When I started riding Macanudo De Niro, the big Dutch-bred chestnut who became my silver-medal partner at the 1999 Pan Am Games, he had the same problem as a lot of big, long-backed horses: He was really difficult to hold together. I thought I knew what he needed to become a top international jumper. Then, in a real break-through, I realized there was more.
I'll talk about that insight in a minute-but first let me do a little flashback to when I was a junior equitation rider, living just a few miles from the Massachusetts barn of famous Olympic Eventer J. Michael Plumb. Mike's fabulous horses and his meticulous way of doing his sport were a magnet for me. Amazingly, when I showed up, he'd often ask me to get on one of his horses, jump it, and tell him what I thought he should be doing to help it go even better. As accomplished as he was, Mike was still open to new ideas.
Imagine the impression that made on me--a kid! I hoped that, like him, I'd never reach a stage where I thought I'd learned it all.
OK, now fast-forward to early 1999, when De Niro, then a ten-year-old, joined me on the Florida circuit. His talent was obvious (that's why Chestnut Ridge owner Dan Lufkin and I had bought him in Europe a couple of months earlier), but I wasn't surprised that a few things needed ironing out to help him reach his potential. I'd learned during my decade as a professional that a new horse/rider combination needs at least three or four months to get functioning as a unit.
De Niro was big (17.1 hands) and heavy, but sensitive. In his European career, he'd been allowed to canter on his forehand, head down on his chest, avoiding real contact with the bit and communication with the rider's hands. He was also very spooky--always paying more attention to scary things like bushes or jumps than to my aids.
My first step was to help him lose about 200 pounds--because to be as rideable as possible, a big heavy horse needs to be on the lean side. Next I taught him to gallop forward from my aids instead of doing his accustomed shallow canter. That wasn't difficult--but because of his long back, his haunches were then so far behind me that I had almost no steering; when I tried to turn him, he got very stiff. So the final part of the program I thought he needed was collection, collection, and more collection.
I spent most of the Florida circuit teaching De Niro to lighten his forehand, carry himself, canter from behind, and take a real contact with my hand. For weeks I rode him from a deep seat, using hand and leg to keep him together. If I got up off his back to let him go forward more freely, I lost the connection with his front end. Then, if he spooked and dodged to the side, I couldn't hold the rhythm or fit in a short distance if, say, we needed a steady five strides to a vertical. As his reduced weight and increased fitness made self-carriage easier for him, I became able to manufacture the stride I felt we needed at every moment on course. Yet we still weren't getting clean rounds.
This sense of 'almost but not quite' continued through the spring to the World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden. The first leg of qualifiers there was against the clock; I was worried that we wouldn't make the time. This forced me to try once more what hadn't worked two months before in Florida: I got off De Niro's back and let him gallop on.
Our first round was a struggle. He was very spooky and backed-off, overwhelmed by showing indoors after weeks outdoors in Florida. Then came the Friday-night class, the biggest we did at Gothenburg--and although he had four faults, he went really beautifully. For the first time I thought, "You know what? I'm really getting this horse!" And Frank Chapot (US co-chef) and a couple of my fellow riders made a point of saying how well De Niro was going.
So what was the breakthrough? I realized that, after creating the connection and rideability I needed on the flat, I had to go one more step, free De Niro up again, and allow things to happen in the ring (It also hit me that, in taking this step, I was riding more in the style of the superb horsemen Id always admired--like Michael Matz and Conrad Homfeld--and in the light, forward style of the classic equitation that was my starting point. Like Mike Plumb, I'd opened my mind to another approach.)
I took De Niro home to Chestnut Ridge's grassy fields, where we could work on good footing and we practiced galloping. Suddenly it was all there: He was able to carry himself, became even lighter when I got up off his back, and was very responsive. The Pan Am trials were coming up, and we were ready to make a serious bid for the team.
De Niro actually got better during the trials. Our final round in Gladstone, New Jersey, was our best . . . until we got to the Games in Winnipeg.
Peter and De Niro won both team and individual silver medals at the 1999 Pan Am Games.
--This article first appeared in the April 2000 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.