It's a Cinderella story, through and through.
What is known of Jamaica's history begins in a Belgian slaughterhouse where the horse was destined for someone's dinner plate. Fate intervened in the form of a skin disease (probably ringworm), which saved him from slaughter. Fearing the infection would spread throughout the rest of his livestock, the butcher sold him for next to nothing.
Mark Wentein purchased the Hackney/Dutch warmblood cross to use in his carriage business, carting sightseers through the city of Bruges. Although Jamaica had lost a lot of hair, he was still a good-looking horse and was broke to drive.
Jamaica, opinionated from Day 1, passed on the tourist carriage option as well. An important requirement for these carriage horses is the ability to stand still, with no one at their heads. There is some down time between clients; in addition, the horses need to stand quietly while passengers climb on and off the carriage. Jamaica failed this test miserably. Standing still just was not in his vocabulary; he wanted to be on the move! Jamaica's energy and athleticism led him to a new home with Valere Standaert, a combined driving competitor. The sport of combined driving (which consists of three phases, similar to eventing: dressage, marathon and cones) demands bravery and a forward nature. The third option turned out to be the right option: Jamaica had found his future career.
Valere knew Chester Weber, an international caliber four-in-hand driver, and realized that Jamaica sported similar markings to Chester's horse, Hanzi. In driving, an important consideration is for the horses on a team to match. Size, color, build and markings all should be as similar as possible.
Chester happened to be in Germany at the time looking for horses, so Valere, thinking he might be interested, gave him a call.
"I have the perfect horse for you."
Chester listened, but he had heard it all before. Chester's horses are bays, around 16 hands. Some of the "perfect" horses he'd seen in the past stood 18 hands high or were chestnut or grey. Chester knew better than to get excited until he actually laid eyes on a particular horse.
Normally, the route between where Chester was in Germany and where Jamaica currently lived in Belgium would take about three to three and a half hours of travel. However, truckers were protesting high taxes, and they had blocked all of the major arteries. Chester, along with his friend Michael Freund, had to drive to Belgium using only back roads. The long, frustrating trip took over seven hours.
Chester nearly turned back several times. "Is this trip really worth it?" he asked himself repeatedly. He called Valere several times. "Is this horse really the right color? Is this horse really that good?" The answer was always yes.
When they finally reached the barn, an exhausted Chester wasn't in the most charitable of moods. He knew they had the long return trip ahead of them, and the horse had better be worth it.
He was. At first sight of Jamaica, Chester thought, "Wow!" And yes, the horse was the right size and the right color.
Inspecting Jamaica's conformation, Chester noted that the horse toed in. Still under the influence of the arduous trip, Chester wasn't sure he wanted to watch him go.
Luckily, Michael urged him on. "Oh come on, give him a chance," he told his friend.
Chester relented. Watching Jamaica go, he was relieved. The horse traveled straight, and had good gaits.
It was time to drive him.
Initially, things didn't go all that well. The horse was fresh and had his own ideas about how to do things. Chester wasn't sure Jamaica had the makings of a team player.
Michael, a knowledgeable and experienced horseman, came to the rescue by making some changes to Jamaica's bit and bridle. The changes resulted in a significant improvement. Driving Jamaica now, Chester became wildly impressed. He thought, "This horse is better than the one I have at home!" As he was thinking of just how good Jamaica was, Michael brought him up short.
"Chester, stop driving."
"What?" Chester said. He was having so much fun with Jamaica, why should he stop?
Chester's respect for Michael made him listen and he and Jamaica pulled up. Only then did he realize that Valere was starting to get an idea of the horse's potential as well. If Chester didn't stop now, the price would go way up, or perhaps Jamaica wouldn't be for sale at all!
Chester asked for a brief trial period, which Valere agreed to. Chester looks for bravery, character, movement, and a ground-covering stride in his competitive partners. Jamaica filled the bill. In fact, Chester says, "His bravery is probably his best quality."
Jamaica was purchased and shipped to New York. From there he continued on to Toronto, where Chester was competing in the Royal Winter Fair.
In Toronto, Chester wanted to have some time to get to know his new horse, whom he planned to use as a spare, but the crowded venue offered little opportunity for schooling. He improvised, taking Jamaica out for a spin in the parking lot. Jamaica went so well Chester used him that evening. Jamaica has barely missed a show since.
