Atterupgaards Sting, a 12-year-old Danish Oldenberg gelding owned by Jim and Linda Bibbler, was named Horse of the Year for the individual vaulting category. Sting, who began vaulting in 2015, has been named Individual Horse of the Year for the last three years and in 2017 also won in the pas de deux (or pairs) category.
Diva 506 is an Oldenberg mare imported from Germany in 2017 by Sydney Frankel, longtime Woodside resident and pillar of the vaulting community. For 2018, Diva captured two Horse of the Year titles in the pas de deux and team categories. Diva also came in second in the individual category.
Top Top and owner/rider Sara Jorgensen bested 748 other competitors to win Horse of the Year and Rider of the Year in the amateur owner 1.30 to 1.35 meters (or 4 feet, 3 inches to 4 feet, 5 inches) jumping division. Top Top was also honored for 2018 by the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association and the Northern California Hunter Jumper Association, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Belgian Breeder's Association.
"I'm so proud of him. To say the least, 2018 was good for us," Jorgensen said.
Physical ability is a must for each of these horses, but much depends on the connection between the horses and their human partners. A strong partnership requires mutual trust and confidence, an understanding of the animal's history and an appreciation for their personality.
For Jorgensen, a top jumper rider for many years, establishing a relationship with Top Top has been a journey.
"There is a trust, a bond that is hard to explain but it's wonderful," she said. "It wasn't always like this — it took a lot of patience and correct riding to find the bond. If I push too hard even now, Top Top will dump me. I fell off four times in 2018, and all four falls were because I asked for too much too fast over fences and scared him."
In vaulting, human and equine athletes compete together but are judged separately, with the horse's score contributing as much as 25 percent of the total. The horse carries one, two or four vaulters and provides a moving platform while a series of gymnastic movements is performed along the entire length of the horse's back. For the horse, there's a lot more to it than going around quietly in a circle. Most disciplines teach the horse to move away from pressure, but a vaulting horse must move up under the vaulters' weight and keep balanced while maintaining a steady pace. The horse must also be sensitive to the voice and body movement of the lunger.
Sting stands 17.3 hands tall — just a shade under 6 feet at the shoulder. Woodside resident Krista Mack discovered the horse in Denmark and trained him for vaulting. She is also his lunger.
"Sting is an impressive horse to meet," she said. "Right away his build and handsome face caught my eye. Watching a vaulter on him for the first time gave me chills. He's the perfect combination of good breeding, brains, athleticism, build and solid training. This combination creates a drive in him that I haven't seen in many other horses I've worked with. He loves to compete, but he also loves his dressage work and hacking out too."
Diva is a seasoned vaulting competitor. Originally trained for dressage, the 16-year-old mare has carried European and American teams in international competitions for eight years.
Diva also lives up to her name, according to Carolyn Bland, Diva's trainer, lunger and a gold medalist in her own right.
"She is very particular about a lot of things and can be picky about who vaults on her," Bland said. "She likes attention but you had better bring a banana!"
At 18.2 hands (or 6 feet, 2 inches) the Oldenburg mare's size is impressive. "She is really big," Bland said. "She can be very intimidating when she gets a little hot because of her size."
Capturing the top spot in each discipline requires more than the ability to withstand the rigors of competition. Frequent long-distance travel and being lodged in unfamiliar places for weeks on end is part of the job, and although some horses take traveling in stride, others don't. Making the trip as comfortable as possible for the animals becomes a priority.
In the end, winning may not be the most important thing. Jorgensen puts it this way: "I spend a lot of time with my horse. We enjoy each other's company and he has made me a happier person and a better rider. I'm forever grateful to him for that."