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From youngster to international Grand Prix horse: Contagious

Thursday, 06 May 2021
From youngster to international Grand Prix horse

Photo © Callie Clement for Four Oaks Creative On the US short list for the Olympic Games in Tokyo: Mclain Ward and Contagious. Photo © Callie Clement for Four Oaks Creative.


Text © World of Showjumping



With USA’s Mclain Ward in the saddle, the now 12-year-old gelding Contagious (Contagio x For Keeps – bred by Andreas Eisenmenger) has gone from strength to strength. Partnering up in 2018, Contagious and Ward quickly hit off on a winning streak. After a strong start to the 2019-season – which included a victory in the CSIO4* Nations Cup in Wellington – the pair was selected for the Pan Am Games in Lima, but unfortunately an injury forced Contagious out of the US team. Fast forward two years, Contagious is back in super shape – concluding the Winter Equestrian Festival with a fourth place in the CSI5* Rolex Grand Prix. Contagious and Ward's good results have not gone unnoticed; recently, they were selected to the US short list for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. 

In the next part of our series ‘From youngster to international Grand Prix horse’, we speak with Dietmar Gugler, Julia Beck, Reed Kessler and Mclain Ward – and discover that nothing has been left to coincidence on Contagious’ journey to the top. Carefully produced from the very beginning – and given lots of patience and time – by both Beck and Kessler, the chestnut gelding has been slowly developed into the Olympic prospect he is today.

Dietmar Gugler: “He had this second gear in the air”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping. “It’s a nice story; it does not happen all the time but in between you really have the luck that the horses you sell go to the right riders where they are brought along all the way to the top," Dietmar Gugler tells about Contagious. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

“Contagious was four years old when I first saw him, he was just doing his first novice classes in the area around Frankfurt,” Dietmar Gugler tells. “At the time, Contagious was still with his breeder – Mr. Eisenmenger – who has two daughters that ride the young horses. I asked if we could try Contagious at my place, and I bought him right away – although it was not all that easy; I had to increase my offer to get him,” Gugler smiles. 

“When we tried him, Contagious was very green, but I remember building up a very wide oxer for him and I could already see then that he had this second gear in the air,” Gugler recalls. “He just stretched over the back rail and jumped it easy. I like that in a young horse; many tend to get a bit stuck in the air.”

“The year Contagious was five, we gave him a lot of time and then when he was six, I sold a part to Julia and Timo Beck who I co-own several horses with. Julia is really, really good at bringing the horses along,” Gugler tells. “Contagious always did everything easy, and I think his luck was that he could be produced in peace and quiet by Julia. We did not jump him much bigger than the 1.40m classes; only at the very end before he got sold did he do a couple of 1.45m. We focused on bringing him along nice and easy, which I think is important for the horses with a lot of quality – they should have a good build-up and not be pushed too early. Because Contagious was with Julia, he was also out of my dealing stable, which I think worked to his advantage. He could stay a bit out of the picture, was not really shown to anyone – apart from one other very good American rider.”

“By the time Contagious was eight, it was clear he was a special one – he was very consistent, careful and had a lot of scope,” Gugler tells. “Reed Kessler then came to try him, and it was wonderful how she rode him. When I later heard Reed would stop riding, I was a little bit sad because you always wish that the horses you sell stay with good riders. However, Mclain got the horse and he is for me one of the very best in the world. I believe that with Mclain, Contagious has a real chance to go to the Olympics this year.” 

“It’s a nice story; it does not happen all the time but in between you really have the luck that the horses you sell go to the right riders where they are brought along all the way to the top. And when it happens, it’s really nice for everyone involved,” Gugler says. 

Julia Beck: “I always had the feeling that he needed time”

Photo © Hervé Bonnaud / “Contagious never wanted to touch a pole," Julia Beck tells. Photo © Hervé Bonnaud /

“One day, Dietmar called me up and told me he had a good young horse that he thought would be a good match for me,” Julia Beck tells about her introduction to Contagious. “Dietmar knows that I prefer to keep the horses for a bit longer; I like to take my time with their education and bring them up slowly – so he thought Contagious would fit well into my system.” 

