At 15.1 hands high, Catoki only just qualifies as a horse.

It’s a fact that becomes glaringly obvious when McLain Ward’s muscular 5’8″ frame is perched atop his back. But it wasn’t the Holsteiner gelding’s size that caught the eye of the American Olympian. It was his speed.

McLain Ward’s new mount is small but speedy. ©Sportfot

“He’s barely a horse. He’s almost a pony, but fast as lightning and very careful. I think he can be like another [HH] Carlos,” said Ward.

Those are considerable horse shoes to fill.

HH Carlos Z, a horse Ward affectionately dubbed his “ATM machine,” won an astounding 33 international classes with the American between 2014 and 2017. He was retired in October 2017 after winning a $50,000 Speed Class at the Washington International Horse Show in DC in what would be his final performance.

These days the Belgian Warmblood can be found bossing former champions Authentic, Simon, Cortes, and Via Volo around John and Beezie Madden’s famed retirement facility, Madden Mountain.

Like his predecessor, Catoki is a nearly plain bay and, at age 11, has a slightly earlier start with Ward (HH Carlos didn’t join his string until age 12).

But he comes with less international experience.

HH Carlos was already a proven 1.60m winner with 5* experience under his previous rider, Belgium’s Nicola Philappaerts, when Ward took over the reins. Catoki has for the past two years campaigned at the national level with USA’s Brian Feigus. The gelding hasn’t competed internationally since 2017 when he was ridden by Poland’s Martin Rozynek.

“I have known the horse and have seen it a few times and always liked it; Seth Vallhonrat brought it to my attention again, and we ended up purchasing [him],” said the three-time Olympic medalist, who bought the horse in November last year with Marilla van Beuren and Bob Russell. “We have high hopes for him!”

On Wednesday at the Winter Equestrian Festival, the diminutive gelding repaid that faith in kind.

Making their international debut together in Wellington, FL, Ward and Catoki raced to a first place finish in the $37,000 Douglas Elliman Real Estate 1.45m CSI3* with a second and a half in hand. (Ireland’s Darragh Kenny and Billy Dorito took second, stopping the clock at 31.22 seconds to Catoki’s blistering 29.88.)

Two days later, they did it again. Ward and Catoki won the $37,000 Bainbridge Companies 1.45m CSI3*, finishing a second and a half (57.54 to 59.12) ahead of Santiago Lambre (MEX) and Doloris.

It’s a trend, Ward hopes will continue.

“We will keep trying to figure him out in Florida and step him up to a few bigger classes,” he said. “We will see where we get.”

Even if that doesn’t mean Ward will necessarily be able to peer over the fences.

“Mentally, when I get on him, I have to believe he can actually jump the fence,” smiled Ward. “But honestly, he’s a bold horse that doesn’t have a particularly short stride. I just have to keep him together, and he’s always right there.”