Jan 18, 2020

Horse Heroes: Flintstar

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Eventing USA magazine.

Sired by Zabalu and out of Croftlea Firequeen (by the well-known Irish Sport Horse sire Kingcroft Wicklow), the New Zealand Thoroughbred Flintstar was bred by Raewyn Price at Croftlea Stud in North Canterbury, New Zealand and born in 2000. “Firequeen was one of those horses who preferred not to be ridden and so was put in foal to the Price’s stallion, Zabalu, who was a very popular sire for lots of sport horses in New Zealand at the time,” said Darnelle Price (née Hubbard), who purchased Flintstar from dressage rider Shiwon Green as an unbroken 2-year-old.

“I was 18 and ready for that sort of challenge,” Darnelle recalled, “and a challenge he was. He wasn't keen on the idea of being ridden at all! My mum was lunging him with the saddle on once and he bucked and bucked until he fell over, then got back up and just kept on bucking. He sent me flying every time I tried to sit on him, so he was eventually sent away to be broken in. When he came back, I just had to jump on, stay on, and try to hold his head up until he got his bucks out of the system.”

Eventually Flintstar got most of the bucking, rearing, and napping out, “although obviously he still even now has his opinions in life,” Darnelle said with a laugh, “and we could crack on with normal ridden life. He just has a huge ego and thinks he's above everyone else - he doesn't have too much time for anyone who doesn't worship him.”

Darnelle Price competing Flintstar as a young horse in New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Darnelle Price.

A few years later, Darnelle and Flintstar’s path crossed with the Prices again. “It’s a funny twist of fate how it came to be,” Jonelle Price said. “Darnelle applied for a job we had advertised – [my husband] Tim’s brother [Cam] actually had stuck an ad on the notice board at a jumping show that Darnelle was at, advertising to come and work for me and Tim in England. Darnelle went and saw Cam and said she was keen, and she was the one who got the job. In an even funnier twist of fate, Darnelle ended up marrying Cam, Tim’s brother, so she is our sister-in-law now.”

Darnelle left to work for the Prices in England in 2006, and by that time she had done a bit of everything with Flintstar. “He’d done Pre-Novice eventing [equivalent to USEA Modified], 6-year-old jumpers, dressage, etc., but he always had a talent and joy for jumping – he just found everything very easy.”

“[Darnelle] came to England on her own, without her horse, but she would always talk about this horse she had at home, Flintstar – Flinty, she called him,” Jonelle continued. “She managed to convince her dad after a while to send him over. I remember the first time she jumped him, Tim and I were sitting by the arena and we thought, ‘Bloody hell, that thing’s a ride.’ Sure enough, every time she jumped him, he was just a real proper little athlete and we sort of kept looking at the horse and thinking that maybe we needed to get our hands on him.”

Photo courtesy of Darnelle Price.

“It was probably a lot of blind naiveté, but I always had my heart set on bringing him over to the UK,” Darnelle said. “I always just thought that he would do great things and should be here – it was probably half the reason I came over!”

Darnelle and Flintstar competed together through the Intermediate/two-star level before Tim took over the ride in the summer of 2009. “I never ever wanted to ride three- or four-star myself, but I was very confident that he could do it,” Darnelle said. “I had lots of fun up to two-star until Tim took him over.”

Tim broke his leg in the spring of 2010 and handed the ride on Flintstar to Jonelle. When he returned to riding, the decision was made that Flintstar would stay with Jonelle as the pair were a better match. “They sort of clashed, Tim and Flintstar,” Jonelle admitted. “I had ridden him a bit for Tim because he had too many horses at an event or two, and then Tim broke his femur and that’s when I properly took over the ride. At that stage, he was ready to go Advanced, so I took him to Blenheim for his first CCI3* and he went very well – he was double clear. It was sort of at that point where everybody said to Tim, ‘Well, you can’t take the ride back off her now,’ and that’s how he ended up coming to me.”

“He was an arrogant little bugger, but I guess that’s what made him so good,” Jonelle observed. “He was bloody resilient and very individual. He really didn’t think he needed a jockey – he wanted to do it his way and that suited him down to the ground whether you liked it or not. But he loved to run and jump. He was a through-and-through athlete and a real natural jumper.”

In 2011, Jonelle took Flintstar to Burghley for the first time, finishing in 27th place with just a few seconds of cross-country time and a rail added to their dressage score. The following year the pair finished 27th individually at the Olympic Games in London, contributing to New Zealand’s team bronze medal. In 2013, Jonelle and Flintstar were eighth at Luhmühlen in June and then returned to Burghley, where they finished in the top 20.

Jonelle Price and Flintstar representing New Zealand at the 2012 Olympic Games. RedBayStock.com Photo.

That November, 16-year-old Calvin Ramsay traveled to England to stay with family friend Jill Hester. During his trip, he took show jumping lessons from “Bumble” Thomas, and it was at Thomas and Hester’s urging that Calvin sat on Flintstar, who was for sale. “Although rested after his holiday, he was sensitive to the aids, extremely eager to go, and very difficult on the flat,” recalled Kylie Ramsay, Calvin’s mother. “Calvin was not in love that day, so they set up another visit a day later to jump him out in the cross-country field. Once in the field, Flintstar was more relaxed, and Calvin fell in love with his athleticism and speed. After that marvelous ride across the country, Calvin was hooked.”

