On the eve of the 2012 Olympic Games, all eyes and ears are focused on the news coming out of the U.S. Show Jumping Team, currently undergoing final training before the Games. With all the excitement surrounding the horses and riders heading to London, it’s safe to say that the events that led to Olympic Gold for the USA four years ago in Hong Kong aren’t exactly fresh on anyone’s mind.
Except, perhaps, for Will Simpson. He didn’t make the Olympic team this year, and he’s not going to London. But this week he reunited with a very special Olympic partner, and undoubtedly relived moments from Hong Kong while taking a very different kind of ride.
In his Olympic debut, Will clinched the 2008 show jumping team gold medal during a heart-stopping finale that pitted the USA against Canada in a rare Olympic jump-off. He rode Carlsson vom Dach (Cassini I—Gelsa, Grundyman), the highly sensitive and wildly talented 11-year-old Holsteiner (then a stallion) was owned by El Campeon Farm. Will has always had a special talent for connecting with so-called problem horses, and Carlsson’s sensitive personality made the stallion his kind of horse. Video of them in Hong Kong is hard to come by, but in highlight reels Carlsson can be seen hurtling high above the jumps with Will crouched over his neck. That nail-biting final jump-off was unquestionably the highlight of both their careers.
After completing the jump off, and securing team gold for the USA. Photo ©Associated Press
However, Carlsson was sold just after the Games. The horse business can be cruel that way, and Carlsson’s owners couldn’t turn down an astronomical offer from an outside party (that came almost immediately after the Olympic jumpoff round) to purchase the stallion. For Will, it was a sad twist to have to part from his horse just after the Games ended. Their Olympic victory gallop would be the last time he rode Carlsson.
Until now. In the four years since the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, several top international riders tried and failed to gel with the talented stallion. Problematic ulcers plagued his health, and without Will in the saddle to bring out his incredible talent, Carlsson began to stop at fences.
The people around him cared for him, but couldn’t find that winning combination to bring him back to the top of his game. Grand prix rider Candice King, who is also known for her talent in connecting with sensitive horses, acquired him in 2010 and worked diligently to gain his trust and build his confidence back. She trained him to go bridleless and showed him several times in low jumper classes on the East Coast. But in the spring of 2011, it became clear that at the age of 15, Carlsson had had enough.
King worked to find Carlsson a suitable retirement home, finally settling on Old Friends Thoroughbred Rescue in Lexington, KY. While the majority of horses that Old Friends takes in are Thoroughbreds off the track, the rescue also accepts pensioned stallions, and was more than willing to give Carlsson a home where the public could still visit him. But in July 2011, when Carlsson was ready to head into full time retirement, Old Friends was full. As a temporary solution, Carlsson moved to the facility across the street, Summer Wind Farm, which is always happy to help its neighbor.
Summer Wind Farm owner Karen Bailey has a big heart for creatures great and small. From kits to cats, award-winning Thoroughbreds to retired show jumping stars and many more, Bailey lovingly cares for animals that others have neglected. Taking Carlsson in temporarily turned into a permanent plan. She connected with the stallion and he with her.
Fast-forward another year to July 17th, 2012. Simpson is in Lexington this week coaching student Hannah von Heidegger at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. Bailey invited Simpson over to see Carlsson, which led to a ride.
“I realized it had been four years since I had ridden him,” Simpson recalled. “The last time was Hong Kong when I rode the victory gallop. He felt great. I could feel how comfortable he was with himself. He was happy and relaxed.”
Picking up the reins with an old friend. Photo ©Karen Bailey
This led to another fond memory of the days preparing for the 2008 Olympic Trials in Wellington, FL. “I spent a lot of time on him. We had a connection, that’s what he liked. I used to ride him Western around El Campeon. I used to ask people, looking like a cowboy, ‘Do you think we’re ready for the Olympics?’” Clearly, the answer was yes.
This week in a pasture in Kentucky, they were far from the spotlight they enjoyed four years ago. But for an Olympic veteran and the horse that only ever really belonged to him, their simple ride together was a fitting way to reflect on bygone glories on this four-year anniversary of their Olympic gold victory.
Some bonds last a lifetime.