Sarah Willeman Acceptance Speech for Horse of the Year
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Thank you, first and foremost, to the USEF and to everyone who voted for Gunners Special Nite. I also want to thank the team that got us here: Jeff Petska, Pete Kyle, Dr. John Newcomb, Dr. John McCarroll, Barb Wibbels, all of team USA for their support, and Vonita Bowers and the USEF especially for everything they do for the sport of reining. This is definitely the high point of my life as a horse owner. It's a great feeling to have the support of the equestrian community, and I'm happy as well for the recognition this brings to reining.
I came to reining from a hunter/jumper background, and it's a sport I've grown to love;from the thrill of the sliding stop and the challenge of getting it just right, to the rowdy atmosphere in the show arena, to the community of people happy to cheer for each other. Of course, despite the differences in disciplines, the principles of horsemanship I learned in jumping still apply: having a feel for a horse's movement and balance, riding with invisible aids, the athleticism and mentality that make a good show horse.
I'm still in awe of what Tom and Gunners Special Nite achieved together at the WEG. We bought the horse in May of 2010, so he and Tom had only a few months to get to know each other before the trials and the Games. We owe a big thank you to Marcy Ver Meer, who rode Gunners Special Nite before we bought him. She did a beautiful job with him.
We knew he was a great horse, but he managed to exceed all of our expectations. I was thrilled just to see him on the US team and to see him contribute to the team's win at the WEG. But then his run with Tom in the individual finals was the best reining run I've ever seen. It was really one of those rare moments of greatness is sport. The spins and sliding stops were big and athletic, every maneuver was perfectly precise, and all of it looked effortless. They just never put a foot wrong.
Coming from an equitation background, of course I love to see smooth riding. I also know how difficult it is to do reining maneuvers really well, especially riding one-handed and with the reins left loose the whole time. That takes finesse and timing and feel from the rider, and of course the horse has to want to do his job.
A few days ago I watched the video of that gold-medal run, having not seen it in a while, and I got a little teary watching it again. I think what gets to me most is to see such smooth, seamless riding and a horse trying so hard, in such a purely willing way, for his rider. That's something universal across disciplines that I think we can all appreciate.
I can't quite believe it was ten years ago that I had the honor of coming to this convention as a junior equestrian. At that time, I hoped my riding career would take a somewhat different path from what it's been. For most of the time since then, I've been battling a back injury that took me out of the sport entirely in 2002.
I feel such gratitude toward Tom and Mandy McCutcheon, because they've given me something to be excited about again in the horse world. I'm lucky to have found them. They've taught me so much over the last four years. Mandy is a master of showmanship and gives me something to aspire to in the Non Pro division. Tom is as talented a rider and horse trainer as you'll ever find. And most importantly to me, Tom and Mandy are thoroughly good people;thoughtful and kind and appreciative of what they have. It's a comfort to know that Tom always has the best interests of his horses and his clients at heart. He's a credit to the sport of reining and to the horse world in general. His intelligence in business and his generosity toward his clients are rare qualities and, along with his talent as a trainer, make him, to me, the model of what a horse professional should be.
So I couldn't be happier that Tom is the one to achieve all this with a horse of mine. I can't thank him and Mandy enough for all they do, and I want to say thank you again to the USEF for this incredible honor for our horse.