An International Dressage-Horse Shopping Adventure

Belinda Nairn-Wertman and Catherine Gallegos travel to Holland in search of the perfect dressage partner.

It’s amazing how one phone call can change a person’s life. Mine came when my childhood mentor, dressage Olympian Belinda Nairn-Wertman, called from her home in Florida to invite me on her next horse-hunting trip in Holland. She wanted my help as her test rider. Belinda explained that she’d retired from riding earlier in the year and her assistant, Anna Marek, wasn’t able to join her on this particular horse-buying trip. Now, 25 years after she’d last seen me ride, Belinda heard I’d been seriously injured in a riding accident, and she was stepping in to help ease me through a pivotal crossroads. 

Catherine Gallegos rides Zanaika for the first time. (Credit: Courtesy, Belinda Nairn-Wertman)

The freak accident I speak of occurred last year at my home in California. While starting a young horse, a frisky buck just happened to snap a vertebra while I was still seated in the saddle. Naturally, in just that fraction of a second I transformed from a fearless rider into a fearful one. Fortunately, my broken back healed well and the doctor said I could begin riding again. 

So did Belinda really need my help or was she just determined to get me back in the saddle? I’ll never be sure. But I’m thankful that she was there for me last year when I needed her most, just as she had been in my youth, when she had provided me with a caring home in Pennsylvania, where I could finish growing up, while at the same time working hard to mold me into a top young dressage rider.

Back when I was her working student, Belinda put me on the best horses she could find for me to help train and compete, and generously taught me through Grand Prix on her past and future Olympic mounts. Belinda’s faith, support and steadfastness naturally had a profound influence on my life. 

My two-week job in Holland would be to ride whatever horses captured her attention. I was to confirm the exact details of how each horse felt from the saddle to ensure she didn’t miss any hidden issues. Since Belinda had trained me, she knew we spoke a common language. And she knew that I understood what she liked most in a horse.

Belinda sent me to Holland like this when I was a kid, so I remembered what it was like: grueling! We crisscrossed Holland on a truly nonstop schedule, driving to all the best stables, breeding facilities and competitions, plus finding our way into any backyards where super horses were rumored to be hiding. Dutch horses remain Belinda’s specialty. She has continued traveling to Holland for more than 30 years now, finding top horses for students and clients around the world.

Prior to my trip, I hadn’t ridden for months as I gingerly recuperated after the accident. Local Santa Ynez dressage friends Kristi Ullman and Jeanne and Michele Bandinu thoughtfully stepped forward, encouraging me to warm up for the Holland trip on their relatively safe horses since I didn’t own any that were broke at that time.

I had time for just two rides. I felt like a fearful child awkwardly perched up on their horses for lead-line rides. It was bad, very bad. If Kristi and Jeanne had known just how afraid I was, they wouldn’t have let go of the reins. Although my back was now pain-free, I was still tremendously tense, stiff and protective. I couldn’t imagine sitting the trot again.

How could I possibly do this? I sure didn’t want to disappoint Belinda with lousy riding. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to embrace this adventure, try hard and just hope it would all work out.

Belinda welcomed me at the Amsterdam airport with her famously mischievous grin, standing alongside her longtime Dutch helper, Bart. They tossed my luggage into the trunk and directed me to the backseat, where I was to pull on my boots while we sped toward our first appointment.

Credit: Courtesy, Catherine Gallegos Dutch barns with thatched roofs are common in Holland.

Within an hour of landing, Belinda began legging me up onto horses. I guess I’d thought there’d be time to work into it, like getting very slowly into a cold pool, toes first, inch by inch. Instead, exhausted from the journey and without time to focus on my fears, I automatically began doing what Belinda trained me to do so long ago: I got right down to business, stiffly at first, but gradually relaxing and sitting down deeper and deeper into the saddle again, putting those big fancy horses through their huge paces and upper-level movements, concentrating on feeling for faults and for potential without a moment left to think about getting hurt. That first day was exciting, gratifying, empowering—a huge relief! By the end of that first week I was decidedly back in the groove.

Belinda Nairn-Wertman travels several times each year to Holland in search of talented dressage horses. (Credit: Courtesy, Catherine Gallegos)

We spent two hectic, but fairy-tale, weeks at incredible stables where such horses as Ravel, Valegro and Totilas were discovered, watching more than 100 of their finest horses shown off to us under saddle. Belinda found 30 intriguing enough for me to test-ride. Only a few made the final cut to her favorites list.

Weekends we shivered in the icy drizzle ringside at various competitions, watching every horse warm up with Dutchman Bart tactfully approaching the owners of Belinda’s favorites. On this trip, Belinda was searching for horses to partner with five clients. Most of her clients buy sight-unseen, trusting implicitly in Belinda’s matchmaking reputation. A few would ultimately fly in to try her finalists.

We chatted with a constant stream of Belinda’s long-time friends: other Olympians, trainers, breeders, international judges and sales riders. We carefully watched every interesting horse go. I even got to kiss the noses of some legendary stallions, meanwhile savoring the honor of test-riding each of Belinda’s favorite prospects. 

