Defying Age: Here’s What It Takes to Keep a Top Grand Prix Horse Thriving Late Into Its Career

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ichard Spooner hasn’t campaigned three incredibly talented senior show jumpers by pure luck, even though the humble horseman might tell you otherwise.

Spooner, based in Agua Dulce, Calif., campaigned Robinson, a winner of 40 Grand Prix classes and the first American horse to earn $1 million, until he was a remarkable 21 years old. Two years ago, the “Master of Faster” won the Surfside Grand Prix at Del Mar and the Suncast 1.50m Championship at the Winter Equestrian Festival with a 17-year-old Chivas Z, and later in 2017, he captured the $60,000 Grand Prix of California at the Showpark Ranch and Coast Classic with the then 19-year-old Cristallo, in what was the ageless wonder’s second grand prix victory of the year. Cristallo retired this year at the age of 18, but showed no signs of slowing down throughout his spectacular career.

“Cristallo [was] feeling great,” Spooner said. “We accidentally got a video from 2007 from the videographer in Thermal, and, [watching it], he really [didn't change] much. He [felt] absolutely phenomenal. [Las year at his age] he [came] out to do one class, maybe two classes a week if he had to qualify, but there’s nothing he hasn’t seen. He didn't have to get in the ring and see the jumps.”

“At [that] point, my job is easy,” he added. “I basically just have to keep [the horses] fit, sound, and happy—and quiet!”

That’s a task easier said than done, but it’s one Spooner has mastered throughout his career.

There are many factors that contribute to longevity in a successful show jumper. Spooner insists that he has been lucky in being paired with incredibly rugged horses, but he also recognizes the importance of environment and does everything he can to not subject his horses to factors that could jeopardize their long-term health and soundness.

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One thing about older horses is that you have to work twice as hard to keep them half as fit.

“Horses are products of their environment, and part of it has to do with genes,” he said. “There’s only so much you can do to control that, but on a day-to-day basis, you just have to make sure that you take the opportunity [to control what you can]. Throughout Cristallo’s career, we’ve always shipped him ourselves—99 times out of 100, I’m there.”

Spooner believes in paying attention to “the little things,” including a thorough examination of footing wherever Cristallo goes, from the show arena to the schooling rings and the lunging areas.

“We try to analyze the footing of every horse show that we’re going to or thinking of going to,” he said. “If we know the footing is sub-standard, we try to skip that horse show. If the footing has been bad due to inclement weather and we think it’s outside our margin, we try to skip that day. If the footing in the lunging area is not great, we’ll skip it. It’s just basically trying to treat him with respect and with respect to his health.”

“With every horse, you need to put needs of your horse’s health care before yours,” he continued. “It’s just [about] choices—choices and trying to make the right decisions for your horse’s welfare. Every rider does it. You constantly think about what makes them healthy.”

He also puts great emphasis on fitness.

“One thing about older horses is that you have to work twice as hard to keep them half as fit,” he explained. “I’ve been unbelievably lucky with Cristallo. He’s always been fit and sound—knock on wood—and because of that, I’ve been able to work him very hard, and because he works very hard, he stays unbelievably fit, and it all spirals in the right direction. Sometimes, it’s easy to think, ‘If I don’t work him, he’ll stay sound,’ but I think that the harder they work, the sounder they stay.”

“We’ve done the math and he’s lunged around the world—he’s logged 26,000 miles on the lunge line. He just has so much energy.”

That being said, with his older and more experienced horses, he lessens up on training exercises to focus on strength, endurance, freshness, and, ultimately, happiness.

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“Having an educated horse certainly gives you the time to work on other things,” Spooner said. “We don’t do gymnastic exercises.”

Now 29, Robinson lives out his days on Spooner’s farm and is still “sound as can be,” according to Spooner. Chivas Z, now 18, is done competing in the jumper ring, but with Prix St. Georges training, Spooner believes he can continue on as a successful dressage horse. Cristallo, now also retired, likely could have kept going, but Spooner chose to let the spirited horse take a breather after many years of competition.

