How Cristalline Came to Be: Chris Chugg on What He Looks for in a Horse

How Cristalline Came to Be: Chris Chugg on What He Looks for in a Horse

Adrienne Sternlicht's Cristalline was an utter show-stopper at this year's World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. The ten-year-old bay mare helped to skyrocket the young rider to international success, including contributing to pushing the U.S. team into the gold medal spot in the team competition. Adrienne credits Cristalline as her 'horse of a lifetime' – so how exactly does one find such an incredible mount? Australian show jumper Chris Chugg, who picked out the mare in Europe, fills us in on what he looks for in a horse.

By Chris Chugg.

My type of horse is one that is a natural athlete with natural instincts to do its job. Whenever I go to buy a horse, whether it is one for myself, or an amateur client, or a young rider, I am always looking for a few specific qualities to shine through.

Whether they are 1.30m specialists or future grand prix prospects, I like a horse with blood. Coming from Australia, Thoroughbreds were all we had for a long time, so the blood, energy, and brain of a forward-thinking horse is what I really enjoy. George Morris has also been my mentor and coach for a long time, so these types of horses really fit the light and forward way of riding that I am used to. I think this reflects strongly in my top horses of the past: Mr Currency and WS Scandal, who were both Thoroughbreds off-the-racetrack. Vivant and Cristalline [now owned by Adrienne Sternlicht] both had these qualities as well.

They were all naturally gifted jumpers, forward-thinking, and competitive athletes that loved their job. Looking back at these horses, the natural instinct shone through from the very first jump I did with them.

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I usually buy horses at a young age (3-6 years old). I very much enjoy the education, time, and eventually the reward that goes into producing a horse to the top level. For instance, Asb Conquistador, who I sold to Karl Cook, I bought as a two-year-old from Hubert Hamerlink. He qualified for the World Cup final in Geneva in 2010 and WEG in Kentucky as a seven-year-old. A blank canvas, for me, is always the best way to make a five-star horse. I don’t like to step into the marketplace at the top end because I really enjoy the journey with the young horses and the relationship you build over the years. At the end of the day, I think that pays dividends. You can’t buy trust.

This was a big part of Cristalline’s success at the World Cup Final [I rode her in] and her European tour [with me]. Yes, a mare that had just turned eight years old doing what she did was absolutely incredible. But the time that my girlfriend Gabi spent training her from a green, baby five-year-old who hadn’t been to one show up until we had left for Europe really cemented her trust in her riders. Cristalline is a freak of nature and has an incredible level of self-confidence, but the early years are so important in a horse’s life. You could have incredible talent in a horse, but unless you nurture that correctly, and have a relationship with your horse, it doesn’t always happen like the fairytales.

Whenever I arrange to look a horse, I always endeavor to turn up early so I can see the horse unsaddled and cold out of the box. If the horse shows me any stiffness, soundness, or conformational issues, I don’t bother to waste the people’s time or mine. It’s never promising with a young fit horse coming out of a stable not 100 percent right, so for me, this is a big thing. By the time you go through 30 horses, that’s a lot of wasted money on vet checks.

I probably try a horse out very differently from most people. I’m not a conformist, and so I don’t get stuck in the European system of jumping one fence, stopping, and jumping it several times the same. I’m not a fan of stopping and starting after every single fence. I always try to string a few different fences together and make a bit of a course out of what’s available, and make sure the combinations are jumpable both ways, etc.

"They were all naturally gifted jumpers, forward-thinking, and competitive athletes that loved their job. Looking back at these horses, the natural instinct shone through from the very first jump I did with them."

The first thing I do – no matter how green or experienced the horse is – is that I really like to trot into my first few fences, to see what the horse’s instinct and reaction are when you place them closer to the fence than what you can achieve at the canter. This came from being brought up on Thoroughbreds, whose first instinct was to gallop. I knew that if I could get a Thoroughbred to slow its brain down and trot to a fence that I would be able to canter to a fence without them wanting to get quick.

These days, the Thoroughbreds that were around back in those days for very little money (Mr Currency cost me $2,000 AUD/$1,533 USD and Scandal $4,000 AUD/$3,065 USD) are nearly impossible to find now. These days, Thoroughbreds are all being built for speed and, therefore, no longer look like a light, bloody, uphill, smaller-framed warmblood. They are very much downhill and flat-cantering. WS Scandal was a stunning little black mare who was 16 hands and was the epitome of a classic Thoroughbred. She had a total of three years off the track and was six years old when we went to Europe and jumped clean every day at Wiesbaden in the 1.50m classes. We qualified for the Atlanta Olympics at the Falsterbo Nations Cup, and then I sold her to Princess Haya.

Since then, I have come to Europe to buy my horses. I find most horses in Europe are looked after with the distance and a dealing ride, which is fine. But for me, asking a simple question like a trot fence allows me to work out if the horse will allow me to adjust the distance, and also, will show me its reaction at the fence and the feeling of how much the horse trusts itself with my distance to the fence.

When I was at Hubert Hamerlinck’s stable trying Vivant, he was a green broken three-year-old and had only ever been free-jumped. To be perfectly honest, he wasn’t the flashiest free jumper – I would have given him a 5/10 and walked away. It was -5 degrees and snowing, but I asked if I could sit on him. Hubert’s reply was, “Are you crazy?!”

"I will always try to buy a horse with a good jumping canter, as I believe it’s the one gait you cannot produce."

So we tacked him up, and Hubert grabbed an ear and a big Belgian fist full of neck, and off I went out into a 20-meter-by-40-meter outdoor yard, with Vivant going off for the first few laps. They had set a crossrail in the snow, and within the first two jumps, he showed me exactly what kind of brain, jump, and enthusiasm he had that would help mold him into the horse that he eventually became.

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Whenever possible, even in the winter months, I like to try the horses outdoors. Of course, sometimes this just isn’t an option, but it’s definitely my preference. I think you get a better feel for the horse’s canter. This is the most important gate for a jumper – I’m not so worried about the walk and trot as long as the horse is level and sound. But I will always try to buy a horse with a good jumping canter, as I believe it’s the one gait you cannot produce. The outdoor ring also gives you the best opportunity to try the horse in a similar circumstance as you would a competition arena. The sport these days is so fast and requires self-carriage at the gallop, so I like to be able to test both of these things at the fence.

Another thing I do when trying any horse is to try them without a whip and spurs. As much as I believe you should wear them in the ring, I find that both these aids are overused. In my opinion, if you have to constantly be at the horse with spurs or a whip at home, you might have nothing left for the show when you are faced with something spooky or you get into trouble. Also, if the horse is willing enough without these, then it shows me a good sign of character, which is also important for selling horses to clients.

People always ask me how can you sell a top horse when you won’t find new ones to replace them. But at the end of the day, it is our business buying and selling horses. Gabi and I pride ourselves on selling quality, and that’s what we are always looking to buy as that is what people are always looking for. If you buy quality from the start, you can’t go too wrong.

Gabi’s first major sale was the sale of her ex-World Cup horse called Jimmychoo, who was also an off-the-track Thoroughbred who she produced to that level herself as a young rider. Everyone was saying, “It’s the biggest mistake, she will never replace him.” Then, we found Cristalline.

So I guess my point is, there are always horses. You just need to do your homework and be prepared that you might not find what you’re looking for the first time around after selling a top horse, but sometimes, you can get lucky.

Photos by Sportfot.