Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Stellar: Shining Bright

Article by Sara Brooks, originally published in Pony Quarterly magazine; reprinted with permission.

Stellar: it’s a word that means “exceptionally good, outstanding,” and “featuring or having the quality of star performer.” Though his name may be a mere coincidence, a more befitting word could not exist to describe Mary Procopio’s Haflinger stallion Stellar TVR, who is working his way towards FEI-level competition with accomplished dressage trainer Tracy Rowe. I made the trip to Stellar’s home at Rowe Stables in Okemos, Michigan and was pleased to find that not only does Stellar live up to his name and beyond, but also that Mary and Tracy have forged a wonderful, respectful partnership that allows Stellar to reach his fullest potential.

Stellar came to the United States from Austria alongside his dam, and when he became available to purchase as a two-year-old, Mary seized the opportunity to include him in her breeding program. She knew that he had a lot to offer the Haflinger breed in North America, and her commitment to the quality of the breed also allowed her to view Stellar through the lens of future development and enrichment of modern Haflingers and their capabilities both from a pleasure and competition standpoint.

“I got him as a two-year old,” Mary explains, “and then when he turned three, I decided to present him to the warmblood registries in addition to our [Haflinger] breed registry.” After learning about the German sporthorse registries, Mary decided that it would give more credibility to Stellar from a breeding perspective if he could gain entrance into the German studbooks, since these registries offered a distinct legitimacy that cannot be achieved elsewhere. In addition to being licensed and approved through the American Haflinger Registry and the American Warmblood Society, Stellar is also the first Haflinger stallion in North America to be lifetime licensed and approved through the German registries Westfalen N.A. and Weser Ems and to be performance tested through the 30-day North American Pony Stallion Testing. He is included in their highest stud books, and he has produced 100% Premium foals with Westfalen N.A., including four Gold Premium foals, four Silver Premium foals, two Site Inspection Champion foals and a Book I mare approved for breeding. He successfully completed his first competition season at First Level with Tracy, and the two are planning for the push to the upper levels now that he is nine years old and at a point in his training wherein the foundation laid by Tracy can begin to produce the muscular and mental development needed for FEI-level work.  

I had been looking forward to meeting Stellar since getting to know him through my work with Mary and Tracy on a previous article, but I could not have prepared myself for how truly wonderful he is in person. I expected to be blown away by his beauty, which I was, but I was impressed more than anything with his demeanor. From the moment that Tracy opened his stall door and invited me in, Stellar was the consummate gentleman. He looked towards Tracy to make sure that I was “okay,” and then carefully reached his muzzle out to greet me. As Tracy and I stood there talking, he was attentive and patient. His soft brown eyes peeked out from below his flowing, golden forelock and, he carefully moved his focus to whoever was speaking; occasionally reaching out to touch us and let us know that he was a part of the conversation, too. Though I struggle to find the right word to describe Stellar and how truly magical he is, I immediately sensed the special quality which makes him so exciting.

Stellar with a young fan after winning the stallion class at the National Dressage Pony Cup.
Mary arrived shortly after my meeting with Stellar, and as I sat down with Mary and Tracy to begin our interview, I noted the quality of their partnership with respect to Stellar. The level of respect between Mary and Tracy is almost tangible, and they each light up when they speak about Stellar and their plans for him. A long-time proponent for the Haflinger breed and an accomplished FEI dressage trainer and competitor, respectively, Mary and Tracy are both well-spoken, intelligent, and very focused in their commitment to Stellar and what they know he can achieve for the Haflinger breed.

“I’m not just appealing to Haflinger people,” says Mary. “I’m trying to educate people on what the breed is capable of and hopefully get others from outside of the breed to become interested in these smaller warmblood horses.”

“People think that only the German Riding Pony could possibly do dressage and that’s totally untrue,” explains Tracy. “It’s so good that Mary got him out there and did what she did, because it’s proving that Stellar can compete even with the ponies that are bred specifically for dressage. He’s hanging right in there.”

I asked Mary and Tracy each to describe Stellar, and it became clear immediately that his personality governs his success. “Who he is who he is,” Tracy says, matter-of-factly. “He is the most willing, kind stallion that I have ever been around. We have had stallions here since I was born and he is the kindest out of all of them; he is gentle and kind.”

“When I got him he was 2 years old and of course the hormones are starting to kick in,” Mary explains. “I had never had a stallion before, and I brought him home to my farm and thought ‘okay, so now I have a stallion here with all of my mares.’ It was only because of his temperament that I was able to do that.”

“He’s stabled with mares and I ride him with mares,” Tracy adds. “He has stallion behaviors, of course – he’ll talk, but he’s not allowed to be rude. He’s a rule follower,” she says, laughing.

