When Kurt Martin first saw Anna Bella as a 5-year-old, just broke after having had a foal, he figured she’d be a good sales project.
He took her on for her owner, Windsor Farm in Upperville, Va., aiming to get her competing before selling her, like he’d done with so many horses before.
And although she was feisty, something about Anna Bella stood out to Martin, so a month later, and after three cross-country schools, he found himself writing the check.
“She’s a strong-minded horse, and she really needed to have an individual person who was going to spend time with her,” he said. “She just never stopped. She never questioned. She believed that she was always to go across the fences, and I think that’s the quality that I first loved about her. Now she’s my horse. We’re a pair.”
Now 8, Anna Bella is set the tackle the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.) this weekend after a minor setback kept her from boarding a plane to the Boekelo CCI*** (the Netherlands).
On paper, it might seem like the Holsteiner mare (Accodetto—Hellena, Leonid) has rocketed up the levels, but Martin’s made sure to listen to her as he’s stepped her up.
A sixth-placed finish at Fair Hill CCI** last fall cemented his decision to move up to advanced in the spring and they won the Fair Hill CIC*** in April and finished sixth in Anna Bella’s first CCI*** at Jersey Fresh (N.J.).
“I really feel if I give her a good ride, she’ll be there,” he said. “She’s smart enough. I think we have a good partnership. At the end of [last] year, she jumped around Fair Hill just 2 seconds too slow because I really wanted a clean round, and I felt really good. She just stepped around it.
“She’s really brave,” he added. “The jumps are not an issue—she’s totally trustworthy at the jumps. It’s really comforting to ride something like that. They’re obviously big jumps, but she makes them feel really easy. She’s always been so confident in herself.”
After such a confident start to her advanced level career this spring, Martin, who was named to the U.S. Equestrian Federation High Performance winter/spring training list this year, spoke with U.S. Eventing Chef D’Equipe David O’Connor and came up with a plan targeting Boekelo.
When he received a Land Rover Competition Grant and was named to the Boekelo Nations Cup team, Martin felt that all his hard work had finally paid off.
“I was so proud,” he said. “To have a lot of people behind you, supporting you and believing that they should invest in you along with your horse. I think that was really special and I really appreciate that.”
Martin, Middleburg, Va., carefully prepared Anna Bella over the summer, culminating in a 14th place finish at the Plantation Field CIC*** (Pa.) in September, but on the way home, Anna Bella was injured in the trailer.
“I think she was a bit feisty in the trailer, which she’s not typically, and she got caught up in a hay net,” he explained. “She doesn’t really like other horses and I think she was probably trying to fight with the horse next to her and she got her leg in it and ended up with some stitches. It was high up enough on the leg that it wasn’t a huge concern, so we kept planning like we were going to go [to Boekelo], all the way down to packing the trunks like we were going to go, the bloodwork was drawn, plane tickets were bought. I held off long enough and then just decided it wasn’t meant to be.”
Disappointed, Martin decided to reroute to Fair Hill once he knew the mare would be OK.
“I felt like she is worth taking the time—even if Fair Hill wasn’t going to pan out because she’d gotten hurt on the trailer, it was really important to me that she was going to be fit and ready and in her full program before she goes to a big event,” he said. “I think hopefully with this horse that there will be more opportunities if I’m patient and look after her.”
Anna Bella was back into regular work soon after her injury and Martin, 32, is looking forward to a good weekend at Fair Hill.
“Things are headed in the right direction,” he said. “I think, interestingly enough, it took a little bit of pressure off. Obviously Fair Hill is a huge event—it’s much more taxing on the horse because of the terrain, where Boekelo is flat all the way around. But I feel confident I have a fit horse. I took a breath and so did she—she took a bit of time to be a horse. She needed that. She’s never had anything wrong with her as long as I’ve had her, so I think it just broke our consistency and now we’re back in a consistent program.”
On His Own, But Never Alone
Martin grew up in Pennsylvania with non-horsey but supportive parents. He rode in Pony Club and competed at the North American Young Rider Championships five times before deciding to forego college and start out in the horse business.
He worked in various barns and became known as a good horse dealer, catch rider and instructor. He’s been in the Middleburg area for 11 years and has been based out of Old Denton Farm in The Plains, Va., for the last three.
“It’s been a great place for me,” he said. “You meet so many people, and you grow up together. Then down the road, you have good friends that support each other. I really feel that camaraderie here.”
Martin keeps about six horses that he owns or trains and helps buy and sell horses for clients.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding, and I’m very dedicated to every single day—the care, the riding and the future of everything,” he said. “Also, the clients that bring me horses—what’s best for them. I don’t feel that one size fits all for horses or riders because it doesn’t for me. My goal is to get a group of horses together that will produce the best results in the end. I’m not interested in the volume of horses.”
Martin had competed to the advanced level on a few different horses over the years, but “nothing panned out. It was always this thing or the other thing that came up,” he said. “I’ve sold all my horses my entire life.”
Two years ago, he made a few changes and decided to seriously pursue the upper levels and the team with Anna Bella and Delux Z, a 9-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Lux Z—Drumin Imp, Master Imp) who will contest the CCI** at Fair Hill.
“I feel like the older I get, the more into it I am, the hungrier [I am],” he said. “They really seem to show potential to go all the way or be team horses. I look to other people to guide me now because I want to be the best that I can. I don’t feel that I’ve learned enough yet.”
Now armed with two top horses and the resources gained from being on the training list, Martin’s seen his riding improve by leaps and bounds.
“I think it’s great to be a part of something with a team atmosphere,” he said. “People are so friendly, and we discuss things about horses and courses. It’s kind of a new era, and I’m really proud to be part of it because I feel like it’s all educational, and we’re all trying to produce the best. I feel like I’m continuing to learn, and there’s so much to learn about all three phases.
“In the last two years, I’m committed more to improving myself and my technique,” he continued. “I think that’s because other people help me out. I’m just really lucky. You put on your top hat, and you’re just like, ‘This is the life.’ ”
The Chronicle will be reporting all weekend from the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill CCI** and CCI***, with in-depth stories about the action, all the news, and wonderful photos. Don’t miss a minute—make the Chronicle’s dedicated Fair Hill CCI page your go-to for news.
Also make sure to read the stories behind the big wins in the Nov. 3 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse print magazine.