angle-left Trail Legend: Zippos Hot Jet

Trail Legend: Zippos Hot Jet

The sorrel gelding responded to the lightest communication in the show pen.

Zippos Hot Jet and Travis Sancken had a special relationship. (Courtesy of Sue Sancken)

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By Alexis Shanes for The American Quarter Horse Journal

In normal circumstances, trail courses are tough. Completing a pattern sans bridle would be nearly impossible for most horses.

Fortunately, Zippos Hot Jet is not “most horses.”

During a nonpro trail class at the National Snaffle Bit Association World Show, “George” and longtime jockey, then-youth-rider Travis Sancken, had an unexpected opportunity to test their communication skills.

“I was going, and halfway through my pattern, his bridle fell off – he shook at a fly, and I had his bridle too loose,” Travis says. “We finished the pattern having no bridle on. I think we ended up second. We only hit one pole.”

Travis, who also showed halter horses, was interested in trail and, with the help of AQHA Professional Horseman Tommy Sheets, he found Zippos Hot Jet, a 2000 sorrel gelding by Zippos Mr Good Bar and out of EBG Prissy Lady by Hesa Cool Jet bred by E B Gee Jr of Ocala, Florida.

The Sancken family lives north of Chicago, so Travis couldn’t make the trek to Tommy’s barn in New Albany, Indiana, often.

But distance did not stop the young horseman from amassing an impressive record with George, starting three weeks after the purchase, during the 2008 All American Quarter Horse Congress.

“Trav rode him one time, then showed him in the (Level 1) youth trail and won,” says Sue Sancken, Travis’ grandmother, who sparked her family’s multigenerational love of Quarter Horses. “They were just such a team – there were a lot of great moments with him.”

The early success was, perhaps, an indication of greater things to come. Almost a decade later, George is an all-around youth horse extraordinaire. The gelding has 1,510 points in western riding, trail, western pleasure, hunter under saddle, showmanship, horsemanship, hunt seat equitation, ranch riding, reining and halter. More than 480 of those points are in youth trail.

George became a youth AQHA  Champion in 2007 with rider Jamie Sparks and has earned AQHA points with 10 youth riders.

With Travis aboard, he earned multiple Ford Youth World and AQHA year-end top-10 trail finishes. The duo also won 14-18 trail at the All American Quarter Horse Congress in 2011.

Travis and George’s talent quickly caught the attention of the horse show community.

“Some of the judges would tell Travis, ‘you need to show in the senior trail,’” Sue says with a laugh. “(George) got a lot of points with Travis.”

George’s success was part due to the gelding’s natural sensitivity but was also a result of his training program, Travis says.

“Tommy taught him everything,” Travis says. “He teaches the horses to be so careful.”

Travis describes George as “very feely” – so acute that Travis could ride through a trail course using body language only, just as he did during the NSBA bridle incident.

“I could keep my hand within an inch of my saddle horn,” Travis says. “Ninety percent of the time, if you hit a pole, it was the rider’s fault.”

George was not only a show horse but also an important family member. Travis’ cousin, Sydnie Ochs, showed the horse in 11-and-under classes, and she continued riding the gelding in 2015, after Travis aged out of youth classes. Travis’ sister, McKenzi, also took time in the show pen with the trusty gelding.

When Travis was 12, he led his then-5-year-old brother, Tyler, in a lead-line class.

It did not go as planned. George shook and the saddle flipped, leaving Tyler on the ground between George’s legs.

Many horses would spook in such a situation, but George stood still, waiting for his timid young charge to recover, Travis says.

“He was one of the calmest, most laid-back horses,” Travis says. “His lip and tongue would just hang out. You could hear his lip hit his tongue because he would be so relaxed.”

George’s quiet demeanor meant Travis could give the gelding a month off work, then put a toddler on his back without a worry, he says.

 “You could do leadless showmanship with him,” Travis says. “He would just follow you like a little dog. If he did do something bad, he stood there and looked at you like, ‘I didn’t mean to do that.’”

Unfortunately, Travis’ career with George did not end as he hoped. While warming up at a horse show during April of his final youth year, Travis found himself in an unforeseeable, adverse situation.

“(Travis) went to take George over a pole, and he said something was not right,” Sue remembers. “He got off and started walking the horse back to the stall. He started to cry, he said, ‘something’s really wrong.’”

Something was, indeed, wrong – George had pulled a suspensory ligament.

Travis gave his mount all summer off and started riding again just one week before the Ford Youth World.

For the first time in their career, the duo did not make the finals, but the Sanckens were thankful for the gelding’s recovery.

George never required longeing or hard riding, which helped keep him sound throughout his career, Travis adds.

“You didn’t have to do much to prepare him,” Travis says. “He would do great right out of his stall.”

Travis was also deliberate about giving George the best care possible, always wrapping his legs after showing, Sue adds.

 “We went to quite a few big shows, so he was always having to perform at top level,” Sue says. “(Travis) didn’t want him doing a lot of events. At that level, the height of the poles is so different – (Travis) just thought he was asking a lot of him.”

In 2016, when Sydnie got a new horse, Tommy found a new home for George. The gelding now lives at AQHA Professional Horsewoman Patty Vatterott’s barn in Wellington, Florida, close to his new rider, youth competitor Blythe Goguen.

“He was definitely one-of-a-kind,” Travis says. “Your nerves go away, the horse’s nerves go away – that’s how it was with him.”