I’m going to miss watching Chris Kappler and Royal Kaliber gallop into the grand prix ring. With his head held high and a bright, mischievous sparkle in his eye, he had a commanding presence that caught your attention. He not only had incredible jumping ability and a tremendous will to win, but he also had the charismatic personality that makes athletes into stars. Royal Kaliber was different, and you knew it the minute you saw him.
Jenny Kappler said that she’s never known an animal like him. “Every time he went to the ring, he tried to win the class. I always felt so confident watching him jump a course,” she said. “Everyone who saw him used to remark at how small he was, because he’d get to the ring and puff himself up. He’d get larger than life.”
The loss of Royal Kaliber (see Oct. 15, p. 122) leaves a gaping hole in the lives of the Kapplers and all those who were associated with him, as well as in the world of show jumping. His legacy will live on with his bronze and silver Olympic medals, but there was so much more ahead of him. I was privileged to have witnessed so many of his victories, and to have seen the incredible depth of emotion that he inspired in the Kapplers and all those in his life. I wasn’t in Athens for his final performances, but I remember watching on television and experiencing the same frissons of excitement when he set foot in the ring that I did whenever I was there in person. He was truly in his setting in the spotlight of the Olympics.
It’s tempting to turn the tragedy of Royal Kaliber into a discussion about whether we ask too much of our horses, and if the glory of competition is worth the price that the horses sometimes have to pay. But, as keenly as I feel Royal Kaliber’s loss, I also remember the sheer delight he took from jumping. He truly loved what he did, and he was lucky enough to have found a home in which he could revel in his talent. Watching him march up to the first fence, with his ears at full attention, and play in the corners, and clear massive fences with a flip of his tail was an honor.
A rare few horses find their niche with owners, trainers and riders who allow them to shine as brightly as they can. In Chris and Jenny Kappler, the Kamine family, George Morris and Luis Hernandez, Royal Kaliber had a family who nurtured his talent, loved him dearly, and guided him into being the star he became. They sacrificed much in their personal lives in devoting their energies to him, but they knew that he would reward them many times over. He took them for a glorious ride, polished by his Olympic medals.
Yes, we should discuss the questionable footing at the Athens venue, and perhaps some lessons will be learned for the future. And, yes, it’s a horrific ending to Royal Kaliber’s Olympic journey. But let’s not let that controversy tarnish the glory that was Royal Kaliber. He was a gentle, kind soul with the iron will of a fierce competitor. My memories will be ones of a proud and confident horse, jumping for the sheer joy of it and with an indomitable spirit. He and Chris were in complete accord in their quiet assurance of their partnership and their abilities. It was a rare sight, and one I’m glad I was lucky enough to have seen.