It took a while for Zachary Brandt to figure out how to drive Cavallino Cocktail. “It was like giving a kid who just got his permit a Ferrari,” Brandt joked.
But now he’s got all the gears and steering figured out, and moved up to advanced this season, winning their third outing at the level at the Galway Downs International Horse Trials (Calif.) on March 28-31.
When he tried the gray Irish Sport Horse mare with strange spots in late 2010, Brandt knew Cavallino Cocktail was the upper level horse he wanted. But once he got on, he realized he was in for more than he thought. “I couldn’t ride her to save my life!” he said.
“I hadn’t ever gone intermediate and she had done a few two-stars, so she was really powerful. I’d never sat on a horse with that much jump in my life. They just kept putting the holes up [on the jump] and like, the fifth jump I jumped on her was 4’9” and I’d never, ever jumped that big in my life,” he remembered. “I completely missed to this oxer and she was just so strong that she just took the bit and I didn’t know what to do. She got there really deep and I just kind of tried to stay with her in the air. She left the rails in the cups and that’s when I was like, ‘I’m going to figure out how to ride this horse because I don’t think I’ll ever get another one like this.’”
When Cavallino Cocktail came into his life, Brandt had been jumping around at the preliminary level on an experienced packer with aspirations to make it to the upper levels of eventing, but needed a more capable horse. His parents surprised him with a trip to Denmark to look at a horse that his trainer, Olympic silver medalist Gina Miles, had found for him. That horse was Cavallino Cocktail, 11, who’d started life as a show jumper in Ireland before transitioning to eventing with Danish rider Peter Flarup at age 6.
It took some time and a wakeup call, but together, Brandt and “Skotty” forged a partnership that took them to the Adequan/FEI North American Junior/Young Rider Championships in 2011, where they earned team silver with Area VI and finished fourth individually in the CCI*.
Never Looking Back
As a child, Brandt was decidedly non-horsey. His mother, Beth Cannon, had evented when she was younger and picked it up again after a 30-year break. “I had absolutely no love for horses whatsoever and she dragged me to the barn day after day. I’d be miserable just because I was obsessed with basketball,” said Brandt.
When he was 11, his mother asked him if he’d like to try riding a horse, and he was instantly hooked. “I cantered in my first lesson in the morning, then went to lunch, bought out the tack store and came back and I took a second lesson that afternoon and I haven’t really looked back since then,” he said.
Brandt started riding his mother’s “nice hand-me-down” horses with Cory Walkey of Mill Creek Equestrian Center in Topanga, Calif., before moving up the coast to Miles’ Gold Medal Equestrian in Templeton.
After he’d spent a summer with Miles, Brandt’s parents saw how serious their son was about riding and allowed him to finish his senior year in high school online while living with Miles. “She taught me what it takes to ride at the upper levels and helped me a lot with the basics and the foundation that I really needed,” he said.
Under Miles’ tutelage, Brandt and Skotty moved up to intermediate in the fall of 2011, but in their second outing at the level, they suffered a rotational fall at the Woodside International Horse Trials (Calif.) in October.
Skotty incurred seven micro-fractures to her sternum and Brandt spent a week in the hospital. “I went out and was a little bit cocky and wanted to go for time in my second intermediate,” Brandt admitted. “It was a lot of rebuilding from there and I told myself that I’d never let myself fall into that trap again. Every time I go out on cross-country it’s paramount that all I do is take care of her and if I think that, I end up having a really good ride.”
When Skotty was ready to start competing again in early 2012, Brandt took a job working for Dana Lynd-Pugh at her Flying Tails Farm in Gilroy, Calif. He’d worked with her when she coached his Young Riders team in 2011 and liked her teaching style.
Brandt and Skotty’s first competition back was at Woodside at prelim. Even though the event held a bad memory for Brandt, he tackled the cross-country course with more determination than ever. “I tried to use what happened in a positive way, learn from it and right my wrong a little bit,” he said. “Now I go out on course, and I’ve never felt so secure. She’s such an amazing horse and she doesn’t make mistakes. It’s on me 150 percent. I know that if I do my part, then I’m going to be all right.”
The pair ended 2012 on a high note, finishing in second place at the Galway Downs CCI** in November. “Every time I go out on her, she and I form a stronger and stronger partnership and I feel like I know her inside out and she knows me inside out. She’d do anything for me and I’d do anything for her,” said Brandt. “Gina told me something one time which, ever since I had my accident, I’ve really tried to live by it. She said, ‘The only way to succeed in this sport is that you don’t let the highs get too high and you don’t let the lows get too low.’”
Just Keep Trucking Along
After such a successful year, Brandt and Lynd-Pugh sat down and discussed plans for moving up to advanced. “We figured we’d try it and see where I was at in my riding, and if something went wrong or if it went alright, we’d keep progressing in that direction,” said Brandt.
The time was right, and they moved up at the Twin Rivers Winter Horse Trials (Calif.) in March with a clear jumping round cross-country. They followed up that performance with a third-place finish at Copper Meadows Horse Trials (Calif.) two weeks later.
Brandt, who balances his riding with taking classes at West Valley College and working at a local restaurant a few nights a week, was also invited to participate in the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Developing Riders/Under 25 coaching sessions with David O’Connor this spring. “Since I’ve been working with him, my riding has been improving a lot. It’s nice to have him to guide me along with Dana,” he said.
“I couldn’t say a word to him when I first met him. I had no idea what to say,” he remembered. “He sat us all down in a classroom and we started going over things as simple as the training scale to specifics like galloping position. He just started firing questions at us and all of us would just look at him- not because we weren’t sure what the answer was, but we were so intimidated we had no idea even what to say.”
He’s since developed a good relationship with O’Connor and is looking ahead to more training sessions and a spring CCI*** at Jersey Fresh (N.J.). “I’m really proud of myself and my horse. It’s just more progression along the road that I want to keep going on, so I’m just trying to keep my head and keep trucking along,” he said. “Just as much as Dana has helped me and David has helped me, this horse has taught me more than anyone has or even could,” he continued.