He was coming down the long side of the arena the first time I saw him. Big and bay and muscular, he had an elegant, easy walk and a confident, somewhat debonair allure. His broad forehead and kind, golden eyes were enhanced by a neatly plaited forelock. He wasn’t a particularly big horse, but he was round, compact and well-proportioned, and his thick, strong neck was shown to advantage by a set of perfect plaits. His tail was thick, long and glossy. But what struck me most about Kwintus the first time I saw him was the perfectly symmetrical heart-shaped white mark on his forehead. Okay; geometrically speaking, the white mark is actually more of a diamond shape. But to me it will always look like a heart, probably because I fell in love with this horse the moment I laid eyes on him. He had something special; a charisma, a presence, a gentle and endearing “cuteness” that made me feel happy. I glanced at Olivia, my fifteen-year-old daughter, hoping she felt the same way. I knew my eyes were sparkling, but were hers?
This magical moment happened two and a half years ago, when Olivia and I travelled to Germany accompanied by our trainer, Marie-Valentine Gygax (who, in my opinion, has to be the best, most patient and enthusiastic dressage trainer on the planet), to look for a dressage horse suitable for both of us. Our needs were pretty straightforward: we wanted a horse with three good gaits and a good character at a good price. Ideally, we’d imagined buying a horse aged between eight and ten, but we were open-minded, which is a good way to be when you want to buy a horse. As a case in point, during our first trip to Germany two months earlier, we’d fallen for a six-year old mare with a sweet character and a trot to die for. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, an intensive vet check revealed that the mare had a triple heart defect. She and we were not to be. It was a major disappointment, not to mention a financial setback for our limited budget. We’d already spent a substantial amount of money on plane fares and car rental, and during that initial horse-hunting weekend, had clocked up 800 exhausting and exhilerating kilometers dashing from one yard to another to try various potential mounts (Horse shopping? What a rush!). And while there was no end to the offer of dressage horses for sale in Deutschland, many of them were either beyond our means, or, for one reason or another, not suitable for a young rider and her middle-aged mother. Most of the good quality horses we could afford were young and inexperienced, and the idea of buying something so green made me nervous. I was an experienced rider, but had hardly ridden at all for seven years, having lost my nerve following a bad accident with my four-year-old Dutch warmblood. I was also concerned about putting my inexperienced daughter on something bound to unexpectedly explode, which at some point most young horses inevitably do. No, I wanted a horse with a little more mileage, one that was “safe” and uncomplicated. Basically, I was looking for a schoolmaster. But the problem was that nice, ten-year-old schoolmasters always come with stratospheric price tags. Without access to a stratospheric bank account, keeping an open-mind was definitely a must.
A few weeks after our veterinary tribulations with the cardiac-unfortunate mare, Marie-Valentine rang to tell me that Holger Munstermann, her contact in Germany, had found a few more horses that might be of interest to us, so I booked the flights and the three of us soon flew back to Germany. Unfortunately, when we arrived, one of the horses we were supposed to see had already been sold, another was lame, and yet another turned out to be a complete dud. We were shown a very nice ten-year-old mare, but I wasn’t completely convinced. Apart from not being a schoolmaster, she also had a weird habit of wobbling her lips while being ridden that got on my nerves. I was beginning to get worried; we’d flown all this way twice, and our equine budget was wasting away on travel expenses. Wasn’t there anything else we might see?
“Well, supposedly there is a very good horse at my friend Norbert’s yard, not too far from here,” said Holger, “The thing is that this horse is already fifteen-years-old. I wanted to show him to you the first time you came, but was told he’d just been sold to Japan. However, that sale fell through. I wasn’t going to mention him this time because I remember Marie-Valentine saying that fifteen might be a little too old. But I’ve been told that he’s an excellent horse, the ultimate schoolmaster and has competed up to Prix Saint Georges.”
While my interest sparked and my ears pricked, my daughter looked disconsolate. “I don’t want to look at a fifteen-year-old horse,” she sighed. “I don’t see the point.”
“A fifteen-year-old horse who has done Prix Saint Georges can teach you everything,” retorted Holger, sitting back in his chair and crossing his hands behind his head. “In fact, for a young rider like you, an experienced horse like this might really be ideal. It’s worth going to take a look at him, anyway.”
But Olivia wasn’t convinced. She thought she’d be taken to see something resembling the poor old burnt-out riding school horses she’s spent years coaxing around arenas back home. Having lost her heart to the prancy little six year old mare with the heart malfunction, she didn’t want to be coerced into settling for an ironing board with a cast-iron mouth. Nevertheless, between the three of us, we managed to convince her to give this old fellow a chance, and drove over to Norbert Van Laaks’ stunning stables.
Well, it didn’t take long to convince anyone. Because, as I mentioned earlier, this “old fellow” had nothing in common with an ironing board. We watched, our mouths curled up at the corners, as one of Nobert’s riders put Kwintus through his springy paces, our curly mouths widening into delighted grins when Marie-Valentine took over to personally test the horse prior to handing him over to Olivia. When my daughter swung into the saddle, she discovered equestrian sensations she’d only ever dreamed of. Within a few minutes she was over the moon and beyond, being given a private lesson by one of the most notorious trainers in the world (Norbert Van Laak coaches the Canadian team) who talked her through her first flying changes, appuyés and pirouettes. Kwintus’ ears flicked back and forth as he did his best to understand her somewhat muddled instructions. The elegant little horse was the perfect gentleman, even obliging her with a pirouette on the wrong leg when Olivia got her aids in a twist. As far as I was concerned, that was it. With that unbalanced, wonderfully wonky, extra-generous pirouette, I was terminally smitten.
Finally, it was my turn. I’d ridden maybe ten times in seven years, but as soon as I sat on Kwintus, I felt as though I was…well…coming home. Frustratingly, while my body remembered everything, my muscles had a terrible time coordinating the memories. I bounced and jiggled most mortifyingly, but Kwintus didn’t bat an eyelid. It was as if he was saying, “Don’t worry, I know my job. Just try to let me know more or less what you want me to do, and I’ll figure out the details. I’ve been here before, so no stress, honey.”
Kwintus is now seventeen years old and in better shape than ever. He lives the life of Riley fifteen minutes away from my home in Switzerland, and whinny-chuckles whenever we greet him with a “Hi, Kwint!”. He introduced my daughter to dressage competitions, winning her a first place during their first outing together with an impressive score of 69%. He’s given me back my confidence and taught me all the high level fancy stuff. Riding him is as riding should be: sheer pleasure. On top of this, he also has a great sense of humour, and is the most affectionate, sweet-tempered, generous horse I’ve ever known. The marking on his forehead may be - geometrically speaking - shaped like a diamond, but Olivia and I definitely see it as a heart.
Of course we do; we love him to bits!