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Sjoerd’s Journey

Charismatic Friesian stallion wins USEF top horse honor - and hearts, too

From Horsetrader staff reports - February 2nd, 2012 - Cover Story, Show & Event News

MURRIETA – When Xena Virmacati heard her horse’s name called as Horse of the Year at the USEF awards banquet Jan. 13, emotions came more quickly than words. 2011 had been a remarkable journey with Sjoerd.

The 6-year-old Friesian stallion won the honor after being named World or Grand National Champion 14 times last year and reserve four times. His trust and versatility shined through, taking wins with 11 different exhibitors in different disciplines, including equitation, dressage, liberty, walk/trot, English pleasure, trail, hunt seat, saddle seat, Western pleasure, junior and amateur classes.

“I was stunned,” said Virmacati, who purchased Sjoerd in 2007 not for the show ring, but for her Three Day Ranch breeding program as a cross with Arabians for sport horses. “I never thought I was going to win.”

Sjoerd’s story, populated now with unparalleled, back-to-back Shakespeare Perpetual Hi-Point Friesian Trophies, is rooted in the passion and determination of his owner. Virmacati, 39, had been studying potential crosses to Arabian mares when she encountered a video and photos of the imported Sjoerd as a young colt late in 2006.

Her 20 years of breeding Arabians left her with the belief that Arab-Saddlebred crosses would not be optimal for sport horses, and she was drawn to the Frieisian. After breeding her mares to different Friesian stallions, she knew traits she was after – not too long in the back, strong hip, with more of an upright headset . When she spotted Sjoerd, she had to have him — even when others weren’t so sure.

“I had made a big deal about getting this horse,” she recalls. “So in March he arrives and when we go to unload him from the trailer, everyone looked at me when he stepped off and said , ‘What did you do?’. I said `just wait…just wait!”

Five months later, she decided to take him to Burbank for a Regional event at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, and they returned home with the 2-year-old Colt Championship – unanimous under three judges. Then a recommendation reached Vimercati that she take him to Missouri for the World Championship Show. She did, and in three classes, he took a Championship and two Reserves.

“When I bought him, I had no intentions for showing on the Friesian circuit,” Vimercati says. “I wanted to breed him.”

From that first time the yearling Sjoerd stepped from the trailer onto her ranch to last October, when he stepped off as a record-setting World Champion, came a series of obstacles and triumphs for Vimercati and her daughters, Tynan Morgan, 16, and Anaiah Morgan, 12, that are as remarkable as the horse himself.

The greatest setback came the day after Vimercati flew home from St. Louis, his first World Championship in hand. In an accident she calls both freakish and “not the horse’s fault,” Vimercati was riding her well broke mare in a round pen when her toe, caught on a crossrail, caused her leg to whip around, snapping her right leg. The force fractured her tibia and tore all three major ligaments. Nerve damage was so extensive that surgical repair of the ligaments was postponed until there was evidence of nerve function in her leg.

“I went from my highest high I could ever imagine,” says Vimercati. “This horse I was told was a mistake goes unanimous World Champion 2-year-old, and I fly home, snap my leg behind me and am told I would probably never walk again.”

The peak-to-valley turn of events proved transformational. Tynan and Anaiah, both homeschooled through Julian Charter School, stepped up their roles with the ranch and family as Vimercati convalesced, confined to a wheel chair for months. Mom, the trainer, would not return to the saddle for more than a year.

In her place, Tynan, who at age 12 had ridden well but had not so much as lunged a horse, was tutored and then assumed the trainer’s role while mom observed from a deck in a wheelchair.

“I have told people that if I had to give up my leg for the incredible changes that took place in my children, I would do it in a heartbeat,” says Vimercati, who eventually worked her leg back into form for riding and handling halter horses. “I had done all the training — they’d wheel me out on the deck, and I talked her through – how to lunge a horse, saddle, bridle, all of it. She started working all 15 of our horses, 2-year olds, 3-year olds…all of them.”

“It was amazing,” she adds. “The only thing I can tell you about my life is that God has completely blessed me and brought me through everything to this point. There is no way this is of me or of my doing or of my own volition or that I deserve this. This is totally a blessing from God. Every person, every event her put into my life, every opportunity – good and bad – taught me something and it was never just about me. He brought my kids along.”

Far from over, Sjoerd’s journey this year will include another drive to win a third consecutive Shakespeare Hi-Point Friesian honor. Tynan and Anaiah have their streaks to maintain, too: Tynan is the IFSHA No. 1 Junior Rider the last two years and Anaiah was Reserve last year.

More online: See website http://bit.ly/202A_USEF

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