The young rider and pony have defied many odds to be successful at the intermediate level.
It’s not the way most young riders find their first upper-level horse. Courtney Sendak started to help someone load Wil’ya Love Me onto a trailer and ended up buying him on a whim.
And “Willy” isn’t a typical upper-level horse. He’s borderline pony, standing 14.21⁄2 hands. But he and Sendak, of Baltimore, Md., have belied their improbable beginning and Willy’s diminutive size to become consistent contenders at the intermediate level.
“Our story is totally green horse, green rider,” Sendak said. “We’ve gone through every bump in the road you can imagine, because neither of us knew any better, but we both thought we knew everything. It was a recipe for disaster, but, thankfully, we’ve overcome it!”
Sendak, 21, remembers the day Willy, a Connemara (Grange Finn Sparrow—Lady Doreen), came into her life, suddenly and improbably. She and her mother had arrived at the hunter/jumper barn where Sendak, then 10, boarded her large pony. They saw a horse trailer in the parking lot.
“The woman who owned Willy brought him out and we were going to help her load him on the trailer, but my mom said, ‘Wait, we’ll take him.’ I don’t know what possessed her!” she said.
Sendak had never ridden the rising 3-year-old pony, who’d come to the barn to be broken and sold as a hunter. “He had a bit of a screw loose and would buck people off. He wasn’t hunter material, and no one wanted him,” Sendak said.
Sendak and Willy, now 14, have overcome a fall that injured Sendak badly and an infected knee joint that almost ended Willy’s career. Yet they finished the 2009 season with an intermediate win at the Virginia Horse Trials and
started 2010 with a second place at intermediate at the Full Gallop Farm Horse Trials (S.C.).
“It’s quite something that she’s had that horse since he was 3, and she’s basically done everything with him,” said Julia Wendell, who has helped train Sendak. “That really says a lot about her and the partnership she’s developed with Willy.”
Working To Put The Shoes On Their Feet
Sendak, a full-time student in her senior year at Wake Forest University (N.C.), does it all on a shoestring.
“I don’t sleep!” she said. “Between the horses and working and teaching and riding for different people and trying to maintain a decent GPA, it’s crazy. No wonder everyone takes a pause from horses when they’re in school.”
Sendak’s parents aren’t into horses, and they make school a high priority. “Ever since Day 1, my first riding lesson, I’ve had to help pay for it, so I’ve always had to work to earn money to ride,” said Sendak. “And I’m not allowed to do any of it unless I’m earning a high GPA.”
Sendak works as a supervisor at a fitness center, babysits, braids and pulls manes, and whatever else puts cash in the bank. A B-rated Pony Clubber, Sendak also teaches for Pony Club and hopes to get her A rating this year.
Even though Sendak has built a nice clientele of students and trains horses, she’s reluctant to commit to life as a professional horsewoman after she graduates this spring.
“I would love to be able to do horses for a living, but I have to be realistic about it,” she said. “I want my horses to have the best—the best farriers, the best vets, the best equipment. So realistically, I will have to pursue a real job and work at something that’s not horse-related in order to sustain the way I want to do things competitively. Reality is setting in.”
Sendak, who is majoring in political science with a concentration on the Middle East and Asia, with a minor in journalism, hopes to take a year off from school to concentrate on Willy, then head to law school.
“I’d like to spend the summer campaigning Willy, being very competitive at intermediate. I would love to improve our flatwork and do really well at a two-star and be on the Developing Rider list. I’d love to train with some of the top riders in the country—that would be incredible,” she said.
Sendak gets lessons when she can, both in North Carolina and at home in Maryland. She’s taken a few lessons with Christian Trainor, who took the famous super pony Theodore O’Connor to the advanced level, and admitted that she’d love to get guidance from Karen O’Connor, who rode Theodore O’Connor at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and Pan American Games.
“But I’m working with such a limited budget that it’s not possible. I’m lucky to get in a lesson once a month with someone local. Ideally, yes, I’d love to, but I have to think about paying my tuition and putting shoes on their feet before I can think about taking lessons with big names,” she said.
This Is My Next Horse, For Better Or Worse
Right from the start, Willy wasn’t a ride for the faint of heart.
The diminutive palomino was as spooky as could be, so Sendak spent a few years trail riding him and getting him broke on the flat. Eventually, she took him to unrecognized events.
