Cunningham began with an inauspicious name.
“That #40 horse” is what Mary Slouka called him back in 2000, when she first laid eyes on him at the Holsteiner Verband approvals in Neumünster, Germany. The Orange County horsewoman and her husband Carl had attended the Breeding Approvals annually for several years, primarily so Slouka could expand her knowledge about the Holsteiner and its breeding and approval process.
The couple wasn’t in the market for a stallion. That is, until Slouka returned from the approval’s Thursday previews with stars in her eyes. “Did you see anything?” asked her husband, who’d stayed warm in the car with a hot cocoa. “Oh, that #40 horse!” Slouka answered. “He was just breath-taking. A giant 2-year-old, slate gray stallion with three stockings, a beautiful face and incredible movement.” To boot, he was a Cassini I son, a line Slouka had long had her eye on for what she saw as clear potential in the American hunter market.
Cunningham standing at the head of the line in the A/Os with
Mary Slouka for the first time.
The exchange rate was favorable at the time and Carl Slouka sent his wife to the bidding with a generous limit. “We went though that in the first few minutes of bidding,” Slouka recounts. With the proceeds of her own training endeavors through Wildewood Farms, Slouka upped the ante and stayed in the game. Many rounds later, she was the proud and much-celebrated owner of the horse who’d first emerged as the 40th of 80 of the breed’s elite in the Approval’s up-close, flat-ground preview.
The champagne and flowers Slouka received as winning bidder that day, however, pale in comparison to the joys and accolades the horse has since brought her. Christened by Carl after racecar driver Briggs Cunningham, the horse has done nothing but win since he entered the show ring. In 2008, with John Bragg in the irons, he accrued 20 consecutive Regular Conformation Hunter division championships. He handily took top Zone 10, PCHA and USEF honors in that division, along with Regular Working Hunter titles from Zone 10 and PCHA. In 2007 and 2008, he earned Slouka the USHJA’s National Owner Recognition Award for most points scored in the nationally rated hunter divisions in one year.
The winning continued this year. With just a few shows to go at presstime, Cunningham had a distant lead in the Zone 10 Regular Conformation Hunters standings and was hot on the heels of division leader Exupery in the Regular Working Hunter division. Competing now as an amateur, Slouka sat fifth in the Amateur Owner Hunter 35-plus standings for 2009.
Not bad for a campaign that began with the goal “of just getting our name in the PCHA awards booklet.” His first year on the rated circuit, Cunningham, ridden by Rose Carver and then John Bragg, showed 10 times to finish third in the PCHA’s First Year Green Conformation standings. “We thought that was amazingly cool!” Slouka relays. Juggling Cunningham’s breeding and show career with the training business that she has since retired from, Slouka set their next goal, for 2007, at “maybe winning some regional titles.”
Cunningham with Mary Slouka.
“In my wildest imagination I never dreamed we’d be talking about national titles,” Slouka says. “I thought he was spectacular, but he’s my horse.” A commitment to campaigning more seriously in 2007 resulted in myriad honors: USEF National Grand Champion Conformation Hunter, USEF National Horse Of The Year Champion Green Conformation Hunter, and USEF National HOTY Reserve Champion Second Year Conformation Hunter, plus the PCHA and Zone 10 HOTY Champion Green Conformation and Champion Second Year Green Hunter. He also was unbeatable in the Performance Horse Registry’s national Silver Stirrup standings for Regular Conformation Hunter and reserve in the PHR’s Regular Working Hunter rankings.
Cunningham has become a star as a sire, too. Slouka estimates he has 35 babies so far, with between eight and 10 expected this year. She has two going under saddle this year. Chatoyant (French for “softly changing colors”) is already 17.2 hh though he doesn’t turn 4 until June. W. Covington is a bay filly, already 16.2 hh going into her fourth birthday. “It’s really cute to see them side by side,” Slouka notes. “Chatoyant is a big boy: big bones, big joints, and Covington is, for a horse her size, very petite with a beautiful head: the feminine version
John Bragg and Cunningham.
