southern Hemisphere. Max spent 37 hours total in a crate, flying from New Zealand to Australia, then on to Hong Kong and Anchorage, Alaska, before finally landing in Chicago in early August. He then went through a seven-day, stall-based quarantine in Chicago before Monica could pick him up and trailer him to Pennsylvania.
“He was literally in a stable for seven days and seven nights,” Monica said. “He’s done quarantine before when he had to for the [world championships] last year. But the facility in Chicago was very confined, and I wasn’t allowed in to see him either. He lost a lot of conditioning, but he’s picked up really quick, and I’m happy with where he’s at.”
Max quickly found his footing in America, competing at a schooling dressage show and the Devon Fall Classic (Pennsylvania) in the 1.20- and 1.30-meter jumpers, before finishing fourth in the four-star at Plantation Field, held Sept. 21-24 in Coatesville.
“That was a really great prep run [for Maryland],” said Monica, as she described how they battled Tropical Storm Ophelia to earn a clear cross- country round with time faults. Of the 39 entries in the CCI4*-S, only six finished.
“It was a tropical storm, so it was not without its challenges as far as the ground and footing, but I was very happy,” she said. “It went very well.”
‘A Proper Go’
Monica has been riding since she “was young enough not to remember how old I was.”
Her mother, Zandria Oakley, an avid equestrian, participated in Pony Club and hunting, and Monica worked her way up through the Pony Club system. After graduating from Paraparaumu College, she began training Thoroughbreds from the track.
“I would event them and produce them up to the three- star level, and if there was a buyer, they would be sold. That was my main focus,” Monica said. However, the 2018 death of her brother, Simon Oakley, prompted her to shift her goals.
“It was sort of a ‘this is your life’ moment,” she said of her decision to shoot for the international stage. “Now my focus is more on the high-performance side of things. I’ve been fortunate to have some really nice horses that have allowed me to do this.”
Her longtime mentor and coach Jonathan “Jock” Paget, a five-star winner and Olympic medalist for New Zealand, had long urged Monica to do just that.
“He was actually right behind that decision. He said I should give it a proper go,” she said. “Jock was always encouraging me. He was always, like, ‘Why do you sell all your horses? You should give it a go.’ ”
And give it a go she did. She and Max have since soared up the levels, winning numerous times in New Zealand, including at the 2019 Puhinui International CCI3*-S in Auckland; at the 2020 Puhinui International CCI4*-L; and at the 2021 Matamata CIC4*-S. Based on those wins and a string of other top-five finishes, Monica was a candidate for the New Zealand squad heading to Pratoni.
“There were other people who also probably deserved to go, but I was lucky enough to be one of the people selected,” she said. “It was a huge achievement, and having a taste of the big time made me want to repeat it.”
Erika Nesler, an eventer and farm manager for the Howes, has been enjoying having Max, the “chill” Thoroughbred, at Somehowe while he and Monica prepare for Maryland.
“Pratoni was a tough course, and there were a lot of seasoned competitors that didn’t survive that, but they did. And they were the first ones out for their team, so that was pretty impressive,” said Nesler. “[Max] is super laid back. He’s just a dude and really easygoing. Monica is very easygoing too, but she’s got her goals, and she’s very oriented to making her goals.”
Though competing at the 2024 Paris Olympics is firmly in her sights, Monica said she tries to take it day by day. She’s looking forward to the challenge of the Maryland event, which she said is “a beautiful venue with big rolling hills, which are suited to a Thoroughbred.”
The two parted ways at the Adelaide CCI5*-L (Australia) in the spring, in their first attempt at a five-star, but otherwise the horse has only one cross-country penalty on his Fédération Equestre Internationale record, and it was earned in 2018 at the two-star level.
“I’ve come a long way to hopefully give a good performance, but it’s sport, so you just hope for your personal best at the end of each day,” she said. “At the moment, I’m thinking about my process and staying focused on my process. I’ll start with a straight centerline [in dressage] and go from there.”
She said Max, who failed at racing for being slow, is anything but.
“He’s very fast, and he’s really trainable and rideable. He always tries his hardest. He does get nervous, but he looks to me for confidence, and he stays on my aids,” she says. “He has a huge heart. I say jump, and he says, ‘How high?’ He’s a good horse. He’s always looking for the flags, and he’s very good at his job.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 16 & 23, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.