When Brittni Raflowitz says blood, sweat and tears have gone into her partnership with Hilton Van De Breepoel, she’s not exaggerating. Since pairing up with the 16-year old Belgian Warmblood (Contact Van De Heffinck—Ubiene, Opium) a decade ago, the two have leaned on each other through the most tumultuous times. Some unconventional tack choices, developed after years of fine-tuning, make them instantly recognizable in the jumper ring.
“He could have his own book written by the time of his retirement,” Raflowitz said of the horse she describes as the love of her life. “It’s been a long journey, but he’s done it for me.”
She gets emotional talking about the gargantuan bay gelding with a head longer than her torso.
“He’s the most amazing thing that’s ever come into my life,” she said. “We’ve saved each other.
“It’s a very mental sport and you know, we all go through our mental ups and downs,” she added. “Whenever I would hit those lows, I turned to him. Whether it was just going to sit in his stall … [or] taking him out bareback, just being with him, it’s just kind of like, things aren’t bad; things are good.”
And while she speaks about him with unwavering fondness now, their partnership got off to an inauspicious start. When she first met him in the barn while working for Maarten Huygens and Darragh Kerins, she said she pitied whoever rode the then 6-year-old. Turns out she’d be that person, as Huygens and Kerins informed her she’d be riding the youngster.
“It was not easy,” she said of their first couple of months. “You couldn’t even walk into the stall without him trying to attack you or kick you. And then I just worked really hard, just forming a bond with him. And then once we clicked, he would do anything for me. But then at that point I was the only one that could really do anything with him on the ground, anything. So he’s always been like my child.”
While “Hilton” has mellowed and become a central part of the Raflowitz family, who now own him, he’s still particular about his people and clear about when he wants his space. He and Raflowitz have reached an understanding that has allowed them to find success in the show ring. It took a while to find the right formula, though.
Once she gained Hilton’s trust, his lack of rideability plagued them for years. By Raflowitz’s estimate, Hilton was 12 before she succeeded on that front. “[I] could never find the right bits, could never find the right bridles,” she recalled. “Tried hackamores, just nothing ever really stuck then, but we always kind of managed somehow.”
At 8, Hilton had three months off after he was diagnosed with EPM and had to be treated. While he still requires treatment to keep the disease at bay, the gelding recovered to jump in his first national grand prix classes and finished the year by competing in the USEF U25 Show Jumping National Championship (Kentucky). In 2016, the pair spent six weeks in Europe after Raflowitz was named to the USEF Show Jumping Development Tour. They jumped in their first five-star grand prix that fall. But their progress was stymied in 2018.
“I was going to gear him towards the five-star that was [at Tryon (North Carolina) after the World Equestrian Games], and he felt kind of funny one day going through some gymnastics,” said Raflowitz, 27. “I’m always overly cautious with him—like he looks at me the wrong way, and I call my vet.”
The veterinarian diagnosed a tear in the branch of the gelding’s suspensory, putting him out of work for the next year.
The gelding had just returned to 1.50-meter classes when COVID-19 shut down shows. With no shows to attend, Raflowitz just had fun with Hilton. They hacked to Dunkin’ Donuts and went on long trail rides around Loxahatchee, Florida, where Raflowitz’s ESI Show Jumpers is based.
“I never rode in the arena, really,” she said. “We would go out and do anywhere between four- and six-mile trots every single day, so he really got fit.”
It was during that time, that Raflowitz found the bridle that suited Hilton best in the show ring. She’d been flatting him in a war bridle—a simple rope loop that goes through the horse’s mouth and circles its lower jaw, to which the reins are attached—for years, but had never considered jumping in it. But one day they returned from a trail ride, and she decided to pop over a few fences.
“It totally changed the entire way he jumped because he used to jump very stiff through the shoulders, stiff through the neck,” she said. “And then all of a sudden, he started using his back, using his neck, using his shoulders like really stretching, and which also I think helped him take himself to another level that we didn’t know was there.”
By the time shows got underway again, she entered them with an entirely new, more rideable, more athletic horse.
“He was just a machine at that point,” she said. “He was just jumping clear around after clear around after clear around. We started actually getting competitive because I was always the time fault queen with him because the rideability wasn’t really there, and then we really had it.”
With Hilton’s latest string of success, Raflowitz, who had changed her nationality to Israel a couple years prior, started believing she could make a bid for the Olympic team.
“There was that little glimmer of hope because it was never even in our minds really to be like, ‘This is possible.’ And then it was possible,” she said. “That unfortunately didn’t happen, but you know, we didn’t think it was imaginable, and then we were close. So that in itself was an amazing feeling.”
While they didn’t make the team, Hilton’s clear-round percentage increased, and he won his first FEI grand prix, the $137,000 Night in the Country Grand Prix CSI3* (North Carolina) in July 2021. Two weeks later the pair was fifth in another grand prix, with the fastest time, but with a rail.
Watch their jump-off round, and Raflowitz’s reaction to realizing they’d won, courtesy of Tryon International Equestrian Center:
“I had people like Santiago Lambre being like, ‘Hey, hey, hey, slow down in the jump-off all right? Give us a chance.’ And I never imagined like I would have speed people like that all of a sudden, basically saying that we were competition to them now. It was a huge realization, like, ‘Yeah bud, we’re here to compete.’ ”
But shortly afterwards her veterinarians grounded Hilton.
For three years, the horse had a golf-ball-sized bump on his hind leg that veterinarians monitored regularly via ultrasound. It suddenly grew to the size of a polo ball, necessitating a break from work. While top surgeons reviewed his scans, no one could determine what the mass was. Putting a horse as large as him under anesthesia was a concern, and since he’s still unreliable around strangers, they worried he could become dangerous. Instead they opted to treat it with platelet-rich plasma and, most importantly, time off.
Hilton sat out the remainder of 2021 and didn’t show at all in 2022. Once the mass had shrunk, and he was cleared to return to work last summer, Raflowitz took her time bringing him back.
“He got the all-clear, and I hysterically cried because I was like, ‘My baby’s coming back; it’s real,’ ” she said. “It’s been a year and a half, and I finally get to go back with my best friend and do what we love. So far the ultrasounds have stayed normal. But again, we don’t know what’s going to happen. I have a long-term plan with him for this year. So it’s kind of take it day-by-day and see what happens. I’m hopeful.”
They jumped their first class Week 1 of the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, this year.
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“Anytime I get to go into the arena with him, it’s a privilege,” she said. “I don’t know how long I have left with him, but anytime he gives it to me, I literally am smiling around the whole ring, because I’m just having so much fun with him. I know a lot of the things that he does, he does it for me, and I do it for him. So it’s the most amazing bond that I didn’t know you could have a with an animal.”