When dreams come up against reality

In her latest book, “Mary King—My Way,” Mary King offers up her 10 principles to having a successful career with horses. One of her key tips is the importance of being honest with yourself when a horse is not working out the way you intended and being open to moving on from the partnership.

All of us are drawn to this sport by our love of horses. There is no more amazing feeling than the unique partnership formed between horse and rider when it all comes together. Whether it’s that surge of adrenaline, harnessing the immense power underneath you as you tackle one of the toughest cross-country tracks in the world, or the serenity of an early morning trail ride before the hustle and bustle of your workday. Riding is definitely an endeavor we’re drawn to with our heart over our head. One look at my bank account will tell you that!

The emotional bond that we all make with our horses is what makes it such a painful, agonizing decision to let go when the time comes. As a professional horseman, I’ve had the privilege of developing relationships with numerous horses over the years. I’ve also, however, had to deal with those agonizing moments of honesty when I realized a relationship with a horse as a partner was coming to an end. Three horses in particular really stand out where I had to reach this decision, and while it was painful I knew it was the right thing to do.

One of those horses was Quillan’s Pride, known in the barn as Danny. We bought Danny as a yearling, and right away Kendra and I fell in love with him. As a baby he was such a precocious character, just oozing personality and swagger. As the years went by he developed into the most stunning youngster.

He was a 16.1 hand jet black French Thoroughbred as conformationally perfect as they come, and wow could he jump. Everything about him screamed class, and man did I get stars in my eyes just thinking of what the future held. Of course, reality is never as easy as our dreams.

What I came to learn about Danny was that despite all of the talent he possessed, he just did not enjoy the sport. Eventing is not an easy sport and to be successful not only does the rider need to be fully committed but so does the horse. The truly great horses love what they do. It became apparent as Danny moved up the levels that he was doing the job because I was asking him to do it, not out of enjoyment.

This was a very difficult dilemma I faced. The competitor in me desperately wanted to hold onto his incredible talent, but the horseman in me wondered if I was being fair to the horse. This might sound cheesy, but I truly feel that it is an honor to form a base of trust with my horses, and I have an obligation to not abuse that trust and listen to their needs.

Was it fair to make him run cross-country when it was obvious he didn't enjoy it? It was an incredibly difficult decision, but I knew it was in the best interest of the horse to sell him to a hunter rider where he could thrive.

 

Sean on Quillian's Pride.

The second horse I had to make this decision with was the polar opposite. Seamus absolutely loved being an event horse and took to cross-country like a fish to water. Never have I connected with a horse that gave me 110 percent as he did with unbridled enthusiasm. He was an out-and-out competitor who had an unmatched desire to tackle any obstacle or training question put in front of him. Everyday I felt honored to be his rider.

Sadly though, Seamus’s physical make-up didn’t match his mind or his heart. While he had tremendous scope, Seamus was a bigger bodied Irish horse that didn’t have a very natural gallop. His drive and determination more than made up for this competitively, but the cumulative toll his body absorbed once he reached the advanced-level started to become too much. Fitness work was always an issue for him and since he had to put so much effort into galloping at speed, his fetlocks started to cause him problems.

A funny story about Seamus of how competitive he was and how much of a character he is, was when the beginning of the end started with his competitive career with me. We were running in the advanced division at the Fair Hill Spring Horse Trials (Md.). Seamus always found the dressage to be a bit of a nuisance that he had to endure before the fun began on cross-country, but at that event it all clicked, and he was in the top 3 after the first phase in a very competitive field.

I was so pumped, and he was strutting around the stable area like he was top dog. Seamus was always very impressed with himself and at that event he took it to a whole new level. About an hour before we were to run cross-country I noticed his ankles were carrying more fill than they usually did so just to be on the safe side, I had Dr. Kevin Keane take a look at him.

To really appreciate what happened next you’d have to know him, but Seamus knew when it was cross-country day and always had the look on his face like my daughter Payton does when we’re going to get ice cream. His excitement was palpable. So Seamus is standing there with his royalty pose for all of the world to bask in his brilliance when Kevin gives us the diagnosis that we don’t want to hear and our competition is over.

