Thursday, Jun. 20, 2024

Throwback Thursday: San Remo VDL Was Elizabeth Long’s Horse Of A Lifetime

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On June 11, Elizabeth Long (nee Benson) announced on Facebook that her equitation horse San Remo VDL had died.

“So my Remo, I hope you are proud of everything that you have done,” Long wrote on Facebook. “We are lucky to have been a part of your journey and we did our best to do right by you, as you always did right by us. Although I feel as if a huge part of me is gone, I know that as you crossed through Heaven’s gate, Dad was waiting for you, ready to thank you for taking care of me for all of these years.”

The Chronicle first published this Horse Of A Lifetime article on San Remo VDL in 2017. The gelding showed one more year in 2018 with Madison Goetzmann before retiring to Madden Mountain in Cazenovia, New York, where he spent the remainder of his life. He was 24 when he died.


As 16-year-old Elizabeth Benson exited the arena of the 2010 Zone 2 ASPCA Maclay Regionals at Old Salem Farm (New York), a yellow ribbon pinned on her new horse’s bridle, close family friend Robert Beck walked up to her. He pulled a $5 bill from his wallet and gave it to her to sign.

“He said, ‘This horse is going to make you famous,’ ” recalled Elizabeth’s mother, Kate Benson.

Elizabeth humbly marked the bill, saying she only hoped for a placing one day. “He said, ‘Are you kidding? You are going to win one of these finals.’ And she’s like, ‘No, no I just want a ribbon. It’s OK,’ ” said Kate.

That horse was San Remo VDL, a jet black Latvian Warmblood gelding (Sudana—Jasa). He and Elizabeth, then showing “in the big leagues” for the first time, still had work to do. But he was the horse to get her where she wanted to go, and Beck sensed the promise.

Seven years later, Beck still has that autographed Abraham Lincoln.

“He not only became a part of our family, and not only is that piece one that truly reminds me of my dad day to day, but he made every riding dream as a junior come true for me,” said Elizabeth Benson of San Remo VDL. Sportfot Photo

Conflicting First Impressions

San Remo, then owned by Amanda Flint, received a mixed bag of reviews when he arrived at Stacia Klein Madden’s Beacon Hill as a potential equitation horse.

“Honestly my first impression of him was that I wished he was prettier,” said Madden, of Colts Neck, N.J. “Which now that I know him, he’s very much his own look.

“Until he started performing and showing me that he had so many skills, I can’t honestly say I got past that right away,” she continued. “It wasn’t until he started to develop a real relationship with riders that I understood how much quality he had.”

Madden took the gelding to the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Regionals with Samantha Ramsay and then the Capital Challenge (Maryland) with Christy DiStefano. By the completion of those shows, San Remo had won Madden over.

“At this point I realized how much I liked the horse, because I’ve now seen him show in two different indoors,” said Madden. “I’d seen him show at quality horse shows against quality horses. And I realized that with very little experi­ence and two different kids on him that he had the makings of a nice horse.”

Madden wanted to set up an investment group to purchase San Remo, but simultane­ously the Bensons crossed paths with him. While competing at the same Maclay Regionals, Elizabeth spotted San Remo doing practice classes with Ramsay.

“I always saw myself loving a big, muscly, black horse with a star and a snip,” said Elizabeth, the daughter of two horse profes­sionals. “So I literally said to the people around, ‘That is my dream horse.’ ”

The next week, Elizabeth and her father Jack Benson traveled to Flint’s Volition Farm in Long Valley, New Jersey, to try sales horses and to scope out a potential USEF Talent Search ride. Elizabeth had qualified for the Talent Search Finals, but her horse wasn’t in favor of open water. So Flint offered to loan her a horse.

“And lo and behold, I went to Amanda’s farm that week, and when I walked into the barn aisle, that was him,” said Elizabeth. “Literally I said, ‘No way, that’s the horse that I saw at the regionals.’ I truly said, ‘That is my dream horse.’ And it was him.”

Trainer Jack Benson began giving daughter Elizabeth lessons when she was 3 years old, and those lessons paid off years later. Photo Courtesy Of Elizabeth Benson

After two practice rides, Elizabeth and San Remo headed to Gladstone, New Jersey, for the Platinum Performance/USEF Talent Search Final—East. Madden helped Jack and Elizabeth prepare San Remo, and even with a missed counter-canter transition, they still turned heads.

“Everybody was just like, ‘Wow! Who is this kid, and who is this horse?’ ” said Kate. “Timmy Kees said, ‘Jack, is that one of yours? Because if it’s not, I’m going to go buy it. And if it is your horse, I’ll pay you three times whatever you paid for it.’ ”

But Jack couldn’t let this horse go.

