Judy Reynolds speaks of her horse as if they have a heartfelt conversation every morning in the yard. She talks as though they hang out a bit. He tells her how he's feeling, what the gossip is around the stables and what he is hoping to do next, regular chat.
It’s a common enough friendship that humans find themselves in with horses. It’s in your face full disclosure. They dig each other out, watch each other’s back and talk lots.
Judy sees her horse as more than an animal that walks, runs and jumps and in the case of Vancouver K dances across an arena to the music of 1980s divas and Cher's If I could Turn Back Time.
Who says horses don’t have taste?
It's chummy and intimate. There's mutual respect between the two and the closeness of soldiering together. It's something more than Chris Froome murmuring to his handlebars 'up the mountain, up the mountain,' or Lewis Hamilton whispering to his Mercedes engine block, 'let's go into the red'.
“If he says he’s still happy to do it we’ll keep going and if he says ‘I don’t want to do any more’ then I have to listen to him,” she says of her 15-year-old partner and his thoughts on participating in the 2020 Olympics.”
Vancouver is smart and really he always has the final say in things. He lives with Reynolds in Germany. It is where he has to be to get to the main shows and prove his worth among the elite of dressage, an expensive, esoteric sport. Reynolds, originally from Kildare but now in Germany for 15 years, speaks highly of Mr K and his stand out four-square qualities.
“He’s very intelligent which I believe has made him be a very good horse. He is also a fighter. He’s for you,” she says. “He never gives up. He never goes ‘oh not today’.
“Every day he comes out he says ‘ok let’s do this’. We know at the end of a long competition at the end of the last day he is still going to be giving you everything you ask of him.”
Vancouver will be 18-years-old by the time Tokyo comes around, a veteran of dressage, a dancing horse in the twilight of his career but maybe capable of busting out one last move across the silver sand to The Weather Girls It's Raining Men.'
The two of them, Mr K and Judy, have already accomplished what no other combination in Ireland has ever done and won an historic five-star Grand Prix dressage event in Dortmund, Germany several weeks weeks ago. The 35-year-old, who made it to the individual final at the Rio Olympics, earned her first place in the heartland of dressage Mecca.
The Irish combination actually routed the opposition with a score of 76.70 per cent leaving them over three percentage points better than the next-placed team.
More recently a sixth-place finish in the final qualifying round of the 2017 series at s-Hertogenbosch in The Netherlands, coupled with excellent results throughout the winter season, saw Reynolds finish on a 57-point total and in third place on the final league table to comfortably book her place in this week’s world final.
In dressage competition there are around 30 set moves which have to be carried out and there is also freestyle, which Reynolds and Vancouver do to chosen music. Her 1980s divas routine is choreographed to be difficult in complexity.
Like diving or gymnastics you can back yourself with more intricate moves that draw bigger numbers in the scoring. But perplex the horse at your peril.
“The history is founded in the military, the cavalry,” she says. “On the battle field you wanted your horse to stop and turn quickly if someone is coming at you . . .that would be equivalent to what we now ride as a Pirouette.
“You want to be able to go sideways too if someone is coming at you from the side and that’s a Halfpass. It really does go back to those beginnings.
“Technically any horse can do it. We are not asking horses to do something which they don’t naturally to do anyway. A lot of the movements we perform you would actually see, maybe a stallion if he was in a field showing off to a neighbour or trying to impress a certain horse and he would do some of the movements we ask of them.
“Any horse can technically do it but how well they do it and how easy they are to train has a lot to do with their character and temperament.”
Her rule of thumb in the musical part of the routine is if her dad hasn't heard of the song, it doesn't get in. The age demographic of the judges is in the region of 50-years plus. Beyonce and Bruno Mars probably wouldn't float their boat, so as ever there's an element of 'playing the referee'.
“It’s a little bit comparable to rhythmic gymnastics or even like synchronised swimming. It’s a subjective judging system. They decide whether they find it to be good or not. It is judged against a set of principles, how the movements are meant to look and whether they are good and acceptable or not.”
Vancouver doesn’t have a say in the music. But you would like to think he would let her know if it was particularly tinny to his ears. Of Dutch stock, his genes reach back to Jazz on his grandfather’s side and Pharaoh on his mother’s side, who were Olympic-level horses bred for their willingness to conform to the highly stylised movement of waltzing across the arena.
Irish horses can do it too but their talent is more concentrated in the boisterous side of the game, running, jumping and hurtling over ditches and fallen trees.
Game and brave Irish horses are sometimes missing those last few percentage points that differentiate dressage ability from real talent.
Judy is hoping Vancouver K will remain healthy and vigorous for Tokyo. But there are a few other horses being trained as back up because he hasn’t told her outright yet how his body will feel about it all at 18-years-old because this far out he doesn’t know.
But Dortmund was a breakthrough and the s-Hertogenbosch result backed up the current form going in to today’s opening day of competition in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping & FEI World Cup Dressage Finals at the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
“Yeah absolutely, it’s great to get a win like that especially in Germany where dressage is so very strong. To be able to come out ahead of the Germans is a great achievement. It’s an absolute thrill,” she says.
“It is a great confidence boost. But the thing is we made this new freestyle towards the end of last year. It does take a while for the horse to become confident with the test and this one I have put together is very difficult. The degree of difficulty is very, very high so what I’m pleased about is Vancouver is feeling very confident with the test.
“Until recently I felt he wasn’t quite confident about what I was asking of him,” she adds. “Once that happens I can start asking a little bit more from him.”
There she is, at it again. As always we need to talk about Mr K.