Everyone dreams of breeding together two of the best horses in the world—Sarah Willeman has done it.
On May 7, her phone lit up with a photo text message of an adorable chestnut filly with a big white face. If genes have anything to say about it, this filly should be a giant in the reining world, since her sire is 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games team and individual gold medalist Gunners Special Night, and her dam is 2011 FEI Reining World Final winner Darlins Not Painted, both ridden by Tom McCutcheon.
“I can’t wait to see these babies over the next years,” Willeman said. “They’re a great cross.”
Gunners Special Night, or “Bailey,” has been focused on his career at stud since his WEG victories last year. “He’s living the good life,” Willeman said. So, “Darlin” has taken up the challenge of filling his shoes in the arena. Their offspring was born via embryo transfer.
Willeman bought Darlin 11⁄2 years ago. The Paint mare had shown to much success with professional reiner Andy Paul and in the non-pro division with his wife, Andi. “I’d watched her show and always loved her. She’s just a really cool mare; she always tries really hard when she shows, and she’s got this great softness and feel. Her slides are just amazing; she has great style, and she slides really far,” Willeman said.
“I happened to be in the warm-up area when Andi came out of the ring from a schooling class, and Andi said, ‘There will never be another one like this horse; she’s perfect.’ I said, ‘I know exactly what you mean, that’s how I feel about my old jumper Hurricane, and you’re lucky to ever have one like that.’ I know she had mixed feelings about selling her, but they decided it was time to sell her so they could get another younger derby horse for Randy to show.”
Darlin won the Kentucky Cup WEG Test Event in 2009 with McCutcheon just after Willeman bought her. Willeman showed her to second place in the NRBC Non Pro Ancillary Championship in April 2010.
“She’s just so fun to show; she knows her job, and she makes me look like I know what I’m doing, and I really don’t!” Willeman said.
Willeman and McCutcheon took Darlin to the inaugural FEI World Reining Final, held May 21 in Malmo, Sweden, partly because the smaller size of the arena suited the smaller horse. McCutcheon and Darlin scored 229.5 to beat fellow U.S. competitor Craig Schmersal by 2 points. Belgian reiner Bernard Fonck took third.
“For Tom to win two international championships within 12 months is such an amazing accomplishment,” Willeman said.
Darlin, 9, will continue her show career with both Willeman and McCutcheon. Willeman had shoulder surgery on May 20 to repair damage from an old injury, so she’s waiting to recover to take up Darlin’s reins again.
“She feels like she has a ton of rounds left in her. I’m chomping at the bit to get to show her!” she said.
“It used to be that when [reining horses] turned 7, there wasn’t a whole lot more for them to do in terms of featured events,” she added. “But with the fact that the FEI stuff is becoming more important in the reining, there are some big open classes. At some of the biggest shows, they’ve created a division for 7 and older. It’s not the featured event, but it’s a nice class for them to do.”
And Willeman also has Darlin’s daughters to look forward to. In addition to the Gunners Special Night—Darlins Not Painted filly born this spring, there’s also an embryo transfer filly out of Darlin and by Gunners Special Night’s sire, Gunner. And another Gunners Special Night—Darlins Not Painted embryo transfer is due next spring.