Willy began eventing at Novice in the fall of '99. He won his first two, so we moved him up to training level where he continued to do well, placing second twice and scoring very well in dressage. He ended the season having placed first or second at most of his events, scoring an 8 on gaits in dressage at most of his events, and with no cross country jumping penalties. From his behavior, nobody could tell that he was a stallion. He stood quietly next to mares at the in-gates, he stood tied to the trailer, and he maintained exceptional focus in dressage. A week after his last event he went out at the opening hunt with Marlborough and acted, as always, like a gentleman.
In his second year eventing Willy moved up to preliminary. He did seven horse trials and the CCI* three-day at Kentucky, all without a single cross country jump penalty. Willy proved at his first three-day that we picked the right sport for him. He soared around the steeplechase, clearing the brush but doing it in stride and smoothly. We went way too fast, but it felt effortless. We did roads and tracks on the buckle, with a relaxed swinging trot that actually allowed this horse to recover on phase C and enter the vet box as cool as most horses leave it. The vets were amazed and asked about his breeding. When I said Salutely, they all understood. On cross country, Willy was honest and a bit strong in his loose ring snaffle. He felt like he'd have happily gone around twice, and the next day for show jumping he was as fresh as ever. I don't think there's a three-day event in the world that could test this horse's endurance and soundness.
In 2002 Willy again proved how easy a three-day was for him, running around the Virginia CCI* like it was a walk in the park. When asked if he was ready to move up to intermediate coach Jim Wofford said, "He didn't look at anything out there." When asked if it would be too soon to enter him Intermediate at Menfelt just a few weeks later without a break, Wofford said, "Normally I'd say no. You have to give a horse time to recuperate after the three-day. But this really didn't seem to take much out of him, so go ahead." Good advice. Willy made his Intermediate debut at Menfelt in June and surprised us all by winning his division. Bigger jumps and tougher questions seemed to please this horse. He went on to qualify for the Radnor CCI**, so I entered him but then scratched due to the ground conditions, believing that we were at the edge of our skill level in good conditions, but that a slip in the wrong place could shake his confidence and set us back.
In 2003 we ran in numerous intermediate horse trials in preparation for another shot at the Radnor CCI**, but we also decided that the time was right for our debut at the advanced level. We entered advanced at Menfelt in September hoping to perform well enough to make the event a qualifier for a 2004 CCI***. Willy loved the bigger jumps with the tougher combinations. He's a thinking horse and his reflexes are quick, which makes him a fantastic horse to be on for your first advanced. He not only knows how to get the job done, but he can even overcome his rider's mistakes. That event made him the first Thoroughbred stallion in America to compete advanced since Denny Emerson's deceased Epic Win. Given that some 90% of eventers responded to a USEventhorse poll that Thoroughbreds are their preferred mounts, it's high time that they had a Thoroughbred sire proven at the top level of the sport!
Radnor in 2003 was a good CCI** for Willy. He jumped clean both cross country and show jumping, adding only a handful of time penalties to his dressage score. The hills at Radnor are brutal and I was concerned about how he'd feel at the end. He dragged me up the hill to the finish line full of running and recovered quickly. The workout made him show jump the next day briliantly, inside the time and with no rails down.
In 2004 we got a lot of mileage at advanced. We had some good clean cross-country runs but also did some learning. We managed to complete the Fair Hill CCI*** in spite of deep footing that made the course much more tiring and difficult than normal, and many say that it's the toughest three star in the world because of it's terrain. Dressage at advanced is difficult for a fit Thoroughbred stallion. Stallion's are not naturally submissive, and Thoroughbreds have a finely tuned instinct for flight. The good news is that progress in this phase has been steady and everyone assures us that he has the talent to win.
The newest and most respected addition to Willy's fan club is Bruce Davidson. Bruce is not only the winningest rider in American eventing, topping the national rankings for 13 years straight, but he's been breeding event horses for longer than anyone. When he askeed about the stud fee I asked about the cost of lessons and now we have a new coach. It's a great barter. I'd watched Bruce for 28 years and always wanted to work with him if I ever had a horse that could live up to his standards. Bruce rode Willy on the flat once before Fair Hill and said he was sure that the horse had the mind and the movement to be able to win the dressage...eventually. After we crossed the finish line at Fair Hill Bruce was more excited than I was. Willy had proven beyond any doubt that he had the heart to play this game at the top level. I was just relieved that it was over. Bruce was thinking about the future.
After completing the Fair Hill CCI*** I became clear that I only wanted to compete at that level
if we could be competitive. My riding skills were a product of bringing young horses through the lower levels and then selling them. The top tier
of the sport is another world, and I discovered that I had a lot to learn. In some ways a horse
of Willy's talent makes it easy, but in others we were in over my head.
Dressage is the area where the upper levels caught up with us. Linda Zang said our medium trot would "make the judges fall off their chairs"
if only we could manage to get it right in competition. Rebecca Langwost marvelled to onlookers at our lessons that a Thoroughbred could do such good dressage. Bruce Davidson claimed that he could do dressage training videos on Willy. I am no Robert Dover, but I pride myself on the scores I get on the young horses in dressage, and I did manage to show a sale horse through fourth level once. Still, we end up working against each other
in too many of our tests. One fact working against us is that nature gave Willy not only the sensitivity of his breed, which I love in his offspring, but also the dominant attitude of a stallion. There may be a reason why so many Thoroughbred stallions have not been successful event horses. Most stallions cannot be pushed around to the extent that geldings can. When I put Willy into an environment where a lot is going on, his instincts tell him to be aware of everything - to look out for danger. When I put my leg on or close my fingers on the reins I am asking him to ignore his environment and submit to my pressure. His survival instincts tell him to block me out and stand his ground. You can feel his muscles harden against the pressure, and the softness and swing that good dressage requires are gone.
So we had a dilemma. My choices were the following: one was to accept my failure to train the horse to his potential, but to be proud to have taken him to the top level of the sport. I could retire him from upper level competition and focus my efforts on his incredible offspring, none of whom are stallions. The second choice was to give Willy a shot with a better rider. Bruce Davidson had always said that he would be thrilled to compete him. The third option was to continue riding him myself and hope that we could finally achieve a partnership where I am able to maintain my own position and my sensitivity, so that he could trust me enough to remain both submissive and expressive in his performance.
In 2011 Willy will turn 16. As one would expect from his conformation and his pedigree, he has remained exceptionally sound and could continue competing for years. After Fair Hill, we had him thoroughly vetted by Gary and Shawna Spurlock. Dr. Spurlock said that he had "amazingly clean x-rays for a horse who's done what he has."
I no longer feel that Salute The Truth has to prove himself. Whatever we do from now on will be for the love of it. What a relief that is!