Just a few days ago, Holly Bergay was in the enviable position of heading to Gladstone with high expectations for her chance to claim a team spot for the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy. Her proven partnership with the sculpted chestnut stallion, Rubino Bellissimo, a 1996 Hanoverian (Rubinstein I x Bellisimo) owned by Violet Jen of Sunnyvale, CA had earned the highest score at the 2014 USEF Golden State Dressage Classic CPEDI3* WEG qualifier with 73% and the pair has competed on the small tour able-bodied in the Prix St. George and Intermediare-1 with scores in the mid to high sixties. At the Del Mar National Championships, they placed second in the FEI Freestyle Test of Choice with a 71% on their Intermediare-1 Freestyle. Flying out from the West Coast fires to settle in on a lovely farm in Maryland, all seemed well until the unthinkable happened so close to reaching her goal.
Any competitive rider knows the meticulous care and oversight that goes into ensuring our prized partners are at their best, happy and fit for our chance to shine in the ring.
Rubino had flown in early two weeks ago and settled into his East Coast routine easily but after showing some discomfort four days ago, a large mass was discovered and further diagnostics are underway.
At age 21, Bergay has already negotiated a competitive road filled with joy and triumph but also, the heartbreak of horses that she has answered with poise and total dedication. When Holly informed Chef d’Equipe, Kai Handt, about the dramatic turn of events, she says he did as much research as he could quickly about Rubino’s condition and relayed everything he found out.
“He encouraged me to keep my head up and show in the National Championships anyway. His daughter, Julia, offered Holly the ride on her horse, NTEC Royal Dancer, a 17.3 hand gelding by Rubicell.“I will get three rides on him before the show but Kai really believes in me and Julia has done an amazing job training Royal,” says Holly. “We are so lucky to have a team coach who truly cares about us and our long term competitive careers.”
Holly’s impressive riding resume includes being a USDF Bronze and Silver Medallist and the first ever Para-equestrian to compete at the NAJYRC in 2007. She hopes to finish her USDF Gold Medal next year and says it would be a dream come true to compete in the Brentina Cup Championships.
Born without a left hand, she is classified as a Grade IV rider, (the least impaired of the Grades 1-IV). She rides with a connecter on her double bridle and leather loop attached to her left rein that slips over her arm.
Finding a Renewed Focus
Withdrawing Rubino seemed a harsh twist of fate for Bergay. Named to the U.S. Team for 2010 World Equestrian Games, she had to withdraw her mount, Grand Ballerina, due soundness problems and later retire her. “Ballerina was a once in a lifetime type of horse, she was brilliant and tried so hard for me. We developed an amazing bond and I feel so grateful to have ever ridden a horse like her,” says Holly.
She credits her trainer at the time, FEI rider and trainer, Sarah Dodge, for helping her see the silver lining in the experience. “She told me to focus on the relationship I developed from the mare and how much I learned from her,” Holly says but the emotional toll and financial commitment left the teenager shaken.
“That really me step back and look at the reasons I decided to pursue this but I also realized that there can not be a happy end to an unhappy journey.”
When Holly told her parents she wanted to postpone college to stick with horses, they said she’d need to support her equine expenses herself. She left home in Colorado and became a working student for Bettina Loy of Del Mar Dressage in California.
On the lookout for a potential horse to try for the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Holly saw Rubino’s sale ad on Dressage Daily’s Horse Market. “I’m small and when I saw Rubi, I knew he was international quality and a good fit size-wise for me.” She contacted Violet about a lease and went for an audition trial ride.
“Violet gave me the compliment of a lifetime, she said she would be honored to have me ride her horse.” Then coming back into work, he strained an old an injury and they missed the selection trials for London. One option was to send the horse to a rehab facility but by that time, Rubino was so important to Holly, she offered to do the rehabilitation herself.
A Place to Bond
Looking for a place that would accept a stallion on lay up, Holly landed at Sunset Horse Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, CA, a place that proved pivotal to her relationship with Rubino, courtesy of owner Paul Seitz, a western rider and former Marine Corps sniper.
After riding hot, sensitive mares, a stallion presented a totally different challenge for Holly. With guidance from Seitz who had worked with Ray Hunt, dedicated daily care gave the pair an opportunity to bond on the ground. “Now I feel that he completely trusts and respects me and it has shown in our work under saddle as well,” Holly says.
She found that, especially, coming back from an injury, it was all about making the work enjoyable for him. “Trail rides, hill work and working him twice per day with one ride just being stretching or walk work have been techniques that have been successful in keeping him fit and happy.”
Seitz convinced her to put a western saddle on Rubi and try a variety of activities outside the arena. By making it fun for both of them, they developed trust and forward brilliance in the ring. “Holly’s best attribute is her determination (and talent). Boy, that horse is busting his butt for her now,” he says.
An acute observer of the horse, Seitz watched the horse dropping his left shoulder in sync with Holly. He went into his office, cut up some leather pieces and redesigned her rein to go around the back of her arm and over her forearm, which allows her to sit evenly and use her arms more symmetrically.
