Jul 08, 2021

Horse Heroes: Ziggy

Rachel Jurgens and Ziggy. Shannon Brinkman Photo courtesy of Rachel Jurgens

Ziggy has never been a straightforward horse, but he’s always been a fancy mover. Owner Rachel Jurgens remembers that even when she got him off the track, he was easy to ride on the flat at home. But away from home, the issues started to show up: as an event horse, his dressage scores were never impressive because he would get so stressed. Now, at age 25, Ziggy is shining in a second career competing in Grand Prix level dressage with rider Rachel King – though, on occasion, the former five-star event horse can still be inclined to blow his top in an otherwise good test.

Jurgens had not yet competed at training level when she got Ziggy off the track. They learned together and came up the levels together, eventually placing in the top 30 at the 2014 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. (They had also competed there in 2013 but had a fall at fence 9 on cross-country.)

The gelding’s quirkiness extends beyond the arena. “First, he hates stabling,” said Jurgens. “The years I was in Kentucky, we literally held him in the aisle until they kicked us out of the barn, then threw him in the stall and hoped for the best. In the aisle, he’s relaxed and falls asleep, but in the stall, he climbs the walls. All the stuff I love about him, I’d probably never put up with him now! Ellen Williams was my groom at a lot of big competitions, and she’d say she couldn’t believe we were putting up with him. He won’t eat when he’s away, not a bite of grain. Then, when he checks out, there’s nobody home!”

Ziggy ran twice as a racehorse and washed out both times. “I think his record says ‘fractious,’” laughed Jurgens, who said that conversely, on the flat at home, he’s straightforward and goes in a plastic snaffle.

After Jurgens had competed him, and before King started on his dressage career, Andrew McConnon ran Ziggy around a couple of 4-stars before going to England to work for William Fox-Pitt.

Rachel Jurgens and Ziggy. Shannon Brinkman Photo courtesy of Rachel Jurgens

“I got him back, and he was clearly not ready to retire,” said Jurgens. “He took me to 5*, Andrew to 4* and Rachel to Grand Prix dressage. He’s had an amazing life.”

Ziggy always colics when he gets time off, which is why, Jurgens said, he’s just stayed in work. “He also goes wild, so he’ll have to stay in work until he’s no longer with me. At 25, he looks amazing. You wouldn’t guess his age unless you looked at his teeth. He’s still the same Ziggy I took to Kentucky in 2014. The only issue I ever maintained was a hock, which I guess has fused because there’s no maintenance at all. I never had the money for maintenance. He’s tiny, he’s 15.2 on a good day, and he’s very light on his feet. He’s just a little peanut! We do acupuncture and chiro to make him feel good, but that’s it. I’m lucky that way.”

Jurgens said that she still hacks him out occasionally, and it brings back memories of Kentucky. “The way he skipped around is fun to think about, for sure. But, what he’s done for Andrew, myself, and Rachel, we couldn’t have done without him. None of us had the finances for an upper-level anything. I know there are sometimes horses that do that for one person, but it’s neat that he’s done that for so many people.”

King of the Dressage Ring

Riding Ziggy, King is one score away from earning her USDF Gold Medal. “Since he’s not anticipating the jumping phase now, I think she’s getting better rides out of him than I ever would have,” said Jurgens. “He has to do a long warmup because of his age; I’m definitely a proponent of 20 minutes warmup and cooldown; it’s nice to find someone who will take the time to do that – a lot of people want to step on, do the flying changes and half pass and throw him back in the stall. It’s a godsend that she keeps him going the way I did and doesn’t ever deviate from it. Rachel is also very light, which helps an older horse.”

King, who also lives in Southern Pines, started riding Ziggy in May 2015. “I did one schooling Training level horse trial with him at the Horse Park, and then we moved up to Preliminary,” she said. “I had competed Prelim on my old Thoroughbred, Magic, back in 2002 or 2003. Magic was tough to ride and super athletic, so I was prepared for Ziggy’s personality. I went to the AECs in Tryon with Ziggy at Prelim, and we were 3rd after dressage, and then I forgot to start my watch on cross-country, so we were slow and got some time penalties- oops!”

King commented that Ziggy is sensitive, light, and can be a little quirky at times. “He can still throw in a good spin on the trail!” she said. “He still does not like to stable at shows, so we try to do as many ship in shows as we can. He likes to travel in a box stall so he can spin circles in the trailer if he gets nervous. He has been mostly all business in the dressage ring with me, and he has put up with my mistakes. Riding him cross-country is one of the most amazing feelings: he knows his job and is confident, and that helps when you've been away from a certain level for years. I have learned so much riding him and am so thankful for Rachel Jurgens' generosity.”

