There is never enough time with a truly special horse, no matter how many years you have together.
For Mathilde Candele (14), daughter of Canadian Olympian Yann Candele, that special horse was 10-year-old Disco de Pleville, a French-bred gelding and her partner of a year and a half.
Together, the pair quickly shot up the ranks, earning wins and top placings in the Medium and High Junior jumpers this winter at the uber-competitive Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Florida. Mathilde went on to jump her first national Grand Prix in June with Disco and finished second. In July, they were third in the $50,000 RBC Grand Prix in Ottawa. She was only 13 at the time.
“He’s super sweet in the barn, he’s like a teddy bear,” Mathilde told Horse Network a year ago during their first international outing together at the 2022 North American Youth Championship (NAYC) in Traverse City, Michigan, where Team Canada eventually won gold. “He never does anything bad, he always tries his hardest, he’s very careful.”
That carefulness was on display once again this year at the NAYC in Michigan, where Mathilde and “Disco” won the first individual speed round of their Pre-Junior competition. During their second class, however, it quickly became apparent to Mathilde and her parents, Yann and Jennifer, that the gelding just wasn’t himself.
“Yann thought, watching him jump, that something was off,” Jennifer said. “And then, as he was coming out of the ring, he was kicking up at his belly, and he kind of looked like he was losing his back-end.”
Disco managed to bring Mathilde back to the in-gate, despite looking as though he was imminently in danger of going down. Fortunately, Mathilde was able to jump-off in time, and her team got Disco untacked and into the warm-up ring, where the horse show veterinarian was able to sedate him and administer pain medications.
Thinking Disco was colicking, the Candeles elected to ship the gelding to Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where they were met in the parking lot by the surgical team. “They looked at him, and when [the doctor] came back into the waiting room, she said, ‘Well, he’s not colicking.’ That’s when I knew it was bad,” Jennifer said.
As it was, Disco had ruptured his vena cava, the main vein that carries blood from the heart. He was bleeding internally, and the surgeon told the Candeles that, unlike people, the condition—potentially caused by a genetic weakness—was inoperable in horses. The decision was made to put him down.
“Mathilde didn’t know any of this. I told her I had to go with Disco to the clinic because we thought he was colicking and that they’d probably give him fluids or something—we just needed to go where we could monitor him,” Jennifer explained, noting that family friends Beth and Paul Wood stayed with her daughter. “It was a three-hour drive back from Michigan State to Traverse City, and we couldn’t tell Mathilde what had happened until we got home, obviously.”
One person Jennifer did tell was her good friend Erica McKeever, McLain Ward’s longtime manager, along with her husband Lee. The McKeevers’ daughter, Baylee, was also competing at the NAYC, and the family just happened to be out to dinner with Ward at the time.
“McLain picked up the phone, and called Yann. He said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry. I have a horse jumping 1.40m, 1.45m, 1.50m. He’s kind, he’s safe. You’ve got to keep Mathilde going, and if you want him, I’ll send him to you.’”
The Candeles say they struggled to grasp Ward’s astounding offer, just hours after Disco’s tragic passing, and before Mathilde had even been told the devastating news. As expected, Jennifer relayed, her daughter’s grief was overwhelming, and something that, more than a month later, the entire family is still struggling to process.
“We’re all very, very broken up about this. Yann says it’s hard to go in [to the barn] every day,” Jennifer said. “He’s like, ‘You know, I’ve lost horses before, but this one hurt so much, because there just wasn’t anything like him.’
“He was a special horse,” she continued. “He was the most willing personality and he really just had the kindest heart. He loved his life. He was so happy to see us all,” added Jennifer, noting that Disco was known for greeting members of the family with a nicker whenever they entered the barn.
“Everything we asked him to do, he was like, ‘Okay, I can do it.’ We didn’t think he would be a grand prix horse. But he was so willing. He would do anything for us, and anything for her.”
For Jennifer, he was the horse she most trusted to look after precious cargo.
“I used to whisper to him at the in-gate,” she shared. “Lauren Ward and I were talking about this at the beginning of the summer. There’s a moment right before your child goes in the ring where you go from being the groom in the warm-up ring, and setting the jumps, to being mom. Then you’re standing at the in-gate and you’re like, Oh, my God, my kid is going in the ring, and this horse has to have her back. It’s such a responsibility for them.
“Kids are going to make mistakes, [and you just hope the horse] isn’t going to hold it against them. Yann and Mathilde would be at the ring talking about the inside turn, and taking out a stride here… I would say to Disco, ‘Just bring her back to the gate safely.’
“And that’s what he did up to the very last moment. He got her right to the gate.”
One thing that is helping the entire family move forward: Cyann D Ivraie, the actual gift-horse McLain Ward sent to the Candeles’ farm two weeks later. “He’s so lovely—he’s got the perfect personality,” Jennifer said. “He’s a little like Disco.”
As it happens, Cyann and Disco are both French, and distantly related on Disco’s dam’s side. Yann knows one of the gelding’s previous riders in Europe—and could vouch for the fact that he was a quality horse.
“[Cyann] is legitimate—he’s a super nice horse,” said Jennifer.
So nice, in fact, that in just a month, Mathilde and Cyann have quickly established a partnership, winning a $5,000 1.25m class at Angelstone Tournaments in Erin, ON, and doubling down to win the 1.30m Junior/Amateur classic the same week. There is no replacing Disco for the Candeles, but Cyann seems to be helping to bring a little joy back into the sport for the entire family, something that, for Jennifer, only weeks ago, seemed impossible.
“I find myself excited to go to the barn now, and happy to think about [Cyann being at] the barn and [what] I’m going to do with him—I’m going to put him in the paddock, or Yann’s going to ride him.”
Jennifer added that she barely has words to quantify the magnitude of this gift—and the man behind it.
“McLain—I mean, who does that? Who picks up the phone and thinks to do that? [It’s] not a little thing.”
It’s not a little thing. And, as the saying goes, one good deed deserves another.
For Jennifer, that deed, if there is one, was Disco—who managed to bring her daughter back to the in-gate safety, one final time. “I don’t look at horses the same way after Disco, and what he did. And the very last thing—it was pretty special,” she said.
“If you look at a picture of Disco, and you look at his star, he has a perfect unicorn’s head in this marking.
“And he was a unicorn too.”