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We Ask Trainers – Who is Your ‘Heart Horse’ and Why?

While the ribbons and wins are one great part of the industry, the connection and relationship between horse and rider, in and outside of the show pen, are what makes it all worth it. 

Some relationships are more special than others. Whether it be a world champion or a perfect childhood pony, every rider has at least one horse that has left hoofprints on their heart – a heart horse. These are the horses that we will never forget. We can still imagine what it feels like to ride their lope or see them trotting up to the gate. They are our once-in-a-lifetime horses.

Find out about the horses that have made the deepest impact on these world champion trainers.

Steve Heckaman: My once-in-a-lifetime horse would definitely be Potential Investment. To start, I raised him. His sire and dam were my Congress 2-year-old futurity horses in 1988 and 1989. As a show horse, Potential was Reserve at the Congress as a 2-year-old, won the Maturity, and was Reserve World Champion in Junior Pleasure. His first test colt crop had 14 money earners from 16 foals. They included Certain Potential, Potential Career, and two 2nd and 6th in the Congress Futurity.

But it’s not what he could do for me that made him special. The statistical stuff is easy to find, but it’s the personal stuff that rarely gets shared. He had a quirky personality that I grew to appreciate and respect. In his own way, he drew boundaries that you learned not to cross. I developed a great love and appreciation for this horse because he was everything I ever wanted in a stallion. We went through many trials together, like losing my wife in a car accident. I was devastated when he died because it was like losing another member of my family.

Jennifer Welhouse: Beyond Captivating, aka Bianca. We got her at just 3 weeks old and have had her ever since. She was difficult to start but turned into one of the greatest hunters I ever had. When Nya Kearns was a little girl and first started riding her, she said, ‘I love Bianca because we both have freckles.’ They went on to win many Congress and All-Around Champions. I called her the war horse because she always showed up and never let you down. Although opinionated, this great mare was a true show horse. She taught many people right and wrong in riding. She always jumped well and in good form with 100% try. She carried several children to trophies and finals. She is now retired and bred and we are extremely excited about this foal.

Shannon Vroegh: I do think everyone has a once-in-a-lifetime horse, but not always for the same reason. Some people would say it’s because they win so much, but my true heart horse has more personality than any horse I’ve ever been around and tries hard every single day.

Her name is Ill B Batting Ona RV – Shirley or Squirrel, whichever her personality is that day. She’s the first one I love to ride when I get to the barn. I love her, and I know she loves me back. She lays her head on my chest after I drop her halter to bridle her. I like to think it’s because she’s hugging me, but it’s probably really to avoid being bridled. Also, she is a giant Starbucks fan.

Julian Harris: As cliché as it sounds, it’s like trying to pick your favorite child. I’ve had so many amazing experiences with some great horses that all differed from one another. I’m grateful for all of them because I wouldn’t be here without them all.

The Classic Asset was one I was able to create from the first 30 days. We were reserve at the Congress in the LTD 3’s. I’d not placed that high or won under a card at the Congress before. The Mile High Club was so different, and I could relate to that. We rolled up to the shows, and we would either win or wouldn’t place. He and I continued to build a partnership together, and he ended up winning his superior and winning the high point in the nation that year.

My advice: Look for positive things in every horse. Your attitude towards them and the reception of your program will change for the better. Make them the best they can be for what they are capable of. That’s our responsibility.

Carla Wennberg: My heart horse was a gelding named Tom Raffles. My family purchased him from Suzanne Jones, who found him. He had raced and had 7 QH points.

Suzanne, of course, was one of the most special horsemen and judges I have ever known and she saw the potential. He was racing bred, with minimal show background.

My parents let me spend Thanksgiving with the Jones family to try him out. They did the best thing ever to let me get to know him. Their ranch has many sections. The first day they told me to take two cows out to a certain pasture and not let those cows trot.

Here I am, 16 years old, so excited, and have to walk for miles to take these cows out. So smart of them to teach me patience on a new horse. It took half the day to do this.