At one barn, after Belinda nixed three well-trained geldings, their trainer remarked that an exceptional 8-year-old broodmare, Zanaika, had just arrived to learn basic dressage. She’d produced three top foals and was broke to drive. Now her owner wanted her prepared for the KWPN dressage performance test to raise her broodmare rating another notch. If Belinda found Zanaika interesting, the trainer said he would call her owner to see if she could be bought.

Zanaika took my breath away: jet black with a bold white stripe down her face and four white socks, demure and sweet. “A well-oiled machine,” Belinda said under her breath while we watched Zanaika warm up. She was obviously quite green, unsteady under saddle and extremely forward, yet so beautiful to watch. And what a powerhouse. Wow, if that energy could be contained.

The trainer hopped off, assuring me that she seemed quite sensible. As I mounted, I flashed on Alec getting on The Black Stallion for the first time, tangling his fingers around and around in that long, wild mane to get a tight grip, hanging on for dear life. I felt his same butterflies.

Known for their longevity, these traditional brooms are a barn staple in Holland (Credit: Courtesy, Catherine Gallegos).

Moments later we were flying by Belinda, around and around, in what alternated between an extended trot and a hand gallop, circle after circle, verging out of control. Yep, my fears had already flooded back. I soon grew so weak from adrenaline loss that I felt queasy and faint. Afraid to pass out and tumble from the saddle, I kept asking Belinda, as we whizzed by, if I could please, please just bring her back to a walk for a while.

“Forward. Forward! You can do this,” Belinda quietly and stubbornly repeated. Of course she already realized I’d just met my perfect match, and she knew I was plenty capable of riding this sweet, energetic mare. She was patiently waiting for me to have the same epiphany. I certainly knew I was falling in love. But for the moment, I was still awfully busy trying to slow her down. 

By the time I climbed back down to the safety of terra firma, I was reveling in Zanaika’s feeling of extreme energy and power—the kind of energy we dream of in dressage. Learning to contain that level of energy, once we find it, now that’s the big balancing act, isn’t it? The art of dressage. 

Then the trainer read her lineage aloud. Half-sister to Totilas—no wonder I’d been so immediately star-struck! Zanaika was a lovely mover indeed, bursting with potential. But what drew me to her even more was her uniquely graceful, loving, demure presence. I knew she would haunt my memory if I went home without her. I kept thinking: “I don’t need another horse. But I just want to be in her presence, even if something goes wrong one day and she can’t be ridden.” Yet I wasn’t in Holland to shop for myself. Back home my husband and I were on an impassioned mission, carefully saving to buy our own ranch. I was in such a quandary.

We returned for another three rides on Zanaika, each session feeling more and more harmonious and thrilling, before I proceeded with a rather extravagant vet check: 30 X-rays, ultrasounds of all legs, a broodmare exam and everything else I could think to add on, trying to find something wrong—anything. Zanaika passed all her tests with flying colors.

Still completely torn, I called Victor, my wonderful winemaker husband. What should I do? We sure didn’t need any more horses. I’d been purposefully scaling back and had gradually distilled our herd down to just two promising babies. What a nice, easy, even number: two.

With that goal of “just two” in mind, I’d recently sold several of our wonderful Dutch horses, horses I’d found as youngsters and proudly started and trained, horses I hadn’t planned to part with. One of those, Willow, was schooling Intermediaire and ready to get very serious. If I hadn’t been on such a mission to minimize, I never would have sold her.

Willow produced some beautiful Dutch foals for us, including a super Lingh filly and a Totilas colt (my little heartthrob). They would be coming of age and ready to ride soon enough. So I had those two incredible prospects already. Why was I even considering buying another horse? Had I lost my mind? So many thoughts were racing through my head and speeding halfway around the world through the telephone line. Victor laughed between my strange sobs and horse babble. “I’ve never heard you like this. Clearly you must bring Zanaika home,” he chuckled, dismissing my concerns.

Naturally the rest of the trip was a blur. Ultimately, Belinda found a perfectly matched horse for each of her several waiting clients and stayed to oversee more veterinary exams and shipping arrangements. I returned to California to prepare for Zanaika’s arrival—my confidence miraculously restored and my passion for our sport redoubled, and so grateful that Belinda stuck her neck out to get me back in the saddle. Perhaps even better still, Belinda invited me on her next horse-hunting trip to Holland for another round of unforgettable test-riding. So the adventure continues. I can’t wait!

Credit: Courtesy, Belinda Nairn-Wertman

Catherine Gallegos competed in show jumping and eventing until beginning a four-year apprenticeship in 1984 with dressage Olympian Belinda Nairn. Toward the end of her apprenticeship, Catherine earned the team test high score on Borodino II at the North American Young Rider Championships in 1987, helping secure the team gold medal for the United States. In 2006, after nearly 20 years away from horses, while working as a political journalist and editor, Catherine began buying, breeding and training her own Dutch horses in Santa Ynez, California. 

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