Legacy of blind dressage horse Valiant lives on


A preview of a documentary on a dressage horse who gradually went blind but went on to become an inspiration to others has been aired in the US.

The story of Valiant and Jeanette Sassoon was shown at the recent American Horse Publications Annual Awards Banquet.

Jeanette Sassoon and Valiant.
Jeanette Sassoon and Valiant.

Valiant died in November 2013, but he will be remembered through the Valiant Human Animal Bond Award and his best buddy and stablemate Cherokee, who is also blind. Cherokee has been passed the torch and will carry on in Valiant’s memory and legacy.

The relationship between horse and human is one that has held strong throughout the centuries.

After Valiant went blind he ever so slowly rehabilitated his body and mind and regained his trust with the unconditional love and care of his owner. He never recovered his sight but through the eyes of his human companion he surpassed all expectations of ever reaching a normal life-he reached the impossible dream by anyone’s standards.

Jeanette Sassoon of US polo equipment supplier PoloGear owned Valiant’s dam and sire, and raised her beloved Valiant from birth, working with him as a colt. She began to examine his potential in the competition world. When she turned to expert opinions, a prominent German dressage trainer informed her that he was “too small and crazy – get rid of him now,” and the veterinarian who did his pre-purchase veterinary exam thought he could have a degenerative neurological disorder.

Reflecting back on it, Sassoon said, “With Valiant I guess I was always meant to be challenged and I finally realized the way our story unfolded allowed growth to take place in me as a human being.”

Not too long after Valiant’s dressage evaluation and pre-purchase diagnosis, Sassoon relocated from California to Florida. One day, while walking to the ring, Valiant stepped on a horseshoe nail. That one impeding step was the start of a new journey for Sassoon and Valiant.

Jeanette Sassoon and Valiant perform at the USET Festival of Champions.
Jeanette Sassoon and Valiant perform at the USET Festival of Champions.

The veterinarian was called and the sole of Valiant’s foot was thoroughly cleaned and medicated to prevent infection. Penicillin was administered and prescribed for five days. A few days later, abscesses developed where the injections were given on both sides of Valiant’s neck. Sassoon noticed his eyes were cloudy at the center near the pupil. To this day it is a mystery as to what actually caused this infection, but it raged on, nearly killing her beautiful black gelding. Valiant had the worst form of uveitis or “Moon Blindness.”

The bacteria traveled to Valiant’s eyes from the abscesses on his neck, and his eyes clouded over within days. Sassoon and Valiant soon faced life’s next challenge in their entangled web: life without sight. Sassoon was faced with two options. The specialists told her Valiant would never see again, she could turn him out in a pasture without trees the rest of his life or put him down.

“I felt lost and helpless,” Sassoon said. “I couldn’t replace his sight but I knew somehow I could give him a good life. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but after Gary, my then-fiancé and now husband, said, ‘He’s not lame, is he?’ the answer appeared. Gary was right. Valiant was healthy in every way except he couldn’t see, but I could.”

At that moment Sassoon entered one of the most heartwarming journeys of the equestrian world, being Valiant’s eyes. She decided without hesitation that there was only one option: she would somehow provide a good life and care for him. At first just getting him over his life-threatening infection with relentless focus and hour after hour around the clock care was paramount. Then getting him used to living without sight and retraining even the most basic life tasks was the priority.

“Riding him ever again was not even in my realm of consideration or focus as it just wasn’t important but saving his life and the quality of that life was,” Sassoon said. “At the same time, in the back of my mind I always felt at some point in our lives we would again ride together and I never gave up that glimmer of a dream.”

Jeanette Sassoon and Cherokee
Jeanette Sassoon and Cherokee.

Year after year Sassoon amazed the specialists, family and friends as she patiently and lovingly worked to train Valiant to the highest level of dressage that was possible for her mount, and she did, taking him to the international level of Prix St. Georges winning tough competitions at 4th level along the way, and finally at 25 years young, Valiant finishing in 6th place out of 15 international competitors at Prix St. Georges in the 2012 Wellington dressage festival.

Although her 27-year-old gelding passed away in November of last year, he is still remembered and his legacy lives on through the Valiant Human-Animal Bond Award and the profound words and ideas of journalists who can express the bond between horse and human.

“The morning before Valiant passed away, I stood alone with him in his stall at Palm Beach Equine Clinic. My eyes were closed and my hands were laid on his body.

“Subliminally I was asking Valiant for clarity and guidance in my life,” Sassoon described. “I was feeling very low and disheartened with his prognosis and felt our time together was coming to an end. I also knew there was something I was still missing, and I didn’t know what it was, but I was feeling confused and uneasy. After settling down a bit I felt through his body he was giving me the key to our journey together and whatever happened to him to remember this message and always live it.”

He told Sassoon to “Believe”  – To believe in herself, their journey together and in God.

With this message Valiant told Sassoon that all things are possible if you just “believe” you can and go forward with courage and determination and just listen to that inner voice urging you onward.

“This message unlocked my confusion and opened a new inner strength for me to carry on,” Sassoon said. “After a few minutes I thanked him and emotionally rushed to my car to call Allyn Mann, the director of Adequan and a very close friend of many years because of Valiant and his story. Allyn truly understood the physical relationship Valiant and I shared but more importantly the spiritual one as well.

Adequan's Allyn Mann, Editor of Dressage Today Jennifer Mellace and Jeanette Sassoon.
Adequan’s Allyn Mann, Dressage Today editor Jennifer Mellace and Jeanette Sassoon. © Diana DeRosa

“I felt a strong need to speak with him and he helped me gain composure and clarity during probably one of the most difficult times of my life. He told me of the important work we had done together and he said that Valiant’s life work will live on and we will be filled with joy of the many hearts touched by him now and into the future. I instinctively knew at that moment of realization of Valiant’s message to ‘Believe’, our life together was divinely encapsulated into that one word “Believe” and his work was finally done and he was free to move on.

“Thank you, Valiant.”

Valiant may be gone and certainly will be remembered through the Valiant Human Animal Bond Award but his best buddy and stablemate ‘Cherokee,’ who is also blind, was passed the torch and will carry on in Valiant’s memory and legacy.

Jeanette Sassoon with Cherokee and Valiant
Jeanette Sassoon with Cherokee and Valiant
Alexandra Korelova and Balagur.
Alexandra Korelova and Balagur. © Dirk Caremans/FEI

Balagur story wins for Silke Rottermann

At the American Horse Publications Annual Awards Banquet Sassoon presented Silke Rottermann with the Valiant Human-Animal Bond Award at the banquet for her Dressage Today article, “The Legendary Balagur” about the 23-year-old Russian Orlov Trotter who competed in Olympic dressage competitions

The AHP Annual Awards Contest included 171 award presentations with over 50 categories, 736 entries and 97 contestants. Of the original numbers, 64 became finalists and 38 rose to the pinnacle of the awards. Rotterman, of Germany, was thrilled to receive the honor, although she was unable to attend the event.

On accepted the award, she said: “Having been awarded the Valiant Human-Animal Bond Award from the American Horse Publications is a great honor in itself. Having been awarded this honor for a text on such a very special animal like Balagur makes it all the sweeter.”

“I would like to thank the judge very much for appreciating and acknowledging the lifetime achievements of this horse, which is owed, in no uncertain part, to the late George Theodorescu,” Rottermann said.

“For me this story showed that there are no limits for a horse as long as somebody believes in him and creates that special rapport, which really can give a horse proverbial wings. Balagur and Mr Theodorescu have taught us all an important lesson with their story.”


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