Not So Subtle: ‘Subtil’ Shines Through Melanomas in the Hunter Ring

Alexa Bing and Subtil. Photo by Winslow Photography

By Catie Staszak

Early in the 2021 winter season at Kimberview Stables in Chester County, PA, trainer Troy Hendricks was on the hunt for a horse for a new student.

Junior rider Alexa Bing was looking to make the important move up to horses from the pony ring. The first potential partnership had proven not to be the right match, and after Bing’s pony sold, she was without a partner with which to grow.

That is, until professional James Benedetto provided a potential option. He had a “great, sweet horse that wins a lot” available at his farm, just 20 minutes down the road from Hendricks.

The catch? The horse, a grey Selle Francais gelding named Subtil, had some “jewelry” in the form of melanomas. Subtil was not the most beautiful horse in the hunter ring, but he had a proven record.

Hendricks was willing to set up a trial, but when he met Subtil, he admitted, the masses on his neck, stomach and tail were larger than he was expecting. “He walked off the trailer, and he had huge melanomas on his neck,” Hendricks recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, what did I just get?”’

But when Bing sat on Subtil, he “didn’t put a foot wrong,” and after a week-long trial, the Bing family leased Subtil for Alexa for three months. The group agreed, Subtil would be a great interim partner until they found a more permanent solution.

“Before I moved to Troy, I was on a medium pony jumping 2′, so it was a very big adjustment for me to go ride a horse. I wasn’t really used to it,” Bing said. “It was winter when I tried him, so it was very cold. We were in a small indoor, but I felt so comfortable on him, and he was just really easy to trust.”

Bing had never before jumped 3′, but in her first show with Subtil, they swept the Children’s Hunters for the 15-17 division championship at the Partridge Run Winter Classic, held at Swan Lake. From there, Bing was off to Wellington, FL for the first time, and during Weeks 7 and 8 at the 2021 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), she and Subtil were winners in both the Children’s Hunters and the THIS Children’s Medal.

Alexa Bing and Subtil celebrate a win at WEF. Photo Courtesy Alexa Bing

That three-month lease quickly turned into a yearlong lease, and after the 2021 season, Bing re-leased Subtil for her last junior year.

“We kept extending it, because I just couldn’t give him up,” Bing said. “He’s so special to me.”

“There are some horses that I’ve trained that want to win,” Hendricks added. “It’s Subtil. He wants to win every time he’s in the ring.”

But as Subtil and Bing’s resume grew, so too did the grey’s melanomas. In October, as Subtil’s third lease with Bing was nearing its end, both Bing and Hendricks began to think about the horse’s long-term future.

“Personally, we didn’t really want to return him, because we didn’t know what what his life would be like. I kind of wanted to be there for his life, and [the Bing family] loved him,” Hendricks explained.

So before the 2022 Pennsylvania National Horse Show, the Bings made 16-year-old Subtil a permanent member of their family, purchasing him for a single dollar with the promise of a lifetime home and commitment to his eventual retirement.

“[Subtil’s former owners] said, ‘We would want nothing more than for you guys to have this horse,'” Hendricks narrated. “So, we’ll have to retire him and [eventually] put him down—whatever [he needs] and wherever his life takes him [as his melanomas progress]. But in the meantime, he has no idea how big his lumps are. I mean, his heart is bigger than his lumps.”

Alexa Bing and Subtil are Reserve Champions at the 2022 National Horse Show. Photo Courtesy Alexa Bing

At the 2022 National Horse Show in Lexington, KY, Bing and Subtil jumped to the Reserve Championship in the Junior Hunter 3’3″ 16-17 division. Now riding as an amateur, Bing campaigns Subtil in the Amateur-Owner Hunters and makes the short commute home each weekend from her freshman year at the University of Delaware to ride. On December 16, the pair topped the $15,000 USHJA National Non-Pro Hunter Derby at the World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, OH, receiving scores of 91 and 94 from the judges.

Alexa Bing and Subtil celebrate a win in the $15,000 USHJA National Non-Pro Hunter Derby at the World Equestrian Center (OH) with trainer Troy Hendricks. Photo by Winslow Photography

“The nicest thing is that the judges don’t hold [the melanomas] against them,” Hendricks said. “[Alexa] sits still, and she’s a very beautiful rider. She just lets [Subtil] jump, and then her corners are slow, and it’s just such a great picture.”

Bing has goals of making a bid for Devon qualification and returning to indoors in 2023, but more important is keeping Subtil happy. The grey’s melanomas are monitored by a veterinarian, and he receives medication to slow their growth. When he’s not showing off in the ring, the gelding receives turnout and plenty of attention. In the barn, Subtil can “smile” on command and enjoys wiggling his lips and showing affection with a loving nibble.

Alexa Bing and Subtil share a quiet moment in the barn. Photo Courtesy Alexa Bing

“He’ll come home from a horse show, and he gets turned out, and he’s wild and bucks and plays in the paddock and gets muddy and rolls,” Hendricks said. “It’s just the most amazing thing ever.”

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