‘I never wanted it to end’: Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum on her legendary partnership with Shutterfly *H&H Plus*

  • This sensitive soul may have relaxed to classical music in his stable, but in the arena he was a powerhouse, says Jennifer Donald, winning a hat-trick of World Cup Finals

    “Everyone dreams of having a wonderful partnership in their lives, whether it’s with a husband or a child — in my case, it was with a horse,” says Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, talking of course about Shutterfly.

    The exquisitely beautiful bay gelding was a powerhouse in the ring, helping his petite rider secure victory in three World Cup Finals, the Aachen grand prix and a European Championship during a 12-year relationship in which they ruled the world. But behind Shutterfly’s dazzling stage presence lay a complex character, who was plagued by anxiety in his younger days and never felt fully comfortable in his sporting surroundings.

    US-born German rider Meredith discovered a six-year-old Shutterfly competing at a national show near her home in northern Germany during the summer of 1999.

    “He certainly made an impression on me when he came in the ring — how beautiful and elegant he was,” remembers Meredith. “His jump was nice and easy, but it wasn’t flashy and he definitely wasn’t showing the tremendous scope he had later. So when he finished the course, I asked the rider if the horse was for sale.”

    Shutterfly’s breeder Uwe Dreesmann still owned him and wasn’t prepared to sell his Hanoverian son of Silvio I, but six months later he changed his mind and Meredith received the call that would change her life.

    “I went to try him with my husband Markus and we liked him a lot,” says Meredith. “We did not see his potential as one of the best horses in the world at that time, but he struck us as a nice prospect. So we actually bought a half share in him to start with.”

    But things did not bode too well when Meredith took “Petey” to his first show in Verden.

    “He was so di ffiult that I thought he was going to knock a lot of rails in the ring,” she recalls. “He had no concentration – he was terriffied. I said to my groom as I walked in, ‘I hope this round is not a complete disaster.’

    “He was so spooky, I could barely get him to the first fence. Then, magically, he flew up in the air over that jump and soared over the whole course – he gave every fence at least two feet. I’d expected him to get smaller and afraid in the ring, but actually he grew three sizes. In that round he’d shown all his scope and talent; it was amazing. I said to my husband, ‘We have to buy the rest of this horse!’”

    But Meredith explains it was a very long road to the top for this sensitive and insecure soul.

    “I was lacking in horsepower so, even though he was only seven, Shutterfly came to all the big international shows and jumped the smaller classes – which were actually around 1.45m. He grew up quickly!” she says. “He was still spooky and sensitive, but very brave and he always tried his best – he was proving very good.”

    That summer in Aachen, Meredith’s top horse Stella was just returning from injury and the opportunity arose for Shutterfly to step up a level.

    “I rode him in the opening 1.45m and he jumped it so well, we decided to put him in the big class later that day – a 1.50m/1.55m qualifier for the grand prix,” explains Meredith. “He jumped clear until I came round to the final combination, which was a double of gates with round Liverpools [water trays] underneath, which heavy rain was splattering on. He stopped and I fell off.”

    It took Meredith a whole year to regain Shutterfly’s trust.

    “He would not forgive me for putting him in that class,” Meredith says, sadly. “He was way spookier, scared of everything and he would refuse anything that looked a bit unusual – I fell off a lot. My husband and I really thought we’d lost him forever and felt terribly responsible for our mistake. We did it because we thought he could handle it and we were trying to protect my other horse, but it was a bad decision.”

    To regain his confidence, Meredith dropped Shutterfly right back down to jumping small classes and the following summer “he was able to shine again”.

    His anxieties continued to simmer, however. He was extremely sensitive to loud noises so jumping indoors was particularly difficult, but it was prize-givings that pushed him over the edge.

    “He would freak out, pawing and sweating, until finally one day he got so upset he almost lay down in the ring,” recalls Meredith. “That was the last prize-giving I ever rode him in, when he was nine.”

    From then on, Meredith and her groom Anu Harrila took on the role as Shutterfly’s “safety blanket”.

    “He was so terrified, he would walk to the ring with his head pasted to Anu’s back,” says Meredith. “Sometimes at shows, she would stay in his stall all night playing classical music to help him relax – he was high maintenance! But that’s what made him special and he was absolutely worth it.”

    He enjoyed a wonderful bond with Anu, who has been Meredith’s groom for 25 years and says she was “very lucky to have been part of Shutterfly’s career”.

    “I always had great belief that he was going to be amazing and I don’t think I’ve had that with any other horse,” says Swedish-born Anu. “He was cautious of people, but when you got to know him he became a great friend.”

    He became more confident as he got older, although he was still easily upset.

    “But the minute he trotted into the ring, it was as though he knew his job; he was no longer afraid and jumped everything that was in front of him,” says Meredith. “In the end, he was so confident he would trot into the ring at the Olympics or the World Cup Final with his chest puffed out and his head raised – he knew he was good! He was just very insecure about it.”

    Drawing on so many memories with her charismatic gelding, Meredith picks out her hat-trick of World Cup Finals in 2005, 2008 and 2009 as a “tremendous” highlight – “just perfect”, in fact.

    “The icing on the cake was the third one when he won every single leg and he never made a mistake, and that’s very rare; he was 16 years old, too,” she says. “We had strong competition that year with McLain Ward on Sapphire, who was second in every leg, breathing down our necks.”

    Meredith describes the 2008 Olympics, where she finished fourth individually after joining a seven-way jump-off for the bronze medal, as a “heartbreaker”.

    “I went into the jump-off and thought, ‘Come on Shutterfly, we have to give it our best and ride for the medal,’” she says. “I actually had one of the best jump-offs of my life and I was almost 100% sure I had that medal.”

