By Sue Weakley
Carmen Franco has had her share of hard knocks when it came to earning her USDF Gold Medal. After I congratulated on her success aboard Vangens Star-Light (aka Henry), a 2009 Danish Warmblood gelding (Skovens Rafael-Faeldgardens Duet) owned by Mary Hankey, we began reminiscing about her long journey to reach her goal.
As a trainer, Carmen encountered difficult horses, life-changing equine injuries, horses being removed from her training program, and an (almost) laughable series of events.
“I have trained my whole life to get here,” she said.
First was her Hanoverian mare, one of the most opinionated horses she has ever ridden. She brought her up the levels to compete on the Small Tour, and they were working on one tempi changes, and starting some green piaffe and passage. Sadly, she lost the mare when she never recovered from anesthesia after surgery to remove a splint in her right front leg.
“Then, it was the Danish Warmblood gelding that was bought for tons of money in a shady deal by a guy who sponsored me for a while,” she said. “When we realized the poor horse had terrible vetting, even though he was showing on the Small Tour, we knew his physical condition wasn’t meant to be pushed past that level.”
She lost that sponsorship for a litany of wrong reasons.
A gorgeous Dutch Warmblood stallion with a history of not being able to work on collection was the next Gold Medal contender.
“I made it successfully through the Small Tour, and we were schooling Intermediate II before he developed stomach tumors, and he had to be put down,“ she said sadly. “He was one of my heart horses; I still remember the pain I felt!”
Then there was the super handsome Lusitano stallion she brought back from a hind leg suspensory tear to become one of her favorite horses of all time.
“We showed very successfully through the Small Tour, even competing in the Nations Cup for [Carmen’s home country of] Colombia in Wellington, Florida,” she remembered. “He was very talented with collected work. Everything had to be done very carefully because of his injury.”
She had just started working on green Grand Prix movements with the stallion when his owner decided to change riders in her barn.
“A piece of my heart is still with this horse, and I’m lucky to know he is in excellent, loving hands,” she said.
Several more attempts were made to get to the Grand Prix ring, or at least Intermediate, including developing several Lusitano geldings to Small Tour. After she had brought them up the levels, the owner switched them out for a couple of barely started 3-year-olds, and gave the ride to someone else.
Next was a mare with a lot of issues from conformational problems and previous training.
“I did make it to the Grand Prix ring less than a handful of times with a very difficult mare that had a history of being even more difficult if not taken regularly to shows,” she continued. “Even though she wasn’t solidly trained at Grand Prix, I had to take her to shows to keep that side of her under control. Obviously, the results were less than desirable and, obviously, the mare is not with me anymore.”
Then, she got the chance to welcome Henry to her barn as a sales horse. She had met his owner, Mary Hankey, through Carlos Salguero Ocana, who had trained Henry to Grand Prix.
“The horse has a really amazing record,” Carmen said. “Carlos has done very, very good training. I wouldn’t say Henry is the easiest horse ever, but if you do the correct things, he responds correctly too.”
Henry had gotten a bit out of shape, but Carlos and Mary thought that Carmen was the ideal trainer to get Henry back in top form to be sold to a new home. While she got Henry into a training program, she began marketing the gelding and Mary offered to let her compete him
“Of course, I jumped at that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Carmen said. “I’ve been really lucky that I had a close relationship with Mary and Carlos, and Mary has been very generous letting me show him.”
After a less than stellar start, Carmen and Henry got into their rhythm. They continued to improve their scores while impressing the judges at the Grand Prix level.
“Learning to ride a trained horse has its own challenges, but I was lucky to have seen Carlos ride Henry a few times when they came to Wellington to compete in the Nations Cup for Spain,” she explained. “Henry was like an angel sent from heaven. Having been so close so many times to achieving my USDF Gold Medal goal made things a little easier but, nevertheless, it’s been an educational experience.”
Getting to know Henry has been a joy for Carmen. “You don’t need to drill, you don’t need to ride him long, nothing. It’s a horse who knows his job. Also, trail riding is super fun. He doesn’t spook, doesn’t bolt, doesn’t run. He’s absolutely a happy, easy horse. And I know how Carlos has trained him, and Carlos has been super nice coaching me from afar with video and answering my questions.”
“I consider myself very lucky,” Carmen said. “I have worked hard to be lucky!”