Apr 06, 2021

Horse Heroes: Cambalda

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Cambalda and Jennie Brannigan at the Richland Park CIC3* in 2015. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Eventing USA magazine and in honor of Cambalda's retirement from the sport we are reprinting it online.

Born of the Irish Sport Horse stallion Balda Beau and Irish Sport Horse dam Cathy’s Lady, Cambalda was bred by John Irish in Ireland and born in 2002. Jayne Wilson purchased Cambalda and brought him to England, which is where Kelli Temple came across him while on a horse shopping trip. “There were a lot of other top riders who tried him before me,” Temple recalled. “When I tried the horse, he was very green – I could hardly canter to a jump – but he was just the quintessential event type. I thought, ‘I have to take this one home!’”

Carl Bouckaert, who was a supporter of Temple, purchased Cambalda from Wilson and imported him to the United States as a 4-year-old. “I don’t want to say he was tricky to start out, but he liked to play,” Temple said. “He would jump and then he would kind of porpoise a bit, which could be a little intimidating, but he was always a superior jumper and honest as the day is long.”

In fact, Cambalda’s jumping ability is responsible for his barn name – Ping – but not in the way you might think. Temple had trailered him to a nearby farm and he was a bit exuberant exiting the trailer. “He completely cleared the ramp and jumped out of the back of the trailer and onto the driveway,” Temple said. “That was when we decided to call him Ping!”

Kelli Temple and Cambalda at one of his first events. GRC Photo.

Temple introduced Ping to eventing beginning at the Novice level in the winter of 2007. “He always did very well,” Temple said of Ping’s progression up the lower levels. “His dressage was his weak point because he had a bit of a round trot – it didn’t have a lot of suspension – but he was laterally very supple and he always put in a very accurate test.” By the fall of 2007 Ping had advanced to the Training level, and the following spring he moved up to Preliminary.

A Partnership Forms

Jennie Brannigan, who had purchased her upper level partner Cooper from Temple in 2006, purchased Ping from her in the spring of his 6-year-old year shortly after his move-up to the Preliminary level. “She did such a great job with Cooper and I thought so much of Ping that I was happy to have her have him and bring him along,” Temple said.

At the time, Brannigan was working for Phillip Dutton at True Prospect Farm. She continued to produce Ping up the levels, and in their first year together they earned seven first-place finishes, including a win in Ping’s first Intermediate at the Maryland Horse Trials and a win in the Intermediate division at the USEA American Eventing Championships.

Cambalda won the 2009 USEA American Eventing Championships Intermediate with Jennie Brannigan. USEA Photo.

In the fall of 2009, Ping sustained an injury to his knee that required surgery. He was at New Bolton Center for his surgery the same time that Cooper came in for the surgery on the tendon that was injured during show jumping at Fair Hill. Ping recovered well from surgery and went home to True Prospect Farm, but Cooper was beset with complications from his surgery and Brannigan ultimately made the incredibly difficult decision to humanely euthanize him.

During her time at True Prospect Farm, Brannigan had ridden several horses for Tim and Nina Gardner, who were also owners of several horses for Phillip Dutton. Nina remembers being introduced to Ping when he returned from New Bolton Center. “Jennie wasn’t sure of his potential and had some doubts, especially when she compared him to Cooper, but Ping just kept improving,” she said. Nina and Tim assumed ownership of Ping in support of Brannigan that spring.

Ping’s surgery certainly hadn’t slowed him down, as he won his first four outings in 2010, including the CIC2* (now CCI3*-S) at Fair Hill International and the CCI2* (now CCI3*-L) at Jersey Fresh. He was fifth in his first Advanced at Millbrook in the late summer and won three events in succession at the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) and CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) levels. That year, Ping earned the title of USEA Horse of the Year and he and Brannigan were named to the USEF High Performance List for 2011.

Cambalda earned the USEA Horse of the Year title for the first time in 2010.

“He really stepped up from going Intermediate to winning a four-star long and really helped me get over one of the hardest heartbreaks I’ve ever had to go through,” Brannigan said. “Winning at Galway Downs was really special because my grandfather was there and it was the last time he got to see me compete before he passed away.”