Thanks to veterinarian, Dr. Rodrigo Vasquez, farrier, Ernest Woodward, Cameron Reese from Electric Stride Equine Therapy, Paul Seitz’ insight and Holly’s diligence, Rubino came back 100% and the pair got back in the ring.
In 2014, Holly began showing for the first time as an open rider “It was so fun to ride against some of the professionals I admire most, like Shannon Peters.” Most important was her horse’s reaction. “Rubino blew me away with the way he dealt with the huge crowds in the very electric indoor arena. He was nervous at first but trusted me.”
Violet calls Rubino “a dressage genius” who’s very sweet but knows he’s a stud muffin and can be quite talkative. “Holly’s an excellent rider to keep him attentive and to encourage him to use his body properly to show off his elegance. She’s got him moving now like he’s six again, not 18!” she says.
“I’m so lucky that Violet believed in me enough to let me ride Rubino and trusted me enough to bring him back to work. I wish the sport had more owners like Violet. She is a knowledgeable and intelligent horsewoman who saw something in me and decided to help me in the ways that she can. The sport would really benefit from more young people having opportunities like the one Violet gave me.”
Funding Ambitious Dreams
Last year, Holly started the San Diego Saddle Club LLC, a riding school at Sunset Horse Ranch, where people learn the basics of good horsemanship and riding to fund Rubino’s expenses.
Holly started riding herself at age five on an Arabian named Ambition that she inherited after it bucked her mother off and the trainer suggested letting Holly learn on the horse.
“It took Holly forever to get that horse on the bit,” laughs Mary Bergay but they both took to dressage and never looked back.
“I’m so proud of her,” relates Mary. When the family that had Ambition, now 28 years old, needed to place him, Holly hitched up a trailer and drove to Arizona to get him. “He’s a star at her school and she’s taken responsibility for him.”
She is also a great role model for her students that someone who looks different is perfectly capable of handling the daily routine and setting high standards.
While Holly trains mostly on her own, she trailers to lessons when possible with Sue Blinks and Tracy Roenick. “This year, I've been able to clinic with Conrad Schumacher and Morten Thomsen. I even drove to Tucson, where I grew up and spent a week training with my childhood trainer, Pat Baker Hutter. I've been soaking up all the knowledge I can get!”
Holly received a grant award from The Dressage Foundation to attend the Young Rider Graduate Program, which she found invaluable. “I would highly recommend it to any young professional. I came out of the program enlightened and motivated. Now that I teach a lot of kids, I see their parents struggle through the costs of the sport like mine did and like I am now. I can only hope that The Dressage Foundation grows, so more educational opportunities become attainable to up and coming riders and professionals.”
Bergay credits her parents for allowing her to dream big. “Those who have met my mom know that she is the most supportive and wonderful mother. I’ve been able to raise some funds for selection trials with the help of my community and my San Diego Saddle Club students and their families. Paul Seitz has done so much to support me, from helping with my horse, to taking me to lessons, to helping me start my business.”
Her sponsors Custom Saddlery, Unbridled Lux, EIS, and Samshield help provide many things she needs but Holly does not have sponsorship when it comes to training, showing, and travel costs.
“While every aspect of this sport is challenging, I'm sure many people will agree that the financial part of it can seem the most difficult. I work to pay for all my board and training but oftentimes show costs are totally overwhelming,” she notes.
Holly had brought Rubino to Sunset Hill in Woodbine, Maryland ahead of Gladstone as her former trainer, Sarah Dodge, who had worked with Holly prior in 2009 in Colorado, had taken a job there. “Debbie McDonald referred her to me then because she had a very hot, sensitive horse and Debbie thought we would be a good match,” recalls Dodge. They have remained close despite moving to opposite coasts. To complete the reunion, good friend, McKinley Harvey, also from Colorado who’s groomed for Holly at previous CPEDIs will join the team at Gladstone.
Dodge describes Holly as laser focused with excellent feel who develops a nice rapport with her horses. “Holly is a great competitor. When she rides down centerline, she is incredibly focused and calm. She’s a relatively experienced competitor for her age, since she competes both able bodied and para,” says Dodge. “I’m probably tougher on her than most students because she has such high aspirations. I train her as I would want to be trained, no excuses. As her coach, I believe in her goals and dreams as much as I do my own and I think that's a powerful thing.”
Sue Blinks echoed the importance of the high bar mindset. “Holly’s very capable in the saddle. You describe what you want, she can make it happen.” She was also impressed when Bergay trailered in with a four year old to a strange venue, alone, tacked up and rode. Holly’s very positive in her skills but Blinks said she needed a pep talk on moving forward. “I told her, you’re good, you need to step in that direction. Goals don’t happen unless you go after them. Act like it’s gonna happen and it will.”
“With Rubino, I try to listen to him every day,” says, Holly. “The World Equestrian Games are my dream but Rubino is most important to me and I have just as much fun training with him every day as I do competing. I feel that I have just scratched the surface of understanding this art and know I will always be learning. At its best, the connection and communication between horse and rider is like nothing else.”
It takes courage, talent and tenacity to go after lofty goals. With horses, it’s an added gamble that comes with high costs but Holly Bergay as a rider with talent and passion is grateful for the outpouring of support and primed to accept the challenge and opportunity to partake.