By Kim MacMillan
On very rare occasions, the stars align to bring the right people together with the right horse and magic happens. This was the case with the great show jumping stallion Abdullah and his people: Sue and Terry Williams, his owners, and Conrad Homfeld, his rider at the peak of his career.
Together Abdullah and Conrad racked up an unprecedented list of Olympic, World Cup and World Championship titles over a whirlwind three-year period from 1984 through 1986. The pair captured team gold and individual silver at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, first place at the FEI World Cup Championships in Berlin in 1985, and team gold and individual silver at the World Show Jumping Championships in Aachen, Germany, in 1986. In the finals of the World Championships, spanning four rounds of jumping with four different riders, the then-15-year-old Abdullah only dropped one rail to take the “Leading Horse” title.
Abdullah’s string of international medals, along with other notable Grand Prix wins in his career, earned him a spot in the U.S. Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2008 and contributed to Conrad’s Hall of Fame induction in 2006. His Hall of Fame plaque begins, “Abdullah was one of the most successful horses the show jumping world has ever seen….” The Chronicle of the Horse also named Abdullah as one of the Top 50 horses of the Twentieth Century and he won numerous American Trakehner Association (ATA) and German Trakehner Verband accolades.
Through it all, Terry and Sue Williams accompanied their elegant grey-white, 17-hand stallion on his incredible journey. True horse professionals, they did not want to leave his care to others. Terry was his farrier and handler; Sue his groom and rider. “Not ever having attended any of the big shows before, there was so much fanfare. The stands were full. Abdullah, being white and a stallion, was a little bit of a celebrity. It was really so much fun. We just had the very best time,” remembered Sue.
Abdullah’s story actually started in Germany when his dam, Abiza, was bred to the stallion Donauwind by the Trakehner Stud Farm at Birkhausen. Abiza didn’t stay at Birkhausen long enough to foal in Germany, however. The knowledgeable Canadian horseman Gerhard Schickedanz, whose family had raised Trakehner horses in Lithuania before World War II, noticed her while on a trip in Germany. After no small amount of negotiating with Dr. Fritz Schilke at the Birkhausen Stud, Gerhard purchased Abiza and she was shipped to Canada with Abdullah in utero in September 1970. Abdullah was born on December 7, 1970, on Gerhard’s Galten Farms in Unionville, Ontario.
Just a few years before Abdullah’s birth in Canada, Terry Williams and Sue Burkhardt were attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. They met in their junior year (1963) in a biochemistry class and were married two years later in Sue’s hometown of Croton on the Hudson, New York. Both Terry and Sue were involved with horses from an early age. Terry’s father had a farm near Rochester, New York, where he stood Quarter Horse stallions, was an inspector during the infancy of the American Quarter Horse Association and was also a farrier. This gave Terry a solid background in handling stallions and he had also graduated from farrier school in Oklahoma. Sue rode and competed successfully in the English disciplines as she was growing up.
“We learned that we had a mutual love for horses, on the first date or so. It was just a wonderful romance,” said Sue. “We got married in ’65 and stayed in Ithaca for several years on a Welsh Pony farm. We helped to break, ride and show these wonderful Section B Welsh Ponies, the larger ones. That was a lot of fun.”
A couple of years after graduating from Cornell, Terry was accepted to do graduate work at the University of Texas, so they moved to the Lone Star State. “Terry’s true love was Quarter Horses, so it was just wonderful for him to be down there in Quarter Horse heaven,” explained Sue. “I brought my unregistered Thoroughbred sport horse down there with me and continued riding English. I just never became passionate about Western riding. Then we decided we were Northerners at heart and moved back to New York.”
The Birth of Williamsburg Farm
Both Terry and Sue were science teachers for a number of years in a couple of school systems in upstate New York. Sue continued competing in English riding, earning a number of dressage championships, and started eventing her Thoroughbred gelding. She evented him for five or six years and eventually the sport became her passion. About a year after they moved back to New York, they bought a circa-1826 cattle farm in Middleport, New York, which they renovated and named Williamsburg Farm; they later also opened a training facility called Chestnut Ridge just down the road.
Meanwhile, the couple stood several Quarter Horse stallions, then decided to look for a stallion for Sue to compete. They figured that way, Sue would not only be competing, but also promoting their farm with the right stallion. “This was quite common in the Quarter Horse business,” said Sue. “They had shows where there were stallions competing to promote them. But, in the English disciplines, not so much. That was a pretty creative thought. I was young and brave and had handled and ridden stallions quite a bit. So, I wasn’t intimidated by the thought.”
The Williamses were introduced to Trakehners when they picked up a horse for someone at the Gaffords’ farm in Virginia, where they saw a number of stallions. “Their stallions were beautiful and calm and they were talking about them being bred to produce sport horses,” said Sue. “This was a unique idea. We were sometimes crossing Thoroughbreds with our Quarter Horses trying to do that, but the results were inconsistent.”