“[He was] just in awe at the match and seeing his daughter with her homegrown skills just sit up and ride to that caliber—and [San Remo] just let her use her skills,” said Kate. “She had a few quality horses to sit on growing up but only nice school horses. I think that’s what he loved—watching all the lessons he had given her on different horses since she was 3 just come to fruition. The hard work all pays off when you get the right horse under you. The hours of teaching and repeating and hollering and disciplining and correcting, all of a sudden he was rather speechless.”

A Father’s Love

A month before the Talent Search Final, Jack was diagnosed with Stage 4 inoperable lung cancer. Even though he’d started chemotherapy, the future looked bleak as he strug­gled to set fences for Elizabeth during the finals. Despite this prognosis, after the pair’s Gladstone debut, Jack made the all-important phone call to Flint about San Remo.

“I remember my dad calling Amanda on the way home saying, ‘Hey, we love the horse. We want to talk to you about maybe even using him for the Medal Final. And by the way, we want to talk about buying him as well,’ ” said Elizabeth. “And I was just in the car, and my mom hadn’t been a part of the discussion—it was just something that my dad had said that he committed to and what he wanted to do for me.”

Such a quality horse wasn’t in the Bensons’ budget. But Jack, knowing the gravity of his illness, purchased San Remo with his retirement money.

“Jack was so sick at the time that we didn’t talk about it, but we knew that the available money would come from basically his retire­ment package because it was looking pretty terrible,” said Kate. “We were hoping for the best, but at that point, if he had no money to retire, it would be OK. We’d work that out. But this horse had to be ours.”

“[He] knew that it was [a horse] that would really make my equitation and riding career dreams come true,” said Elizabeth. “And he saw something and saw that he wasn’t completely polished yet, but he knew that he could take me there because I really was just starting to dabble in the national competitions. He knew that this was going to be the guy that could take me there.”

“He understood that he was piecing it all together for me even if he wasn’t going to be around to see it.”

Elizabeth Benson

The next week at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, sitting on tack trunks under the Beacon Hill banner, Jack told Madden about his health and his future aspirations for Elizabeth. He also shared his hope for Madden to take over training his daughter.

“He was really telling me to watch out for her, not only in her riding career, but also to help her develop into a nice young lady and to make sure she went to school,” said Madden. “I didn’t really understand how deep he was going and how much he was talking to me about the imme­diate future. I thought he was talking more in concepts.”

In February, Jack’s third chemo treatment failed. In the days that followed, Madden arranged a last-minute trip for Elizabeth and Jack to fly down to Florida so Elizabeth could show at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Jack watched his daughter win a Pessoa/USEF Hunter Seat Medal qualifier on a catch ride, which qualified her for the George Morris Excellence in Equitation class.

“After we wound up buying San Remo, that’s when I started training with Stacia because [my dad] knew, as much as San Remo was going to make my dreams come true, so was she,” said Elizabeth. “So I feel like he understood that he was piecing it all together for me even if he wasn’t going to be around to see it.”

On February 25, 2010, Jack passed away.

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Family On The Road

By May, Elizabeth and San Remo were back in the ring.

San Remo wasn’t the snuggly type to provide a shoulder to cry on. He was more of a social misfit—jumping out of the paddocks when turned out, preferring to be alone in stalls with full partition, and sometimes spooking from random noises.

“I’ve always said that he humbles me,” said Elizabeth. “He always makes you want to be better regardless if I feel like it’s my best round of the day. He has this standard about him where you know if he’s on it, he’s going to be great. So it’s up to you to show up on competition day and get a high score.”

“For a horse that never really makes mistakes in the show ring, he did a lot of weird things around the barn that made you [think], ‘How’s the horse so good in the show ring?’ ” said Madden. “Which is part of the reason that makes me believe that he loves that atmosphere, because that’s when he seems his best and his most content.”

That year, San Remo earned Elizabeth’s first Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) ribbons: three red rosettes back to back.

“I joked about it because her father had said always when he was teaching that you can’t win until you’re ready to win,” said Kate. “Elizabeth had fabulous trips in each of the classes and was definitely the most consistent junior rider that week, but she didn’t win anything. She was second, second, second. Stacia and I just enjoyed the fact that her father was keeping her off that blue ribbon to keep her a little hungry. San Remo was perfect, and Elizabeth was only I think 15 at the time. So it just wasn’t time to win yet. She needed to polish.”

San Remo returned to Gladstone to guide Elizabeth to a 10th-placed finish at the Talent Search Final, then the pair capped their year with an 11th-placed finish at the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals (Pennsylvania). As the 2011 season emerged, Elizabeth orchestrated her schoolwork at Hunterdon Central Regional High School so that she and San Remo could travel to Wellington, Florida, with Madden as a working student.

