When the British dressage team for the Tokyo Olympic Games was announced earlier this month, it surprised many that Charlotte Dujardin was selected not with her most experienced Grand Prix horse, Mount St John Freestyle, but with the younger, less decorated Gio.
“I chose ‘Pumpkin’ because I felt it would suit him a bit more with the climate out in Tokyo,” she said in an interview with Horse & Hound. “We’re not really sure how they will be, and we won’t know until we’re out there, but Pumpkin is younger [than Freestyle], and he has a little more in him for the heat, I think.”
“Pumpkin,” as Gio is known for his chestnut coat and diminutive but round stature, has strong ties to the United States: Dujardin bought him after seeing him in a Los Angeles clinic in October 2016.
Read on for more of the story of how the Dutch horse (Apache—Zenzi, Tango), spotted by a French-Croatian rider who trained him in the U.S., found himself in the barn of a British dressage superstar.
This article first appeared online on March 6, 2017.
What’s it like to sell your horse to the reigning world champion and Olympic gold medalist in the sport of dressage?
Amelie Kovac knows a thing or two about spotting talent. Let’s explore the story of how her prized horse Pumpkin is now in the tack under Britain’s reigning star of dressage and Rio and London Olympic Games gold medalist, Charlotte Dujardin.
Starting her riding career with Adelinde Cornelissen and then Emmelie Scholtens, French-Croatian rider Kovac made the decision to come to the United States in late 2012. Flying over with her Grand Prix horse, Treffer, Kovac came with a tack trunk and a suitcase. She rode and worked and eventually sold Treffer to a Canadian rider, Wendy Christoff from Vancouver.
Kovac then returned to Holland to acquire her next project and found Pumpkin. After just a year and a half working with the gelding she first saw unbroke in a muddy field, he had progressed enough to take him to a couple of shows and confirmed his potential and gaits to the judges. The magic came full circle when Kovac snagged a spot with Pumpkin in a symposium with Dujardin in Los Angeles, and the world-famous rider (fresh off the Rio Olympics podium) asked for his price and a test ride after just a few minutes.
Kovac obliged, saw their connection, and soon after found herself flying her bright orange partner across the pond to Dujardin’s base at Carl Hester’s farm in England, where the stout, compact gelding will have a big shot under Dujardin’s guidance.
According to a recent article in Horse & Hound, Dujardin recently showed Pumpkin in his first outing, winning two classes at elementary level.
From The Top
Kovac’s story, however magical its latest development, has included some life-changing events. Having just lost her father, Kovac moved to the States before Christmas of 2012 searching for a reprieve from the stress. “I just needed a fresh start, far away. A new life,” she said.
While Los Angeles is definitely a good place to seek solace in the weather and the culture, Kovac’s intentions also centered around the horse she accompanied across the world.
Treffer, affectionally called “Treffie,” was Kovac’s beloved Grand Prix horse. The then-10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding was a purchase she made in Holland when she rode under the direction of none other than multiple World Cup Final winner Cornelissen. Under Cornelissen’s coaching, Kovac represented Croatia in the World Cup qualifier at Mechelen (Belgium), the Under-25 Grand Prix at the CHIO Aachen (Germany) in 2012, and other CDIs in France, Germany and England.
Having owned Treffie since 2010 and brought him up from fourth level to Grand Prix, she knew everything about him, including where to scratch to get him to chew the air and lift his leg to phantom itch like a dog.
Their bond was obvious— he would nicker in the barn whenever he heard Kovac’s voice. In the States, the pair danced through a homemade Grand Prix freestyle to music from Justin Timberlake. When things started to shift, she knew she had a choice to make.
“My mom was amazing enough to spend her very last pennies to send Treffie with me [to the United States],” Kovac said. “I always told her that I would sell him so life would be easier, you know? That’s what I did.”
After a little more than a year on the West Coast, Kovac found the perfect buyer for the sensitive Dutch gelding. She still enjoys cuddling and scratching him in his favorite spot when they happen to wind up on the same showgrounds.
“My personal life changed, and I had to sell him, and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” she said. “I thought if I can sell Treffie, I can sell anything because he was so special to me. I thought I would never be OK. It took some time, and I’m OK now knowing he’s happy and has a great life. That made it easier for me to sell him.”