Chatoyant will head to Thermal in 2010 while Covington is playing surrogate mom to her future half-sister, a Cunningham baby out of Slouka’s premium mare Sincerely.
Cunningham’s father Cassini I is best known as a jumping sire: Will Simpson’s Olympic gold partner Carlsson vom Dach is a half-brother. Cunningham’s dam Stemm 1907 is by Contender, bringing more jumping success along with Grand Prix dressage fame. But it’s as a hunter sire that Slouka saw Cunningham’s biggest potential. Not surprisingly, he has jump to spare for the four-foot divisions, providing his power is managed correctly. A morning flat with Slouka usually begins his show-day routine, during which she focuses on getting him into a relaxed mental state. Cunningham jumps five-foot-plus without batting an eyelash, but Bragg and Slouka learned to school low when he moved into the 3’9” Second Year Green ranks. “If we warmed him up at that height, he’d clear every jump by 18 inches,” Slouka laughs.
Slouka established her amateur status as of last year and her successes in that division reinforce the accuracy of her hunch about Cunningham’s suitability as a Hunter. “Even when I first put him over fences, he went down to the fence quiet and soft, exploded over the jump, then just canters away. It’s not a big deal to him.”
He’s a perfect sire for those tackling the 3’6” and higher Hunter levels. “He has so much jump, you could ride backwards down to the fence and still be safe and secure over it,” Slouka says. A forward, secure position at take-off is important to stay with his jump, but otherwise the big horse requires only light piloting, even from petite riders.
With very little effort put into marketing, Cunningham stood to about 35 mares this year, Slouka estimates. “I heard a lot of people were struggling with their breeding businesses, but ours was booming.”
Mary and Sincerely at the Oaks.
Cunningham came to Slouka’s Newport Beach training facility in early 2001. She opted not to leave him in Germany for the 30-day stallion testing because she preferred to be his main handler and trainer from the get-go. “You only get a certain number of chances with a stallion to show him what the rules are,” she explains. “If things don’t go well, you can’t turn that around.” Slouka is a do-it-yourselfer in all aspects of horsemanship, but she did seek help from her farrier and a member of her stable maintenance crew when she broke the now 17.1 hh Cunningham to saddle. From there, she took him through every phrase of training and four years of competing at county shows, before turning the reins over to Rose Carver and then John Bragg for the A circuit.
The big horse lives at Slouka’s Wildewood Farms when he isn’t showing or being collected at Burns Ranch in Murietta. He has endeared himself to everybody there, just as he does on the show circuit. Most of Slouka’s former students have had their turns riding Cunningham and her show grooms nicknamed him “Chachi,” after the “goofball character” on Happy Days. His favorite treat is anything in the hands of a human passerby. Sticking his tongue out for a tug, especially if he’s done something naughty, is his favorite trick. “He knows you’ll forgive him because he’s so cute,” Slouka says. He is not without his nippy stallion moments, she acknowledges, and birds and dogs best steer clear.
Cunningham with Mary Slouka
At this year’s Orange County Horse Shows Assn. championship show, Slouka and Cunningham tied for second in Amateur Owner Hunter Classic then, 30 minutes later, returned to the ring for the costume class. As part of a “singing icons” entry comprised of barn friends, Slouka was dressed as Janis Joplin and Cunningham was decked out to embody Joplin’s hit song Cry Baby, “because he really is such a big baby,” Slouka laughs. With giant tears hanging off his bridle and a rubber ducky and big bottle affixed to his person, Cunningham took it all in stride.
Slouka greatly enjoyed 30 years as a trainer and now enjoys being simply a competitor, especially with one of the circuit’s most impressive horses. She is aware she won’t be able to ride competitively forever and relishes this chance to finish her show career in such high style.
“I am very blessed to have such a nice horse and to have such nice successes,” she concludes. “When you have horses, everything has to go right to achieve this kind of success. I am extremely fortunate to have such an amazing horse who is such a joy to work with.”