Before Kendra and I can even process the information, Seamus’s body language instantly changes. My horse who while extremely cocky is very sweet and personable, instantly pins his ears and bites Kevin on the shoulder! It was like he was letting Kevin know in no uncertain terms that his diagnosis was NOT ACCEPTABLE and to SHUT UP! He then proceeded as we walked him back to his stall to also bite me and bonk Kendra across the head with his big Roman nose as if saying ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO LISTEN TO THAT GUY!?! I know, that story sounds ridiculous but it’s true and it epitomizes who Seamus was as a competitor.

As the season progressed, his fetlocks became increasingly worrisome to me, and I needed to be honest with myself about it. Seamus did not owe me a thing, and I knew he would not listen to his own body saying that the job was becoming too much.

He never once took a lame step at the end with his ankles as bad as they were, and he would go until he was broken down before he’d quit. I couldn’t let that happen. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I let his body suffer for my own competitive needs. I decided that summer to retire him early, so he could live out his days with a still healthy body strutting his stuff around the jumper ring with Kendra.

Sometimes these difficult decisions and moments of honesty about where our relationship is going with our equine partners has absolutely nothing to do with the horse. It’s life that forces the decision.

After the lessons I learned from Danny and Seamus and the realization that while I had a nice group of horses to compete but that none would necessarily be considered world class talents, I decided to set my sights on a top notch talent. In that search I came across Casalino, also known as Casper, who had just been imported from England by Mara DePuy, who had subsequently suffered an injury and was selling him as she recovered.

Right away from the first ride I was hooked. Holy cow could he move and gallop, and his jump left me in awe! This was the one! I was able to put together a syndicate to purchase half of him with myself investing the rest.

 

Casalino's jump left me in awe from the very beginning. Photo by GRC Photography.

While we went through a few bobbles as we cemented our relationship, we started to gel together as a partnership and he more than lived up to my expectations. I have never ridden a horse with such remarkable ability, and even better, he became my best friend.

Because I don’t have the luxury of unlimited funds, I always planned on syndicating off the rest of the shares I had in him. The financial burden of training and competing a horse to the international level can be quite steep and more then my family could handle. Everything was going great with Casper. He was going better than ever which generated quite a bit of interest in shares for him.

Then last summer life threw us a curve ball, and Casper became quite sick. Thankfully with the help of a great team of vets headed by Dr. Chad Davis we were able to nurse him back to full health. However the loss of the remainder of his competitive season stalled out the syndication process.

Here is where the realities of life come into stark contrast with my dreams as a rider. On one hand I had my fully healthy, happy superstar back ready to pick up where we left off. But on the other hand my life outside horses had changed. My wife gave birth to our second daughter, Madison, this spring. We also moved to a new farm where we are in the rebuilding process after altering our business model. With two young daughters to support and the realities of being a small business owner in the form of Kilfinnan Stables, I came to the impossibly difficult decision that it was unfair to my family to continue to have the burden of covering the costs of Casper’s career. My family has to take the priority over my competitive goals, so the decision was made to put him on the market. His fellow shareholders while saddened by my decision, were all very understanding of my situation and my subsequent decision. I still have the privilege of being Casper’s rider for the time being, and maybe I’ll still be able to sell the shares I need to so he can stay with me. But this is still another difficult conversation I had to have with myself on where my priorities lie and what is best for everyone involved, including the horse. He deserves the opportunity to fulfill his potential, whether that is with me or another rider.

The relationships we form with our equine friends are such a deeply personal, emotional experience. There is something magical in the bond that forms between horse and rider. The trust they put in us is not to be taken lightly. We as riders have a duty to them to not abuse that trust and to always have their best interests at heart. We need to be honest about the big picture and not just our own desires even if that means ending the relationship.

Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experienced eventer, groom, barn manager and saddle fitter. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables.