Dec 14, 2022

Exit Harbour Pilot: Hannah Sue Hollberg Reflects on William’s Retirement

USEA/ KTB Creative Group photo

The saying goes that the most talented horses have the biggest personalities, and Harbour Pilot is no exception. Retiring this year at the age of 19, Jacqueline Mars’s Irish Sport Horse gelding leaves the upper-level scene with one of the most decorated and lengthy careers in the sport, including in his credits ten CCI5*-L starts and the 2011 team gold and individual silver at the Pan American games. His partner in all of these endeavors has been Hannah Sue Hollberg, who took over the ride on “William” from David O’Connor in 2010.

“David was actually competing him at the time up to Preliminary and had success with him, and then decided that he didn’t want to go that fast anymore cross-country,” recalls Hollberg. “I’d always loved William’s personality and kind of stalked him. So when David decided that I was going to be able to take over the ride, it was a dream come true.”

Owing to his complicated personality, Hollberg’s partnership with William was not all smooth sailing at the get-go.

“He’s always been a bit quirky and opinionated so we’ve had a bit of an up-and-down career,” Hollberg explains. “He won quite a bit, and then other times I would really struggle to control him on cross-country. He’s a very strong horse even though he’s not very big at 16 hands.”

Hollberg clarifies that the challenges with keeping William in check came mostly from managing his sensitivity.

“He’s just such a smart, personable horse. He knows his people, and he’s really kind and sweet, and he wants to understand stuff. All the trouble I have ever had with him was when he didn’t understand something. He has a very strong flight instinct.”

Regarding that flight instinct, Hollberg recounts a particularly memorable experience with donkeys while the two were stabled in France.

Photo courtesy of Hollberg

“The first team trip I went on after the Pan Ams was at Saumur. We learned that week that William hates donkeys. We were at a ship-in place before we went to the event, and it had a donkey farm. It was a complete nightmare. He was climbing the walls. He was so psycho and scared of the donkeys. As soon as I would come near him, he would just go crazy because he knew I was going to try and ride him. My groom at the time – a really good friend of mine, Sara McKenna Sherman – would run him alongside this embankment so I could run and jump on him at a run. I failed once and I fell.”

Hollberg laughs at the memory and then recalls that one of the donkeys ended up giving birth while they were stabled there. “I think [William] could tell that was going to happen because as soon as the baby was born, he was fine. But he was so exhausted by the time we got to the event that he was laying down in his stall sleeping all the way until dressage and then did the best dressage test he’s ever done.”

Donkeys aside, another of William’s quirks involved the start box.

“No matter what country we were in or what level, it was the start box that would keep me up at night,” says Hollberg. “He didn’t want to go near it.” At the event in Saumur, this became particularly problematic after William’s post-donkey fatigue had worn off, and his enthusiasm returned. “I couldn’t get near [the start box]. The whole U.S. contingent had to join arms and make a human barricade to push us in.”

The challenges that William has presented have only added to the immeasurable value of his partnership with Hollberg.

“We’ve grown up together and matured quite a bit,” says Hollberg. “I’m a completely different person in a lot of ways than [when the partnership began].”

USEA/ KTB Creative Group photo.

One of the lessons that William has taught Hollberg as they’ve grown together in the sport is the importance of patience and persistence.

“He would do really well in dressage and then do really well in cross-country and then struggle in show jumping. Then I’d work on the show jumping and we’d have a bad dressage. It always seemed like I was trying to get all the phases right in one weekend.”

In the process of putting together all the pieces with William, Hollberg learned to “just keep ticking along and not think that every single event is the most important thing in the world but just continue to work on things and continue to get better. I think that’s really what our partnership is all about. Just being there for each other and doing our best.”

Reflecting on their journey together, Hollberg speaks of William’s work ethic, talent, and heart with both pride and humility. “He is such a classy horse and always gives his all. His absolute best at times was maybe not in the right way or the way we wanted it to be, but he was definitely giving everything he had, all the time. He has all the ability, if someone else was riding him, probably to be an Olympic gold medalist.”

Hollberg explains that the decision to retire William after this year’s Maryland 5* was made in the interest of keeping him safe and healthy.

“I always wanted to do right by him and by Ms. Mars, his breeder and owner. And I just felt so lucky to be a part of this amazing horse,” says Hollberg. “I would just die if something happened to him and at that age – he’s 19 now – it’s just not worth it to me. It’s never ever been worth it to me for him to get injured or hurt. Because I know he would never stop. He would literally do anything I asked him to do, no matter what. And I couldn’t imagine putting him in a situation where it hurt him.”

Hannah Sue Hollberg and Harbour Pilot's owner and breeder Ms. Jacqueline Mars. Photo courtesy of Hollberg.

William will stay with Hollberg in his retirement and, after a period of rest, may serve as Christa Schmidt’s dressage mount.

“I don’t think he needs to jump a whole lot anymore,” says Hollberg. “But he is the most amazing horse on the flat.”

As for herself, Hollberg will be carrying on with Christa Schmidt’s Capitol HIM along with some new rides, but William’s departure from her upper-level string will be felt deeply.

“I’ve planned on this happing for a while but it’s really rocked my world quite a bit. Just thinking about going to events and not having him on my list. It’s going to take some getting used to.”

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