“He [was always] very, very fresh,” Spooner said. “He’s always had a lot of blood. We’ve done the math and he’s lunged around the world—he’s logged 26,000 miles on the lunge line. He just has [always had] so much energy. He’s an unbelievably rugged horse. It’s just the strange odds of getting a horse that rugged.”

That, and a repeated display of remarkable horsemanship.

A Medical Perspective: The Importance of Starting Early

Each summer, Alex Rey, DVM, racks up his frequent flyer miles. His Rey & Associates sports medicine practice is based in Wellington in the winter, but when his top-echelon clientele migrates to Europe for the summer, he is along for the ride—commuting between continents on a regular basis.

Rey manages the veterinary care of some of the top strings in the world, including those of World No. 1 Kent Farrington and Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Champion Scott Brash. He also treated the recently retired Big Star leading up to his gold medal-winning run at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

“Young horses don’t know how to compensate. You want to take care of them when they’re young, so that when they get to top level, you can be consistent and have manageable problems.”  

“I think the most important thing is the management that you have done to those horses before they become old,” Rey said. “There’s no horse that doesn’t have a problem.”

Rey said that entails taking a full-body approach to management—not just focusing on a problem area.

“Older horses know how to compensate,” Rey said. “Horses like [recently retired 2008 Olympic gold medalist] Cedric, for example, are just exceptional, whether they’re a little off or not. They love to be in the ring. They will go forever if you give them the chance of making them feel better everywhere else that is not the problem areas, so they can deal with the problem limb or structure that they have. That’s basically the management that every single high-end athlete should have. The problem arises when most vets and people that manage horses just concentrate on the problem, but they ignore what the cause of the problem is.”

“A lot of people say, ‘Why would I have quality service on my young horses if I can be less intense with them, and then you can take over when they’re older?’” he added. “That’s the worst thing you can do. Young horses don’t know how to compensate. You want to take care of them when they’re young, so that when they get to top level, you can be consistent and have manageable problems—not issues that can become things that will interfere with their performance.”

Rey says genetics can play a role in competitive longevity, but he’s seen many patients out-perform their pedigrees. He also says that while newer innovative medical therapies, such as stem cell therapy, PRP (Platelet-Rich Plasma), and shock wave, work well with young horses and acute injuries, they are less effective with older horses dealing with chronic issues.

“It’s like humans,” he explained. The older you get, the longer it takes you to recover, and the type of the healing isn’t as good. There’s more scar tissue, etc.”

Instead, Rey puts great emphasis on the appropriate competitive placement of horses, allocating proper recovery time, and taking a team approach to maintaining consistent care—they key word being, consistent.

“The management implies exceptional shoeing, good veterinary care, and exceptional management as far as the leg work that the grooms and stable people do to the horses to prevent the inflammatory process and block the inflammatory cycle,” he said.

Horses like Cedric are just exceptional, whether they’re a little off or not. They love to be in the ring.

Rey acknowledges the important role he plays—there’s a reason he’s requested around the world—but he says that, beyond treatment, genes, and other factors, it’s the unique bonds formed between top horses and riders that can best defy aging.

“The most exceptional thing, for me, is the match between horse and rider—more than the blood and whatever else,” he said. “There are some partnerships that are just incredible. Those horses will do whatever for their riders. They’re exceptional friendships, partnerships, and bonding. You see those horses riding on the off show days, and they might look rough, but when they go in ring, they feel like they’re number one. They’ll give 500 percent in there.”

-Photos by Erin Gilmore and Bret St. Clair

Written by Catie Staszak

Catie Staszak can typically be found doing one of three things: talking about horses, writing about horses, or riding horses. A broadcast analyst and journalist at FEI competitions, she spends her time traveling to shows and getting behind the microphone to break down courses and get people excited about equestrian sport. Normally spotted with her dog Omaha nearby, she's grateful to be able to combine her greatest passions into a career she loves.