Salinero: the jumping-bred horse who hated halting but became a double Olympic dressage champion *H&H Plus*

  • Behind the gawky facade of this sensitive soul lay an outstanding talent. Alice Collins uncovers the story of a powerhouse who set global dressage alight

    How Salinero, a jumping-bred horse who hated halting, became a double Olympic dressage champion is no mystery to his long-time rider, Anky van Grunsven.

    In fact, the gelding’s renowned inability to stand still in tests was also the foundation of his strength: energy in bucketloads and an ever-brimming desire to work. That, coupled with his extraordinary movement, was a glorious cocktail.

    It was never the rigours of the dressage itself that taxed Salinero, but the peripheral stresses that accompany it.

    “I trained him with a heart monitor for a while to see which exercises made it beat faster,” explains Anky. “And the only time it really went up was when I walked him out of the gate for what I thought was a relaxing hack. For him, that took more energy than all the grand prix work.”

    And even though he was a scaredy-cat, Salinero trusted Anky enough to become Olympic champion in Athens and Hong Kong.

    “He was made for grand prix,” she enthuses. “The fact that he did three Olympics [finishing sixth individually in London 2012] and was still fit and sound and happy at 18, that tells you. When it’s too difficult for them, it costs a lot of energy and horses can’t stay healthy and fit that long with the additional stresses. For Salinero, it was always playful.”

    Five-star judge Stephen Clarke concurs.

    “The length of his career is testament to the horse’s management,” he says. “That he could be so successful for so many years and retire sound says so much about the way he was trained and looked after. Many of Anky’s other horses had lengthy careers too, like Bonfire.

    “What really sticks out is Anky’s ability to interpret the music in those amazing freestyles with Salinero. The personalised music and her interpretation of it was quite unique.”

    A gangly but powerful youngster, Salinero had a circuitous route to Anky. He was originally destined to jump, but was identified by Anky’s partner Sjef Janssen – who coached the Dutch national Olympic dressage team for eight years – as a potential dressage horse, aged six. He’d jumped a bit and “got really low scores for his trot” in young dressage horse classes. But Sjef saw something in him, bought him on behalf of American client Tess Guilder and started to train him.

    “Sjef was riding him and kept saying I should sit on him,” says Anky, who was reigning Olympic champion with her previous top horse, Bonfire. “But I thought he was way too big for me and looked very strong. I like sensitive horses, like Bonfire, and I thought Salinero wasn’t my type. In fact, I thought he was really ugly when he first came and I didn’t want to sit on him.”

    Sjef kept nagging Anky, and eventually she relented and climbed aboard.

    “When I finally did, within one round I knew. I thought, ‘OK, that’s it. I need to have this horse, no matter what it takes.’ It was not based on looks, but on feeling.

    “When you saw him he looked strong, but to ride he had such an amazing natural hindleg and was incredibly powerful.”

    But the gawky gelding wasn’t for sale, and it took some persuasion for Anky to get her hands on him.

    “I really had to make a lot of calls to convince the owner that she should sell him to me,” remembers Anky. “In the beginning she said I could ride him, but she wanted to own him still. We ended up agreeing that I’d buy 99% of him and she’d keep 1% so that she was still involved in his progress.”

    And what a journey Salinero undertook.

    “Small tour was not the greatest success, because he was wild,” says Anky of their first forays into the competitive sphere. “He didn’t want to halt, but he did want to passage and piaffe. I rode him at small tour in Aachen – it was a horrid week and we came somewhere at the back end of the results. Although it didn’t help in the beginning, he was so willing to go and with so much energy all the time. That became his greatest strength.”

    So Anky decided to throw Salinero in at the deep end and entered a grand prix in Moscow just a week after Aachen.

    “It was a bit wild and unsteady, but he had no problems with any of the exercises,” she says. “The grand prix is better for a horse like him.”

    Her gamble paid off, and Salinero had found his groove. What was so remarkable about him was that even in the most pressured of situations, in the arena he was in harmony with his rider, waiting for the most minimal aid and performing with grace and expression.

    Despite Salinero’s talent for dressage movements, it remained a challenge for Anky to maintain his trust. At the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Aachen in 2006, Salinero bolted in the team prize-giving.

    “He got so scared there,” explains Anky. “He was not a naughty horse, just very, very sensitive. I could never ride him with a whip and only used small spurs. After Aachen, prize-givings were really scary for him. His heart was so small, so I had to make a strong bond with him to make him trust me and listen in the arena. The issue was never the exercises.

    “In the grand prix in Athens, he got so scared in one corner where there was a huge umbrella, he turned way before the centre line for the zig-zag. He was so willing, but would be frightened of the weirdest things, like a chair in the wrong spot.”

    Despite Salinero’s fears, it was his freestyle performance to his bespoke L’Esprit Chanson soundtrack for individual gold in Athens that captured British dressage rider Spencer Wilton’s adulation.

    “Athens was the first time I’d seen him in the flesh,” says Spencer, who subsequently won Olympic team silver on Super Nova II in Rio. “I’d seen the video of the making of his freestyle – the one that Anky sang on – and I was mesmerised by the detail they went into with the whole process. When you watched that video, then saw Anky able to replicate the test in such detail – the rhythm, the timing – in that environment, at an Olympic final, riding for a gold – it was spellbinding.

    “I was in Athens supporting Carl [Hester] and Escapado, but I kept sneaking off to watch Salinero,” Spencer adds.

    Athens judge Stephen Clarke was also bowled over by Salinero, despite his aversion to the umbrella.

    “I remember that turn,” he laughs. “While he was always listening to his rider, you could see that the horse was so alert to everything going on. But it was the picture of reaction coupled with lightness, with the horse always so alert, that gave him so much presence. His positive electricity really drew the crowds.