“I fell in love with Contagious immediately. I felt he was something really special, so I was happy to get the chance to ride him,” Beck tells. 

“I rode Contagious in the 6-year-old style classes here in Germany; he won a lot and was qualified for the Bundeschampionat in Warendorf. If I remember right, he even won one of the qualifications. When Contagious was seven, he jumped his first S-classes with me – and I rode him in a few different international youngster tours too. Then, when Contagious was eight, we brought him to the Mediterranean Equestrian Tour in Oliva Nova; I started out in the 1.25m and ended up jumping the ranking classes,” Beck tells about the gelding’s development. 

“Contagious always did good, he is a clever and careful horse with a lot of scope. In the beginning many people told me he did not have enough blood, but I always disagreed with them. Not everyone believed me, but in the end, I was right,” Julia laughs. “At home, Contagious was always a bit lazy – especially in the dressage work – but when you came to the shows he was on fire and very sensitive. I really had to work with him to make him calm at the shows, because once he heard the bell he was like ‘let’s go!’. He just had so much power that needed to be channelled in the right way.”

“Contagious never wanted to touch a pole, and if I sometimes would come a bit too close, he would jump a meter over the fence – almost getting scared of himself, because he wanted to do it too good,” Beck continues. “He just had so much power and quality in the ring.” 

“I never rode Contagious fast though, not once, because I always had the feeling that he needed time,” Beck tells. “I wanted him to have no stress inside; my impression was that he was always a bit nervous. I would rather take some time-faults, because I knew that one day there would be the rider that would make him fast – but this was not my job. So, I gave him the time I believed he needed. Following Contagious with Reed and Mclain, I think I did it the right way.”

“Contagious’ character was a bit special, not in a negative way – but he was very sensitive, so he needed one person,” Beck explains. “At home, it was mostly me who took care of him and rode him. You could never have stress around him; even if I was too late for a class, I would always just remind myself to stop and be quiet. If there was any stress, it was done for him.”

“Contagious was sold to Reed in the spring of 2017,” Beck tells. “When Reed tried him, you could already see that they had a good connection. Reed also understood him and said exactly what I felt; that he needed time.” 

“When Reed eventually stopped riding to study, and she gave Contagious to Mclain I thought to myself that ‘wow, now he has one of the best riders in the world on his back’. Then I knew I would get to see if he would develop into the super-star that I thought he was – and he proved himself immediately,” Beck smiles. 

“When I see Contagious in the ring with Mclain, I sometimes think I know what he is feeling on top; it’s not as easy as he makes it look,” Beck laughs. “As a rider, you need to be very balanced and quiet – which must be difficult when you go as fast as Mclain does! However, Mclain has such a quiet style – when we watch them, I always tell my husband ‘Look, there is nothing moving!’. Hopefully, one day I get to see them live and have a little talk with Mclain, because seeing them together is unbelievable.”

“In our stable Contagious was never called by his name, but was known as ‘The Prince’,” Beck laughs. “And he really was – everything around him was a bit special! It was not always straightforward with Contagious; you had to get to know him – and I also learned a lot from riding him. However, I knew what I had under the saddle. I always hoped I would be able to see him jumping at the Olympics, and hopefully this year it will happen.”

Reed Kessler: “He had so much quality that I wanted his confidence to be perfectly solid before jumping bigger classes”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "There are not many horses like Contagious, and to have had a hand bringing him into the top sport for someone like Mclain to get on and go with is a pleasure!” Reed Kessler says. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

In the spring of 2017, US Olympian Reed Kessler took over the reins on Contagious. Kessler bought the then 8-year-old gelding after first seeing him jump with Beck at the Mediterranean Equestrian Tour in Oliva Nova, Spain. “I was sitting with a friend of mine, Rachel Udelson – who was Javier Salvador's partner at the time – when we saw Contagious go in one of the back rings. I instantly liked him,” Kessler tells.

