It was a successful 2009 show season. Tonico do Top won the Prix St. Georges Championship at the BLM Finals and the U.S. Dressage Federation's All Breed Andalusian Championship at Intermediaire I for his successes in the FEI dressage ring. I remember people applauding after this baroque horse's I-1 test in the famous Dixon Oval at Dressage at Devon. They seemed intrigued by this baroque horse. It was a wonderful moment for his owners and me, his rider and trainer. It reminded me how far he had come since his days as a parade horse in the Brazilian jungle.
The Adventure Begins
In 2006, my clients Linda and Joe Denniston decided they wanted to own a Lusitano that I could eventually show at Grand Prix and that they could later stand at stud. I was excited to be part of their dream, and the search began. We looked at endless videos of Lusitanos in the U.S., Portugal and Brazil. I was hoping to find a horse that could do a single flying change, had three good gaits and an extended trot. Finally, we came across a video of a stallion in Brazil. Tonico do Top was at Sucandi, a Lusitano farm owned by the Pass family. He was 15.3 hands and had just turned 7 in October. He had a big extended trot and did some flying changes. The canter looked passable, the basic trot was without any cadence and the walk was poor. But there was something about this shiny chestnut that fascinated us. Brazil is a long way to go just to look at one horse, so I requested more videos that included different views of the walk and canter to get a better idea about his natural movement, particularly without a rider. It was clear there was a lot of tension in his back when he was ridden, and that did not help the situation. I knew I would be able to improve the trot, but the canter and walk had to be respectable. His walk concerned me the most; I could see it had a good rhythm but no overstride.
Linda decided that the two of us should fly to Brazil, and the people at Sucandi promised there would be many other horses for us to see. We noticed an inviting photo on their Web site of a swimming pool and a table with delicious-looking drinks with umbrellas. We decided the trip would be worth it, no matter what happened. So we left on a cold December afternoon on a 10-hour overnight flight to Sao Paolo. Florian and Roberta Pass promised to pick us up from the airport in a bulletproof car, which did not boost my confidence.
To my surprise, Florian and Roberta were not old weathered horse people as I expected but a young couple who had gotten into horses through the interest of their daughter. Florian had moved from Germany but was not involved in horses there. We drove straight to their beautiful farm, which is set up like a bed and breakfast, framed by an incredible variety of flowers in every color and with exotic scents. The barn was a U-shaped concrete building with about 30 stalls, and a grass courtyard in the middle. During the day the horses were tied in their stalls secured by a metal bar.
We learned that Tonico was Brazilian-bred, born Oct. 8, 1999 (our fall is springtime in South America). He was sired by Emetico out of Jandaya do Top. Her sire, Babel, was chestnut and passed on the color. The breeder, Tonico Pereira, named the pretty foal after himself and sold him at a yearling auction. In 2004, Roberta and Florian found him in the jungle, where he was used in religious parades. At Sucandi, he was ridden and used as a breeding stallion.
When we approached Tonico in his stall, I had a shock. He had a beautiful neck and shoulder, but his back, although correct, was lacking any muscle definition. He gently sniffed me all over, and even though I meet new horses all the time, this was special. We saw all the stallions presented in-hand in the courtyard. None moved very well on the slippery grass. They acted like geldings—all except Tonico. He came out of his stall like a king, telling the world about it, but never once did he trouble his handler. It was a beautiful sight, and I was hooked, hoping he would leave the same impression under saddle. We saw many horses and then, finally, Tonico was brought out. As predicted, there was tension and no stretch in his topline and no straightness. The flying changes were rather voluntary, but we didn't watch long. I wanted time in the saddle.
The First Ride & Evaluation
Trying a new horse is like trying to find a common language. Was Tonico willing to talk to me, could he listen and would he try to follow my requests? His attitude struck me right away. I was impressed that, despite the tension, he was completely willing to listen, and he tried to figure out what I was talking about. I used some systematic exercises that showed him black and white, what reaction I expected from my leg, my seat and from my hand—and he understood! I could straighten him more and help him to balance, which in turn, really helped him to relax. That was the initial goal and all I could accomplish the first day.
We had a lovely dinner with Florian and Roberta, the perfect hosts. They even provided some German wheat beer to make me feel at home. (I am German but have lived in the United States for more than 20 years.) That night, we happily fell into bed since there was no sleep the night before.
The next morning it took a while to find a snaffle bit I wanted to ride with, and Tonico's saddle was less than desirable. Since he had no back muscles, the saddle sat straight on his withers. I finally borrowed the daughter's children's jumping saddle, the only one narrow enough not to hurt him too badly. I spent a lot of time with Tonico working on his basic gaits and still felt happy about his willingness. My challenge of asking for counter canter without allowing him to escape with a flying change to the true lead put a considerable amount of pressure on him, but he never got upset. He just kept on trying. I wanted to address more collection, as in half steps or pirouettes, but he was clearly not ready. Still, I could feel him collecting on my seat and gathering himself for transitions and half-halts. To carry a whip was not possible—obviously there were too many negative associations.
When I came to the ring, I saw a gentleman teaching. I learned he was Orlando Farcada, at one time, the most successful dressage rider in Brazil. At 70, he still competes, and he trained one of Sucandi's horses with the intent of making the last Pan American Games team. I was curious to watch him train, and we set up a time to visit his farm the next day.
In the afternoon there were more horses to evaluate. These were youngsters, and we watched them free school in the ring since Linda was also thinking of buying a young filly for her breeding stock. There were two colts and a yearling filly from one breeder that stood out because of their warmblood-like movement. The filly was bay and already tall. Soon, a decision was made to bring her home to Linda's Cedar Rowe Lusitanos. Bora-Bora is now 16.1 hands, quite beautiful being ridden under saddle.
The day did not leave a minute to spare. Between riding or looking at horses and talking with our wonderful hosts, who shared our meals, there had been no opportunity for Linda and me to discuss what we were thinking about Tonico. All the other horses I rode did not interest me to the degree that he did. We finally stole away on a walk, admiring the orchids, and weighed the pros and cons. His walk was still very short; I saw only two steps with more promise of length. I was really not able to test the collection the way I would have liked to for a Grand Prix prospect. I also wanted to test him in the double bridle. But all of that would not have been fair at his stage of training and with his lack of strength in his back. Despite all that, I was falling for him (not very professional, but true).