Sebastien enjoys having all eyes focused on him, so the 14-year-old Rheinlander really sparkled in the electric glow of the Friday evening dressage competitions at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival during the winter.
While the crowd and the pervasive excitement are daunting for some horses, "He loves going under the lights," said Canadian Lindsay Kellock, 29, who has been riding "Seb" for Melissa Schiff and her Enterprise Farm Equestrian over the last three years.
"He wants to be the center of attention. He's a very confident horse, brave. Sometimes," she observed, "he comes across as a little full of himself.
"When people first walk up to him in the stall, he tries to intimidate them by putting his ears back. But as soon as you pet him and he's getting attention, he's a loving horse for sure." That love also extends to his favorite snack, apples.
A gelding by Sandro Hit out of a Fidermark dam, Seb stood second in the North American rankings to qualify for the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in Las Vegas before it was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Places were set aside through the qualifying process for only two North Americans, and Steffen Peters of the USA made the cut early with Suppenkasper, on a total of 81.411 percent.
Seb, the winner of the freestyle during Dressage at Devon last autumn, had earned a total of 75.065 percent. Just the best three scores count, which put him behind Suppenkasper but ahead of the other horses with three scores. However, the AGDF in Wellington, Florida, shut down before the final qualifier at the end of March, so Lonoir, ridden by Olivia Lagoy-Weltz, did not have a chance to collect a third score to add to marks of 80 and more than 79 percent. But as was noted at the time, “a lot can happen before the final qualifier is held.”
No one, however, suspected that COVID-19 would be what happened. The cancellation of the Final was inevitable.
“I was definitely disappointed, because I know Sebastien and I had a really good shot at getting there, so that emotionally was a little bit hard,” Kellock recounted.
“At the same time, I think what’s going on in the world is much bigger than what is happening in our sport. It’s a disappointment, but at the same time, we’re all just trying to get by right now.”
She attended the Vegas finals as a groom for fellow Canadian Jacquie Brooks in 2007, so she understands the allure of the competition at the Thomas & Mack Center.
"I've seen it, I know what it is. The atmosphere there is incredible and, of course, being in Las Vegas isn't the worst thing," Kellock said with a smile.
She had "a lot of confidence to want to go, because I know he deals very well in electric atmospheres. If anything, it makes him better. I would prefer to show this horse under the lights rather than during the day.”
Even so, the World Cup would have been a big step up for Seb.
"My horse is still very green at this level," said Kellock, a member of the 2019 Canadian Pan American Games gold medal team with Small Tour mount Floratina.
"I'm not going to push Sebastien to the point where we have to get 80 percent; he's just not there yet." Prior to the Cup’s cancellation, she was realistic about the thought that Lonoir could overtake Seb, but at the same time, Kellock noted, nothing is for certain. "It's kind of day-to-day with these horses. They tell us," she said.
Kellock backed into her quest for a Vegas slot while focusing on trying to make the team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Qualifying standards for that required three Grand Prix Special scores, but she noted, "My horse wasn't quite ready to do the Specials, so I chose to do the 'W's,' [World Cup qualifiers] mainly for experience. I wanted him to have a good couple of first shows down here [in Wellington].
The elevated level of Seb’s performance this winter was a bit of a surprise.
"I wasn't expecting him to come out and be that strong right away," said Kellock.
"It just kind of happened that we were this high up for the World Cup standings. I didn't aim for that, necessarily.”
"He's very smart; he has a strong character and strong opinions at times. So just getting to know him and forming that partnership has taken up until now.
“He was already in the barn when I got there,” she said of the horse who was at Small Tour when she began working with him.
“I’ve taken my time with him. Gaining his trust was the most important thing for me. He has a mind of his own, which can work in my favor sometimes and work against me at times."
The key was "just finding what buttons to press at the right times. I took the route of not showing him much and getting to know him."
She rode under the lights in Wellington for the first time a year ago, and admits she was nervous. "I prepped him like crazy beforehand. I took him in the ring six, seven times to try to get him used to it."
But she shouldn't have worried. "He went in there and gave me the most amazing feeling, like he loved the crowd. The louder they were cheering, the better he got. That was a real eye-opening moment for me. That's when I realized this horse is a real performer.
"His talent is endless, in my opinion, but I appreciate that he makes me work for it and he's not just going to give it to me. If I'm giving him the wrong aid, he's not going to give me what I need in that moment."
For what Seb has offered her, she's grateful.
"He's taught me the most of any horse. I can't necessarily go the traditional route. I have to find certain things that make him happy. I have to change up my work program.
"Some days I come out and he's like,`No, I don't feel like doing this today.' Then I have to take him on a hack or do some cross-training."
She has assistance from her trainer of seven years, four-time Canadian Olympian Ashley Holzer. Although Holzer is now an American citizen, she still helps the Canadians.
While it’s hard to plan ahead with no firm end of the quarantine in sight, when the Olympics was put off until 2021, Kellock felt the delay would help Seb, giving their partnership another year to develop.
“The postponement for me is a positive for my horse,” she said.
“Having that extra time is definitely not a bad thing for him.”
Meanwhile, she’s eyeing a return to Dressage at Devon in September, and a trip to Saugerties, N.Y., the week before that. A “huge goal” would be to compete at Aachen, which has been postponed from June 2020, though it seems unlikely it will run this fall as hoped. But she’s eyeing it for 2021, “I think that’s the very best preparation you can have for the Olympics,” she said. “That’s in the back of my mind, for sure. I would love to do that.”