The day Canadian Team eventer Karl Slezak met Fernhill Wishes, he liked what he saw. The four-year-old bay Irish Sport Horse by Chacoa and out of KEC Galway Bay was leggy, refined and a bit wild as he jogged up the driveway of Fernhill Sport Horses. On the recommendation of his friends (the late) Jordan and Shandiss McDonald, Slezak was on his first horse-shopping expedition to Ireland in November, 2013.
“The second day, he was a little more sensible and by the time he got here (to North America), everything changed. He was the laziest horse I’ve ever ridden,” says Slezak. “He kind of fooled us.”
Although ‘Choc’, bred by Anna Kennedy and owned by Slezak and Kirk Hoppner, initially looked the part of an event horse, that changed as he filled out to the point where Slezak feared he was too heavy to be competitive at the upper levels.
“I was always hopeful, but definitely the first two years, I was a little bit concerned, to say the least,” admits Slezak. “For a while he was having a lot of rails at novice. I was always a bit nervous, but he kept getting better and stronger.”
Fast-forward to the present. Choc is now 12 and he and Slezak followed up a team bronze medal and 12th place individual finish at the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, with consistent top-10 placings at four-stars, including a sixth-place finish in the Jersey Fresh CCI4* in May. Choc and Slezak are first alternates for the Tokyo Olympics should either of Canada’s designated event riders, Jessica Phoenix with Pavarotti or Coleen Loach with Quorry Blue D’Argouges, be unable to compete.
“Choc didn’t come into his own until intermediate,” says Slezak. “The more we challenged him, the harder he tried.”
The horse was good at preliminary and intermediate, but Slezak worried he would never be fast enough for advanced. He was approached by a dealer who wanted to buy the horse and Slezak almost sold him.
But when Choc did his first long-format four-star, “he came back so well, he felt amazing. That fall I took him to Fair Hill [International] and he jumped around and we finished just outside the top 10. That’s when I knew, okay, I have a serious contender here.”
Despite his success moving up the levels, Slezak says Choc is still lazy. “Running was never his thing and he always felt more like a show jumper. But he’s opening up his stride and feeling more confident in himself. He ran so well at Jersey that I think I could have made the time if I pushed him more at the beginning.”
“If I’m ever going to be confident jumping around Badminton, Choc’s the horse. Jumps are a bit of a joke to him…”
Slezak says when he first got Choc, he initially tried to rouse his competitive instinct by galloping with other horses, to no avail. The secret has been to push the horse past his comfort zone in galloping and in jumping.
Slezak says “everybody hates jump-setting for me” as he likes to keep Choc thinking with lots of angles, tight turns and rollbacks. That practice paid off when the pair claimed the Horseware Indoor Eventing Championship at the 2019 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, with a tight rollback late in the course. The horse fed off the electric atmosphere.
“Choc loved it. He loves cheering, he loves attention,” says Slezak.
While Choc has had good dressage scores, it’s still a work in progress. “He’s a great mover, but can always be more active and I have to work hard to get activity out of him,” says Slezak. “He’s so steady and trainable, but his laziness is why we struggle with changes. We are getting more clean changes this year and by Fair Hill this year, I hope to have that down.”
At home, Choc is so quiet Slezak can put anyone on him. When the horse was going intermediate, Slezak used him as a lesson horse for a student in her late 70s. He’s the barn favourite and demands treats anytime anyone goes into the tack room.
“The only thing he is naughty about is the ribbon ceremony and victory gallop,” says Slezak. “As soon as he has the ribbon, he starts prancing and won’t stand for pictures. At the Pan Am ceremony I was concerned, as I had to get off to get the medal, then get back on and he felt ready to explode.”
Last year, Slezak and wife Katlyn Hewson-Slezak made their Spruce Stables South in Florida their year-round base. The weekend of July 4th, Karl and Fernhill Wishes won the Open Intermediate at Chattahoochee Hills Horse Trials in Georgia (and they led the dressage phase, too). If the pair aren’t summoned to go to Tokyo, they’ll start preparing for the advanced event in Ocala, then Stableview and Fair Hill. It’s always been a goal of Slezak’s to compete at the Badminton Horse Trials and 2022 may be the year.
“If Fair Hill goes well, maybe we’ll go to Badminton,” he says. “If I’m ever going to be confident jumping around Badminton, Choc’s the horse. Jumps are a bit of a joke to him and I’d feel very confident with him with those big jumps. We’ll see. Then we’ll aim for the World Championships next year.”