Sydney Shulman has never known a bond like the one she shares with Villamoura.
“I get on her, and it’s just the most comfortable I’ve ever felt on any horse,” said Shulman, 24, who won the $50,000 1.50-meter speed final and the $36,000 1.45-meter accumulator class at the Washington International Horse Show with her 10-year-old mare last month. “We really get each other. She has more of a desire to win than I do, if that’s possible! Her personality is similar to mine—we’re both on the ready, all the time.”
The Greenwich, Connecticut-based professional bought the Selle Français as a 7-year-old and brought her along slowly. “She was really green and hot. She needed time to learn, mature and slow down her brain a little bit,” said Shulman. “I don’t even think about it now. She’s my go-to, the easiest, best horse I have.”
The pair had racked up several top national and Fédération Equestre Internationale placings going into the 2018 American Gold Cup (New York), where Villamoura had a solid round in the Saturday grand prix. “We were getting her ready to go home when my groom noticed a spot on her eye that wasn’t there before,” said Shulman.
Her veterinarian said the mare scratched her cornea on something in her stall. “He told me she basically jumped the grand prix with one eye,” Shulman continued.
Initially, the veterinarian wasn’t sure if the mare’s eyesight could be saved. And for two days Shulman lived at the clinic so she could stay close to Villamoura. She even slept in her car. “She really knows her people who take care of her and who are around her all the time, so I was not leaving her side,” said Shulman. “I’m very protective of her. I was stationed there while it was touch and go.”
For the next three months, the mare stayed at the clinic for treatment, and a catheter was placed in her eye to administer medication. After that, Villamoura went back and forth to the clinic for an additional three months before going home with a clean bill of health.
“She looked like a broodmare when I got her back!” said Shulman. “It was rough. She was fussy and so out of shape. Her muscle had gone away; her back had sunken in. It looked like she was 18 years old.”
Shulman knew she couldn’t rush the mare’s return to the show ring. “It was more just to get her back to feeling her best, and whenever that was, she’d be ready to go,” she said, adding that it took another three or four months to get Villamoura in top shape. “I was lucky enough that it wasn’t an injury to a leg or anything, it was just more focusing on her fitness.”
And when the time came to start jumping again, Shulman faced an unexpected hurdle: the mare’s exuberance for her job. “I was so excited,” said Shulman as she described their first jump school after the injury. “We jumped two cross-rails, and then she just exploded over the last one. I had a bad fall, slightly tearing my labrum in my shoulder. Then I had four weeks that I couldn’t ride! It was definitely not easy to bring her back because she was so excited to work and jump again.”
Villamoura may be more rideable now, but the mare (who goes with her tongue out “all the time—so goofy,” says Shulman) hasn’t lost any of her fire.
“Most of the time I’m holding her back!” said Shulman. “At Washington, she won by 3 seconds. She just wants to smoke everybody. I’m obsessed with that about her. If I don’t make a mistake, normally she wins. That’s such a cool feeling to have with a horse.”
Especially when those wins carry deep personal meaning. Shulman, who has represented Israel since the beginning of this year and carries dual citizenship, was named Leading Foreign Rider at Washington.
“We’ve had a really deep connection to Israel for my entire life, my grandparents, my parents, everybody,” said Shulman. “So [riding for Israel has] always been in the back of my mind. I always wanted to do it. [I was] just waiting for the right time when I could go and dedicate the time to do it.
“The team is just flourishing now, and it’s really exciting,” Shulman added. “It’s getting bigger and better. So to be a part of it and be on the up-and-coming side of it is really exciting.”
Also exciting: Hearing the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, played at the show for the first time after her wins. “I was close to crying, but then Villamoura was going nuts in the prizegiving,” Shulman recalled with a laugh. “It was very moving, but at the same time I was trying to stay on. It was more when I got home, and my family in Israel sent me videos of them watching that it really hit me. It’s just so cool.”
With their sights set on the four-star Holiday & Horses in Wellington, Florida, later this month, the pair is back to business as usual at home, where the mare goes by her barn name, “Mini.”
“She’s very small, everything about her,” said Shulman. “She’s maybe 15.3; she goes in a pony bridle. At home, you walk by her in the stall, and she looks like a plain little almost-pony. But when she goes in the ring, she thinks she’s 19 hands. She blows up and holds herself like a really big girl. She saves it for when it’s necessary.”