EN reporter and 5* rider Ema Klugman announced this week the passing of her veteran partner, Bendigo, following complications from colic surgery last week. The Saddlebred/Thoroughbred gelding was 22 years old.
Bendigo was the type of horse that was quickly written off as “not much” but “safe enough” when Ema first found him when she was just 14, with help from coach and mentor Packy McGaughan. 10 years old at the time, Bendigo had done some show jumping but was for all intents and purposes a diamond in the rough, and a horse Packy figured would be suitable for his student to do her first events and move up through Preliminary on.
Hold my beer, said Ben.
“He’s full of surprises,” Ema told me ahead of her 5* debut at Kentucky in 2021. “He doesn’t have the scope or the raw ability of a horse like (Marilyn Little’s 4* winner) RF Scandalous or (Liz Halliday Sharp’s five-star horse) Deniro Z, so he kind of has to make his way. He just has a huge amount of heart.”
It’s a story we’ve heard many times, and it’s one that — speaking for myself, at least — we can find in our memories when asked why we love eventing as much as we do: The horse that wasn’t supposed to amount to much, but continued to surprise.
This was Bendigo.
He didn’t love dressage, but when Ema cantered down center line for the first time in Rolex Stadium, he was with her. He pulled average scores on the flat, but you could almost always count on him to jump right up the standings with his skills across the country and over the show jumps. Ema, as any other rider with a horse moving to 5* for the first time, was ready to learn whether or not she’d created a 5* horse over the better part of a decade.
I was positioned on cross country on the back third of the course. The question was two open corners at the top of a hill, following a long pull up from the famous infield section at Kentucky. I was nervous, as one is for a friend on cross country. Would Ben look winded at this point — probably almost 9 minutes into this grueling cross country test — doing his first 5* at the age of 19? But then I heard it:
“Whoaaaa, Ben…easy, buddy…whoaaaa, Ben.”
I heard it before I saw them, and nearly before I could focus my camera lens, Ema and Ben were through the combination and galloping away, the horse on the bridle and on the bit, ears flat and stride long. I shouldn’t have worried.
I know Ema would have wanted to finish what would be Bendigo’s final 5* at Maryland that year, but at the final water complex just a few questions from the finish, she pulled him up. He would have kept jumping and galloping, and they could have finished, but Ema made a decision in the moment. He owed her nothing, and he had begun to tell her he was tired. It was an anti-climatic finish on paper, and certainly a disappointment for any competitor, but that decision will continue to live in my brain as an example of what it means to finish with integrity — whatever that may mean on that day.
After he was retired from upper-level competition, Bendigo went on to teach other riders. He competed at the Area II Championships and the American Eventing Championships with amateur rider Julie Bigham at Training level.
He even took me for a flat ride last fall, thanks to Ema’s generosity.
I watch the video of myself riding Ben often. It was nothing major. I am very rusty, and it was wet outside. We worked on some basic canter pirouette work, and as I went back out to the long side, I could hear Ema on the other side of the camera, her voice full of fondness.
“Good boy! Good boy, Ben!”
We will all miss you, Bendigo.
My words are just mine. You can read some of Ema’s reflections on Bendigo’s career here. An excerpt from Ema feels like the most fitting ending to this tribute:
“The best way I can describe Bendigo is that he has imposter syndrome, ADHD, anxiety, stage fright, and probably several other unnamed demons that he had to overcome to become the horse he became for me. He was never “meant to be” a 5* horse, or even a four- or three-star horse for that matter. He is half-Saddlebred, after all! He (and we) attempted to go beyond who he was meant to be -— and he did that not for himself but for me. I won’t ever meet a horse with more generosity of spirit.”
Autor Sally Spickard