Heart of a Lion and Eye of an Eagle: The Full Circle Journey of Z

by Sally Spickard /

Published on

W

e often talk at length about the qualities we seek in a horse. A long, sloping shoulder. A strong hind end. Good bone. Good feet. Good eyes. There are many expectations placed on our horses — who are rather complex, emotional beings in their own right — and we bestow upon them our hopes, our dreams, our failures. 

An unassuming, plain bay gelding stabled at Phillip Dutton’s barn in West Grove, Pennsylvania, possesses those most desirable qualities. However, known as an introvert in many ways but a bold, attacking lion on cross-country, Z (Asca x Bellabouche) is one such horse who knows not what weight rests on his back. 

It was a circuitous road that led the now 11-year-old Zangersheide gelding to the U.S. Sold by a local dealer as a barely broken four-year-old, Z was not a stunning, eye-catching future champion when Portuguese rider Duarte Seabra first laid eyes on him. Rather, Duarte admits, “there wasn’t much to him.”

But that didn’t matter. All Duarte had to do was look in the horse’s eye to know this would be the one he’d take home. It was all he needed. “I liked the way he looked at you,” he recalls of their first meeting on a cold winter day in Britain.

Z had the “look of eagles.” It’s a phrase well-known among horsemen and women. That look. The one that causes shivers to run down the spine of onlookers — the one that betrays intelligence and bravery.

Tragedy Strikes

Duarte brought Z back to Portugal and worked closely with his brother Francisco to carefully produce what was hoped to be his next top international star. And then, life as the Seabra family knew it changed in an instant.

On February 14th, 2015, Francisco was killed in a cross-country accident while competing in the Rancho Alegre Eventing Tour de Utrera CCI3*-S in Sevilla, Spain. The family, which consists of six brothers, was devastated and left to pick up the pieces.

Through and through, Duarte had always been an event rider. With five-star completions and a trip to the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) under his belt, his heart lay with the sport. But not anymore. Following his brother’s passing, Duarte stepped away from eventing and, instead, began a career in show jumping. But before his final goodbye, Duarte would complete one more event. One final salute on the centerline in honor of his late brother. 

It was Z he chose to ride in that final horse trials — the CCI2*-L at the Barroca International Horse Trials in Portugal. “Everyone was so nice to our family, so helpful,” Duarte recalls. “It was a nice thing to do for my family and for everyone who helped us through.”

Life, without sympathy, moved on. Duarte was certain Z was destined to be an event horse, and a great one at that. So he made the difficult decision to sell the horse once tapped to be his top contender. Through close friend Carol Gee, Duarte was introduced to Phillip Dutton, who traveled to Portugal to see Z, a six-year-old then. “It was an unlikely place to go and see a horse,” Phillip recalls. 

"I liked the way he looked at you ..."

Z was not what you’d call overly bold or showy, and Duarte describes him as not the most secure in himself, but he knew there was more to him than what meets the eye. So when Phillip took Z for a spin, Duarte gave him a primer. “I told him, ‘I’ve ridden a lot of horses in my time, and this horse has the heart of a lion,’” he says. “He was a bit worried, a bit insecure at times, but on cross-country, he’d jump a house.”

With the support of owners Tom Tierney, Simon Roosevelt, Suzanne Lacy, Annie Jones, and Caroline Moran, Z found himself on a plane to the U.S., where he would take his place in a string of talent carefully curated by Phillip. For Duarte, the sale was among the most emotional moments of his career.

“It was probably the hardest thing to do,” he says. “My brother always believed in the horse and wanted him to be my next top one. And so for me, it was very important that he went to the right place. I felt at peace knowing that he was going to one of the best riders in the world.”

Building a Foundation

Settling in to his new Pennsylvania home, Z was a bit unsure of his surroundings at first. With the coaxing of Phillip’s longtime groom, Emma Ford, he slowly but surely blossomed and came out of his shell. Patience, Emma says, pays off, especially with horses who tend to be more on the introverted, internalizing side. 