The Chestnut Chapter
After waiting for a few months, Kovac went to Holland to visit Scholtens and look for a new project. Upon arriving at a Dutch breeder’s old muddy farm, she had no idea how the next chapter of her life would be shaped.
The unruly chestnut gelding was wild, running around in a young horse barn with one other 3-year-old. Since he wasn’t halter-broken, they had to make a human chute to separate the horse from his buddy into the arena. It took only three steps for Kovac’s mind to be made up, profanities lacing her excited reaction to the horse’s natural carriage and a hind leg she later described as “so crazy good.”
The horse ran around for a few minutes, but her mind was already made up. “I didn’t even want to look at more horses,” she recalled. She left and arranged the vetting without ever having laid a hand on the horse.
Kovac purchased him and flew him over in April of 2015. While he had a few weeks of under-saddle work in Holland before his departure, Kovac got a call from the quarantine facility in Los Angeles that had her a bit terrified. “They said, ‘We’ve never had this before. He’s crazy. We can’t touch him; we can’t take his temp.’ I thought to myself, ‘What did I just buy?’ Even the shipper was telling me, ‘He’s big—he’s all legs!’ ”
But when Pumpkin came off the trailer, Kovac knew her purchase was the right one. The 16-hand gelding was exactly as she’d remembered. The slow work of training him and gaining his trust began.
“He was super sweet, just terrified,” she said. After months of her just hanging out with him in the stall, he came around and settled in. His personality emerged, and he became so funny. “Even now, Charlotte says to me, ‘He’s so cheeky!’ ” Kovac said.
Fast, Furious And Dutch
Pumpkin showed in the United States under the name Toretto, Kovac’s tip of the hat to her freakish love for the Fast And The Furious movies. His barn names included Mini-Apie, in recognition of his sire, Apache, whom Kovac worked with in the Netherlands, who is nicknamed Apie.
“My girlfriend, Lauren, was actually the one who came up with the name Pumpkin because he’s so round and orange. We’ve always called him that, and it just fits him so perfectly,” Kovac said.
Since it’s bad luck to change the breeder’s name, and Toretto was just a show name, he will now show and compete as Gio.
The training took a bit to show off the potential that Kovac first saw in that muddy paddock in Holland.
“At first, under saddle, he was a little choppy with a lot of knee. It was good but not as good as he was loose,” Kovac said. “So I knew it was in him, and he just needed time to show it. The first year I rode him, I didn’t focus on anything else other than going around walk-trot-canter and having 100 percent control of every part of his body, his neck and having him really quick off my leg.
“We didn’t do anything sideways and not really so many transitions. Loose in the paddock, he trotted unbelievable, and after he gained strength and confidence under saddle, he really started showing his quality,” she said. “After a year, he got really good with the tempo control, and that’s when he truly started moving like a top horse. He can go from very small to very big quite easily, and when they can do that, you know that most likely you have a very talented future Grand Prix horse. I started playing with the half-passes and the changes, and he picked it up so easy because the basics were in so well.
“When he left me, he had a change each direction, but not test-ready, just a young horse flying change,” she continued. “He’s only been with Charlotte for three months and is doing three- and four-tempis now. He’s so smart, just super super smart and loves to work. I never had to work him very much. I would ride him maybe three or four times a week at the most, and the other days he would just go in the field. He was always so nice to ride and happy to work, so I wanted to keep it that way, keep it fun for him.”
Her patience and consistent work paid off before Dujardin saw the horse, however. Kovac took Pumpkin to his first show just to see how he would be off the property. His good behavior was second nature, and he came home with scores in the 70s as well as fantastic feedback from the judges.
“He’s the kind of horse that you can always trust with your eyes closed. You can give him two weeks off and get on him again on a cold windy day without ever worrying about longeing him before or anything like that,” Kovac said. “He has a heart of gold, and he never gets tired in training. I never needed a whip with him; he always had so much ‘go.’ ”
Symposiums Turned Sales Ride
In October 2016, Kovac had tickets to watch and support her good friend and former colleague Carly Taylor-Smith during the SH Production’s Symposium at El Campeon Farms featuring Dujardin. After a few years on the West Coast, Kovac’s comfort and network in the region dealt her an incredible hand.
“On Thursday night before the clinic, Rebecca Rigdon called me, and it got cut off. I thought, ‘Was that a butt dial?’ But she called again. She said, ‘There is a sick horse. Can you fill in a spot at the clinic?’ Toretto had had the previous two days completely off in the field but I said, ‘OK! Of course!’