The horse once thought to be nothing more than an item on the dinner menu has now racked up just about every four-in-hand award there is. He and Chester, along with the other members of Chester's team, have won the Four-in-Hand National Championship six years in a row. One of Chester's goals is to win it again in 2009, which would make him the first person in history to win the award seven times.
In 2008 Chester and his team won every selection trial in the United States, the German International Driving Derby at Riesenbeck, took third at Aachen, Germany (winning the dressage phase), and took a silver medal (the first individual medal for an American) at the World Championships in Beesd, The Netherlands. At Riesenbeck, their dressage score broke the world record. At Beesd, Chester and Jamaica then proceeded to break their own record!
Chester says he asks a hard question of his horses: "Are you good enough to win a medal?" The horses have to share that goal. Jamaica, without a doubt, does. He has competed in two World Equestrian Games and four World Championships, winning the dressage in two World Championships and placing second and third in the two others. Although Chester has a terrific team of horses, it is Jamaica who is his Most Valuable Player.
In one YouTube video, Jamaica seems to be directing his equine team member, pushing the other horse to turn here, NOW, go FASTER, Come ON! His drive and desire to win are unmistakable.
Jamaica plays two roles on the team. In the dressage phase, Jamaica serves in the wheel position, which requires a willing worker. In the marathon phase, Jamaica takes the left lead position: lead horses must be brave and forward. "Only the great ones," says Chester, "can fulfill dual roles like that."
Jamaica in no way takes after the laid back, no worries guy his name conjures up. Instead, Chester "has never had a horse with more spirit." In his stall Jamaica can resemble a Rottweiler defending its turf. He gets charged up at the beginning of a marathon. At the World Championships in Beesd, Jamaica, 17 at the time, had just completed the rigorous event and was brought out for the awards ceremony. He came out fresh and bucking.
At times, Chester's grooms tease him. "We have to give Jamaica more food; he's too quiet." Chester retorts, "Let him be too quiet!"
Jamaica has never fit into Chester's program. Instead, Chester and he had to figure out a way for Chester to fit into Jamaica's program. Chester likes to "think that working with Jamaica is like doing business with organized crime-you need patience and understanding with this horse because if you aren't flexible it won't go your way."
Although Jamaica works willingly with certain people, there are others that he "doesn't see any reason to be nice to." Despite all the attitude he may show in his stall, or with particular people, when his harness is on, Jamaica's ears are forward and he is always on his job.
Chester says that "a big part of me hopes he'll still be with me at the World Equestrian Games in 2010 in Kentucky." Chester's goals for that event are two gold medals. Jamaica, he says, is tough enough and strong enough to do it at 19; in fact, he has the character to be successful in his twenties.
Chester adds, "Maybe he'll be quiet by then. But I won't hold my breath."
There is one thing Jamaica has "no worries" about. His future. He has a forever home at the Weber family's Live Oak Stud in Ocala, Florida. "He has to be with me," Chester jokes. "Who else would put up with him?"
In 2008 Chester was named an Equestrian of Honor, winning the Becky Grand Hart Trophy from the USEF. Not only is Chester a top competitor; he is a compassionate and generous human being as well. When his friend, eventer Darren Chiacchia, suffered a life-threatening brain injury after a terrifying cross country fall, Chester pitched right in, managing Darren's farm, and overseeing lessons and sales. The fact that Chester was in the midst of preparing for National Championships didn't deter him from the formidable task one bit.
Jamaica was not about to be outdone. The former reject from a slaughterhouse achieved the highest honor of any horse in this country, joining the ranks of dressage star Brentina, Olympic gold medalist show jumping sensation Authentic, and eventing's superstar pony Theodore O'Connor. Chosen from horses of all breeds, and all disciplines, Jamaica was, in 2008, named United States Equestrian Federation Horse of the Year.
When Jamaica's win was announced at the USEF's annual meeting, the audience erupted in a standing ovation. Chester says, "It's been a real honor to share this journey with an unbelievable horse."
Excerpted from For the Love of the Horse, Volume III by Ann Jamieson. Available on amazon.com or www.loveofthehorsebook.com