Reporting from beautiful Normandy, where the USA just won team gold in reining. My friend Mandy McCutcheon, reining rockstar, is the first woman and first non-pro to ride on the US team. Her run on her parents’ handsome stallion Yellow Jersey secured the team’s win. The cameras were glued to her at the medals ceremony. Decorated in their winnings, the team rode along the arena wall, touching hands with the fans. Always an exhilarating moment, but especially so with Mandy out there. The finals for individual medals are Saturday night.
Along with the horse-show action, we’re having the full French experience. In what my husband calls our half-a-Volkswagen, we’ve rocketed between hedge rows and cow fields all over Normandy, from the Games in Caen to the tourist-infested but still glorious Mont-Saint-Michel. We visited the private chateau of a family who once kept horses with my husband’s mother. After lunch in the vast and softly dog-eared dining room, with call-the-maid bell on a cord from the chandelier, we walked the grounds: grand lawn; chestnut allée; spongy mowed trails carpeted in clover; views of Normandy cows and green hills; treehouse with spiral stair and locked door. My husband played tennis in his dress shoes with teenaged Parisian friends of our hostess’s niece. Later we picked and ate raspberries in the walled garden.
We’re staying in dreamland: the chateau taken over by the US Equestrian Team. (Lush gardens, cozy rooms, and a chef, wine cellar and cheese selection that do the French proud.) My husband is the team treasurer. Mostly it’s horse owners, team supporters, and team staff and officials here—the riders are at a hotel in walking distance of the Games.
In Paris we stayed in a ship-cabin-sized room with gauzy-curtained French windows open to Notre Dame’s ornately thorned spires. During our first-day-jetlag nap, a breeze stirred the curtains, and the cathedral bells chimed on and on through their hypnotic four-note number.
En route to Normandy, we detoured to Lille and saw my mares, Lapeti and Labelle, and two foals born in June. The mares are my former show jumpers, both of them small and hot-blooded. I left them here for breeding, because the best stallions stand in Europe. I hadn’t seen them, or any of their foals, in four years. I didn’t realize how much I missed them until Lapeti, boss of the pasture, came to me looking just like herself—big forelock, intent eye—and leaned on me as if thinking of those great years we had. She’s twenty-four now; both foals are Labelle’s via embryo transfer. The foals are beauties: a colt by Kannan, sire of the Olympic champion, and a filly by Nabab de Reve, sire of the last World Equestrian Games champion. The Fontaines, the wonderful family who owns the farm and takes care of the horses, brought out a bucket of pears, and the horses devoured them.
At the last World Equestrian Games—four years ago in Lexington, KY—Tom McCutcheon won team and individual gold in reining with our stallion Gunners Special Nite: the defining moment for our breeding business, and such a thrillingly great performance that I almost fell off the skybox balcony in my mad-cheering excitement. We’d bought the horse—his nickname is Bailey—just a few months before. Tom’s first show with him was the team trials; the World Games was his second. We knew Bailey was a great horse, but what he did at the Games went beyond: it was one of the best runs the sport has ever seen. Smooth, precise, athletic, aggressive, and—the signature of extraordinary athleticism—they made it look easy. So much so that when you watch this video, if you don’t know reining, you won’t realize how difficult the sport really is.
These are showoff versions of cattle-herding maneuvers, judged on form and technique, degree of difficulty (how fast you gallop and spin, how far you slide), and the horse’s willingness to be guided by only the softest signals: voice, neck rein, a shift in weight, squeeze of the leg. Watch Tom’s hand; he doesn’t pull on the reins. To gallop and slide and leave the reins loose the whole time—that’s incredibly hard, the sport at its best. The horse has to want to do his job. Bailey gave it everything he had, and that greatness of mind is part of what makes him such a promising sire.
Since winning the Games, Bailey has bred 120–150 mares each year; this year he bred more than 200. He doesn’t show anymore, just goes from pasture to breeding barn to his stall in the middle of Tom’s barn, where visitors to the ranch can admire him. Not a bad life. He’s marking his offspring with those blue eyes and white faces—a signature look passed down from Bailey’s father, Gunner. He was one of the sport’s all-time great sires. He died last year before his time, and left the industry in mourning. His offspring were the gold standard. We’re lucky to have such a great one, and to carry the bloodlines on.
Here we are giving Bailey a scratch to thank him at the 2010 Games:
And a few more shots from that amazing week:
Bailey was named US Equestrian Federation Horse of the Year—first western horse ever. Tom was USEF Equestrian of the Year. The press went on and on; see it on Bailey’s website.
Here he is looking handsome:
And a few of his beautiful babies:
See more from the 2010 Games and USEF awards here.