King said that she was originally encouraged to get the scores for her USDF Bronze medal by instructor Nanci Lindroth. “She was coaching me on the flat while we were eventing, and she said, ‘You can totally do this!’ I had never competed above First level before, so it was an adventure. The first show we did, I signed up for Second and Third level. I had trouble entering online, so I went to the office and confirmed that I was entered in the correct classes and got some funny looks from some folks who probably thought I should be showing First level! But we got our first scores towards the bronze medal that weekend.”

Lindroth encouraged King to keep going. “We did Fourth level, Prix St. George, and then Intermediare 1. We got our scores for the Silver medal and half of the Gold. Once we had to introduce the piaffe and passage, Nanci said, you need to call Koby Robson; she can help you with that. So I started working with Koby, and we taught Ziggy how to do those things for the most part.”

Rachel Jurgens and Ziggy. Shannon Brinkman Photo courtesy of Rachel Jurgens

She said, “Even though he already had a flying change, we needed to do more than one in the test. So tempi changes are challenging because he likes to take over and do his own thing sometimes. The piaffe and passage are hard because he isn't really built to do all that. But bless him, he tries. And of course, I don't know what I am doing, so we are learning together!”

Jurgens said, “Watching Rachel is fantastic. It’s like they’re doing yoga; he’s sound and happy. I’d love if they could jump, but the flatwork is so good for him, and thank goodness he’s still going.”

King said that she rides many other horses, but currently, her focus in competition is all on Ziggy. She laughed, “Someone once told me that there is no place to hide in the Grand Prix test. That is such a true statement. Ziggy never had stellar dressage scores when he was eventing: he typically got really tense, and there is not a lot you can do when he gets like that. I have had glimmers of that side of him, and one time, a whole test of that! But otherwise, he has been very rideable and very good to me. I am lucky! Perhaps he is settling in his older age.”

King and Ziggy have one score of 60 at Grand Prix and just need one more to earn the Gold medal. “It would mean so much to me to be able to do this on Ziggy,” she said. “He is such a cool horse, and what a neat story he has. It would be a bonus to do it on a horse that I took through those levels. I am hoping we can get it done this year because Ziggy is 25!”

Retirement? Never

Jurgens, who turns 50 this year, still rides as an amateur, and she owns and operates the Pony Espresso coffee shop in Southern Pines. She explained that the drive-through business was popular during the Covid-19 pandemic when people didn’t want to spend time indoors, and she was fortunate to keep all of her employees on the payroll.

“It’s like a lot of things; I’ve been lucky,” she said. “I had a horse doing Prelim and moved here from Oregon with the goal of competing at Kentucky. I opened the coffee shop, and there were no drive-through places here. We need luck in this sport, and things line up. My other horse had a suspensory injury, so I focused on Ziggy and was lucky enough he took me to Kentucky. He also came into Andrew‘s life, and then William Fox-Pitt offered him a job. All those things are neat, how they work out. We all know how hard this sport is and how much money it is.”

Ziggy lives at her farm, outdoors 24/7. She competes as an amateur and has a few other OTTB’s coming up the levels. “I keep looking for another Ziggy; he’s from Danzig, so I chase those bloodlines, they’re incredibly athletic, and not all lunatics like him!” she said. “Ziggy is extremely anti-social to people, but he has an amazing work ethic. It’s funny, for as hot and crazy he is at the shows, as soon as you’re around other horses and away from the crowds, he’s all business. I took him all the way to Prelim without ever jumping a warmup fence because he wasn’t rideable in the warmup, but he was brilliant once he went in the box or once he went in the show jumping ring. I literally ran around Advanced in a rubber snaffle, no flash, no spurs. I always trusted him to jump because he never, ever didn’t want to jump. Even now, if you point him toward a jump, his face lights up.”

She’s brought one other horse up to Intermediate but has another that has been plagued but injuries. “Ziggy didn’t have injuries, and I thought they all came out of the box like that, but they don’t,” she said.

And what does the future hold for Ziggy? Jurgens said that after King gets her gold medal, she might find someone who wants to dabble a bit with flatwork and maybe the lower levels of eventing. “If he just stands around, he’ll either be crippled or colic!”

For Jurgens, the journey with Ziggy and his other riders has been as much fun as galloping around the cross-country course at the Kentucky Horse Park. “The fun thing is I like seeing really motivated riders give horses a chance. If you can find what works for them and be patient, they like their job; it can be so worth it. If you have the patience, I understand that some good horses have quirks – and he’s got them all.”

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