When we think of the greatest lessons we’ve learned in the saddle, most of us attribute them to the coaches we’ve worked with over the years. Yet for some of the greatest riders in the business, the most important training has come from their horses, themselves, and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum’s longtime partner Shutterfly is no exception.

At his retirement ceremony in 2011, Meredith called Shutterfly, simply, “the best horse in the world,” and it’s easy to understand why. The list of grand prix wins attributed to Nancy Clark’s Hanoverian gelding with Meredith at the helm includes three World Cup Finals, a win at the 2005 Rolex Grand Prix of Aachen, an individual bronze medal at the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games, and more than $3.7 million in career earnings. In 2011, at the age of 18, Shutterfly won the Prize of Europe at Aachen, and was retired the same weekend in front of an adoring crowd of more than 55,000 spectators. Today, “Petey” is happily living out his days in Thedinghausen, Germany.

Meredith has often said that Shutterfly is unlike other horses, with a deep sensitivity and intelligence that could have easily been his undoing instead of his strength. “I learned a book from Shutterfly,” said Meredith when we sat down with her in Wellington this winter. “To nail them all down into 10 ideas, that’s really difficult, because there are so many things I learned from him, not just about riding, but about listening to your horse.”

1. Patience.  

Shutterfly was a very difficult young horse and nobody liked him, despite the fact that he turned out to be one of the greatest horses of all time. He learned how to be a great horse. As a young horse, he wasn’t a super talent that everyone saw and thought was fantastic, he became good because he was extremely intelligent and a great learner and he taught me, above all, patience.

2. Some horses just don’t do grid work. 

When Shutterfly was young, he wanted to go way too forward at the fence and he wouldn’t take enough time, so I thought gymnastics would work well for him. But he would still get so quick in the grid, and I wouldn’t be able to slow him down with my hand, so I was actually taking away from the shape of his jump by trying to slow him down. His mind was too quick for gymnastics work as he couldn’t settle and get comfortable, and would make mistakes which actually scared him. He often hit the jumps and it didn’t take him long to decide that he no longer wanted to do any sort of gymnastics whatsoever. After a while, I just didn’t do it with him anymore.

3. Small jumps build confidence. 

I would only jump very, very small fences with Shutterfly and nothing over 1.20m, even when we were training for big events. He knew his job and just needed to be relaxed and confident, and he needed a lot of time to do it. I think [in general] we make things too complicated and too difficult. We have to remember to make things easy for horses, which then gives them the confidence that they need.

4. The hand is overrated. 

Petey also taught me that I couldn’t always slow a horse down at the fence with my hand. I had to teach Shutterfly to slow himself down at the fence. He taught me how to use the fence to [back-off and] create the shape of the horse over the jump. Not every horse can do that and some horses are just different. But I look for horses now that can do it and I try to teach all my young horses to do that by themselves.

5. How to ride with speed. 

He also taught me how to ride fast, especially when he knew we were going fast, and that was a really valuable thing to learn. In the first jump-off I ever rode with Shutterfly when he was seven, there were 8 fences in the course, and we took down five of them. He got so excited and aggressive when I rode forward that I learned, in order to ride him that way, I had to teach him to do so without him knowing he was going fast. Instead, I thought about getting him to go very, very smoothly and without pressure.

6. Pick your battles. 

Shutterfly became like a child to me so I tried to avoid circumstances that he did not like. For instance, I realized he did not like prize giving ceremonies. He could not stand the noise and he could not stand being in the ring. He would have a complete meltdown. After age seven, when I had repeatedly tried to ride him for the awards (to the point where one time, he almost laid down in the ring with me on his back) I never used him for the prize giving again. Even when he won the World Cup Final, and all sorts of wonderful grand prixs, he did not take part in the prize giving ceremonies. It was the right thing for him, but it was a shame for the pictures!

7. Protect your horse, no matter what. 

At the World Equestrian Games in Aachen in 2006, we made it to the Final Four of the show jumping event, when there is a rider change in the competition. Shutterfly was very timid and very sensitive, and he didn’t trust many people—it took me many years to get his trust as a rider and the same thing for my groom. I knew he would be completely undone that day by staying in the ring, having a saddle change, and then being ridden by other people. It turned out I was right, even though he did his job on course. But I learned how to protect my horse from situations that would scare him, and I promised I would never make him do anything like that again.

8. Recognize the individual.

As I’ve said, Shutterfly was a very sweet, sensitive horse. In fact, he was almost what you would consider ‘shy’.  We had to give him confidence as a young horse, as he had no self-confidence at all. He was the complete opposite of Checkmate, who was very, very cocky, spirited, and confident, to the point where he did everything he felt was best without asking.

I always give the two of them as examples. Checkmate would walk to the ring with his head up high, prancing and dragging the groom behind him. Shutterfly would walk with his head down low behind the groom, and his nose tucked into his groom’s back. That was the difference in their personalities. The amazing thing was that Shutterfly learned to be a great competitor, and once he walked in that ring, when he had the confidence which had taken him years to gain, then he rose to the occasion. That was the amazing part, because no one could have seen in that young horse that he would actually be able to perform under incredible pressure in incredible arenas. So that was amazing, that two of my top horses could both perform in that atmosphere, despite the fact that they couldn’t have been more opposite in character.

9. Bet on the late-bloomer.

I think the first major change for Petey was when he was eight years old and I won the German Championships for the division for women. For an eight-year-old, that was a good 1.50m competition over three days, and Shutterfly needed to perform and jump clear rounds. Nobody expected him to because he had never done anything like that before. As it turned out, that was the first time he looked outstandingly good in the ring, but of course, after that, it took years to build on that experience.

At age nine, he was shortlisted for the European Championship team, but the Germans wouldn’t actually put him on because they thought he wasn’t dependable enough. It took many years for him to prove himself, even after winning the World Championships at such a young age. I think each horse is different in the way you have to build trust with them, but it’s very rare that it doesn’t take an extremely long amount of time. It’s worth having the faith and putting the time in to get the horse on your side for situations where you might one day be competing at the Olympics or the highest level.

10. Push your limits.

By the same token, I think sometimes you go into the ring and you realize your horse is slightly over-challenged by the course. But sooner or later, you need to do that—you have to make a step up to see what you’re capable of. You can’t practice [at home] what you need to be in the show ring to do. When the horse performs at that level, out of his comfort zone, that’s when it can go one of two ways. You could be over-faced, or it could go the opposite way—and that’s when you realize Wow, this a great horse.

Champions become champions when they do something that they weren’t totally prepared to do, which requires a lot of ability and heart. I think, like with Shutterfly, that’s the point when you get really excited, because you realize you have an exceptional animal on your hands.

-Photo credit: Shannon Brinkman.