Being Olympic: Raising My Glass To Calecto

Mar 27, 2015 - 6:51 AM
Calecto and me.

It is with a heavy heart that I will not be in attendance at “my boy’s” tribute ceremony this evening at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Florida. As always in the horse industry, our priorities fall to horse management and responsibilities over our social calendars with predictable and sad frequency.

Calecto V is truly a horse who will forever stay with me, and taught me so much while I was lucky enough to be employed by him. Tina was involved in there somewhere, too…

A few years ago, when I turned the pennies of my savings account into airline tickets to Florida on a whim after seeing an ad for a professional groom on Facebook, I had no idea the lasting impact that a tall, dark, and handsome Danish stallion would leave on me after a few hasty decisions landed me under the guidance of Tina Konyot. I was intrigued by the opportunity, excited for the education, and entranced by the idea of the possibility to accompany them to the 2012 London Olympics.

At the interview with Tina, I was more nervous than I’d ever been going down centerline. I was relieved that she was not primarily concerned with the fact that I had no experience as an international groom.

Instead, even more daunting, the basis of my selection would be based on whether or not “Calecto liked me.” …What?

I suppose at the time, I passed the test with only a nip to the arm, being aggressively frisked for treats, and then actively ignored when it was concluded that I was of no use. Somehow, as luck or insanity would have it, I got the job.

Little did I know, eventually I’d come to understand any and all of Calecto’s nuances as I struggled up the Everest of all learning curves. From his utmost contempt for having his face washed to the most subtle changes in his legs, weight, or mood, he was, for all intents and purposes, my roommate.

Calecto was a true friend. Photo by Shirley McQuillan

There are a few moments I’ll never forget, like the time that Tina strolled into the barn in the early afternoon, let Calecto loose into the aisle and went to the tack room for a Stud Muffin. While their name is quite a punchy joke in this situation, I am still convinced they may be laced with something really good, as there isn’t much that Calecto wouldn’t do for one of those nuggets of molasses and oats.

From the moment she opened his door, he knew exactly where she was headed. However, once the Stud Muffins were consumed and everyone’s pockets were proved thoroughly empty, Calecto was feeling fresh and sassy, so out the barn aisle he went, bounding and galloping around the property with the glee of a yearling.

For one second and exactly one second, it was beautiful to see him uninhibited. Then my heart dropped and I nearly lost my lunch as I watched him fly around with his mane in the wind, just certain that my Olympic-candidate-charge would wind up with an imagination’s worth of life- or career-threatening injuries. He looked like a calendar model, throwing his legs up with his neck flexed, pirouetting and retreating to the other end of the farm.

Tina stood there with the biggest smile on her face, just contently watching the stallion zip around, eventually turning to me slowly to say “Lauren, your horse is loose.”

Toward the end of spring, once the Selection Trials were written in pen on the calendar, the heat began to turn up under all of us to preserve and prepare Calecto for the Trials and, at the time “hopefully” the Games in London. At the end of my work days, I’d found solace in a run around the block, having had the goal of running a half-marathon on my calendar for quite some time.

One night, Tina swung by the farm late and I met her at the barn, red in the face and covered in sweat (thanks, Florida) having just returned from a few miles’ run. Off the cuff, as most comments from Tina are made, she suggested that Calecto join me on my jogs in the afternoon.

“He already hand walks in the afternoon, why not save yourself some time?” Ah, the logic.

That’s how I found myself paired up slightly involuntarily with a 1,400-lb. running buddy. Up and down the Florida—and then Canadian—hillside we went, all through the back pasture of the property. As Calecto’s fitness improved, so did his attitude, but eventually the playfulness always settled into a steady, rhythmic cardio venture.

Needless to say, both our levels of fitness improved, and our 45-60 minute sessions became a great source of drool-worthy photos once we made it to our training camp in London. The yard outside London, Layham Hall, where we camped for the weeks prior to the Games was picturesque with a fenced creek, pastures of mares with new foals at their side, a newly planted orchard, and further beyond, a private airstrip with magnificent views. While it made for incredible terrain to trot across, it was a treat beyond measure to ride Calecto and hack out around that property one afternoon.