As head trainer of Briarwood Farm, Kate had a duty to trailer clients around the New Jersey show circuit, so she supported Elizabeth from afar. San Remo and Elizabeth relied on each other.

“Bringing him with me to all those horse shows was great because it was sort of us against the world kind of feeling,” said Elizabeth. “It was a great reminder of my dad and understanding what had to go into having him be a part of our family. He always kept me grounded, and he was that family on the road. And he was there even though my mom necessarily couldn’t or my dad couldn’t be.”

Success, Then Setback

When Elizabeth won her first WEF blue in 2010, Madden whispered to Jack, “All right, you have to book your tickets, and you have to get back here for the George Morris.” But Jack died before he could return to Florida.

“That was my first experience of people having immense control over themselves,” said Madden. “I think he had a deadline that he wanted to make it through that weekend, but that was all he had in him.”

That year Elizabeth competed on Calito 7, and she didn’t place. But with San Remo in Wellington in 2011, Elizabeth easily qualified again. This time, competing with her trusted partner, Elizabeth won.

“Wellington that year was really wonderful for me, because I was able to ride him a lot and gain a lot of points throughout the year that really made me one of the top contenders for that season award,” said Elizabeth. “Then to also win that George Morris class at the end of it was a really great thing. My mom was there to watch that one. It was just really a culmination of all the work that we had put in throughout that season.

“I give [San Remo] all the credit for all of my success in the equitation,” she continued.

“He really is a horse of a lifetime just because I felt like I found my match,” said Elizabeth Benson of San Remo VDL. The Book LLC Photo

But after the breakthrough winter season, San Remo got hurt. A soft tissue injury flared up after Devon, forcing him to rehab back at Briarwood and miss the equitation finals.

“That was really hard for us. I took it too personally, feeling maybe the horse had been mismanaged in a way,” said Madden. “Feeling like I let her down by not letting her have the opportunity to show that horse that year.”

But Kate kept him on stall rest and longed him when needed, and “Big Papa” got better just in time for Elizabeth’s final junior year.

The Meltdown

As the 2012 fall indoor season approached, Elizabeth and San Remo resided in separate states. Elizabeth had started her first year at Auburn University (Alabama), where she competed for the equestrian team, and San Remo remained in work at Beacon Hill preparing for the equitation finals.

“She kind of showed up [to the finals] without having a ton of lessons on him,” said Madden.

Flying up from Alabama, Elizabeth united with San Remo to earn 10th place overall in the Pessoa/USEF Medal Final after a “knock-it-out-of-the-park” second round bumped her up six places. Then the crew headed to Washington, D.C., for the Washington International Horse Show Equitation Classic Final.

“I knew that that particular horse was going to perform well at that final,” said Madden. “So it just felt like we had great momentum of having our team back with Elizabeth and San Remo, and she had a finals under her belt after she started school.”

San Remo VDL helped Elizabeth Benson accomplish her dream of winning a major equitation final at the 2012 Washington International Horse Show (D.C.). Mollie Bailey Photo

Elizabeth finished the first round hunter phase in second place, only .5 points behind Michael Hughes. Then in the jumper phase, she moved up to first with an average score of 91.16.

“I remember at Washington, just watching her put down the trip—just amazing,” said Kate. “She picked up her canter and just had such a rhythm from the first step. He was just wonderful. I remember that performance above any others.”

“It really just came together round after round,” said Madden. “She delivered after the hunter phase. She delivered after the jumper phase.”

After a stellar final work-off aboard Catherine Tyree’s Patrick, she and San Remo, along with their competitors, entered the Verizon Center arena in red Washington International coolers. One by one the names were read in reverse until only Elizabeth and San Remo remained. As San Remo danced around in his cooler and ribbon—he was never a big fan of award ceremonies—Elizabeth put her hand to her face, sobbing.

“Washington was a complete melt­down,” said Madden. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the stands. Our staff was so overcome with emotion, and everyone was grabbing for Kleenex and tissues before they went into the ring. Your phone was blowing up from the minute she landed off the last jump, people watching the streaming video at home just pulling for her. I’ve never really had a rider who had that much widespread support.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the stands.”

Stacia Madden

Madden still calls that day one of the top five in her life.

“I loved everything she stood for,” said Madden. “Being able to do it with one horse, her own horse. Making opportunities for herself. Taking those opportunities. And I think it was just an unbelievable example for any young rider with a dream.”