“From the first moment I sat on Contagious, I really liked him – though it was clear he has a special character. He was simultaneously very honest and brave jumping, but very sensitive about things on the ground – like anything moving,” Kessler says. “I ended up going very slowly with him after I bought him, as I felt he had so much quality that I wanted his confidence to be perfectly solid before jumping bigger classes. While Contagious was always very confident in the ring, he could be a little tense in the warm-up – for example with other horses. That said, I think it was clear from the first show that I took him to that he was very special. He always got a lot of attention.”

“Julia did a beautiful job bringing Contagious along as a youngster, she is an incredibly kind and patient person,” Kessler continues. “You could tell how slowly she had brought him along to make sure that he had the confidence to match how careful he is.” 

“Back when I had him, I don't think he had many weaknesses. The biggest challenge was to continue moving him up to the big classes with confidence,” Kessler tells. “Contagious also had a bit difficulty to keep putting on muscle; he could be a little uneven in his musculature. It was hard where we lived in Holland at the time to do any real hill work, so we tried to do what we could taking him to the water treadmill or even to swim when we had time at home. I think at Castle Hill it helped him to build the last bit of strength he needed, going up and down the slopes.”

“Contagious has an endearing personality – he has a big heart, is a little bit of a mama's boy, and sometimes a bit mischievous,” Kessler smiles. “Chloe [Buckley] and I believed in him from the first moment he came to the stable and we took our time building him up, so it is exciting to watch what he has done with Mclain. There are not many horses like Contagious, and to have had a hand bringing him into the top sport for someone like Mclain to get on and go with is a pleasure!” 

Mclain Ward: “Contagious came along quite quickly”

Photo © Barre Dukes for Four Oaks Creative "He was always an incredibly careful horse, and slightly shy," Mclain Ward tells about Contagious. Photo © Barre Dukes for Four Oaks Creative.

As Kessler left Europe in the summer of 2018 and went back to the US to study at Columbia University in New York, she eventually decided to give the ride on Contagious to Mclain Ward – who’s Castle Hill Farm is a little over an hour’s drive from the city. It was a quick click between Contagious and Ward, that in less than a month won the CSI5* 1.50m Hudson Valley Jumper Classics, the CSI4*-W 1.55m American Gold Cup qualifier and finished fifth in the CSI4*-W 1.60m Longines FEI World Cup of New York. 

“With all these top horses, when you look back, they all have these funny stories in how they get to you,” Ward says. “Reed and I had always had a nice relationship since the Olympics in London, and Reed was coming up back to New York from Europe to go to school. She asked if she could send the horses to my place and if I could campaign and market them.”

“Contagious was a bit green at the time, and I kept him through a series of events; I had the horse sold and the deal fell through at no fault of his own,” Ward continues. “I kind of took another look at the horse, and at the same time had the opportunity through Max Amaya to know Lisa and Annabel Revers of Beechwood Stables. I said: ‘I think this is a really good horse, would you ever be interested in doing the sport with us?’ and they were really enthusiastic and very supportive.”

“Contagious came along quite quickly and was on the team to go to the Pan American Games in 2019. We were doing our final preparation in Calgary and he unfortunately had an injury and we had to step off the Pan Am team. The Revers allowed us to take the time to bring him back, even though it was hugely disappointing. It allowed us to do right by the horse and not put a lot of pressure on us or him,” Ward tells. 

“Covid was maybe a real blessing for Contagious last year – we took a breath and were able to bring him back up to the top level slowly and really thoroughly, not only physically but also for his brain,” Ward continues. “He was always an incredibly careful horse, and slightly shy. It wasn’t that he wasn’t brave, he was not going to touch the fence, that was his end of the bargain, but you had to want to go to the other side. So, we brought him along slow and I had a great feeling with him in the fall.”

“Covid, for a lot of the horses, changed some things. HH Azur is now a year older, and as Clinta has been out I’m currently working on bringing her back. So, I had it in the back of my mind that maybe Contagious was an Olympic option for this year, and I would try and let it play out,” Ward tells. “So, with both Azur and Contagious, I’m currently doing everything I can to be best prepared for a possible Olympics Games. Whichever horse is in the best form – I’d love to have the opportunity to go to Tokyo with.”


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