A spunky redheaded school horse, Rico is known as the resident class clown around the barn at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. The 12-year-old gelding pouts when he doesn’t receive a friendly pat from those who pass his stall, and he anxiously paws whenever he hears the crinkle of a plastic wrapper—his cue that somewhere nearby there’s a treat that really should be shared.
But everything changes when the flashy 16.3-hand chestnut enters the arena at A for a dressage test or heads out of the start box and onto cross country. That’s when the class clown gives way to the no-nonsense competitor who once was evented by Olympian Boyd Martin and Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton.
Rico’s current rider is Julia Spatt, a senior at Otterbein University majoring in equine business, who leases the horse from the school. A Colorado native, 21-year-old Julia was drawn to Otterbein because of the school’s equine program and its eventing team—one of only a handful in the country. While in high school, Julia was an active member of her area’s Pony Club and also participated in the Area IX Young Riders program. The summer before coming to college, she and her horse, Tazmania, placed ninth in the CCI* of the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships.
As Julia prepared for college, she realized that “Taz” wasn’t up to the challenge of upper-level eventing, so she sold him to a rider looking for a lower-level mount. Then she decided to take a yearlong break from competitive riding to experience college life. Soon thereafter she was eagerly turning her attention to finding a new eventing partner. She had her sights set on earning her Pony Club A rating.
Julia sought the advice of Kari Briggs, her trainer and the coach of Otterbein’s eventing team. Kari recommended Rico, a Selle Français/Irish Sport Horse-cross who had recently been donated to Otterbein’s lesson program. He had come from Georgia, where his owner enjoyed competing him in Third Level dressage but found that he was tricky to jump. Rather than sell Rico, his owner decided to donate him to Otterbein. Though he was not the perfect match for her, his owner felt confident that he would have a good home at the school and be able to continue a successful career by helping to teach other riders. Kari knew that Rico had the athletic ability to be a suitable mount for Julia to ride to earn her A rating. But neither anticipated the success that horse and rider would have during their first season of eventing competition.
“When I started leasing Rico, I just kind of thought, ‘Oh, I’ll have a fun summer running around Novice level with him,’” Julia says. But with the help of Kari and two-time Canadian Olympian Bruce Mandeville, another faculty member at Otterbein, Julia and Rico picked up momentum. At their first show, they finished on their dressage score at the Novice level and immediately moved up to Training level. In September 2012, they earned fourth place out of 51 starters in the Nutrena American Eventing Championships, in Fairburn, Georgia.
Julia recalls walking one cross-country course with Bruce and listening as he pointed out that Rico might be a bit sticky through a certain combination. On course, however, the gelding charged through the combination like an old pro, never batting an eye. For Julia it was proof that Rico has the heart of an event horse.
Julia moved Rico to Prelim, received her Pony Club A rating and tackled five events before completing both her and Rico’s first Intermediate horse trials last July at Loch Moy Farm in Adamstown, Maryland. Since then, the two have completed four additional Intermediate events. They placed third at their most recent competition, River Glen in New Market, Tennessee, last October. Julia’s next goal is to qualify for a CCI** by the fall.
It’s not unusual, Julia says, that people at shows are surprised to learn that Rico is a school horse. “Why would anyone donate a horse as nice as he is?” they ask.
“The universe must have wanted us to be together,” Julia says with a smile. And if all continues to go well for them, the sky could be the limit.