In Memory of Grappa

Article shared from The Plaid Horse.

He was the greatest. No other horse has matched his record of seven national equitation championships. He set the standard of what an equitation horse could be. Over the years people have searched for the next Grappa, but there will never be a next Grappa. There was only one.

Grappa came into my life in 1997, just before the Maclay Finals that year. I was a kid with big dreams, who’d grown up foxhunting and riding naughty ponies, then found myself progressing through the show world to arrive at Missy Clark’s barn. In January of that year, we were walking our first course together, and she discovered I was young enough to still be eligible for the 12-14 equitation. “Yippee skippee!” she said. “We’re gonna win the finals.” But the horse I brought with me wouldn’t do. Soon she’d lined up my partnership with Grappa, thereby setting in motion some of the most formative experiences of my life. 

Image from Plaid Horse.

Together Grappa and I won the Washington Equitation Classic Finals, USET Talent Search Finals, AHSA Medal Finals, Calvin Klein Equitation Classic, Kathy Scholl Equitation Classic, New England Equitation Finals, Maclay Regionals, and in our final year showing together, every Medal, Maclay, and USET class we entered. 

Grappa taught me horsemanship lessons that will serve me for a lifetime. From Grappa, I learned that the great ones are often quirky; that instead of trying to train those quirks out of them, you work with them, try to come to an understanding. You let the horse have some fun, make some mistakes, express himself. Save the scrutinizing of each moment for the show ring. The everyday stuff has room for individuality.

He had an unparalleled ability to keep you on your toes. In other words, he required total presence in the moment. There was no room for drifting attention; on his back, I was connected with him and attentive to him always. He’d spook at unpredictable times—just to express his wildness, it seemed, not because he was actually afraid. That horse had no fear. He never questioned a fence, be it skinny wall or grob or multi-level bank. He was the best water jumper I ever rode (and I was lucky enough to ride some great Grand Prix horses). It was all so easy for him; his job was like play.

Image from The Plaid Horse.

Over the course of twenty-three years, I learned to carry the responsibility and privilege of caring for such an extraordinary being. I’d have done anything to give him a good life, and thankfully, I was able to. After my junior years, we leased him to other riders under particular terms. He had to stay in our care and under Missy’s training. And he won the finals two more times. In retirement, he had two of the best horsemen I know looking after him: Brian Robinson, and later, Nancy Shaw.

I never lost my sense of awe of him. Every time I swung a leg over Grappa’s back, I felt how incredibly lucky I was. Every day, I did my best to deserve him. In his retirement ceremony at the Washington International Horse Show, I rode him into the ring in the spotlight to Louis Armstrong’s “You’re The Top,” a song that could have been written just for Grappa.

What Grappa did for me in my riding career is forever part of me. And even more than the achievements, the chance to be his person, to learn from him, to love and care for him over many years, has helped to shape who I am. Whenever I’m with any horse, Grappa is in my heart.

Grappa’s  National Championships:

• 1996 ASPCA Maclay Finals – Lauren Bass

• 1997 AHSA Medal Finals – Lauren Bass

• 1998 Washington International Equitation  Classic Finals – Sarah Willeman

• 2000 USET Talent Search Finals – Sarah Willeman

• 2000 AHSA Medal Finals – Sarah Willeman

• 2001 ASPCA Maclay Finals – Brian Walker

• 2002 AHSA Medal Finals – Maggie Jayne Grappa also won:

• 11 national top ten ribbons

• 15 classes at Devon

• 7 major equitation classics

• 3 Maclay regionals

• and the Best Horse trophy at the USET finals  is named in his honor

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