Dubious at first, deep pride grew in gifted T-bred

JoAnna Saunders and her ex-racehorse Ansel Adams (JC: Marino Lad) were CANTER California High Point winners at the Woodside Spring International Horse Trials in May.

JoAnna Saunders and her ex-racehorse Ansel Adams (JC: Marino Lad) were CANTER California High Point winners at the Woodside Spring International Horse Trials in May.

Riding a T-bred she once looked at with skepticism, her heart now thundered with pride as the pair captured two major awards at the Woodside Spring International Horse Trials.

JoAnna Saunders and her ex-racehorse Ansel Adams (JC: Marino Lad) seized the Preliminary Challenge (Rider) and the CANTER California OTTB High Point Award last month after a poor dress rehearsal that day, and three years after a less-than-magical introductory meeting.

In this Clubhouse Q&A, Sunders admits she was not immediately bowled over when she first met the dappled gray she nicknamed Easton. After six months of looking, and three failed vet checks on horses she’d previously chosen, she was far from being a starry eyed dreamer by the time they met.

But you’d never know to look at them now!

The pair was so exceptional in their performance May 25 and 26 that Ali Dasher, executive director of CANTER California notes their ride was “fantastically well styled.”

Q: JoAnna, when and how did you find your horse Ansel “Easton” Adams?

Marino Lad
New name: Ansel Adams
Nickname: Easton
Sire: Marino Marini
Dam: Bellagal
Foal date: April 9, 2007
I found Easton at the end of March, 2011. Chelan Kozak (a trainer from British Columbia) had brought a bunch of horses down for the winter to school and potentially sell … and a friend sent us some pictures and a few videos of Easton, as well as a few other horses.

Going into looking at Easton I wasn’t particularly excited. We had been looking for almost 6 months and I had already gone through three failed vet checks on horses that I really liked, so it was difficult to get excited about any horse at that point.

There was no, “Yes, this is the one!” moment for Easton and me; I actually had to sit down and make a pros and cons list to decide yes or no.

When I did purchase Easton, I thought it would take a long time for our partnership to be anything more than formal and competitive. I couldn’t be more wrong, for we bonded almost instantly.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge as you’ve brought him along?

CANTER  California Executive Director Ali Dacher praised their ride as exceptional.

CANTER California Executive Director Ali Dacher praised their ride as exceptional.

I would say it’s knowing how much and how far I can push him. While he is not a stereotypical Thoroughbred in his looks or personality, he is still sensitive, and responds to pressure dramatically at times. We call him a bit of a Drama Queen. He normally doesn’t act naughty, but when he does, it’s a big, unnecessary production.

With that being said, he responds extremely well to pressure 99% of the time. He has a lot of try, and has the desperate-to-please demeanor of Thoroughbreds.

Another challenge is (to resist) pushing him too far, too fast, because he trusts me and does what I ask. I worry he might take on too much before he decides he can’t do something.

So our biggest challenge is taking it slow, which is difficult when he is so talented and unfazed by anything. The last thing I want to do is push him and scare him so that he doesn’t feel confident or able to trust me.

Q: How has Easton surprised you?

The biggest surprise has been how he has developed from being a little spooky as a 3-turning 4-year-old to the horse he is today.

We used to have a major problem with ditches. But now, he soars over them with no problem at all.

Easton is also mildly lazy. I loved the hot and spicy Thoroughbreds who jump three feet over a cross rail. But, Easton is more likely to trip over a cross rail than leap over it.

Ansel enjoys some quality time with his fans.

Ansel enjoys some quality time with his fans.

But I’ve come to appreciate his attitude, because it allows me to be able to really put my leg on and work without him shooting out from under me. I still enjoy riding the hot Thoroughbreds, but now I think I would prefer the “Easton ride” more than anything else.

Q: Tell me about the build up to your quest to win the Preliminary Challenge and the High Point Thoroughbred Award.

It was hectic! We did cross-country in the morning around 9 and then did show jumping that evening at 7.

I was extremely nervous about how tired Easton might be … after only eight hours of rest.

And, I get most nervous over the Show Jumping phase because it’s so technical, and any minor slip up could cause a rail to fall. I was in 2nd place going into it, but one rail would knock me to 9th.

Q: The big atmosphere also had its effect.

When I tacked him up and got into the warm up ring, I could tell the atmosphere was different and there was an insane energy about the ring, which was adjacent to the show ring, but separated by the spectator tent.

You couldn’t see the people in the ring. But you could hear the buzzer, the sound of hooves hitting rails, and then the crowd’s reaction to the ride— clapping or gasping.

Easton is the type of horse who does not get fazed by much, and is essentially the same horse at the barn or at a show. But that night he could feel the energy. He did something he has only done a couple times in the 3 years that I’ve owned him—he started jigging.

JoAnna and her trainer Alexis Helffrich of Cheval Training enjoy a moment.

JoAnna and her trainer Alexis Helffrich of Cheval Training enjoy a moment.

He normally has the most “death pace” walk of any horse I’ve ever ridden! I could barely get him to stand still; every time the crowd clapped, he would get even more amped up.

Q: You had a poor dress rehearsal.

Our warm-up was not very smooth. He was very tired and was not jumping as well as I know he can. He knocked down the last two fences before we finished up and went into the show ring; and, he was shaken.

As I was standing at the gate watching the rider before me, my trainer came up to me and said, “Sit up and don’t take your leg off.” And I trotted into the ring.

Q: You both put in a great performance!

There were hundreds of people all around the ring and the atmosphere was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before!

I could feel the energy. And so could Easton.

We saluted and picked up the canter and went to the first fence, and I could tell he was amped up and ready to go. A minute and a half later we flew over the last oxer and I realized we went clean— something we haven’t done in over a year!

It felt like total redemption because we had 5 rails down at our last show, and when I walked out from that experience, I devastated.

But that night we trotted out victorious!

The second annual CANTER High Point OTTB Award was cosponsored by Jan Vandebos/RanJan Racing & Peninsula Building Materials.

6 responses to “Dubious at first, deep pride grew in gifted T-bred”

  1. cheri vaughan

    What an insightful young lady! Bravo to the pair!! More to come!!

  2. Michelle Y.

    Gorgeous horse! I’ve always liked the dappled greys! Congratulations on your fabulous win!

  3. Reena

    “He has a lot of try, and has the desperate-to-please demeanor of Thoroughbreds.
    Another challenge is (to resist) pushing him too far, too fast, because he trusts me and does what I ask. I worry he might take on too much before he decides he can’t do something.
    So our biggest challenge is taking it slow, which is difficult when he is so talented and unfazed by anything. The last thing I want to do is push him and scare him so that he doesn’t feel confident or able to trust me.” – LOVE this quote! This screams excellence in horsemanship to me. JoAnna & Easton are a pair to watch! So excited for this team! Thanks, Susan – for another great write up!

  4. elvira

    Such a beautiful and talented horse!!!! Best wishes to both of them

  5. jon

    I like his soft eye and facial markings.

  6. Susan Crane-Sundell

    Joanna may have been skeptical about Easton at first, but he has proven himself to be a worthy show horse.
    Congratulations to them both. They look as though they are poised to make an impact on the OTTB show circuit.

    As for Easton, he may not be a “hot” Thoroughbred, but he is extraordinarily beautiful. In fact he’s breathtakingly handsome. He had me at dappled!

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