Someone once said that the best things come in small packages. Hannah Sue Hollberg wholeheartedly agrees. Hers comes in the form of Rockster, a 15.1-hand, 9-year-old chocolate palomino Morgan gelding, with whom she handily topped the open preliminary division last weekend at the Essex Horse Trials (New Jersey).
“It’s such a treat to ride a horse like him,” she said. “He’s a little smaller, but he’s so smart and clever. He tries so hard and will do anything.”
“He’s a different type of horse from what I usually ride, but he takes me back to why I do eventing, back to being a child, where you’re just having a blast and being a partner with your pony,” added Hollberg, 36, Kennett Square, Pennsyvania, as she drove to Quebec, where she’s competing this weekend in the Mars Bromont CCI 4*-L. “It’s so much fun. You forget about everything.”
The dressage and stadium phases for the Essex Horse Trials were held at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation in Gladstone and cross-country was at Moorland Farm in Far Hills. Along with her win on Rockster, Hollberg also topped the $10,000 open intermediate division on Hachi, an 11-year-old Dutch warmblood gelding previously campaigned by Phillip Dutton.
“It’s a funny thing to think about because, on one hand, I’m really happy to have gotten the two wins and made money, but on the other hand, I was the only one who finished [in open intermediate], and we had two run-outs, so it wasn’t a super successful cross-country outing,” said Hollberg, adding that several riders dropped out of the intermediate division prior to the competition’s start, leaving only a handful actually competing.
“I’m disappointed for Essex,” she said. “These people are so excited to put on a world-class event, and then no one’s coming to it. I’m more than happy to take the money, but I wish others would come. They go above and beyond what riders want, and then nobody comes.”
Hollberg and Rockster posted a 27.3 score in dressage, and then had clean and fast cross-country and stadium rounds to win the division.
“He’s a complete freak. He’s amazing. He doesn’t even need a rider,” Hollberg said with a laugh. “I think I could jump him off a cliff.”
Rockster, a sales prospect owned by Dr. Tricia Arnold, DVM, of Enumclaw, Washington, has been commanding attention with his jumping talents for a while, as he has competed through intermediate in the past, but at Essex, he wowed Hollberg with his impressive dressage test. Flatwork is something she’s been focusing on with the spunky Morgan since she began working with him in January.
“When I got him, he had the jumps. He totally makes that easy because he loves it so much, but I’ve been picking away at getting him to carry himself and come from behind,” Hollberg said. “He’s not the fanciest mover, but he sparkles, and I want to bring that out. He went in there and did exactly what I asked him to.
“I think he’s actually starting to enjoy [dressage],” she added. “He got in there and was, like, ‘Oh, this isn’t that bad.’ ”
Arnold, an equine veterinarian, is an old family friend of Hollberg’s parents, Sue and Mike Burnett. She treated Hollberg’s parents’ horses when Hollberg was just a small child and the family lived near Arnold in Louisville, Kentucky. Arnold grew up in Calgary, Alberta, ski racing and eventing through the intermediate level. When she settled in Washington several years ago, she decided she wanted to get a horse and get back in the saddle.
She was having trouble finding a horse that piqued her interest. Then she saw a video of Rockster jumping as a 4-year-old and was enamored of his scopey style and standout looks. After purchasing him, she soon realized he might need a different ride.
“I rode him a few times, and he bucked me off,” she recalled with a chuckle.
She had another trainer begin working with him, and after a few early kinks (namely a few more bucking-related unintended dismounts), Rockster started to settle down, and into, his burgeoning talent in eventing. Once the pandemic hit, he got a little downtime to mature. When competitions started happening again, he just kept amazing Arnold with his abilities. It was then that she realized she needed to sell him, and decided to send him to Hollberg to do that.
“I’m getting older, and I’m not going to be eventing at [high] levels,” Arnold said. “It would really be a waste for me to take him back.”
Rockster has sold her on Morgans as a breed, however. Arnold now has a yearling and a 2-year-old from his breeder, Judith Dexter of Mia-Mar Morgans in Saskatchewan.
“I think that what makes Morgans so special is that they’re so versatile and can do so many different things, and they create a really great bond with the person they’re being ridden by,” she said. “They really give it their all.”
