Today I heard a friend’s horse was very sick, battling endocarditis. He’s a very special horse, and I had begun writing about him earlier this year but had not yet posted the story on my blog. In the hopes you’ll send prayers and good thoughts for this horse and his connections, I’ll tell you a little more about him and how we met:


A few months ago I was ready for an adult beverage and a nap after hiking all around the Rolex Three-Day Event Cross-Country course in not-yet-broken-in boots; I was looking forward to a quiet evening at home to recover from the day’s bustle. I texted my friend Allyn who was in town, and he asked what I was doing that night—would I come over to the Kentucky Reining Cup? It was the night of the World Championship Freestyle Reining, and he wanted me to meet one of his friends.

My body said to take Option 1: Go home and doctor those blisters. But my gut said to pursue the alternative. A very prepared friend gave me some moleskin for my blistering heels and I headed to the Alltech arena for the evening.

I’m really glad I chose Option 2.

Just some background: Allyn is a connector—you never quite know who you’ll meet when you’re with him, but it will always be memorable. He led me away from end of the arena, where he found me fighting tears as I watched the first freestyle. (Any combination of horses and music gets me all choked up.) We headed to the warm-up area immediately (saving my mascara for the short-term), where the likes of Shawn Flarida, Aaron Ralston (watch his ride), and Shane Brown—some in costume—were putting their horses through their paces.

Despite having major reining events in my proverbial back yard for years, this was the first time I’d seen the sport up close and seen how captivated (and enthusiastic) reining fans are. And there were eventers for me to gawk over, too: David O’Connor, Olympic gold medalist and my first interview subject out of college many years ago, loped by on his borrowed mount.

But who really caught my eye as I stood in that luxurious, rich brown arena footing was a distinguished-looking dark bay Warmblood dressage horse--the reason for my visit that evening. I noticed his milky white eye as he calmly made exact circles around the arena with his rider. Then I realized he didn’t have a left eye.

Jeanette and Valiant before their presentation at the Reining Cup.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Valiant, a homebred Dutch Warmblood gelding has remarkable story; only six of his 27 years were spent sighted. His owner, Jeanette Sassoon, has forged an impressive partnership with this guy, competing him successfully through Prix St. George’s level.

The pair’s lighthearted  posse visited with one another and clicked photos of Valiant and Sassoon as they warmed up for their exhibition ride. I learned his story as I watched along with them. Valiant had stepped on a nail as a 6-year-old and over the course of infection treatment ended up developing uveitis.

Hold up, uveitis? Did I hear that right? Yes, this is the same painful chronic condition that I have struggled with intermittently since 2009. It’s not entirely clear what caused Valiant’s uveitis to develop. Suddenly, I was much more engaged with this story than I was a few minutes prior. Then I recognized that Greg, the videographer set up in the corner collecting footage for a documentary about Valiant, was operating a really nice camera (my sister the cinematographer has taught me such things). Another gregarious gentleman with Valiant’s team, Jerry, was talking about how he’d produced a song that Sassoon had written about Valiant, and he noted that a “friend in the business” had performed it for the recording.

This was a bigger thing than I thought.

Greg Kraus, producer at Ciné Foundry, captures footage of Valiant, Jeanette, and Allyn.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

I love nothing more than a compelling story—a character overcomes conflict to get something he/she wants very badly—and engaging art; and if the main character is a horse, that’s a bonus. I became just as captivated with Valiant as much as the whistling, ecstatic reining fans were about spins and slides.

We moved out from the warm-up area up to the gate, and the arena went dark. On the big screen, the six-minute trailer to Valiant: Life is a Horse played to a hushed audience. I noticed the sobs of one of my new friends that I’d met visiting over Valiant—she was now fighting the same mascara battle I had been earlier (and was again now), also clearly caught up in the big bay’s story. Gary, Jeanette’s husband, nudged me, pointing out his favorite part of the trailer—when Valiant seems to pensively look back toward the camera.

Valiant and Jeanette trotted out into the arena before us and began their performance to the song, performed by Willie Nelson (A friend in the business, Jerry? Seriously downplayed, my friend!) to a captivated crowd.

Jeanette and Gary graciously welcomed me into their group for the remainder of the evening; later we visited with Valiant quietly in the barn as the unassuming star munched his soaked hay.

Valiant’s family—that’s what they are, really—explained that after the film festival season, they hope to take the accompanying script and develop a feature-length film. We adjourned to lively conversation over a late-night dinner, filled with a potpourri of conversation topics, mostly centering around Valiant.

Several weeks later, at the American Horse Publications awards in Colorado Springs in June, Allyn presented the inaugural Valiant Human-Animal Bond award, given to a journalist judged to have best captured the unique relationship between rider/owner and horse (link to the winner), the kind of strong bond that Valiant and Jeanette possess. Jeanette and her friend Leslie, who also spends a lot of time caring for Valiant, were in attendance, and it was lovely to hear how the kind dark horse was doing.

As the word spreads about Valiant, and the documentary eventually premieres, I’m eager to see how it impacts not only horse people but also the general public; his and Jeanette’s story of overcoming trying circumstances and building trust and communication is one that has the potential to inspire many.

Please be thinking about and praying for Valiant and Jeanette this week.

Jeanette and Valiant performing to a crowd the evening I met them.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com