The harder the audience clapped, the higher he stepped.
Lofting his exceptionally long legs so enthusiastically that each step seemed more animated, more look at me, than the one before, he danced with all his heart to a movie soundtrack from Secretariat.
And Sea Lord was great that day. Not as a racehorse, he never raced.
But in the hands of top-level dressage rider Silva Martin he was a virtuoso in the dressage ring performing a Freestyle that displayed their talent and connection, while reminding everyone who watched that this was no Warmblood.
This was an ex-racehorse Thoroughbred who became a Grand Prix dressage horse!
Outfitted in the silks and blinkers customarily worn on the track, Martin cantered them into the show ring of the PVDA Ride For Life Dancing Horse Challenge June 25 to the sound of a bugler announcing the start of a race.
Race name: Sea Lord
Sire: Sea Salute
Dam: Graceful Glory
Foal date: 2001The idea to honor Sea Lord’s heritage came to Martin and the Thoroughbred’s owner Charish Campbell once it was decided that he would be the horse they would bring to the benefit show for the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center, Martin says in a recent interview with OffTrackThoroughbreds.com.
“Charish and I were throwing ideas around, and I said, ‘There’s really no question. We’ll have to go as a jockey and racehorse.’ He’s an American Thoroughbred and we should honor that,” she says.
“A good friend of mine sewed my silks and he wore goggles for the first time in his life. The whole idea that he was off the racetrack in Virginia was fantastic. The audience loved it. And the more they clapped the better he went for them.”
Martin and her husband Boyd Martin, a US Eventing Team A-List member, love Thoroughbreds.
“Boyd has always purchased Thoroughbreds off the track and has been a big fan of them. He has tended to prefer them to Warmbloods because they’re so smart and they have a good energy—they never wear out,” she says.
And Sea Lord was evented by both Boyd and Olympian Phillip Dutton before Martin moved him into a dressage career in 2007.
She still remembers what she said the first time she saw Sea Lord. “I met him in July 2007 and Phil Dutton was eventing him and Boyd was also riding him, doing some novice work,” she says. “I used to look at him and think that this was a really nice horse. You could just see it.”
At the time, his jumping skills were not meeting expectations, so she offered to sit on him.
“I remember telling his owner at the time, Shannon Simpson, that he could be something really good. Then he developed into this freak that he is now.”
The pair has quickly climbed levels, and is now at Grand Prix. Most recently, Sea Lord won Reserve Champion in the last Regionals at Prix St. George and has achieved many other successes, including wins at multiple Prix St. George shows.
In a Dressage Daily.com article, he is described as a “well developed Grand Prix” horse who has achieved one tempi changes and piaffe-passage. The article notes: “He is a dream to ride, very soft, forward thinking, and loves to please.”
His personality and his ability were deciding factors guiding Martin’s decision to take him to the show.
“Sea Lord loves to make a grand entrance and he thrives in the big atmosphere at a dressage show, with all the lights, music and people,” Martin says. “A lot of horses can get scared in an atmosphere like that. But this horse is way less hot than some of my Warmbloods, and when he’s in the ring, all he does is try for you.”
And he has made a big impression on many of the people in his circle.
Shannon Stimson, his first owner, recalls how impressed she was with the horse nicknamed Big Bird because of his resemblance to the Sesame Street character.
“He was so gangly and his neck and legs were so unusually long at 17.1 hands that he was called Big Bird by the stable guys caring for him,” Stimson says. Skinny and out of shape, he had a “huge suspension” and his trot “was like velvet,” she adds.
She purchased the horse and put him in a program with Phillip Dutton. But, as the horse advanced it became clear that he was not as careful over rails as they would have liked, and that upper-level jumping was probably not in the cards for him.
But Martin saw something special in him, and grabbed the opportunity to teach the large, constitutionally uphill mount to perform dressage.
Stimson recalls how well they fit each other when Martin finally gave him a try.
“From the first moment Silva sat on him and I watched them work together, it was clear that dressage was what he was born to do,” Stimson says. “Silva’s personality matches Birdy’s perfectly, and he will do anything for her.”
He was always a big mover with a bold personality, she adds.
“His personality was always exceptionally sweet and laid back, not that he didn’t have his opinions,” Stimson recalls. “He has huge self-confidence, and there is absolute no ‘No!’ in him. I take this to be basic to his Thoroughbred temperament and excellent blood lines.”
Among the greats in his family tree are Native Dancer, Nashua, and Seattle Slew.
Although Sea Lord is “still learning collection,” he’s young yet, and full of promise, Martin says.
His owner has watched the video of his debut Freestyle over and over again.
“The performance is a tribute to the American Thoroughbred,” Campbell says. “Watching this in person has been the highlight of my career.”
And for one more ex-racehorse performing at the highest echelons, the performance in honor of great Thoroughbred athletes helped underscore what so many top riders know: Thoroughbreds can do anything.
“If you get them on your side,” Martin says, “they’ll do anything for you.”