'They Say That We've Inspired New Interest in the Sport': Judy Reynolds and Vancouver K Return to Aachen After Injury

by Amber Heintzberger /

Published on

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orses are fragile, and success is tenuous. That lesson was learned the hard way for Irish dressage rider, Judy Reynolds. Partnered with the stunning black gelding, Vancouver K, the pair reached the height of their career at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where they placed 18th individually. They were also the first horse and rider combination to represent Ireland and qualify for the musical freestyle at the Olympic Games — a major achievement in itself. Competing in the U.S. later that year, the two-time FEI World Equestrian Games representatives won both the Central Park Grand Prix and Dressage at Devon. 

But with success comes challenges. In 2017, Vancouver K, known as “JP,” strained his superficial flexor tendon, resulting in a year off of competition. With his final dance at CHIO Aachen in 2017, it wouldn’t be until Aachen the following year that they would enter the dressage arena once again. 

Judy and Vancouver K. Photo by Sportfot.

At first, Judy recalls, he just felt slightly off — it was subtle enough that her husband, Patrick, who is a keen observer and often helps Judy from the ground — didn’t notice anything. But a thorough veterinary exam revealed inflammation of the tendon in his knee joint. She pointed out that it is an uncommon injury for a dressage horse — because of the collection required in dressage, horses more often have issues in their hind limbs.

Treating the Whole Horse

Judy gave JP rest and time off from being ridden. She did the standard treatment of cold hosing and wrapping with poultice to bring down inflammation, and used the ArcEquine therapy system to increase healing at a cellular level. But after bringing him back into work he became unsound again, and unfortunately, the same thing happened again. Becoming frustrated with his lack of improvement, Judy decided to look at the whole picture and try to think outside the box to find a remedy. They assessed JP’s feed, training, shoeing, stabling, saddle, bit — anything and everything that might possibly affect his way of going.

How does it feel to ride an Olympic gold medalist? Find out here.

Ultimately, they found the magic formula. With new shoes with a wider branch to offer more support in the heels, a softer bit, and regular treatments with the ArcEquine system, JP, now 17, has remained sound and is performing better than ever. “At the end of the day I think that it’s mainly about good care, good horsemanship, and looking at the whole picture,” Judy says.

At home in Dorsten, Germany, Judy’s philosophy on horse care is simple. The horses live in a row of box stalls attached to an indoor school with brand new, modern footing, miles of hacking trails, and hay grown right on the property so they always have a consistent supply of good forage. The horses seem to like it, and so does Judy.  

Judy with her husband, Patrick, and loving dogs. Photo by Amber Heintzberger for NoelleFloyd.com.

“I love it here,” she says. “It’s very relaxed and friendly, and there are even cows living on the farm. I think it’s good for the horses to see cows and get out of the ring and have a change of scenery, so they are used to that kind of thing.”

The Comeback King

As for JP, at this stage in his career, he knows his job and Judy lets him play a bit to keep him fresh. She’s been known to do a little jumping and cavaletti work with him and regularly takes him out of the dressage ring. 

“At this point he knows all of the grand prix movements well and it’s really a matter of keeping him happy,” Judy says. “He and I both do well with a shorter, intense competition schedule and then a longer break. It helps to keep our focus when we just have a couple of weeks between shows, more like the show jumpers tend to do.” 

Kicking off this year setting a new Irish record score of 82.75% in the FEI World Cup Grand Prix Freestyle in Neumuenster, Germany, the pair went on to finish 11th overall at the FEI World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden. 

They recently competed at Fritzens in Austria, where JP finished third in both the grand prix and the grand prix special during an extreme heat wave that affected much of Europe. “The temperatures were in the high 30s and he did well, but could have been better without the heat,” she says. “He’s been feeling great and I think he should do well at Aachen.”

Judy and JP focus on the test. Photo by Sportfot.

Heading to Aachen this week will mark the first time in history that Ireland has fielded a Nations Cup team at the historic event. Judy says that it’s a somewhat surreal experience, and she’s excited to be competing alongside Heike Holstein, whose mother gave Judy her first riding lessons back in Ireland, and Anna Merveldt, with whom Judy trained when she first made the move to Germany (Anna is now based in Italy). 

Inspiring a Nation

For a country that prides itself on its horses and equine sporting success, dressage in Ireland has often taken a backseat to eventing, show jumping, and foxhunting. Although she trains with Johann Hinnemann in Germany, Judy travels back to Ireland once a month to teach her students based there. Her parents and JP’s owners still live on the family farm in County Kildare. 

Follow along Noëlle Floyd's Director of Masterclass on her first trip to Aachen.

Now local celebrities in their native country, Judy and JP regularly visit her parents, who still live on the family farm in County Kildare. Equipped with his larger than life personality, JP’s fans adore the dressage darling — in fact, he even receives a treat package in the mail from one U.S.-based fan! The pair regularly make headlines in both equine media and national newspapers and have become so well-known that participation in dressage has reportedly increased in Ireland. 

JP came into Judy’s life when the gelding was six years old and they have since done their country proud. “They say that JP and I have inspired new interest in the sport, but I can’t even wrap my head around that,” Judy says, modestly.

"All we can do is look ahead.”

With his return to Aachen, one can’t help but consider whether JP’s latest successes are the result of having some downtime or if he missed out on one of his prime competition years. “It’s easy to wonder what he might have accomplished during that year,” Patrick says, “but you also have to wonder if he’d been in training all that time, would he be as sound and fit as he is now? All we can do is look ahead.”

With those struggles behind them and with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on the horizon, Judy and JP are ready to show the world they are still contenders. 

Read this next: Is Modern Technology a Threat (Or a Complement) to Good Horsemanship?

Feature photo by Amber Heintzberger for NoelleFloyd.com.

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