    But she hadn’t factored in McLain Ward spotting a cheeky shortcut over a decorative hedge and it opened the door for Beezie Madden to beat her time and claim bronze. “I didn’t even imagine that was allowed, so I can’t tell you the disappointment of being caught off guard and losing the medal because of it,” says Meredith. “I also felt so responsible for Shutterfly – I knew it would be his last Olympics and he wasn’t going to win a medal. “He won so many great events, but most memorable was the day I became world number one and he, along with Checkmate, was largely to be thanked for that. I maintained that number one spot for a total of 24 months, although not consecutively, so it just showed how consistent he was over a really long period.”

    Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly show jumping in Hong Kong 15.08.08

    Meredith and Shutterfly t the 2008 Olympics

    Also among Shutterfly’s extensive roll of honour is the individual European crown – which they won with four faultless rounds – a list of global grands prix too numerous to mention and a brace of Rolex Top 10 Finals. But many people will remember the scenes at the World Equestrian Games at Aachen in 2006, when the pair helped the German team to win bronze before taking centre stage as the top four riders swapped horses to decide the individual medals.

    “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and incredible to be part of,” says Meredith. “But for such a sensitive horse, it was really tough. He had to remain in that ring, with all the noise and crowds and he got so stressed he didn’t know what he was supposed to do.

    “It was like seeing somebody hurting my child – I had to look away.”

    Meredith won bronze, but again the experience haunted Shutterfly for a long time afterwards.

    In the ring, Meredith and Shutterfly produced a striking image – the rider with her trademark long rein and the softest hands, with the sublimely handsome gelding’s ears pricked forward as he gamely soared over the biggest obstacles. What gave him the winning edge?

    “You never felt he was even trying, let alone giving full effort over the jumps,” explains Meredith. “He sailed through a triple combination at Aachen – one of the world’s hardest courses – like he was doing gymnastics at home. He was athletic and
    so adjustable; as a rider, you had utmost confidence that if you messed up a distance, he could handle it. Indoors or outdoors, sand or grass, night classes, it didn’t matter – any facility suited him, that’s what made him so amazing.”

    At Meredith’s home in Thedinghausen, Germany, Shutterfly has deservedly always reigned as king.

    “In his older age, he became much more laid-back; he could even be lazy and I would let him – he was the king, he could do as he wanted,” says Meredith. “But he would bolt if he heard the noise of hooves coming behind him in our arena, so there was this unspoken rule that every time Shutterfly was cantering, everyone else had to stop and walk. That was how much he’d earned his place on the yard. Nobody said a word, nobody would complain, they just all knew the rules!”

    The decision to close the curtain on Shutterfly’s phenomenal career came at Aachen in 2011 when the gelding was 18.

    “He was still jumping well and we were carefully placing him in the right classes in consideration of his age,” says Meredith. “Then he won the Prize of Europe at Aachen – one of the biggest events of the show – and it was just incredible. I had tears even when he jumped clear in the first round, then to win it against the best horses and riders in the world…

    “That was when Markus suggested we retire him. I said, ‘No! Are you kidding? He’s so good!’ But we had the same discussion every evening over dinner. I went to bed on Saturday night thinking about it and woke up on Sunday absolutely sure that it was the right thing to do. I thought, ‘He’s my best friend – what would he do for you?’ and he would let me stop right at the top when I was still at my best, so that’s what I owed him.

    “But it was the perfect partnership and I never wanted it to end.”

    AACHEN, GERMANY - JULY 13:  Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum of Germany on her horse Shutterfly celebrates after winning the Warsteiner jumping competition at the CHIO on July 13, 2011 in Aachen, Germany.  (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

    Shutterfly at his final competition in Aachen

    Now 28, the “sweet and kind” Petey is out in the field at Meredith’s home and “having a great time – totally chilled about everything”.

    “I’m sure there are riders who could have produced him equally well, but it was our partnership that made it so successful,” reflects an emotional Meredith. “It was a give-and-take relationship but I learnt to protect him, and he protected me; we had a mutual love and understanding.

    “In the wrong hands, he would never have developed because he was so sensitive and he needed time and to be trusting of his environment. I was also lucky that I had Anu to take care of him his whole life. She is absolutely responsible for all our success.

    “He was my lifetime partner and I will cherish that for the rest of my life.”

    Michael Whitaker on Shutterfly

    “Shutterfly had a right spring, all the scope and he was such a careful type – just a real winner,” remembers Michael, who rode Portofino to finish second behind the pair in the 2005 World Cup Final.

    “He had to jump clear to beat me but had a really shaky moment in the warm-up [when he wouldn’t even jump a cross-pole] and I thought ‘Well, he has no chance now’ – I was sure I’d won the World Cup Final.

    “But he jumped round and the nearest he got to a fence was about a foot! I was cursing him at the time, but could appreciate his brilliance.

    “Meredith rode him with an unbelievable amount of confidence,” Michael continues. “You never saw her push to the big oxers and he wasn’t a big horse. He was reliable too, over many years – he was no flash in the pan.

    “Would I have liked him in my string? I wouldn’t have minded having a go, but it would have been difficult to ride him better than Meredith.”

    How Shutterfly got his name

    Shutterfly was originally named Struwwelpeter, a character from a German fable on whom the movie Edward Scissorhands was based.

    “Struwwelpeter was this young boy who was really messy, never washed his hair and never cut his nails – it was totally not Shutterfly!” laughs Meredith. “He was gorgeous, elegant and glamorous, not at all dirty or mischievous.”

    The gelding was bought for Meredith by Jim and Nancy Clark, who owned US digital photo company Shutterfly, and was renamed with the far more pronounceable moniker, although the shortened “Petey” remained his stable name.

    “I liked the name Shutterfly because it was elegant and so suited him,” says Meredith.

    Ref: 18 February 2021

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