“He was easy and kind to handle, but when he first arrived he’d stand at the back of his stall a lot, and he wasn’t too comfortable in turnout,” Emma recalls of Z’s early days in the U.S. “I spent a lot of time with him, getting to know him and what made him tick.”

As Z worked his way up the ranks of Phillip’s string, Emma noticed he truly shined at the big, high-pressure events. “He likes to have his person around, and he knows what day it is, particularly on cross-country day,” she says fondly.

Both Phillip and Emma describe the bay gelding as a pleaser. So much so, Emma observed at an early event in Ireland, that he quivers within himself on big competition days. “It caught me a bit off guard,” she admits. “Interestingly, he doesn’t do it at horse trials, just the bigger events. I think he wants to please and do his job well, so much that he internalizes his nerves.”

Meet the OTTBs Phillip Dutton has taken from the track to the top-levels of eventing.

But leaving the start box, everything changes. Gallop, balance, jump, repeat. In his first five-star appearance, the 2018 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, Z showed his greenness on Derek di Grazia’s cross-country course, getting fractious at times and arguing with Phillip’s half-halts. But Duarte’s words rang true: “He has the heart of a lion.” The pair placed a respectable fourth on a final score of 33.7. 

For Phillip, the struggle of finding a horse for the top levels is a notoriously difficult task. Building a relationship with the horse has been the biggest priority for Phillip, who says Z is “just my type.”

As with all horses, building a formidable partnership takes time and finesse. At each event, Z became stronger and gained confidence. His flying changes improved on the flat. He became more rideable on cross-country, putting his trust in Phillip. It’s a challenge to bring out the best in an introverted horse, but brick by brick, Phillip continued to chip away, making small improvements. 

This past spring, at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, Phillip tried a new approach with Z, who worked himself up too much in cross-country warmup. “We took a bit of a gamble and just went out to a different warm-up ring to stretch him out and get him warmed up, but then we went straight to the [start] box instead of letting him get worked up in the big warm-up area,” Phillip says. “I’d been testing a few different ways to warm him up, and this seemed like it really paid off in a big way.”

Coming Full Circle

In 2018, Phillip and Z were named to the U.S. eventing WEG team. In true full circle fashion, Duarte also found himself at the championship in Tryon, North Carolina. But the view looked a bit different than what he would have imagined a few years prior. “In all my life, I never would have imagined I’d be at WEG as a show jumper,” Duarte says of this milestone in his second career. 

"He has the heart of a lion."

Duarte says he gets emotional each time he watches Z gallop across the country with Phillip in the irons. In Tryon, Duarte approached Phillip on the final day of the eventing competition, seeking to reconnect with his old friend. The day before, in trying and tiring conditions, Phillip navigated Z to a near flawless cross-country effort, adding only 6.4 time penalties. The pair ended the weekend 13th individually, the top-placed U.S. combination. 

“It was very emotional being able to see Z again,” Duarte says. He had kept in touch and followed the gelding’s progress through emails with Phillip over the years. “Seeing my horse happy and doing what he was intended to do brought me peace. It was such a difficult sale for me, but I don’t regret it.”

Phillip says the pleasure was all his in crossing paths with Duarte once more. “It was really special for [Duarte] to be able to see the horse and to know he’s doing well,” he recalls. “It wasn’t an easy thing for him to sell the horse to me, and I just wanted him to know that he’s in a good place and that we think the world of him.”

In some moments, it’s easy to get caught up in the medal counts, the scoresheets, and the all-consuming pressure that comes with competing horses. It’s easy to forget that each and every horse, at one point, meant the world to someone. 

“My brother and I believed in that horse from the day we brought him home,” Duarte says. “He was always meant to be a top horse, as long as he was with the right person.”

For Phillip, it’s an honor. In Z, he’s found a partner who takes the job as seriously as his rider does. Perhaps the two are more kindred spirits than they let on: both somewhat quiet and reserved on the ground, yet bold and brave on cross-country. And that friendship and partnership between horse and rider is what truly creates success. 

Read this next: I'm Not Going to Let Grief Hold Me Back Anymore

All photos by Shannon Brinkman for NoelleFloyd.com.

Written by Sally Spickard

Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California, and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.