Amidst the excitement of awards ceremonies, rowdiness of men in drag maintaining the arena and overall high energy of the Grand Prix Freestyles, there was sadness in the atmosphere at Devon on Saturday night. The crowd was full of tearful eyes as George Williams led Rocher, “The Diva of Devon,” in her final laps around the Dixon Oval during her official retirement ceremony. The black Westfalen mare pranced around the arena showing her attitude while the announcers recounted her outstanding international career. She would occasionally stop, pricking her usually floppy ears towards the crowd as if to take in all in. Williams and Rocher began their partnership in 2001 after Chuck and Joann Smith of Gypsy Woods Farm in Richland, Ohio acquired the mare specifically for Williams to show on the international circuit.
“Her talent was obvious from the beginning,” Williams said. He mentioned that she was obviously a special horse, but of course he couldn’t help notice her ears.
The pair began their competitive career with a win in the Grand Prix Special at Lamplight in May 2001, and a sweep of the Grand Prix division at Tempel Farms the following week reaching a 70.933 percent with the freestyle.
Williams and Rocher went on to leave a legacy in their wake with multiple placings at CDIs in both the Europe and North America, as well as competing at multiple World Cups and four USET Festival of Champions or Selection Trials (2001, 2002, 2005, 2008). Most notably, the pair won the Grand Prix Freestyle at Dressage at Devon an unprecedented three times, capping off their third win with a then unheard of 77.85 percent.
Due to trials with tendonitis, Rocher and Williams never made an Olympic team, and the mare was finally retired from international competition in 2009.
“Rocher was the horse that changed my life,” Williams said. “The Smiths provided a wonderful opportunity and I’m very grateful.
When asked about future horses, Williams mentioned that he has some very good horses he is working with at the moment, but that asking to compare anything to Rocher is nearly impossible.
After Rocher and Williams took their final laps around the arena, Chuck Smith holding the saddle that had been worn by the mare for the last time, Joann Smith holding a bouquet of roses, and the famous Madonna freestyle playing over the loudspeakers, it was impossible to not see the tears throughout the arena.
Kristi Vaccarelli, now a Ringmaster at Dressage at Devon has been volunteering and working at the show for 12 years. She described the pair as the “ultimate riding experience.”
“He’s an amazing rider, almost a horse whisperer,” Vaccarelli said. “You can’t see the connection, you feel it. People who don’t know the sport loved [Williams and Rocher].”
Despite Rocher’s actual retirement from competition almost four years ago, the ceremony brought a realization to many who loved her that it was officially over.
She danced in the Dixon Oval one last time to the cheers and tear-filled eyes of her most loyal fans, who will never again get to experience the floppy-eared passion and elegance of the tall, black, effervescent mare.