The Best Horse trophy at the US Equestrian Team Talent Search Finals is named after him. Teenage rider-girls all over the country discussed him in Internet chat rooms. He almost became a Breyer horse model. (Breyer, you should’ve done it!) Grappa is one of the all-time greats of the sport. He won seven national equitation championships—more than any other horse. Over a decade after his retirement, he remains a legend.
He’s a well-named horse, as fiery as the Italian after-dinner drink. He bucked off most of his riders. When he focused his impressive mental energy on doing his job, there was no feeling like it—his bright gallop and perfect balance, fingertip-lightness in the bridle and fine-tuned response to the leg. He taught me smooth, bold riding; he required it. In outside-course classes, he made ditches and banks and open water jumps look as effortless as a pasture stroll.
In the barn, he appears almost tame. He nickers when I come to his door, and takes cookies and carrots with grateful politeness. But he’s always existed on his own plane, gazing bright-eyed into the distance—more important things on his mind than carrots. Stepping off the trailer outside Madison Square Garden, a setting that normal horses don’t exactly love, Grappa seemed thrilled by the lights and city streets, ready for a night on the town.
He retired at age twenty in a ceremony at the Washington International Horse Show. My mother made a short movie about him that played on the jumbotron. As the film ended, I rode him into the dark arena in the spotlight beam, while Louis Armstrong sang “You’re The Top.” Grappa spooked at the cheering people—just for fun, I think—as we made our lap at the walk, and stood regally at center ring to be unsaddled. “Wear waterproof mascara,” Missy, my longtime coach and Grappa’s trainer, reminded me in advance of that evening. One of her many pieces of excellent advice.