Rockster has showcased his versatility this year, competing successfully in both the jumpers in Florida over the winter and at events this spring. Just two weeks ago, Hollberg’s 14-year-old niece rode him in a cross-country clinic with Olympian Boyd Martin.
“She had so much fun,” Hollberg said. “He was amazing for her. He never puts a foot wrong on cross-country. He’s a blast and just blazes around like a little champion.”
Plans For Her Taller Horses
While Hollberg will keep zipping around horse trials with Rockster until he sells, she putting in the miles to take some her taller horses to the summer’s big shows.
She’s riding Capitol HIM in the CCI4*-L at Bromont this weekend and has her sights set on qualifying with “Chito” for the U.S. team at the 2023 Pan American Games, taking place Oct. 27-29 in Santiago, Chile. If she’s successful, it would be a return trip to the Pan Ams for Hollberg, who won individual silver and team gold at the 2011 Pan Ams in Mexico with Harbour Pilot.
She heads into Bromont dressage today off an 11th-place finish with Chito, a 16-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Con Air 7—O-Heraldika, Heraldik) owned by Christa Schmidt, at the Cosequin Lexington CCI4*-S (Kentucky) in April.
“He feels better than ever,” Hollberg said. “I’m hoping to go for it this week and show everyone what he’s got. He’s a very special horse.”
She’s also eager to keep working and bonding with Hachi, a Dutch Warmblood gelding who, despite a couple of refusals on the Essex cross-country course, still won his division.
“I’m so excited about that horse for the future. We’ve had some little communication breakdowns a couple of times on cross-country, but we’re going to work on it,” said Hollberg of the gelding she began riding in December 2022. He’s owned by Jacqueline Mars and Schmidt, Mars’ daughter. Hollberg and Hachi will compete at The Event at Rebecca Farms July 19-23 in Montana.
“He’s the greatest horse I’ve ever had,” Hollberg said, adding he’s a quick study and seemingly self-directed. “I swear, I’ve watched him practicing by himself out in the field. I’ve been working on his walk for a while, walking really slow. And then I saw him out in his pasture, walking really slow. I swear, he was out there in the pasture, working on his walk.”
Building Back From Injury
For Hollberg, the future looks bright. She admits it’s been tough, though. She’s pushed through two years of intense rehabilitation after a seemingly banal fall while warming up for dressage at the Radnor Hunt Pony Club Horse Trials (Pennsylvania) left her with a catastrophic injury to her core muscles.
“I went way up in the air and then landed on my right [leg],” she recalls. “I just slammed into the ground, but I thought I was fine. I’ve broken plenty of bones, so I know what that feels like. I didn’t hurt anywhere, but then I couldn’t put any weight on my leg, and it was making a weird noise, it was popping really loud.”
She convinced the emergency personnel she was OK, got herself into her car, and then drove to where her then-boyfriend and now husband, Matthias Hollberg, a grand prix show jumper, was competing. However, once she got there, she realized she was more injured than she thought.
“I couldn’t walk. I had to drag myself up three flights of stairs, and then I called my mom,” Hollberg said. While she had broken her sacrum in the fall, Hollberg said that wasn’t causing her any pain. She just had “overwhelming weakness” in her leg.
“I’d never had soft tissue damage before,” she said. “Bone pain is so obvious, but this was different. I couldn’t make my body do what I wanted.”
Two doctors and two incorrect diagnoses later, she ended up seeing Dr. Mark Hart, a U.S. equestrian team doctor, who inspected her MRI and correctly diagnosed a severe core injury with damage to the adductors and abductors in both legs. She had surgery, and then was on limited mobility for several weeks and underwent intensive physical therapy, all the while, keeping her eye on her goal of getting back into the saddle.
“I had to completely relearn how to ride,” Hollberg said. “I couldn’t balance. It was terrifying. I thought my career was over. But then I thought, ‘I’m going to take this opportunity and fix all of my bad habits. I’m going to be as even as I can in both of my arms and legs.’ I started from scratch. I was like a baby riding a horse.
“It’s funny how you get so body aware after going through something like that. I can feel my core muscles now, I’m aware of them. And I’m just getting stronger and stronger,” she added. “I feel better than ever.”