    “It was a magical picture that the two of them presented. The partnership was outstanding and set the standard for what’s come afterwards in global dressage.”

    Anky remembers an incident that sums up the apprehensive gelding. Salinero had already retired and Anky had been out of the saddle with a bad back, but she took him on a walk hack to see how her back held up. When they were almost home, a tarpaulin by the road stopped Salinero dead in his tracks.

    “He just wouldn’t go past it. I couldn’t get off because of my back and I couldn’t call because I’d left my phone behind,” she laughs. “I was stuck there for at least 20 minutes before I could persuade him to pass it. It was always about persuading him that he was brave enough to do things.”

    Salinero is the one horse Spencer pinpoints as longing to ride – in theory.

    “In my imagination I’d have loved to have ridden him, or at least felt a bit of what I witnessed,” says Spencer. “But in reality, I imagine that it was all down to Anky’s skilled way of riding. My guess is that he was really a one-person horse and it would have probably been a disaster if I’d sat on him.”

    Anky confirms Spencer’s suspicions.

    “If he didn’t know you, you’d better not go in his stable,” she cautions. “He really hated people he didn’t know and he’d attack them.

    “He was definitely not for everyone,” she adds, “but you knew when he did come to you that you had a bond. He really was a one-person horse.”

    SO with three Olympics and a glut of medals to his name, what was Anky’s standout moment with Salinero?

    “You’d think it would be the Olympics, but it isn’t,” reflects Anky. “It’s all the time spent at home training together. We built such a bond and we know and trust each other so well. He’s such a big horse and I’m tiny, but he still wanted to do everything for me. That was the best part, and you can’t force that. It’s the journey towards the results – not just the results themselves – that’s the best bit.”

    Salinero officially retired in a lavish ceremony in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, in March 2013. He performed his Hong Kong gold medal-winning freestyle, Dance of Devotion, one last time under a spotlight and to a live piano. The crowd waved their handkerchiefs. Many of them cried.

    Salinero now enjoys life at a more sedate pace at Anky’s yard at age 27, going out every day with his Shetland companions.

    “I’m so thankful that he is still happy in his retirement,” adds Anky. “Still now I think, ‘Wow, I am so lucky that I sat on him.’ Imagine if I’d never tried him. I would never know what he felt like. You can’t always tell in the beginning how things will turn out.”

    Salinero’s last competitive centre line – and Anky’s, as it stands – was at the London Olympics. But don’t let that fool you.

    “I didn’t officially retire – he did,” she grins cryptically. “I said before London that I was never going to do the Olympics again but I did, so I’d better say nothing and see what happens. I might still make a comeback.”

    Salinero’s origins

    By Salieri out of Luna (Lungau)

    Salinero’s dam Luna produced 10 foals, seven of whom were by Salieri. All were fillies apart from Salinero and Seven Up 15. Seven Up became a grand prix showjumper and competed at the Athens Olympics.

    Salinero’s sire, Salieri, had 15 international showjumping wins and topped the prestigious “Sires of the World” competition in Hanover, Germany, in 2000.

    Salieri’s sire, Salvano, produced the influential stallion Sherlock Holmes (out of an Akzent I dam), who went on to sire talented dressage horses and made a particular name for himself as a damsire of useful sport horses.

    Ostensibly jumping bred, it’s remarkable that Salinero fell into the hands of the most famous dressage rider in the world at the time, who moulded him into the megastar he became.

    Salinero’s greatest achievement

    ● 2012 London Olympics: team bronze and individual sixth (82%)
    ● 2009 Windsor Europeans: 87.25% for freestyle bronze and team gold
    ● 2008 Olympic Games Beijing: 82.4% in the freestyle for individual gold and team silver
    ● 2008 World Cup Final in ’s-Hertogenbosch: 85.2% for individual gold
    ● 2007 European Championships in Turin: kür gold, special silver and team gold
    ● 2006 WEG Aachen: individual special silver, freestyle gold (86.1%), team silver
    ● 2006 CHIO Rotterdam: 81.33% in the grand prix and a new world record
    ● 2006 World Cup Final in Amsterdam: 87.75% for individual gold
    ● 2006 CDI in ’s-Hertogenbosch: 87.925% in the freestyle for a new world record
    ● 2005 Europeans in Hagen: 83% in the kür for individual gold, team silver
    ● 2005 World Cup Final in Las Vegas: 86.72% in the freestyle for gold
    ● 2004 Olympic Games Athens: 85.82% for individual gold
    ● 2004 World Cup Final in Düsseldorf: 83.45% freestyle for gold
    ● 2003 Dutch National Championships: winner

    From the judge’s box

    Stephen Clarke was judging in Athens when Salinero captured the first of his two individual Olympic golds and “can still see every footfall” of the pair’s majestic performance.

    “In Athens he was phenomenal,” he recalls. “The freestyle was completely outstanding and proved that Anky’s more than just a dressage rider, she’s a complete artist.

    “Salinero’s lightness coupled with his lightning reactions to Anky’s riding made the whole picture so exciting to watch. In Athens she had her own vocals in her freestyle, and it made the hair on my neck stand up. The picture of energy, lightness and harmony is what I remember best about him.”

    The emotional prize-giving in Athens is also sharp in Stephen’s mind, not least because it moved him to tears.

    “Anky’s father had died just before the Olympics and in the prize-giving she accepted the medal and looked up to heaven. I knew what she was thinking and it dissolved me. That was the thing about her riding – it was emotional and emotive. Her freestyles with Salinero stuck in people’s minds and brought an emotional feeling to the crowd – and the judges.”

    Ref: 21 January 2021

    ● Do you have a special memory you want to share about Salinero? Write to hhletters@futurenet.com

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