Update: Holly was in characteristically good spirits as we went to press. She was in the midst of a full summer of camps and beginner-oriented lessons at her San Diego Saddle Club, at Sunset Horse Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, and she was also working with Ashleigh Luca-Tayson, at the Peters' Arroyo Del Mar. The two stables are nearby, "so I've basically been just running back and forth between them," Holly reports. "Usually it's 14 hour days!"
She acknowledges that it's taking a while to absorb Ruby's loss, but she's looking ahead and determined that it "not become a huge break in my ongoing education as a rider and in dressage." Working with youngsters and beginners in her riding school provides counterbalancing joy. "It's great being around all these kids who just love being with horses and having fun."
For more information, visit Holly's riding school website at www.sandiegosaddleclub.com or www.hollybergay.com.
Holly is pictured here with Rubino Bellissimo at the 2014 Del Mar Nationals. Photo by Alicia Anthony
A La Jolla equestrian's dream of competing in international para-dressage ended with the unexpected death of her horse.
Twenty-one-year-old Holly Bergay entered the Para-Equestrian Dressage National Championship ranked No. 2 in the nation. Bergay, who was born without a left hand, was heavily favored to win a spot on the U.S. Para-Dressage team, which competes this month at the World Equestrian Games in France. But four days before the contest began June 2 in Gladstone, N.J., Bergay's horse
Rubino Bellissimo starting showing discomfort during workouts.
"One day he was acting not quite right and within the time it took to have the vet out, he was much worse," Bergay said.
The 18-year-old Hanoverian stallion was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to his muscles, nerves and bones. When subsequent tests showed no hope for survival, Rubino was euthanized on Monday with Bergay
by his side. A sympathetic coach lent Bergay another horse to ride in the nationals, but she competed only as a show of good sportsmanship. A rider can only advance to the World Equestrian Games on the horse they originally qualified with, and with Rubino out, Bergay was no longer eligible.
In a phone interview from Colorado, where she was taking some time with family to grieve the loss of her "best friend," Bergay said she's still in a state of shock.
"I spent every day with him for three years and we developed such a strong bond, especially because we were working together so hard and all my hopes and dreams were wrapped up in him," she said. "It's hard to go from one second having one of the best horses in the country and then the next second, he's not here anymore."
The experience was especially heartbreaking because Bergay went through the same disappointment four years ago when she made the 2010 U.S. para-dressage team, but had to pull out at the last minute when that horse went lame. That
withdrawal was financially devastating for Bergay and her middle-class parents and she briefly gave up the expensive vocation. But gradually over the past four years, she rebuilt both her finances and her riding career. And with Rubino - a $150,000 champion that she leased from Bay Area owner Violet Jen - she was finally poised to take the international stage once again.
Despite the latest setback, Bergay said she won't give up on her dream. She'll return next week to Sunset Horse Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, where she supports herself offering riding lessons through her business, San Diego Saddle Club. Then, she'll start looking for a new horse.
She had hoped to compete with Rubino next year in the Young Adult Brentina Cup, a Grand Prix for under-25 riders. That's now off the table because to compete at that level she would need another world-class horse.
"I'm back at square-one again. It would be huge if I could find another horse at that level, but if not, I'll just have to find a young horse and develop it," she said. "I'm lucky because San Diego has such an awesome horse community and I've grown close to a lot of people in the dressage world. I hope to have another opportunity."
Bergay's road to the para-dressage nationals was a community effort. To fly her and Rubino back to New Jersey, more than $10,000 was raised by family and friends, including D'Arcy Boyer of San Diego, whose daughter takes riding lessons from Bergay.
"My heart is broken for her, but I want to pick her up and tell her the show must go on," Boyer said. "She isn't just competing for herself but for all of those students, like my daughter, who idolize her. I'd like to think this isn't the end, it's a new beginning."
Bergay said she takes solace in knowing that dressage is a career that she can compete in for decades to come.
"The great thing about this sport is you can compete internationally until you're much older. I still have a lot of time," she said.
Author Pam Kragen can be reached at email@example.com.