Undoubtedly the most famous Friesian on the west coast for more than a decade, always acting as a true ambassador for the Friesian breed, Black Sterling’s 21 year life ended on September 13, 2014 after a short battle with an illness.
“Sterling”, fondly called “sterling mule” by his family, arrived from Germany on Christmas Eve in 2000, and immediately set the world on fire by winning nearly every class entered in the Open English Pleasure and Friesian Under Saddle classes, up and down the west coast. Sterling was my first Friesian, and I was his only Trainer/Rider. Now, with his passing, our amazing and rewarding fellowship and journey together has come to an end. Broken hearted as I may be today, I am already aglow with the knowledge of how blessed and lucky Sterling and I were to find each other in the first place, and go on to experience so much adventure and thrills together. There will never be another Sterling.
Our story together had a challenging beginning. “Sterling” was purchased from Germany sight unseen off the web, and wasn’t quite the horse as represented. He was advertised as 15.3 hands, IDEAL conformation, and solid 2nd level dressage: the horse that arrived from Europe was slightly over 15.1 hands, fallen crest, and NO level dressage—and completely unaccustomed to be ridden in a snaffle bit. What are the odds that this horse, backed by his future success, would be the inspiration to launch one of the largest Friesian import businesses in North America (Fairytale Friesian Finder Service , INC), a company which to this day carries his name?
But Sterling was EXCEPTIONAL, with an ability to arch his neck and resemble a chess piece (audiences THOUGHT he was a 16 hand stallion!) and he and I spent hours together every day, literally training each other. In March of 2000, I decided to try my hand at a local training show at Menlo Circus Club, as I had not shown a horse in 8 years, and I suspected Sterling had likely NEVER shown. I boarded at a local dressage barn and arrived at 5am, to load up my tack and horse; only Sterling had other ideas. He flat REFUSED to get in my small 2 horse bumper pull trailer. After 4 hours of trying every technique known to man, the professional trainers at the barn offered to try their hand at loading the stubborn Friesian. 3 trainers later, the horse STILL refused to get in the trailer…and we missed our first horse show….
Monterey Springfest Horse Show was in April, and I bought a larger horse trailer and entered Sterling in the only class available for a Friesian in 2000, Open English Pleasure. Sterling had been trick trained to rear and bow and do the Spanish walk in Europe, and I discovered in the warm up ring, that when he was scared and did not want to go forward, he would use his “rear” trick against me, nearly landing on trainers coaching student’s nearby, in the tiny warm up area. I almost scratched myself from that first class, because I was embarrassed about a rearing “pleasure” horse, but the ringmaster blew his long trumpet horn, and we found ourselves trotting into the Monterey Fairgrounds.
Sterling was spectacular—high stepping, naturally beating every Morgan, Arabian, National show horse and Saddlebred in the class, and that was just the beginning. He went on to win 228 blues, nearly undefeated, after that first class, and at the Del Mar Charity Fair Horse Show-he won the open English Pleasure Stake five years in a row, and then followed up with winning the Open Western Pleasure Stake for the next several years, competing against world champion Saddlebreds and Morgans, and always coming out on top. Sterling was an amazing representative for the Friesian breed.
Sterling went on to win 9 world and national championships at the IFSHA Grand Nationals in St Louis, Las Vegas and Del Mar, doing what he does best, with his trademark tail dragging 2 feet behind him. Although I have shown numerous Friesian horses and imported more than 1500 Friesian horses, Sterling was the only horse the crowd and onlookers would mutter… ohhhh WOW… as I rode by on “sterling mule”. He was captivating, even to an uneducated fair goer that wandered into watching a horse show, never seeing a Friesian horse before. His fallen crest straightened up when he set his head, and when he won at the Grand Nationals, he always won world and national championships with unanimous decisions by the three judge panels.
All of a sudden, Sterling was a “star” and people wanted to just come by and see him. Magazines and companies wanted to use his “image” in their advertising: Venus Vineyards used Sterling and my silhouette, a picture taken at dusk, cantering up a vineyard hill, as their wine label for their Wild Woman series of wines they were releasing. Retired from showing in 2012, Sterling enjoyed greeting newcomers at Fairytale Friesian Finder Service, INC by being their FIRST ride on a Friesian, serving as an amazing Friesian delegate, taking care of even the most timid children and beginner riders.
When he first arrived, I had hoped Sterling could trail ride, but Sterling wasn’t so sure about that. Sterling was flat terrified of the large rock formations on our Marin trails and would throw his head up, and stand stoically, spin around and head back to the barn, or rear, whenever we came across large rocks on a trail. I didn’t think this horse would ever trust me, and I would get off and lead him past the “scary” rocks. It took over a year before Sterling trusted me enough to ride by the rock formations on our trail rides, without me dismounting and going first, past the apparently spooky architecture. But he went on to be my best trail horse EVER, navigating steep trails, earning our 5 year pin for Las Estrellas de Valle—an annual horse camping trip with 120 women; and riding in Golden Gate Park. Just 7 days before his death, there was Sterling riding on Limantour Beach in Pt Reyes, refusing to be second next to his Friesian stablemate, Ate, happiest with his ears always forward when he was in the lead.
Sterling, a Pike X Oege Ster gelding, was a once in a lifetime horse, and although my hands have run thru hundreds and hundreds of other Friesians, I have yet to meet another one like him. He would lift up his foot immediately if he accidentally stepped on you, and would only use his lips to take carrots and peppermints from your hands, never using teeth. Sterling did not like to be “caged”, so he was allowed free rein of walking the 11 acres of property at Black Sterling ranch in Sonoma, unencumbered by fences or stall walls. More than one guest at the vacation rental homes on the property would call me to declare “you have a LOOSE horse on our lawn!!”, and I would calmly tell them that actually Sterling owns the place, and they are HIS guests.
Diagnosed with DSLD (degenerative suspensory ligament dysmitis) at age 14, and given less than a year to live, Sterling beat all the odds, and just kept on touching lives. In the last few days, Sterling went off his food and developed internal issues. The veterinarian was called, and although he didn’t have severe colic symptoms or a fever, it was decided we would take him to UC Davis, as we KNOW how stoic Friesians in pain can be. Sterling was diagnosed with clostridium dificile colitis, and one day into treatment, he foundered, and the internal medicine vets at this teaching institution grimly told me of his poor prognosis, and said if it was their horse, they would humanely euthanize him, as he was suffering. It was time to say good-bye to my riding partner, my friend, and part of my heart.
While I am immensely saddened at the loss of this amazing horse, I will carry him with me every day in my heart; I celebrate the lives he touched, the hundreds of blue ribbons and trophies he accumulated, and most importantly, the audiences and lives he affected, as the FIRST FRIESIAN many people on the west coast ever met, touched, and came to love. Sterling was frequently seen doing his signature “rear” at the trophy presentation, when he would win classes, prior to making his victory pass, much to the delight of audiences nationwide. Black Sterling will live on, in our hearts and memories. May God bless you Sterling; I will miss you every day, for the rest of my life.