“It took an entire season for me not to get eliminated,” she said. “It was always between fences, not at the jumps. We’d have to go through the woods, and I couldn’t get him past a tree, or I wouldn’t be able to get him in the start box, or he wouldn’t go through a corner in the show jumping.
“It was just awful. It was probably the most miserable experience of my life, trying to get him to just complete an event.”
But once she got Willy to the jump, his athleticism—he has a beautiful natural jump, with plenty of scope and style—convinced her to persevere.
After a year of unrecognized beginner novice and novice events, Sendak and Willy moved to train with Wendell at An Otherwise Perfect Farm in Upperco, Md.
“That spring, we started to get competitive,” Sendak said. “We started going training and did really well. We went from being the people that you close your eyes when you see them go, to thinking, ‘Hey, I might actually make something out of this pony.’ ”
Sendak’s other pony, that she rode at novice and training levels, was nearing retirement, and Willy began to flourish with more attention.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is my next horse, for better or for worse, so I need to figure out what makes him tick.’ But Willy was also growing up a bit as well. He figured out that he had a job,” she said.
In the fall of 2005, Willy and Sendak won the training level three-day at the Waredaca Horse Trials (Md.).
“I’ve always thought of Courtney as a real go-getter, and she’s always been very determined and dedicated,” Wendell said. “When I first got to know them, I was wondering when she’d sort of move on from Willy. He’s kind of like the pony that she never grew out of.
“She’s gotten more patient as she’s gotten older. She used to always be in a hurry. I think she’s realized that the more time she takes, the more seasoned the pony will become and the more confident they’ll both be,” she added.
Sendak and Willy began schooling preliminary fences that summer, but at one cross-country school, Sendak committed the cardinal sin.
“I leaned forward at a drop,” she said. Willy stopped, and Sendak slid down his neck into the water jump headfirst. She suffered compression fractures on her spine and spent a few days in the ICU.
Sendak was out of the saddle for a while, but she sent Willy to advanced rider Sally Cousins for training. “She was able to solidify his basics and put on the skills for preliminary. I was sitting in a chair, not able to move my head, and the pony was learning quite a bit. He just kept going up from there,” she said.
One Fence At A Time
Once Sendak was back in the tack, in the fall of 2006, she and Willy moved up to the preliminary level.
“His flatwork still wasn’t exactly where I would have liked it to be, but his jumping was awesome. He’s so smart and careful. Part of his spooking has actually really helped me, because he’s so careful. He knows every little detail of what’s around him. Training and preliminary levels were a breeze for him,” Sendak said.
In 2006, Sendak and Willy earned a spot on the Area II team for the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships (Va.) CCI*, which claimed the team silver. They spent another year at preliminary, and in June of 2007, attempted their first intermediate event.
“A lot of people were hesitant to let me move up a level with a pony,” Sendak said. “There aren’t many ponies at the upper levels—it was pretty much [Theodore O’Connor], and that was it. There wasn’t much of a baseline to go off of, to see what this pony could do, especially with me never having done intermediate before.”
Sendak considered selling Willy as a jumper because she didn’t want to risk hurting him. But once she got the feeling that he was just skipping over preliminary courses, she filled out an entry for intermediate.
“It was hard because I had to rely on other people, half of which were saying, ‘Don’t do it,’ and half of which were saying, ‘There’s no reason not to,’ ” Sendak said. “We made sure he had a really good conditioning plan and that everything was top-notch. He’s treated like a Rolex [Kentucky CCI****] horse. Then we decided to try it, one fence at a time.”
Sendak went to Cousins once, scared to death, right before one of her first intermediate cross-country rounds. “I said, ‘Sally, should I go?’ She told me, ‘Courtney, take it one fence at a time. You can always pull up.’ So, I’ve done each event with that attitude. If he has a bad couple of jumps, we’re stopping. But if he’s going great, I keep going and stay out of his way and ride him as best as I can.”
Trainer Colleen Rutledge supported Sendak’s decision to move up because of Willy’s ability. “He’s got springs for feet, and he hates to touch jumps,” Rutledge said. “You can look at a jump and think, ‘Oh my gosh, this fence is huge, and he’s tiny.’ But he just floats over it. He’s like a little rubber bouncing ball. He shouldn’t be able to bounce as high as he does, but he just explodes off the ground. He’s a big horse in a little pony package.”
