Peanut butter and jam. Netflix and wine. Reed Kessler and Cylana. Some things are just meant to go together.
How else do you explain a 17-year-old qualifying for the Olympics on a horse she’d purchased less than a year earlier. Kessler and Cylana were the unlikely success story of the London Games. An unproven mare (Cylana had only two FEI shows on record when Kessler took over the ride) paired with up-and-coming junior, they had no experience at the 5* level between them. Let alone, the established partnership that normally lands a rider on a championship team.
And yet in 2012, it was Kessler who was the USEF National Show Jumping Co-Champion. It was Kessler who went on to make history as the youngest show jumper to compete at an Olympic Games. (She turned 18 just the month before). And it was Kessler who would crack the top 25 in the world rankings before age 19. All thanks to Cylana.
Now the Belgium Warmblood mare is helping Kessler navigate the next chapter in her career—that of independent professional. With two 5* victories in the past month, they’re doing that spectacularly, as well. It’s hardly surprising then when the 21-year-old says “She is more than a horse to me; she is like half of me.”
When you first “met” Cylana was it love at first sight or did that connection that develop over time?
Our connection definitely developed over time. She wasn’t a striking example of natural fitness when we first met! But she had a lot of jump, was very straightforward to ride, and had a great character. I was a little on the fence at first [about buying her], but Gerhard Etter [of Etter Horses AG in Switzerland] simply stated that he thought she had much more in her than anyone thought and the potential to jump championships—the rest is history.
How long did the getting-to-know-you phase last?
The beginning wasn’t the smoothest! Katie [Prudent’s] program is an aggressive one, and Cylana was so unfit that she really struggled at the start. I did the 2* 1.30m classes in Chantilly [France] and had two down every day, I think. We had done so much work and training at home that she was exhausted by the time we reached the show.
We played around the rest of the summer without any striking results.
So a bit of a rocky start then. When did you know, with certainty, that you had a special horse?
I went down to Florida at the end of November [in 2011] and spent the pre-circuit totally devoted to Cylana’s fitness. Katie said I needed to stay tight while she was gone and to jump without stirrups or bareback every other day. I jumped her one day and while we were having some fun decided to do a kind of bareback puissance, which went all the way to 1.60m. At that point, we started to realize that maybe we had underestimated her.
[That winter at the Winter Equestrian Festival] I jumped one of the Thursday Grand Prix’s and she did it easily. So then I jumped the Saturday night Grand Prix and she did that easily too. Then we did the Olympic trials and that’s that!
The 2012 Olympic Trials was a standout performance for you both. Talk about Cylana’s part in that.
Of course, she was a big part. Even with no experience at all at that level, she has so much heart that it gave me all the confidence in the world as a young rider moving up.
Of all your classes together, which has been your career highlight, to date?
Obviously, the Olympic Trials were huge. And winning the Queen Elizabeth Cup [in 2013] at Spruce Meadows.
One of the biggest though was being second in the $1.5 Million CP International in Calgary . I wasn’t on the team there, I had no trainer—it was just me and my groom. As a young rider, I was really proud to have made that plan for the week myself and executed it standing on my own two feet. It’s a proud moment when you start to feel like you don’t need the training wheels so much anymore.
For sure, I could go to shows alone before and do well. But there’s a big difference between doing well and having one of your career highlights—balancing the ups and downs without someone making the decisions for you.
What has Cylana meant to your career?
She’s meant everything to me. She brought me to the top of the sport, to places I’d never thought I would go. She gave me confidence when I had no experience in the biggest classes to walking into major championships.
In your mind, what makes your bond so special?
The best part of Cylana is her character. She has so much personality. She has to like the person she’s working with, which isn’t always easy—she’s a feisty chestnut mare. She has been known to kick or bite on the occasion. But I think that’s what makes her heart so big. She knows who she is, how great she is, and sets the rules for how she can be taken care of.
It’s her stable, we are all living in it! I think we both have sassy personalities that match, so we get along kind of like sisters.
Week 9 at WEF, you gave yourself an ulcer worrying about whether or not to jump Cylana—that’s a parental-type response. What are your biggest hopes and fears for her?
I think with great privilege there is great responsibility. When you have the opportunity to ride a horse like Cylana, it comes with a lot of responsibility to care for and manage her the way a horse of that caliber should be managed.
I’ve been so lucky that she is a very solid and sound horse (knock on wood). But that can also be tricky because she is too proud and stoic to let on when she is physically getting a little weary. She’s a workhorse that loves to be the star and go to the shows. It’s my responsibility to make sure she gets the time off a couple times a year that she deserves, to pick the shows she jumps wisely, and to make sure the pursuit of glory never surpasses what’s in her best interest.
What’s been so great about studying Marcus [Ehning’s] program is to see how many horses he’s had jumping at the top level still at 17 and 18 years old. That is an impressive feat in our sport today. It takes a lot of restraint and consideration to manage a horse’s career to last that long. It’s something I really admire about him and hope to implement in my own program.
Things happen, athletes of all natures sustain injuries, but at the end of the day we are horsemen and women and we have to do our best to put the horses first.
Will there ever be another “Cylana”?
There will never be another Cylana, but there will be other stars in the future. My eight-year-old Up is definitely one to watch.
Complete the sentence “Cylana is…”
My best friend.