Calvin’s father and coach Court Ramsay agreed that the pair seemed like a good match. “Court and I decided that this horse, with his intelligence, experience, and catlike jumping talent, was an insurance policy for our son to run at the upper levels.”

Flintstar arrived in the United States in January of 2014 and he and Calvin set to work preparing for the North American Youth Championships (NAYC) that summer. The pair were ninth in the CIC2* at Chattahoochee Hills and then seventh in the CIC2* at the Virginia Horse Trials, securing Calvin and Flintstar’s place on the Area III Young Rider team.

Calvin Ramsay and Flintstar competing at the 2015 USEA American Eventing Championships. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

David O’Connor’s cross-country course at the 2014 NAJYRC was a proper two-star course, and that left Calvin with a decision to make. Calvin had qualified for NAJYRC with two horses and presented both at the first horse inspection – now he had to pick which horse to compete with. Despite the fact that Calvin and Flintstar’s dressage scores had not been as consistent that spring, Area III Young Rider Coach Kyle Carter said, after seeing the cross-country course, “Of course, we run the four-star horse!”

“Flintstar and Calvin were the fastest cross-country ride of the day and they were ultimately the only combination to finish on their dressage score,” said Kylie. “They finished with individual silver and team gold medals.”

“Looking back, Calvin was fortunate to have a ‘Ferrari,’ his name Flintstar, but it was a classic quiet ride across the country that allowed him to guide such a fantastic creature to success.”

When Calvin hung up his irons, it took a bit of time to find the next rider that would be a good fit for Flintstar. He spent some time in Lynn Symansky’s barn, where groom Kendyl Tracy competed him at a couple of Preliminary level events, and that’s where Flintstar and Ryan Keefe crossed paths. “I wasn’t really looking for a new horse,” explained Keefe, who already had a young horse in the barn that she was planning to bring up the levels. “That summer, I was a working student for Sharon White, and her groom [Rachael Livermore] is friends with Lynn’s groom Kendyl. Rachael had mentioned something about Flint to my mom and I, and Sharon and Packy McGaughan convinced my mom to go take a look at him. I went and tried him at Lynn’s and really liked him. He was definitely the hardest horse I’ve ridden on the flat, but he was really fun jumping.”

“He’s not the most affectionate horse – you kind of have to win him over,” Keefe described. “He’d never do anything mean but he doesn’t like to be fussed with, he just kind of makes a face and grinds his teeth, but it’s all an act. Once you get to know him you can tell that he likes you even if he doesn’t want to show it.”

The Keefe family purchased Flintstar in the fall of 2016 and together the new pair started out competing at the Preliminary level. The pair completed the Preliminaries at Southern Pines and Carolina International, but Flintstar colicked after returning home from Carolina and had to undergo emergency colic surgery. “We weren’t sure if he was going to make it through surgery or if he’d ever be back to eventing at the same level,” Keefe shared, “but he is probably the most stoic horse that I’ve ever worked with and I was back hacking him two months after the surgery, which was a bit quicker than what they thought he would be doing.”

Ryan Keefe and Flintstar at the 2018 North American Youth Championships. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

Flintstar and Keefe returned to competition at Millbrook Horse Trials in August “It was great, he felt awesome – he totally ran away with me on cross-country,” Keefe said. “It made me feel like he was glad to be back and still wanted to do it. It was a relief to have him back and feel like I could keep moving forward with him.”

They set a new goal – competing at the CCI* at the Virginia Horse Trials. Flintstar and Keefe tackled her first FEI event – the CIC* at GMHA in Vermont – finishing second on their dressage score just five months after Flintstar had gone in for surgery. From there, the pair went on to finish fourth in the CIC* at Plantation Field and then won their first CCI* at the Virginia Horse Trials. “That was huge because I had never really had such a good cross-country course with him. Going around my first CCI and finishing as well as we did and making the course feel so easy like he did, it was a really cool feeling to have a horse like that.”

So, Keefe set her eyes on the 2018 NAYC and the Fair Hill International CCI2* in the fall, but she was careful to not get too attached to her goals, especially knowing how quickly things can derail.

A successful spring season put Keefe and Flintstar on track to be named to the Area II Young Rider Team for NAYC. Together they made the trip to Kalispell, Montana to compete in the CICOY2* and came home with individual fourth place and a team gold medal. “It was a lot of fun being out there in Montana and I definitely would not have had the chance if not for a horse like Flint.”

Flintstar and Keefe finished a strong 2018 season with an 11th place finish on their dressage score at the Fair Hill International CCI2*. “Fair Hill has always been a big goal for me because my grandmother [Patricia Gilbert] is the President of Fair Hill so I’ve been going every year since I can remember to watch. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do one day. To be able to do it and have my mom and grandmother there was really cool, and Flint was so good.”

Ryan Keefe and Flintstar at the 2019 Carolina International CCI3*-S. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

In 2019, Keefe and Flintstar moved up to the Advanced level, finishing in eighth place at Chattahoochee Hills in April. At Jersey Fresh International the following month, they placed 10th in the CCI4*-S. Over the summer, they completed the Advanced at Millbrook Horse Trials and competed in the $60,000 Adequan USEA Advanced Final at the USEA American Eventing Championships, rounding out their season at Plantation Field by completing the CCI4*-S.

"He has definitely given me way more experience than I ever thought he would.”

The USEA Horse Heroes series celebrates equine athletes who have contributed to the sport again and again, competing with multiple riders at the upper levels of the sport. Do you know of a horse hero who deserves recognition? Email your tips to [email protected].

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