I won three World Championships on him: showmanship, horsemanship, and hunt seat equitation, all at the same Youth World show. Then in October, I was All-Around Youth at the All American QH Congress. This horse made my career in the horse industry. After my World Championships, I showed Tom to third level dressage very successfully. He was a great mover and very athletic. I jumped him, did all the core classes, and even reined on him.

Kelly Boles-Chapman: Letha Bailey was a 1974 red dun mare that my mom purchased as a 2-year-old. I was a young elementary school kid at that time, and my gelding was rather advanced with navicular disease. I was no longer able to ride or show him. I switched to Letha and adjusted to go from a really broke horse to a really green one.

I was super sad to lose my gelding. However, Letha became my best pal – horse shows, 4-H fair, camping. It seems like we did everything with our horses then. It made for great childhood memories. We had a horse we could show, go camping with, and do crazy things like a 30-mile ride-a-thon and parades in those days. I remember riding her bareback in a hayfield, pretending I was racing. I fell off and broke my left arm. Some horses were a big part of the fabric of our youth.

Melissa Jones: I have several heart horses, but Chilln Ona Dirt Road (Jason), would take the top spot. He’s a team player, and he always tries. Our daughter is 9 and will be showing him at her first youth world. He won the 14-18 Trail at the Youth World Show last year and the Senior Trail with me in 2019, but packed her around this year doing the small fry.

I love his heart. My favorite memory is getting to be the last one in the arena with him at the World Show, but I feel getting to see Lilly show him might be my new favorite memory. He’s definitely spoiled.

Ashley Dunbar-Clock: I would say Sleeptite, aka Brad. When I got to the barn every day, he always knew and would whinny. I would hear him and walk down to say good morning and kiss him. He had a heart of gold and always gave his all when I showed him. My favorite memory with him was second in the Senior Trail at the Congress in 2017.

Tonya Brown: I have a couple, but I would have to say a horse who has just recently passed away. His name was Blazing Moonlight, and his barn name was Moonpie. He was the sweetest, most polite horse, and he trusted whoever was riding him. He was blind in one eye, so he really had to trust you. He was extremely talented. My favorite memory with him was winning the NSBA World Show in the Senior Western Riding. He won a lot for me.

Tami McAllister: My heart horse is Justa Leaguers Leo. He was a great horse. Garry’s grandparents raised him. We broke him as a 2-year-old. He was the first horse that I ever placed on at the World Show. We were top five in Junior Trail when he was three and then continued on his junior career by being top 10 as a four- and five-year-old. We sold him in the barn to Kate Hug, and he continued his career with us when he retired.

I was able to repurchase him. When our daughter was ready to start her show career, we brought him out of retirement, and she was able to show him at the Congress in 11 & Under and Novice 13 & Under Trail when she was only six years old. During his retirement years, he taught a lot of kids and adults to ride. He taught me so much and was a huge part of our success. He was always happy, and he loved his apples.

Troy Compton: Zippos Tiger Bar. He was the first two-year-old that I had sent to me, the first year I opened my own training business. I won the Tom Powers. I won everything on him that year as a two-year-old. I won almost everything on him as a three-year-old: I won the World, I won the Congress. He went on and won a lot of titles and had a great career, and then he became the first living recipient of the Legacy Award.

He became the dominant horse in his era. Of course, he was my first horse, so he let me do my own thing. He represents to this day how I want my horses to look. Looking back on it, I did the right things with that horse. He set the standard for the way the rest of my horses went. All of my horses are trained after him because he was my first horse, and I had such success with him. He gave me a ton of confidence.

Who is your heart horse? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author – Olivia Bradish has been an equestrian for 15 years. She attends the University of Michigan and works for The Michigan Daily. Olivia shows the all-around events with her horse, CSR Roan Bar Penny, known around the barn as London. They enjoy showing in the showmanship, horsemanship, equitation, and trail.