On February 19, 2023, U.S. dressage athlete Sabine Schut-Kery announced the retirement of her longtime partner, Sanceo. The pair had an illustrious career together, achieving many top results on the world stage. As a six-year-old, Sanceo competed in the 2012 FEI Dressage World Championships for Young Horses. The pair won the 2014 Markel/USEF Developing Horse Prix St. Georges Dressage National Champion title and helped the U.S. Dressage Team claim gold at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. Schut-Kery and Sanceo had a stellar performance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, earning a team silver medal and a fifth-place finish in the freestyle. Now that Sanceo has officially retired from competition, Schut-Kery shared her thoughts on their special partnership.
The start of Sanceo and Schut-Kery’s partnership dates back to 2009 when Sanceo was three years old. Schut-Kery went on a week-long trip in Germany looking for a young horse prospect for owners Alice Womble and Dr. Mike Heitman. Sanceo was the last horse that Schut-Kery looked at, and he made quite the impression.
“The very first thing I noticed was, obviously, that he was so beautiful,” said Schut-Kery. “He was only a couple of rides under saddle, so I only saw him on the on the longe line. I also really loved his intelligent and kind eye.”
Schut-Kery returned to Germany with Womble and Heitman a few weeks later. She took her first ride on Sanceo, and he proved to be more than a nice-looking horse.
“In terms of his quality, he really struck me with his natural balance, the feel he gave me under saddle, and the level of sensitivity,” explained Schut-Kery. “I mean, he's a stallion, but he felt like just the right sensitivity level to me.”
Womble and Heitman made the decision to purchase Sanceo, and he was shipped to the U.S. to begin his training. Sanceo was carefully developed by Schut-Kery and her trainer, Christine Traurig.
“He's a thinker,” Schut-Kery said of Sanceo. “If I had to describe him like a person, he's more the doctor, the professor than the football player. He really engages with his brain, and I think it also is my style of riding, so I think that's why we were such a good match. I'm a perfectionist, so I really feel like he is as well.”
Having Traurig as a trainer was influential in helping cultivate Sanceo’s talent. Schut-Kery was thankful to have a trainer throughout Sanceo’s career who was in tune with both horse and rider.
“I really have to credit her a lot for embracing his personality and mine and knowing how to bring the best out of us,” said Schut-Kery of Traurig. “I remember when he was young and a little bit hot, it doesn't always work well for a young horse class. Her wisdom was just amazing. I remember her saying, ‘It may not be the best right now, but you will embrace that once he's at Grand Prix.’ And it was so true because that's when you need that extra power and athleticism that he has.”
Since Sanceo was a young stallion, Schut-Kery was methodical in how she handled him. With her clear ground rules and management, Sanceo developed into a happy, well-behaved horse.
“He definitely has a lot of stallion in him, but I always take my time. I really set good rules and boundaries of how we're going to live together,” said Schut-Kery. “He needs to be polite, and he needs to be in his space, even hand walking at home. Also, I believe in the stallions having as much social contact as possible, so I don't separate him from other horses in the barn. In the stalls, they have bars and he has contact to other horses.”
In terms of his personality, Sanceo isn’t a cuddly horse, but he enjoys interacting with people and his surroundings.
“He has a deep soul. He picks things and he stares into the distance. We always would laugh and say he's watching TV,” said Schut-Kery. “To me, he was a very happy and engaged horse, engaging with life. Very lively and communicative.”
Sanceo and Schut-Kery benefited from an excellent support team who nurtured them from the beginning and helped them reach new heights.
“I can’t believe how lucky I have been to have such an amazing personal support team around me and Sanceo,” said Schut-Kery.
Special Achievements as Partners
Sanceo and Schut-Kery developed a strong partnership over their 14 years together, achieving numerous milestones along the way. The pair reached a level of communication that Schut-Kery felt was invisible to others from being so in tuned with one another.
“It's a pretty deep partnership. It goes into detail, and that's what made it so fun to ride him. He is so sensitive, and he would react to really small adjustments,” said Schut-Kery. “I created a system over the years to help him through [tension]. The system is so refined [that] such a small body language and just even sometimes a deep breath from me and he would respond. That's what made it so fun to work with him because of that sensitivity level. If I lower my hands or I lengthen my leg, which relaxes my seat a little bit on his back, that would make a difference in him. It became this really sophisticated and fun language that felt invisible with such small aids.”
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are Schut-Kery’s favorite memory, but not for the reason you might think. Schut-Kery doesn’t deny that the Olympics are one of the most prestigious championships, but how Sanceo performed in Tokyo felt like the ultimate achievement.
“I'm striving for that with every horse, but you don't always get to that level,” said Schut-Kery. “As a horse trainer, to reach that level of lightness and communication was the pinnacle. Of course, the medal, the score, and being able to break into 80% were wonderful. But what does 80% mean? It comes with a certain feel of a ride—that communication. It was almost like I had finished my painting.”
On to Retirement
Once it came time for Sanceo to retire, Schut-Kery, Womble, and Heitman discussed plans for Sanceo.
“I really appreciate that Mike and Alice always made me feel like he was just as much my horse as he was theirs. All the decisions that we made together along the way. All these years together we had the same philosophy and mindset to act in Sanceo’s best interest,” said Schut-Kery. “It was a hard decision to retire from competitive sport, but we were always on the same page about Sanceo.
“Alice said, ‘I feel like I am taking a child away from a mother. Do you want to keep him?’ I told her that is the best gift that she could’ve given me, just the option,” continued Schut-Kery. “I could peacefully decide what I wanted to see for him to retire.”
It was decided that Sanceo would go to Womble and Heitman’s Horsegate Ranch in Hempstead, Texas. While he is available for breeding, Sanceo gets to enjoy a peaceful setting for his retirement. He will be surrounded by other horses and receive top care, being groomed and trail ridden on the farm’s 1,000 acres.
“He has a double stall, and that stall opens up into a rubber-paver fenced area then opens up into a pasture with trees,” said Schut-Kery. “Alice has Brahman cattle. I remember when I visited him before, and he was always looking at the cattle and loved watching them. [Alice and Mike] were so sweet; they put up a little sand area for him to roll in. He will be able to just go out on pasture.”
Womble and Heitman are thrilled to have Sanceo at their farm and enjoy doting on their star resident.
“Alice is loving on him,” said Schut-Kery. “Her husband sent me a photo today. They put a table in front of his stall, and they had lunch there.”
A Dream Made Reality
Thinking back to her early days with Sanceo, Schut-Kery said it was a surprise that he turned into such a superstar.
“It was always Alice's dream to have a horse go on a team, but I think we were hoping that we would have a Grand Prix horse. But no, I did not think I would do all these championships and all of the things that I actually ended up doing with him. And for sure not the Olympics,” explained Schut-Kery. “For a lot of people, it is their dream to represent their country and go to the Olympics. Of course, it's a dream, but I thought it was so far away, so it wasn't really for me. It's actually Sanceo who made that become a dream.”
When Sanceo was a green Grand Prix horse, he showed much promise by earning scores in the low 70s from the start. After two seasons at Grand Prix and continued improvement, people let Schut-Kery know that Sanceo had the potential to represent the U.S. on the world stage.
“That’s when coaches said he's really capable of going higher and that's when the [Olympic] dream was really put into my head,” said Schut-Kery. “It was really neat because it was Sanceo who, first of all, placed that dream into my head and, second, he made it a reality.”