Working Out The Details
Sendak and Willy spent 2008 alternating between preliminary and intermediate to work out a few problems.
“It was hard, because he’s so small and he tries so hard. I have to be 100 percent perfect in order for him to jump those jumps,” Sendak said. “Everything matters on him. Me gaining the freshman 15 [pounds] was really bad, because it threw my balance off, which threw him off, which makes him stop. It’s stuff like that that you wouldn’t normally think about, but I make sure to work out every day and eat healthy. The details really matter.”
“She definitely had her issues to work out at the intermediate level. It’s a whole different ball game. But she doggedly worked through each and every one,” said Wendell. “She’s a little too big for the pony, and whenever that happens, you have to be really in the right place on their back. It’s so easy to get ahead of them, which she would often do. And the pony wouldn’t tolerate it when the jumps went up.”
A stint as a working student for Sharon White in the summer of 2008 helped Sendak solve the problems. “I was having a bit of a lack of confidence, thinking, ‘Maybe intermediate is too hard for the pony,’ ” Sendak said. “But Sharon instilled in me that if you ride like you’re getting over the fence, you’ll get over the fence. It was a great experience.”
Sendak also started riding with Rutledge. “She’s so amazing at fixing all these little details. I thought I was hot stuff—I’d won a medal at Young Riders, I was placing at preliminary and had gone clean at intermediate,” she said. “Colleen was great at saying, ‘Yes, you can do intermediate, but if you want to be competitive at intermediate and go on and do advanced, you need to be perfect. Here’s what you do.’ I’ve been working with her and finessing things, so that I don’t limit the pony. The pony can jump the moon—it’s the rider that’s holding him back.”
Rutledge said Sendak is one of the most determined people she’s encountered. “She wants it, and she’s going to work for it,” Rutledge said. “They’re always so much fun to teach, because he responds so well when she does it right. They’re a blast to be around.”
Spider Bandages Save The Day
The spring of 2009 showed the results of Sendak’s newfound attitude. She and Willy placed fifth in the CIC** at Poplar Place Farm March (Ga.) and jumped clean at the Fair Hill Horse Trials CIC** (Md.) in April.
But just as the two were getting in the groove at intermediate, Sendak had to regroup again. She was looking forward to competing at the CCI** at the NAJYRC, but in a last preparatory run in May, Willy came off cross-country with a small cut above his knee.
“It was bleeding, but it didn’t look bad. He was sound. The vet looked at it and said he just nicked himself. She stitched it up so it would heal faster, but by the time we got home, Willy could hardly walk,” Sendak recalled.
A piece of brush from a fence had punctured the knee joint capsule and infected it. Sendak shipped Willy to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, where he was treated intensively for a week.
Willy’s recovery included aquatherapy, working on a treadmill and slow work under saddle. But after his first gallop, the knee flared up again, so Sendak decided to give him the summer off, and Willy was treated with IRAP.
“At first, we thought we’d gotten it taken care of and he was fine, but then it was, ‘Oh my gosh, he may never jump again if this knee keeps flaring up.’ Thankfully, with help and lots of spider bandages, we were able to rehab him,” she said.
The knee looked good when Willy went back to work in August and September, so Sendak started eventing again. Willy was seventh in preliminary at Paradise Farm (S.C.) before they moved back up to intermediate and won at Virginia Horse Trials in October.
“Now he’s back and better than ever. He’s been absolutely phenomenal,” Sendak said.
Sendak hopes to compete at the CCI** at Jersey Fresh (N.J.), and if that goes according to plan, she’s not ruling out a move up to advanced.
“The fences are quite intimidating already at intermediate. I’m galloping up to these huge tables, and I can’t see over them, and I don’t know how he sees over them. I can only imagine how much more terrifying advanced will be!” Sendak said. “I’m going to listen if he tells me it’s too much at any point. I just have to trust my own instincts and my coaches.”
But Sendak can’t imagine a better partner for such an endeavor than Willy. “To ride him and to feel his athleticism and his love to do what he does is amazing,” she said. “He’s such a phenomenal horse.
“I’ve been so lucky,” she added. “Horses have always been my passion, but I never thought I’d move up the levels so competitively. It’s all because of this pony. He’s given me so much confidence and taught me so much.”
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Wil’ya Love Me And Courtney Sendak Have Grown Up Together” ran in the March 12, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.