Chasing the Four-Star

Ping continued to excel at the three-star (now four-star) level with Brannigan, winning The Fork CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) and placing third in the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) at Jersey Fresh that spring. Ping and Brannigan then went across the pond to contest their first four-star (now five-star) at Luhmühlen but were eliminated on cross-country. Undeterred, they came home to the States and finished second in the CIC3*(now CCI4*-S) at Richland Park.

Ping had some time off in the spring of 2012 but after clean runs at the Advanced and CCI4*-S levels, he and Brannigan traveled to The Netherlands to compete in the CCIO3* (now CCI4*-L) at Boekelo as members of the U.S. Nations Cup team.

In the spring of 2013, Ping was on track to compete at the Kentucky Three-Day Event for the first time. Primed with strong finishes at Red Hills International and The Fork, they made the trip to Kentucky. However, Ping got loose while being lunged and fell, and Brannigan made the decision to withdraw him from the competition. They rerouted to Jersey Fresh, where they were second in the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S), and then took their second trip to Luhmühlen, but were again eliminated on cross-country. . That fall, Ping and Brannigan were able to recapture form at the CIC3*(now CCI4*-S) and CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) levels which again set them up for a run at the CCI4* (now CCI5*-L) level in the 2014 season. Brannigan and Ping went back to Kentucky in the spring of 2014 and while they jumped around clean on the cross-country, they were technically eliminated for jumping the widest part of a corner on course. That fall, they won two Advanced divisions and became the USEF National Champions when they won the CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) at Fair Hill International.

In 2015, Ping and Brannigan made their third trip to Kentucky, and while they picked up 20 penalties on cross-country, they finished the weekend with a number instead of a letter. They were subsequently named as the traveling reserve for the 2015 Pan American Games, and went on that fall to win the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) at Great Meadow International and finish second in the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) at Richland Park. They traveled to France to compete in the CCI4* (now CCI5*-L) at Pau, but fell on course and Ping was sidelined with an injury for a year.

The Comeback Kid

In the early spring of 2017, Ping put his first hoofprints on a cross-country course in over a year with Brannigan’s groom, Erin Rose, in the tack. Brannigan said it was a way to say “thank you” to Rose, who had helped with Ping throughout his rehabilitation process.

“I knew him so well because I had been competing him for so long, and I knew going into every short format four-star that I would have a good shot,” Brannigan said. “He’s so consistent – his record speaks for itself. He wasn’t meant to be a five-star horse, but he gave me my first five-star and he was obviously a great four-star horse.”

Cambalda and Jennie Brannigan on their way to winning the Nations Cup at Great Meadow International in 2017. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

So, with a renewed focus specifically on competing at the Advanced and three-star (now four-star) level, Ping and Brannigan were in the top three in the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) at Red Hills International and Carolina International. That summer, they returned to Great Meadow International, this time as members of the U.S. Nations Cup team. Ping and Brannigan were individual winners and member of the gold medal-winning team. “I remember feeling, ‘If this is the last event I do on him, that’s a fitting thing,’” she said.

They were third in the Adequan USEA Gold Cup Final Advanced division at the USEA American Eventing Championships in Mill Spring, N.C. and second at in the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) in Unionville, Pa. that fall. With nothing but top three finishes all year, Ping was once again named the USEA Horse of the Year.

“We had that kind of partnership where you know you don’t have to double-ride them and be training crazy hard right before the event,” Brannigan reflected. “You can go in and be feeling confident and not have to be stressed out and really pushing yourself or the partnership.”

A Change of Course

“It’s really hard when you’re learning to be a professional and you know you could sell the horse and have the money to buy the next horse for the future,” Brannigan observed. “Ping was my first big time horse and I didn’t feel like in my heart that selling him was the right thing to do. Luckily, the Gardners agree with me.”

In 2018, the decision was made to offer the ride to Alexa Lapp, a longtime student of Brannigan’s who was looking for a new upper level mount. “The arrangement with Alexa was really special because I’ve taught Alexa for a very long time,” Brannigan said.