“I can’t tell you the number of hours Stacia and her team put into me and into San Remo and making us that winning pair,” said Elizabeth. “I was crying. Everybody in the stands was crying. My mom was crying. Stacia was crying. It was really just a feeling of, ‘OK, we finally did it.’

“All the blue ribbons and champion­ships that I won really meant a lot to me because it was on him,” she continued. “He not only became a part of our family, and not only is that piece one that truly reminds me of my dad day to day, but he made every riding dream as a junior come true for me. He was always reliable. He never made mistakes for me, and I knew that if I didn’t have a good round, then it was on me. It was never on him. And he always tried his hardest for me. He was and is a great partner for me—and is one I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to find again.”

San Remo and Elizabeth finished their equitation career a week later, earning fourth place in the ASPCA Maclay Final (Kentucky), after which George Morris asked Elizabeth to join him on a clinic tour.

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“Once again Big Papa set her up for more learning, more training and more experiences,” said Kate. “He’s the yin and the yang. He’s something so wonderful in our life. Not that it can ever balance out the loss of a parent, but it sure helped that whole era of Elizabeth’s life and now her potential career. He just put her in the lime­light repeatedly. Taught her how to be brave. I call it the yin and the yang. The ups and the downs. The pluses and minuses. He’s just always the biggest plus you could ever dream of.”

New Routines And Snowy Winters

As Elizabeth’s equitation days came to a close, the Bensons never questioned San Remo’s future. He’d earned his lifelong spot in the family. But he was then only entering his 13th year with a lot of show days left, so the Bensons kept him at Beacon Hill, leasing him to riders under Madden’s care.

“We knew that the investment that we had put into being able to have him as our family was paid off in the rides that he had given me throughout our career,” said Elizabeth. “We never really asked for anything back from him. We knew we didn’t want to let go of him. If he wanted to be retired today, that would be OK by us. But we know that he’s not quite done yet and that he’s working with other girls and putting in great rounds and teaching a lot of success.”

Gabrielle Bausano leased him in 2013, and the pair earned the R.W. “Ronnie” Mutch Equitation Championship at Devon and finished fourth in the ASPCA Maclay Final. But then his soft tissue injury flared up again. He sat out 2014 as the Beacon Hill team tried to rehab him with stall rest—because his turnout behavior was so unmanageable. But midway through his 2015 season with Meredith Darst, Madden realized he needed more time off. With the Bensons’ blessing, San Remo shipped to John Madden Sales in Cazenovia, New York, to see if living out in the fields would heal him.

“John always had all these deep talks with me about horses and horsemanship,” said Stacia. “And he was always a true horseman, believing that we needed to get back to nature a little bit more and stop all these fancy treatments.”

But the trick was teaching San Remo to live out—a lifestyle he resisted at first.

“They would find him in the wrong paddocks sometimes. He got caught up in a paddock one time, and they had to help detangle him,” said Stacia.

“They lost him in the run-in shed once because he didn’t come out when he was supposed to with the other horses, and they had to go find him. It took a while—a month or so—of him trying every technique he knew in the book to get that horse to be turned out so that he would be acclimated by the winter.”

Eventually San Remo embraced his new routine, living out in the knee-high snow and bonding with Beezie Madden’s retired or rehabbing grand prix champions. After the snow melted, San Remo trotted sound.

“The barn managers there would always send us pictures of him up to his elbows in snow and frost off of his ears. We were like, ‘Wow, are we doing the right thing?’ ” said Stacia. “And around Lake Placid [New York] time, June or July, [John]’s like, ‘Your horse is sound.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah. When do you want him back?’ And then we kind of went backwards in the schedule.”

After the equitation finals each year, San Remo VDL gets his shoes pulled and travels to John
Madden Sales in Cazenovia, N.Y., to spend the winter in the knee-high snow and play in the
field with horses like Illuminati (pictured). Photo Courtesy Of John Madden Sales

Sans shoes, fuzzy coat and all, San Remo started work, as they hauled the tack out to the field to ride him. Then 30 minutes later, they simply untacked him and threw him back in the field to continue his natural lifestyle.

“If they can’t get happy and sound out in the field, then they’ll never hold up to the rigors of the sport again,” said John. “So they either retire, or they’re going to be OK. And it’s not their fault. That’s how I think we can owe that to them. And it’s interesting, they really pay you back. Specifically for him, I can easily say, ‘We’re heroes. We did all this for him.’ But the fact of the matter is it’s the owners and Beacon Hill that gave him the chance to allow mother nature to work. We just provide the opportunity. It’s probably what we didn’t do as much as what we did do.”