Most famously, Calecto and Tina would reliably make a scene with their hand-rolling adventures at show grounds. Post-ride, like clockwork, Calecto would have his tack stripped and wraps removed and then go out and drop into the sand for a chiropractic adjustment, au naturel. Usually still sweaty from his workout, his antics ensured that the famous black Florida sand wound up in the deepest crevices and buried into every hair follicle.

I learned to appreciate this routine with Calecto, eventually being trusted to take him for his hand-rolls myself. It was a very special moment to find him a dirt patch in the stabling complex at the London Games after he and Tina scored above 70 percent. Inevitably, it always earned us a wide variety of looks.

This routine, however, was still new to me when I accompanied Tina to the Masters in January of 2012. While even I could defend that I never truly stopped moving while grooming, I was definitely running around like a headless chicken in that first month of working for Calecto. The day of the jog, Tina and Calecto schooled in the main arena late morning and I was ringside when she asked me to strip his tack, which I took (read: jogged) back to the stabling.

It was about an hour until the horse needed to be presented and braided for the jog, so I was very conscious of the time and assumed Tina would be right behind me with the stallion.

Fifteen minutes later, I was getting curious. By “curious,” I mean panicked, as to the whereabouts of my charge and his social butterfly of a rider. Finally, when I had everything ready except a horse to rinse and braid, I went back to the arena to find my horse.

What I found was a double-sided sandman, head to tail encrusted in arena dirt. My stomach dropped.

Looking at my watch, I was now 45 minutes away from presenting a horse for (my first) CDI jog inspection, and he was on the opposite end of the spectrum of clean. I wasn’t sure whether to scream or throw up, but instead I decided I had to hustle. Calecto was impatient with me, and I was impatient with him, but with 20 minutes until the inspection began, he wound up bathed and I began sewing in braids with dexterity and speed I’d never possessed.

Ten minutes later, he may have only had six braids—but he was braided! I remember pulling his still-damp tail apart with my fingers as he was being walked to the jog path, taking a final wipe to his snaffle, and finally reminding myself to breathe as I watched them pass the jog uneventfully, just shaking my head.

Ready for another jog, with a little more time to prepare!

Every day, I watched Calecto work under the artful guidance of Tina. He exuded power and grace, his canter pirouettes and passage his trademark talents. He worked for her every day with his entire heart, and in turn, Tina honored him and could read him like a favorite weathered novel. He was her Grand Prix horse one moment and her trail horse the next. His mood, happiness, soundness, work ethic; they were always first and foremost to Tina.

My sense of horsemanship was completely redefined after my time working for Calecto. Like many of the other top riders with famous equine partners, Tina will move into the future of dressage with other talented young and developing horses.

At the London Olympic Games. Photo by Shannon Brinkman

However, I find it appropriate to mention that this horse is a truly once in a lifetime stallion. His character, personality, and impeccable temperament are only a few of his characteristics that cemented him a place in my heart forever. I know that he will have no better life, earning himself more turnout, a few more girlfriends (aside from his miniature donkey Trixie), and no doubt, a plethora of Stud Muffins.

From the bottom of my heart, I wish I had been there to turn out Calecto for his tribute ceremony. However, as with most things in horses, our social calendars are preceded by our barn responsibilities and commitments. Even Calecto taught me that commitment and proper preparation are keys to success; I credit him as my coach for my half-marathon endeavors.

To Tina, I offer sincere congratulations for finding and developing a partnership that reached the highest levels of the sport with a horse whose heart is the size of Texas and willingness to jump the moon is an Olympic effort every day.

To Calecto, thank you for taking me to the Olympics as your groom; it was a pleasure and an honor to work for you, and I hope your future roommates, grooms, and riders learn to read your language with the observation and interpretation skills you taught me during our time together.

To you both, I am so thankful for how you influenced me, the education you shared, and the unbelievable Olympic experience.

Chronicle blogger Lauren Donahoo (formerly Keeton) groomed for Olympian Tina Konyot and was head groom at Jan and Amy Ebeling’s The Acres. She also appeared in a story “A Good Groom Is A Horse’s Home Base” in the Sept. 9, 2013 Horse Care issue of the Chronicle. Read all of Lauren’s blogs.


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