When U.S. dressage athlete Anna Marek returned from the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, she came home with valuable experience, a strengthened partnership with her horse Fire Fly, and some hardware—team gold and individual bronze.
“This was my first major championship experience,” said Marek. “I’ve been on two Nations Cup teams, but both were in Wellington, so the Pan Ams were the first major championship on a senior team that I’ve done.”
Not only was it a first international team experience for Marek, but it was also a first for Fire Fly, Janet Simile’s 2010 KWPN gelding nicknamed “Fred,” and for Marek’s groom of three years, Kerri Short.
“It was my first senior team experience grooming as well,” said Short, who previously worked for eventer Leslie Law. “I groomed at all the big events in North America, so I know the pressure of big events, but the whole team atmosphere was different in a good way. It was really fun. Everyone was there for each other.”
Marek knew her teammate Christian Simonson from having been on a Nations Cup team with him previously, but the Pan Ams marked the first time she had the opportunity to get to know her other two teammates, Sarah Tubman and Codi Harrison.
“I was on the Nations Cup team in Wellington with Christian, and we had a great time. He’s the nicest guy and the biggest cheerleader on the team,” said Marek. “Codi, Sarah, and I are around the same age, and we’re in a similar place. We’re all young trainers trying to make our way up the ranks, so we have that in common. It was great to get to know them. We all got along great.”
A similar camaraderie developed among the grooms, who helped each other through their novel experience in Chile. The grooms stayed in the same lodging and shared one rental car, which fostered a collaborative relationship within the group.
“We made sure we were all ready to go at the same time in the morning, and stayed and helped each other out at the end of the day until everyone was done,” said Short. “We did everything as a group, which was really fun. It’s a great group—everyone was really helpful and supportive as well.”
Short hadn’t met the other grooms prior to the team’s training session in Wellington ahead of the Pan Ams, but the group bonded quickly.
“Once we got to Santiago and got the rental car and started going to the horse show, it was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to be best friends for the next week!’ But it was really good—they’re all super excellent at their jobs and just nice people, and we had fun together. We had a lot of laughs, and now we have these fun stories to share forever,” Short said.
Not Just Another Horse Show
Even with extensive experience preparing for top-level events, overseas travel with horses added a new degree of difficulty for the grooms.
“Usually we’re taking the whole trailer, so we’ll throw in extra blankets or five extra saddle pads. Who cares? We’re taking the trailer anyway,” said Short. “But this time I had to be aware of limited space, and I didn’t want to be bringing 47 trunks, so I was like, ‘Well, how many saddle pads do we actually need? How many sets of polos and wraps?’ I was checking the weather to figure out which blankets we’d need. It was a bit of Tetris packing, but it was actually pretty impressive how much stuff I could fit in one big trunk.”
For Marek, one of the biggest differences in the Pan Ams experience was the singular focus on one horse. As a professional trainer, she usually attends shows with a string of horses to compete, each with their own schedule to manage. At the Pan Ams, it was all about Fred.
“A lot of people asked me what I was going to do with all that time,” said Marek. “I’m used to working from really early in the morning until evening and riding a ton of horses every day. I’m always on to the next and busy, busy. I started questioning how I was going to handle riding just one horse. Were my nerves going to get to me? What I realized was that the time in Chile with just Fire Fly—being able to hack him in the morning, and in my spare time watch videos of my rides and have schooling sessions—it brought me a lot closer to him. I was like, ‘Wow, this horse just got on a plane and went across the world and performed amazingly for me.’ We really do have a special bond and we love each other.”
Marek and Fred have competed extensively in the U.S. during their time together, but international travel was uncharted territory.
“We had no idea what he was going to do with flying and going to a whole other environment,” said Short. “And he was such a dude. He was like, ‘It’s cool. We’ve got food. We’ve got some scritches,’ and he settled right in like it was no big deal. All the horses traveled really well. I was a bit worried that he might get off the plane wild or he wouldn’t ship well, but he was happy as a clam when he arrived.”
Fred and Friends
At home in Florida, Fred lives out full-time turnout with a buddy—a seven-year-old gelding called Larry—at Marek’s home farm, an arrangement that keeps him happy and relaxed.
“From when we first got Fred, he was always good, but had some tension,” said Short. “When we put him on 24/7 turnout and he got a friend, you could see his whole body just kind of relax, which was really nice.”
Marek noticed a positive change in Fred’s demeanor at shows and his confidence under saddle once he was paired up with Larry, even though he still prefers to let his friend be in charge when they’re turned out at home.
“With my FEI horses, I try to pair them up with a young horse so that they can be the boss in the field so they don’t get bit. I tried Fred with a couple different youngsters, and he never was the boss, even if he was out with a three-year-old,” said Marek. “It’s funny, because he’s so powerful and energetic to ride, but he can be insecure and he always wants me to be happy with him, and I can see that’s exactly how he is in the field. He just wants to follow Larry around. They love each other, they’re always together, they play together, and Fred says, ‘Just tell me what to do and I will do it.’”
Of course, Larry couldn’t accompany his bestie to Chile, but Marek says the two are used to having different competition schedules and handle separation well.
“When Fred goes to a show and Larry’s home alone, he calls a little bit, but he’s fine,” she said. “And now when Larry goes to a show and Fred stays at home, he’s fine out in the field because he’s happy. He’s calm now.”
Looking to the Future
Reflecting on their successful Pan Ams outing, both Marek and Short are excited for what the future might bring for team Fire Fly.
“We have a relatively newer relationship,” Marek said of her partnership with Fred. “Even though it’s been two years, it still feels like there’s so much more we can improve on together. There’s so much more in there.”
“I’m a Canadian who has been living down here for a long time, but there was still that pride of the U.S. team doing so well and watching Anna really go for it in the freestyle and ride her heart out—it was really cool to see,” said Short. “She laid everything on the table there, and it was one of the coolest rides I’ve seen. That was my favorite part, watching that freestyle. I really enjoyed the team experience, and I can’t wait to do it again.”