Alexa Lapp completing her first Advanced with Cambalda at Carolina International in 2019. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

“I had just decided to give one of our working students, Sydney Shinn, the ride on my upper level mare Paprika, who she ended up buying,” Lapp said. “Jennie had mentioned that it would be cool for me to take Ping to the North American Youth Championships (NAYC) and have a horse I could be competitive on. I didn’t really think it was going to happen, but I remember she came out to the riding field and told me she talked to the Gardners and they were on board to give me the opportunity.”

“It was one of the top moments in my life,” Lapp reflected. “I had ridden him a bunch, doing his fitness work and some flatting, so I knew how much I was going to learn and knew how much trust Jennie was putting in me to take care and love him like she did.”

Lapp and Ping went for a spin at the Preliminary level at Rocking Horse to get better acquainted before heading to Red Hills for the CIC* (now CCI2*-S), where they were sixth. They were second in the Intermediate at Carolina International and third in the CIC2* (now CCI3*-S) at Jersey Fresh, which gave them the necessary qualifications for the North American Youth Championships (NAYC). Area II dominated the CCIOY2* at the NAYC that year, taking home the team gold medal, and Lapp and Ping took home individual bronze.

The following spring, Ping took Lapp around her first Advanced horse trials at Carolina International, finishing in third place, and her first CCI4*-S at Fair Hill International, where they were second. “I look back at Young Riders often and pinch myself for getting that experience and meeting some of the best people in my life,” Lapp said. “I also look at the videos from our first Advanced and four-star all the time – I can’t believe that I got to do that on one of the best horses in the country. I definitely had to earn his love, but he was my favorite horse and made me smile every day! I am so grateful to the Gardners and Jennie who trusted me with him and gave me the best two years I could have asked for. Ping has a heart of gold and I owe so much to him.”

Passing to the Next Generation

After two years with Lapp, it was time for Ping to move on to something new. “I didn’t have a younger person in the barn that was doing the lower levels and we didn’t really want him going Advanced anymore,” Brannigan said. The Gardners were friends with the McElduff family, whose daughter Maddie was hoping to make the team for the 2020 NAYC but was in need of a suitable horse.

Maddie McElduff and Cambalda at Great Meadow International in 2020. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

“It was my mom who initiated the whole thing!” McElduff said. “Tim was explaining to my mom how they thought he didn’t quite want to be retired yet. Then, just casually, my mom mentioned how we were looking for another upper level horse and maybe I would like to take him around. The next day, Nina called Jennie asking if it would be a good idea. Later, Jennie called my trainer, John Michael Durr, to make sure this would be a good fit. JM called my mom asking if there was something she needed to tell him! By the end of that week, I had tried him and he was heading to our barn.”

“It worked out really well because I’m friends with John Michael – I’ve known him since we were teenagers in California – and I felt happy with him being in their barn,” Brannigan said. “But it is kind of weird to not have him in my barn!”

While the 2020 competition season has been completely disrupted by COVID-19 and McElduff didn’t have the opportunity to compete at the NAYC, they have earned a couple of solid finishes at the Preliminary level and most recently completed the CCI2*-S at Great Meadow International. McElduff has the lease on Ping for the year and is looking forward to what the fall season will bring. “Ping has already taught me so much in a short amount of time and I couldn’t be more grateful to the Gardners and Jennie,” she said. “He is an absolute dream horse. I am so lucky!”

A Partnership of a Lifetime

Of her longtime partner, Brannigan said, “He hates to be brushed and he hates being sweat scraped. He loves being outside – he’d be pretty happy to be on vacation in the field as long as you bring him in for treats and to pet him. He likes attention, but he also likes doing his own thing. He wasn’t necessarily the horse that you would watch trot around and think, ‘Wow, I want that one!’ But he was a good, consistent, steady, correct horse. And his canter is stunning!”

Cambalda appeared on the cover of Eventing USA magazine a second time as the 2017 USEA Horse of the Year.

“He brought me back from the darkest time in my life and helped me continue to go on and do this sport even though I was broken,” Brannigan said. “I owe him a lot. He taught me how to win, even though we lost a lot too! And he taught me not to ask him to do what he didn’t want to do. A horse can be a great horse and not be jumping around Burghley – I think he proved that.”

“I don’t think he’s ready to be retired,” Brannigan concluded. “He still enjoys doing the job and having fun and he looks really well and is super sound. It’s fun to see him go teach other people how to kick on cross-country!”

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