“But then Rebecca told me, ‘He has to be at El Campeon tomorrow by noon,’ so the next morning I clipped him up, gave him a shampoo, and put him on the trailer to El Campeon,” Kovac said.
The afternoon before the symposium began, everyone was scheduled to ride in front of Dujardin briefly for her to assess the combinations.
“I walked in and went around, and she kind of looked at me funny,” Kovac recalled. “I thought, ‘Do I look weird? I don’t know!’ So I picked him up and just started him low and began trotting. After two or three rounds, she called me over, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, I can’t ride, it’s not good enough.’ ”
Except the next words out of Charlotte’s mouth were: “How much do you want for your horse?”
Kovac explained that she thought he would be closer to Grand Prix before she sold him, but Dujardin continued, asking, “Do you think he would be safe for me to ride tomorrow?”
Kovac replied, explaining, “He’s always been good, but he’s never seen that many people before!”
Kovac showed up at the ring the next day for the clinic only to be told she had to wait because Dujardin was still busy. With the warm-up arena under the bleachers, Dujardin’s voice over the loudspeakers, and an applauding crowd rewarding the events in the ring, Kovac walked Pumpkin around—on a loose rein.
“He was like a 20-year-old horse! I was almost distracted just walking, and then all of a sudden they say, ‘You’re up!’ I picked up the reins worried I’d lost it all walking him on the buckle too long, but I pointed him into the arena, and he was just ready. He wasn’t looking at anything; he was totally with me.”
Kovac didn’t know that her clinic ride would be far from a lesson with Dujardin, however. “She spent the first 10 minutes telling the audience how much she loved him. Then she got on. When I saw her ride, it was perfect. It was like she felt him, and he would just follow her. Since he arrived in the United States, he hadn’t had anyone else on him,” Kovac said. “I always think it’s tough for a horse to adapt, and he had to do that in seconds and did it perfect. There was no miscommunication, and that’s impressive for a first time combination.”
While a bit sad she didn’t get a lesson with Dujardin, Kovac didn’t know that she was trading in that ride in the symposium for a private tour of the Hester compound in England just a short time later.
The day after the clinic, Kovac and Dujardin talked some more, and Dujardin arranged a pre-purchase exam. He passed with flying colors, and Kovac flew with him to Amsterdam and then rode another 11-hour drive to Hester’s yard in Gloucesterhire. Having turned down some big offers for the horse, Kovac shared what made the difference in accepting Dujardin’s offer.
“They are known for having those big pastures to turn their horses out,” she said. “Valegro is precious, but he can still buck and play. I knew he would get top training, and I know he’s a top horse. I really want that horse with a good rider because I think he’s Olympic quality. Who else can do that better than Charlotte?”
When Pumpkin arrived at the yard, his exhaustion took a few days to subside, so the first place he went was to the field for two or three days. Normally a bit of a character in the field, he trotted a few steps and put his head down for grass to recover from the jetlag. Kovac and Dujardin took the next days to let him relax, and they visited the local Hartpury show. Several days after Kovac left the gelding in his new place, Dujardin started him back up slowly. She still regularly sends Kovac pictures and updates, including from their outing to their first show where they swept their classes with 74 percent and almost 78 percent.
Life after Pumpkin hasn’t slowed down for Kovac. On the same trip to Europe to drop him off, she acquired another young horse, Ivar, that she’s very excited about. The dark bay gelding (Desperado x OO Seven) came from the same owner who sold her Toretto, Ad Valk, who owns the famous stallions Apache, Desperado and Krack C.
“It’s funny because at first you see him trot, and you think, ‘Does this get better?’ And then he canters!” Kovac said.
Talent Scout And Philanthropist
Kovac’s dream is to start a boutique sales business with a few hand-selected horses at a time that is also able to support her love and preservation of endangered animals. She’s currently based in Los Angeles and continues to scout top horses to train and place with talented riders.
With a percentage of her sales dedicated to the Veterans Empowered To Protect African Wildlife organization, Kovac is determined to make an impact.
“The goals of VETPAW are to provide meaningful employment to skilled post-9/11 U.S. veterans and conserve critically endangered African species and their communities and ecosystems,” she said.