With some body clipping, mane pulling and Black-As-Night supple­menting, San Remo transformed from a wildling to a show specimen. He returned to the showgrounds in August and immediately earned blue ribbons as if no time had passed.

“The horse was a machine,” said Stacia. “It was like he was ready to go right to finals.”

Stacia gave Katherine Strauss the ride on him for the fall indoors. Despite showing him only twice before, she earned the Private Tutoring Services North American Junior Equitation Championships on him at Capital Challenge.

With his winning comeback, Stacia created a new “San Remo” system. Following equitation finals, he would ship up to John Madden Sales, have his shoes pulled, and live out in the field until the end of summer. Then, if he was sound and wanted to compete, Stacia would find him a rider to tote around indoors.

“Some horses just really want to show, and he gives me the feel that when a rider’s on his back and appreciates him, that he wants to show,” said Stacia. “He is a competitor at heart. I don’t want to abuse that, but at the same time I’m not going to put a horse out in the field for the whole year that wants to show if they’re not ready. I’m planning on being attentive of the signs and wanting him to maintain being a healthy horse. But if he’s a champion and loves the indoor shows, then he doesn’t need to do more than that in my opinion.”

The care John and Beezie put into San Remo made not only his current show career possible, but his future retire­ment comfortable.

“Without John’s help, we wouldn’t have him being turned out. I don’t know what his retirement plan would be when that day came,” said Stacia. “I think that it was our first real stab at rehabilitation horses with them. It’s really opened a lot of doors with these horses with his knowledge and his horsemanship background. He’s a big part of it. Beezie will ride him and help get him ready for the shows. The amount of time and energy they put into making a schedule for that horse, you would think he was going to the Olympic Games for them.”

Still Going Strong

When Madison Goetzmann and San Remo entered the ring for the second round of the ASPCA Maclay Final at the CP National Horse Show in 2017, they had the attention of everyone in the Alltech Arena, whether those specta­tors were watching or taking photos or videos with their phones. But two people—Elizabeth and Kate—actively avoided the livestream of that round.

Elizabeth was working at Auburn Equestrian, where she’s a graduate assistant, during the first round of the Maclay. And after learning that San Remo stood in second place, she avoided the livestream.

“I, being the superstitious person that I am, decided that, ‘OK I can no longer watch,’ ” said Elizabeth. “Because I didn’t want to be the jinx pulling up the live feed. That’s really just how I am about things like that. I know it’s always been kind of a kooky thing that I’ve done, but I’ll be superstitious.”

Kate wanted to tune in, but Elizabeth persuaded her otherwise. But when Goetzmann and San Remo moved to first in the flat, Elizabeth got creative.

“[I] had somebody pull up the live feed who was rather unfamiliar with the sport, and I stepped away and said, ‘OK just listen to the commentary, and that’ll give us a gauge as to how it went,’ ” said Elizabeth. “So when the round was over, she said, ‘Oh she did great. They used words like effortless and flawless and invisible.’ I knew at that point that it had obviously been a successful jumping round.”

Much as he had in Washington five years earlier, San Remo entered the ring and lined up as the results were announced. And from a horse show in New Jersey, Kate stood on the phone with Elizabeth, who fed her updates as one by one, riders walked up to take their awards photos while San Remo remained waiting. And like he had done so many times, San Remo stood until the end, then walked up as his rider accepted the blue ribbon.

“What that horse gave to Elizabeth in the end was a missing piece of family.”

Stacia Madden

“As soon as they announced what the results really were, I started crying; she started crying,” said Elizabeth. “It was a lot of very, very happy tears for Maddy and San Remo.

“He looked like he had been a spring chicken and like he was doing it in his prime,” she continued. “It was a great win under his belt and made dreams come true for another rider.”

“It’s hard for me to take credit for this final because he’s the one who helped me get where I am now,” said Goetzmann. “He’s a championship horse, and I’m glad I could give him the win he deserves.”

San Remo is now turned out in Cazenovia, with his shoes pulled and whiskers growing long. It’s uncer­tain whether he’ll take a turn around indoors in 2018. But the Bensons and Stacia are prepared to go whichever direction he chooses.

“I have a lot of favorite horses for different reasons,” said Stacia. “But every time this horse walks into the show ring, I know that he’s giving his best and not because you’re making him do it, but because he wants to do it. I really think that he enjoys delivering the goods. I feel really fortunate that he ended up in the hands of the Benson family because he’s got a home for life there.

“I think what that horse gave to Elizabeth in the end was a missing piece of family,” she continued. “There’s just something about that horse that makes me believe that this is the way that Jack is staying connected to everything. That’s why I always think of San Remo as the professional because I think he’s got a little help somehow.”


This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2017, Equitation Issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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