What do Cesar Milan, barrel racing, and Hannibal Lector have to do with show jumping? They all played a hand in training Cristallo, the famed mount of Richard Spooner (USA).

For over a decade, Spooner and the quirky gelding have accumulated an impressive roster of career wins.

They’ve won the Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo—twice (2008 and 2009). They claimed the $200,000 Invitational in Thermal, California (2008), a $250,000 in Kentucky (2011) and a $100,000 in Wellington, Florida, to name but a few, and represented the United States in Nations Cups, World Cup Finals, and at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. This past weekend, at age 18, Cristallo won the Nexen Cup Derby for the second time at Spruce Meadows.

©Spruce Meadows Media Services

©Spruce Meadows Media Services

But for years, the pair didn’t get along. Spooner bought Cristallo when he was five. By the time the gelding was eight, the USET veteran was so frustrated he considered selling him. His wife, Kaylen, took over the ride instead. To this day, he credits her with turning their relationship around.

“It’s like night and day, a different horse,” said Spooner.

But it’s the secret to her success that will surprise you…

Why did Richard hand the reins over to you when he was having so much success in the ring with Cristallo?

All green horses are a little bit difficult. He was very difficult. We thought it was just the energy he had and that once he was trained, it would fall into place.

But he’s very difficult to train. He’s very high strung. He’s very smart. He’s got his own way of wanting to do things. He absolutely hates going in a frame. And Richard likes the horses to go that way.

The more he’d try to train him and the more he’d try to make him go conventionally, the angrier Cristallo would get…They were butting heads.

Richard was going to sell him to Hugo Simon. I hadn’t ridden Cristallo very much at that point. I said, ‘You know, we get along fine. Why don’t I just flat him and you can do all your jumping work with him? Maybe if you just don’t spend as much time on him, you guys will get along a bit better.’ Richard decided to give it a try. So that’s how I ended up riding him.


He doesn’t look like an easy horse to ride.

Every single day it’s something different. When I first started riding him he just put his head up in the air and took off. As long as I walked and trotted everything was okay, but if I picked up the canter, he’d just gradually get faster and faster and I couldn’t stop him.

Obviously, that wasn’t going to work. I’m a timid rider really. I don’t like falling off. I don’t like horses that buck and run off. That scares me. So I couldn’t get into a fight with him. I had to find a way to put him to work without having to canter.

How do you work a Grand Prix horse without cantering?!

I did two things. I started taking him on a lot trail rides before I would ride him in the ring. In California, we have a lot of mountains by our house. We’d go out and I’d work him into a sweat climbing the hills and just get him tired. That helped his brain a lot. He’d spook at everything and it’d exhaust him mentally. When we went to the ring he’d still be Cristallo and a little on the muscle, but I could work him a little bit.

©Kaylen Spooner

©Kaylen Spooner

Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer, says you’ve got to get dogs out of their environment and get them moving and doing something. I took that philosophy with Cristallo. I think horses get bored in the ring, especially the smart ones. So for sure the whole trail riding thing made a big difference in his life.

On the days we didn’t trail ride, I spent a lot of time lunging him and training him to listen to voice commands. If I want him to completely stop, I go, “Brrrtt.” [Roll the “r” while you make the sound.] When I do that I give him a treat every single time. So now when I’m on his back and I make that sound everything just stops, kind of like an emergency brake.

Gradually that [unruly] side showed up less and less often. He’s just a nicer horse.

©Richard Spooner

Kaylen and Cristallo on the beach in La Baule. ©Richard Spooner

Did you get to the point you could canter him comfortably?

When I started working in the ring it was funny because I would canter like half a circle and he’d start to take off with me and I’d be like, “Brrrtt, brrrtt!” He’d stop and I’d give him a cookie. Then we’d make a whole circle and he’d start to take off. Then it was half the ring.

The first time I actually went the whole lap around the ring I was so excited. I was like, “It’s time to celebrate!” It probably took me two years before I could go out and ride him like a normal horse.

That’s funny! I was expecting a whole training philosophy.

The whole thing with Cristallo is that training doesn’t work. There is no training strategy for Cristallo. I’m not a great rider. I’m an amateur rider. I don’t show the horses or anything. So I’ve got all the time in the world and I like riding him. I like going out on the trail with him. It was just a matter of getting his mind quiet.

Richard said in previous articles that you greatly improved Cristallo’s turns. If you weren’t doing flat work, how did you accomplish that?

I barrel raced him! When I was a kid I rode Western. Cristallo doesn’t like to be pulled on. He doesn’t like to be slowed down that way. So I would set up the jump standards out in the ring like barrels. I would gallop—basically let him run away with me—then pull with the inside rein, kick with the outside leg and just send him around the standard.

He figured out quick that it’s really hard to turn going as fast as he likes to go. We’d make a big sweeping turn and take off the other way and have to change leads. Eventually his turns started getting really tight. He started anticipating it…and just kind of put it all together.

Obviously, Richard was just like, “You’re crazy. He’s just going to think he can run.” And he does, but as soon as Richard takes that inside rein, he’s like, Oh, we’re turning. And he just completely rocks back on his hind end, slows down and turns. There’s none of this collection, get him in a frame, hand to leg, around the turn. It’s keep kicking!

©Stefano Grasso/Longines Global Champions Tour

©Stefano Grasso/Longines Global Champions Tour

Richard has also said in the past that Cristallo has “a very difficult mouth.” How did you deal with that?

He’s really weird because he’ll run right through any bit. He’ll put his head up in the air and just start running. But he has a really sensitive mouth. So if he’s running away with you and you jerk his mouth, his tongue will tear or his cheek with get a sore. And once he has a sore in his mouth then he’s inconsolable. You can’t do anything with him. He’s just so cranky.

Richard made this contraption. It’s like a cage. It took the pressure off his mouth and uses the jaw, cheeks and everything to move his head. He looked like Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs.

Richard used that bit on and off.

I don’t ever really touch his mouth. I ride with a loopy rein and I ask him to trot, canter verbally and I ask him to slow down verbally too. I just try to stay off the controls.


Was there an “a ha” moment when it felt like it all came together?

Yes! It was in Monaco the first year Richard won the Grand Prix (2008). I was really struggling in the warm-up ring. It’s a really small ring and the only place we had to ride and there were like a gazillion people in there.

I was worried that we were going to run into somebody. And Cristallo was actually nervous. He had never allowed me to hold the contact and slow his pace down. He just went whatever pace he wanted to go.

That year in Monaco in that warm up ring, he finally started listening to me a little. Ever since it’s on and off whether he’ll listen. But I felt like he almost got scared straight. We had a light bulb moment that day. And then he went and won the Grand Prix that night!