It’s an emotional day for USEF Eventing 25 rider Zach Brandt as he says goodbye to Cavallino Cocktail, his three-star partner of five years. As so many young professionals must do when getting started in this sport, Zach, 22, made the difficult decision to sell “Skotty” to Benita Strini in order to launch his business and fund a string of young prospects.
“It honestly comes down to the fact that I’m trying to start developing a string of horses, which is something I’ve known I needed to do,” Zach said. “I’ve had conversations with David (O’Connor) and Jon (Holling) about it. Jon’s my coach, but he’s also a mentor to me. It’s all part of getting started, and I’ve got to get started somehow.”
Zach takes comfort in the fact that he essentially handpicked the 13-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare’s new home, as he called Benita early on and asked if she would be interested in buying Skotty. “I’ve known Benita for awhile, and the Strinis are the most amazing family, and I honestly could not be happier that Skotty is going there,” Zach said.
“One of the things I struggled with was the idea of selling her and not being sure where she was going or what their setup was like and how they cared for their horses. But the Strinis just go above and beyond with their horses. I called Benita early on before anyone even knew about it because I wanted her to have the first right of refusal. That’s where I wanted her to go. Benita is the only person who tried her, and that was that.”
The right match
Benita returned late last year from a six-month stint in Banbury, England, working for Kate Rocher at Dassett Eventing, and said she had been focused on producing her young horses at this point in her career. But when Zach called to tell her he was selling Skotty, Benita said she knew she had to at least go sit on the mare.
“I actually knew Skotty and adored Skotty before I even knew Zach. We were both at Young Riders in 2011, and I saw her go there and thought she was incredible. I had no idea who Zach was since he was based in California at the time. Then we became friends when he moved to the East Coast,” Benita said.
“Skotty is the ideal event horse — great in all three phases — but I hadn’t really thought of getting an upper-level horse. I completed my first two-star in 2011 and have struggled to get back to that level ever since. Last year I found two 5-year-olds in England, and I decided that I was going to go up the levels with them. When Zach called, I was in shock, but the thought of having an upper-level horse show me the ropes and help me get that experience seemed amazing.”
Benita went to Florida to try Skotty, knowing that it needed to be the right match if she was going to buy an upper-level horse, but everything seemed to fall into place. “The moment I sat on her, I loved her,” Benita said. “She’s so well trained and has been beautifully produced. We clicked way more than I thought we would right off the bat. We schooled all three phases, and there was no question after that. I was beyond excited.”
Looking to the future
Zach, too, is excited at the prospect of now being able to develop a talented string of young horses. He already has Vasiliev, an 8-year-old Holsteiner gelding he purchased last year that is doing his first Intermediate/Preliminary next weekend at Full Gallop. He and Jon will fly to England next week to start the search for new prospects.
“We’ll look for something young that’s maybe done a little bit but that’s still relatively green,” Zach said. “I like the idea of starting them early on.” A new young horse is just part of what’s next for Zach. He’s been based at Jon and Jenn Holling’s in Ocala for the last year, and with their help and encouragement, he’s hoping to move on to his own facility this winter.
“With the help of Jon and Jenn both, I’m going to try to go out on my own this winter and get something started — get some horses in training and start working with clients,” Zach said. “That’s all part of this, too. I’m trying to get my own business started. Jon and Jenn have been an extremely good influence in helping me to grow, not only as a rider but as someone who hopes to be a successful businessman in the sport.”
Zach isn’t sure where he’ll ultimately end up basing his business — whether he’ll stay in Florida or move further up the East Coast — but what he does know is that he only has this opportunity because of Skotty.
“I honestly can’t even put into words what she has meant to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without her and all the experiences I’ve had on her over the past five years. She’s taken me to a medal at Young Riders, to my first two-star and my first three-star, and to the East Coast. If I hadn’t had her, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this,” Zach said.
“She has taught me so much, and I’ve learned so much from her. Because of all that I’ve been able to learn on her and that she’s been able to teach me, I can now take all those tools and use them with the young horses. Now that I know I’ve had the experience of riding at the Advanced level and a couple three-stars, I have an idea of the type of horse that I like. I know I’ll never get another one like her, but I’ll try.”
What’s next for Skotty?
Skotty arrives at the Strinis’ Plain Dealing Farm in Scottsville, Virginia, late tonight, and Benita said she plans to take her time in getting to know the mare. “I definitely want to take it really slow and build a partnership this fall,” she said. “I’ll likely aim for the Prelim at Five Points and then the CIC1* at Plantation Field, and I’ll keep her at the Prelim and one-star level this fall to really form that partnership. Then we’ll look at moving up to the Intermediate and two-star level in the spring.”
With Zach planning to compete Vasiliev at the same level next spring, he and Benita realized that their competition schedules will likely overlap, so he will get to see Skotty regularly at competitions. “I am really looking forward to watch them go together,” Zach said. “I will always be their biggest fan and cheerleader.”
“Zach has seem me struggle not having the right horse at the two-star level, and I think it will be a special thing and a big group effort as I work to get back there with Skotty,” Benita said. “There are a lot of people who love Skotty, and I feel incredibly blessed that I’m going to be her next partner. She will always have a home at Plain Dealing Farm, and Zach will always be a big part of her life.”