By Lauren R. Giannini
The 2013 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event showcased several new stars: Donner completed his first 4-star with double clear jumping rounds for Lynn Symansky (Virginia) – 5th place and second-best American duo; Pawlow with Will Faudree (North Carolina) placed fifth (19th last year); Meghan O’Donoghue (Illinois) and Pirate also made their debut, rocketing from 25th after dressage to 12th place overall. There are many success stories, but none quite like the miraculous partnership of Catch A Star and Caitlin Silliman.
It takes years of hard work, dedication, determination and passion to get to the three-star and four-star level of eventing. That’s where the best horses and riders become candidates for team consideration, get tapped for special training, and eventually find themselves on long and short lists for the Olympics, Pan Ams and World Equestrian Games.
In 2011, Caitlin Silliman and Catch A Star (aka Hoku, Hawaiian for Star) were on their way to qualifying for Fair Hill International and the prestigious October CCI*** which decides the USEF National 3-star championship. On May 31st the fire that destroyed Boyd Martin’s barn at Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm claimed the lives of six event horses. Caitlin, Lillian Heard and Ryan Wood, who shared the barn’s apartment, led three horses to safety. Later, they accompanied five survivors to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Veterinary Center. Worst injured were Catch A Star, rescued by Phillip, and Neville Bardos, muscled to safety after 45 minutes in the blaze by Boyd and Phillip.
“When we pulled in, there was a team of vets ready to unload the horses,” recalled Caitlin. “They took Hoku into the main trauma room because she had serious head injuries and burns. Lacerations from her ears down the front of her face – you could almost peel her face apart and see her whole skull.” Hoku, sedated for shock, looked critical. “I said to the main trauma vet, please tell me if you can’t save her, I don’t want to put her through more,” recalled Caitlin. “The vet said, we can save her, she’s going to be fine. From that point on, I was totally committed to her and followed all their directions. Hoku has a huge personality. I think from the second she walked out of that burning barn she knew she was going to make it. I owed it to her to help her in any way I could.” Hoku suffered second-degree burns over nearly 30% of her body. Her face wasn’t burned, just her ears. She had the facial laceration, but amazingly her eyes were okay. The left side of her neck, belly, back, hip and hindquarters was burned the worst.
“The top of her back, where you see the most scarring now, wasn’t burned at the time, but about two weeks into her recovery, her back blistered really badly and all the skin started sloughing off – from heat damage,” said Caitlin. “I think that’s why she was able to come back. If she had been burnt directly on the top of her back, I don’t think I would have been able to ride her again. Basically, she just had a terrible, terrible sunburn on the top of her back.”
Caitlin nursed Hoku, applying Silver Sulfadiazine cream, used on human burns, which healed everything. “When she’s tacked up, you can hardly tell,” she said. “When she’s clipped you can see the scars: the top of her back, from the base of her withers down her spine to the back of saddle has light pink scarring.”
One major challenge, after the vets approved Hoku’s return to work, involved finding the right saddle pad. “I wanted a fleece half pad to put under the saddle pad, but most half pads do not have fleece all the way down the spine,” Caitlin explained. “I had an old Fleeceworks pad, probably one of the first sheepskin pads they made and one of the first pads I bought when I was 10 or 11. It had sheepskin all the way down the spine. That Fleeceworks pad was the only reason why I was able to ride her and bring her back into work.”
An interview with Warmbloods Today connected Caitlin and Hoku with Judith McSwain, who designs Fleeceworks pads. “Judy read that story and was touched by it,” said Caitlin. “She contacted me and now sponsors me. She outfits me with every pad I could possibly need for Hoku. My partnership with Fleeceworks is very good, and I’m lucky to have Judy’s sponsorship.”
Caitlin started riding Hoku in January 2012. They returned to competition on March 17th, moving resolutely up through the levels. After several outings they placed fourth in Advanced at Fair Hill, ninth at Jersey Fresh in the CIC*** and fifth in the CCI*** at Bromont (Canada). On September 26, disaster struck again: Caitlin fractured her skull.
“It was a freak accident – I had just ridden around a 3-star (Hoku) and a 2-star (Remington XXV) the weekend before, so who would have thought I would have such a fall a week later, rising the trot,” recounted Caitlin, whose head hit the kickboard of the dressage arena below her safety helmet. “It was scary. The doctors didn’t really know what was going to happen and they all said something different. The brain is an amazing thing.”
Caitlin’s brain swelled instantly from the fracture that damaged her cerebellum. The doctors opted out of surgery, which would have left her skull open. “For that I am thankful, because it would have taken a lot longer to recover,” she said. “I lost all my motor skills, especially the left side, which was much weaker. I wasn’t able to walk in the beginning and had to go through quite a bit of rehab and re-teach the area of my brain around where I had the damage to do what that part of my brain did before, so it was quite a recovery process.”
Caitlin returned to action at Pine Top Winter Horse Trials in Georgia on February 8th, ready to rock and roll. She competed two at Training level, winning the division and placing 10th, and ran Preliminary with clear cross-country rounds on Hoku and Remington. From there, Caitlin followed her game plan for the spring: training and competing several young horses, aiming Hoku for Rolex (April 24-28) and Remington, Boyd’s faithful veteran four-star horse, for the highly competitive two-star in May at Jersey Fresh, which they won.
As for Rolex, it was nothing short of miraculous to see Caitlin and Hoku in action at their first four-star. Tied for 17th after dressage, they were doing great on the cross-country until a run-out at The Hollow incurred 20 penalty points. Caitlin turned 23 on Sunday and nothing dented her joy and how she felt about Hoku and their first four-star, not even the three rails that fell in the show jumping finale. They finished 24th, but without the stop and rails they would have been in the top 15.
“Hoku was so awesome – I totally let her down,” admitted Caitlin. “You have to concentrate for every second around a big course like that. I think that’s what separates 4-stars from the 3-stars, apart from the heights. You can’t let up for a second. They’re so big and wide and you have to concentrate all the way around. I think it was a bit my inexperience. You have a long pull up the biggest hill, a little bit over half-way. Your horse is starting to get a little tired, and I think I turned her too quick. I was so excited that she was going so well, and I think I surprised her. Next year I’m going to make a nice wide turn to the Hollow.”
Next time, next year: for Caitlin Silliman and Hoku, the sky’s the limit and it looks as if their eyes are full of stars.