About the same time, a chance meeting with Fritz and Roswitha Daemen-Van Buren when the Williamses shipped a horse for them made a connection with Galten Farms. The Williamses made the road trip to Canada and ended up buying Abdullah as a 3-year-old.
“At the time, Gerhard had a small breeding operation to produce hunt horses for friends and family,” said Sue. “He had good taste and good horses. He’d imported Abiza as a broodmare with his first group of Trakehners, which also included the stallion Händel. So, he didn’t really need another stallion.
“Terry and I arrived up there the day after Abdullah had been a little bit of a naughty young stallion. He had broken out of his stall and the barn was in disarray,” laughed Sue.
That day at Galten Farms, Schickedanz wasn’t home, so the Williamses spoke with the barn manager, Charlie. Sue remembered that they admired the lovely young stallion who was looking full of himself and magnificent. They asked if he’d be for sale. “Charlie said that he thought the boss would be happy to sell him,” said Sue. “We arrived there at the right time thinking that we should have a stallion. So, we bought him and we very much wanted to do the right thing with him — to be a good show horse for me, which would be the only way he’d end up breeding mares.”
Early Years Under Saddle
Since he was 3 when they purchased him, Abdullah had been started under saddle, but he hadn’t done much. The Williamses spent the first year or so riding him and taking him to shows so that he knew he was a show horse and not just a breeding stallion. “We did this on the advice of people that we respected. So we didn’t breed him as a 3-year-old, but he did start breeding at either 4 or 5. His introductory fee the first year was $400,” Sue reminisced.
Abdullah was a very successful dressage horse with Sue, competing up to Third Level in the United States Dressage Federation finals. Then, when he was 6, they started eventing and were equally as successful in eventing through Preliminary, competing at the U.S. Combined Training Association Area 8 finals in Kentucky and at Gladstone (Hamilton Farm) in New Jersey. In 1976 and 1977, Sue and Abdullah earned the Trakehner Förderverein Award given by the ATA to the most successful purebred Trakehner horse in eventing.
Sue explained that at the time, she wasn’t really interested in pursuing a career in dressage even though she loves the sport even more now. By this time, Abdullah was 9 and since she was in her thirties, she explained that she was becoming less brave and she felt that she didn’t want to go above Preliminary. So, if Abdullah was to progress in either sport, they’d have had to send him to another professional rider and therefore he would’ve had to spend long periods away from home. Consequently, their thoughts turned to show jumping as a career for Abdullah.
“Without knowing too much about the sport of show jumping, it seemed like he could pursue some sort of career in show jumping and still stay at home,” said Sue. “It became even more convenient when Debbie Shaffner (now Stephens) starting riding him because she lived five miles down the road. When he began his show jumping career, he always stayed with us. We’d take him to a show and Debbie would ride him, or later, Conrad would ride him, and then we’d take him home. That part of it worked out perfectly and the rest is history. Whatever decisions we made seemed to turn out right. You know, you make decisions in life and it can go either way. We had the time and Terry was able to manage him as a stallion and then Abdullah was very orderly to go off and do show jumping.”
In order to keep him fit and tuned between shows, Sue would ride him at home almost every day and would do jumping exercises that Conrad suggested along with dressage work. Then they’d meet Abdullah’s rider at the time at the appropriate shows. Amazingly, this routine continued through Abdullah’s entire international jumping career.
The Williamses started taking Abdullah to Florida in 1980. Sue noted that Abdullah was the only stallion listed in the Winter Equestrian Festival program competing that year. In mid-December 1983, George Morris helped them connect with Conrad and the Williamses approached Conrad about riding Abdullah. He first sat on Abdullah in January 1984. “Conrad said to me, ‘tell me everything I need to know’ when he got on Abdullah. Like I needed to tell him anything! I’d stand in the middle of the ring and sheepishly tell him things,” laughed Sue.
“One of the things we liked so much about Conrad was that his style of riding was so similar to what Abdullah was used to. He rode beautifully. When Conrad put his mind to something, he just made it happen. He was calm and organized. He was just amazing. He and Joe Fargis, Conrad’s business partner, both are delightful, professional people.”
Breaking New Ground
At the time the Williamses purchased Abdullah, sport horse breeding was in its infancy and European Warmblood horses were only starting to appear in North American show rings. Sue and Terry may not have fully realized it at the time, but they were pioneering the American sport horse breeding industry.
Sue gives all of the credit to her husband for the forward-thinking vision. “Terry, in his expansive thinking, decided that we shouldn’t go to just local shows. We went hither and yon, because he felt we weren’t going to promote a horse by going to the local county fairs. At that time, there were very, very few, if any, stallions competing in any of the English disciplines. He was very tractable. Terry mostly handled him, so he was always well handled. He had very, very good manners. We were very careful when we took him anywhere that we’d stay separated to avoid trouble and to make sure that everybody stayed safe. Everything went perfectly and we never had any terrible situations. When you’re promoting a stallion, you don’t want one that’s badly behaved, so we were also conscious of that.”