“I can do anything I want with him and I never have to worry about him being a jerk in any way.” Mary agrees that Stellar’s personality is his best attribute. He moved around a lot in his early years, especially before he became a part of Mary’s program, and did not always necessarily have the best experiences. In fact, there was a period of time wherein he learned not to trust his rider and Tracy worked very hard to guide him back to a place wherein he felt comfortable. However, he has never faltered in his kindness and his willingness to please, and this has continued to be his most redeeming quality as his training progresses and his legitimacy grows from a breeding perspective.

Stellar competing at the 2017 National Dressage Pony Cup. Karen Barnard photo
Stellar is no slouch in the competition ring, either. He and Tracy completed their first season of competition at First Level and she is continually impressed by his willing attitude and trainability. They plan to use their momentum from this season to continue his training and begin their journey to FEI-level competition. “Now is the time because he is going to be ten,” explains Tracy. “Mary and I have talked about it quite a bit and this is the time to begin pushing him to advance. The plan is to now start thinking upper level. That is going to be the push. This time in a horse’s training – and it doesn’t matter what the breed – this time from now until they’re confirmed third level is the longest period in their training. Now we are going to wait and see what Stellar can do and make choices from there. The goal is FEI, and ultimately, it’s up to Stellar. He will not be pushed to a point where he is an unhappy horse – always taking his health and well-being into consideration. Stellar is more than willing to do what I ask as long as he understands, and it’s just taking the time to foster his understanding. It’s muscle development and mental prep to get there.”

“He’s doing great,” says Tracy. “He is still representing the breed fantastically, and he’s still holding his own. The last time I checked, he was 78th out of all First Level dressage horses in open competition with the United States Dressage Federation; there are lots and lots of those. We’re talking $100,000 Prix St. Georges horses that are showing First Level, and he is in the middle of the pack – for a Haflinger to come in and be where he is with all the best open professional dressage horses at First Level in the United States? That says something.”

Stellar as 2017 National Dressage Pony Cup DSHB Reserve Grand Champion. Mary Procopio photo
Following my conversation with Mary and Tracy at Tracy’s beautiful farm, Mary invited me to visit her mares and foals at New Horizons Haflingers and I happily obliged. As we pulled into her driveway, I noticed happy golden ponies everywhere: mares in foal feasting on lush grass in the front pasture, and elsewhere foals frolicking alongside their mothers as the breeze danced through the air, ruffling their soft, fuzzy manes as they played.

As Mary led me from pasture to pasture and introduced me to her Haflingers, we spoke about Stellar and his offspring. Two are of competition age – one in Alaska, one in Montana – and Mary has a three-year-old that will be next in line. “He passes on a really strong hindquarter and loin connection,” Mary explains, “which is something that our breed really needs because for a long time it’s something that people were not paying attention to. Conformationally, that really gives them the movement from behind.” Mary is selective about Stellar’s breeding and is excited about the fact that so many people are interested in Stellar and his babies. Most of his foals are sold before they are even born, and in addition to breeding him to her own mares, Mary offers him to a select number of private individuals within his breeding season. She makes sure to ask questions of prospective owners regarding how the pony will be used, and what the owners hope to achieve by breeding their mares to Stellar. It is clear that Mary recognizes how special Stellar is and considers all implications, present and future, when making decisions about breeding.

I spoke to both Mary and Tracy a lot about Stellar’s legacy and what he means to future of his breed. “One of my big things in promoting Stellar is to promote the breed itself,” Mary explains. “When I first got into this, people thought of Haflingers as smaller, stockier types. I would hope that down the road, the legacy would be that people will realize that Haflingers do possess the quality to go out and compete against other breeds, and that Stellar was really one of the first Haflingers to do that successfully.” Tracy, too, hopes that Stellar will continue to break barriers and show people that it’s time to abandon the long-accepted idea that high-dollar horses are necessary to go out and be competitive. “Any horse with enough heart and willingness can reach the upper levels. That is really kind of my life mission and Stellar is a part of that,” she says.

As I drove home following my day with Stellar, Tracy, Mary, and the ponies of New Horizons Haflingers, I couldn’t help but smile as I noticed the cluster of blonde hairs stuck to my jeans pant leg leftover from my foal cuddling, and appreciated the fact that I had gotten a glimpse into the life of a pony as special as Stellar TVR. Everything about Stellar, from his personality to “his people” to his playful foals, is just that – stellar. He is incredibly important to the future of Haflingers and to sport pony breeding, and the work that Mary and Tracy are doing with Stellar will span generations. I am excited to see how his career, and the partnership between these two lovely, genuine horsewomen grows and lends itself to the achievement of whatever Stellar sets out to do in the world. I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to both Mary and Tracy for being so accommodating to me, and for inviting [my readers] to witness such a splendid pony as Stellar.

For details about Stellar, click here to visit his Stallion Profile on WarmbloodStallionsNA.com.

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