“We were breeding a few mares — maybe 10 or 15 mares a year at the time,” said Sue. “Enough to make the whole situation worthwhile. There wasn’t much of a dressage or event breeding business at the time. Mostly, people bred Thoroughbreds for the racetrack, then after they were finished with that, you evented them or did dressage with them or something else.”
Terry and Sue were founding members of the American Trakehner Association when the organization was formed in 1974 and both Terry and Sue served as ATA Trustees over the years. As the use of shipped semen for artificial insemination breeding was introduced the Williamses were one of the first major clients of Hamilton Farms in using the newly designed Equitainer shipping container. They were also instrumental in encouraging the ATA to allow the use of shipped semen breeding to produce registerable Trakehner foals.
The decision to retire Abdullah at 18 was not precipitated by lameness issues, but Joe noticed that “Dooly” was slowing down ever so slightly. So Abdullah settled into a new phase of his life in 1989, doing even more breeding given his international fame. Sue still rode him nearly every day in his retirement, however, and did so until the day before he died in Florida in early January 2000.
“He was always very, very fit,” she said. “He was never injured and never lame. I think it was the attention to detail and the steady work that helped keep him sound. I think a horse at that level needs to have a steady routine. There were times, in retirement, when we wouldn’t do as much; it would be all trail riding. We did something virtually every day. It was a habit for him and for me. He was so much fun to ride. He’d get very anxious in his stall if he didn’t get to do something.”
Even though he wasn’t showing anymore, the annual ritual was for Abdullah to have a thorough check up at Cornell University in New York, then to head to Florida around the end of December each year. There he’d hold court at the barn near the Winter Equestrian Festival grounds in Wellington each season, witnessing many of his offspring and grand offspring competing there. Admirers would come from near and far to visit him both in Florida and in New York.
Abdullah was approved for breeding by not only the Trakehner organizations around the world, but also the Canadian Sport Horse, Selle Francais, Selle Italiano, Anglo European Studbook, Irish Sport Horse, Hanoverian, Belgian Warmblood, Belgian Sporthorse and Oldenburg studbooks. There’s still frozen semen from him available in North America and Europe. To date, Abdullah has sired more than 500 offspring and at least 11 approved sons among several Warmblood breeds. In addition to the U.S. and Canada, Sue recalls shipping semen to most countries in Europe, as well as Australia, South Africa, Mexico and South America.
His get have won numerous regional, national and international titles, mostly in the hunter and jumper rings, but also in dressage and eventing. Notable offspring include Airborne Monticello, who represented France at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and was a member of its silver medal team at the 1998 World Championships in Rome, Italy, as well as Special Memories (an approved stallion) and Abracadabrah, both successful open jumpers. In the hunter arena, Home By Dark and Gabriel were both U.S. national champions in their respective hunter divisions.
Advice for Breeders
As she considers the current status of the U.S. sport horse breeding industry, Sue thinks that it’s still of utmost importance for a breeding stallion to have a successful show career. “Just because a stallion is well bred doesn’t mean he’s going to attract mares and be in the limelight. That still is true and probably should be,” said Sue.
Sue thinks that the size of our country and the cost of competing as well as having too few specialists in young horse training are big hurdles for North American breeders. “The sport horse breeding industry in the United States is still having growing pains,” she said. “In Europe they have a much better system for bringing along horses. Here there are fewer trainers to bring horses along. Here many breeders are throwing their hands up, because now they have a horse that’s 3 years old and what do they do? They have to send them out to be trained and the cost is astronomical. Now we have the 6, 7 and 8-year-old jumper classes; they seem to be pretty popular. My complaint is that it’s so expensive to participate in them. In Europe there are many more competitions for young horses that are a lower level where you can get mileage and be seen. Being seen is important.”
Very sadly, Terry passed away from cancer in 2007. The original Williamsburg Farm property has been sold, but Sue has kept the business name. She still has the 100-acre Chestnut Ridge facility and gives lessons to clients. They also put on a few dressage shows and events each year.
Sue rides every day. She spends her summers in New York and makes the trek to Florida every winter after spending the holidays with her sister Beth and her family in Boston. Daisy, her Golden Retriever, is her constant companion. She has a young part-Trakehner gelding called Markham GS from Galten Farms who will be in training with Alexis Brown in Florida this winter and she’s leasing an older horse named Ascot to ride while in Florida.
Sue currently serves on the board of the American Trakehner Foundation which serves to further education about and preservation of the Trakehner breed. The Foundation issues grants to worthy riders competing Trakehners and for educational programs.
About the Writer: A graduate of Purdue University with degrees in agriculture journalism and animal science, Kim MacMillan has been writing about horses and equestrian competition, science, agriculture, history and travel for over 30 years. Also an accomplished photographer, she and her husband Allen own MacMillan Photography & Media Services. They live on an 84-acre farm in Northeastern Indiana where they raise Warmblood horses and sport ponies.