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Royal Kaliber
A Feature Documentary

Before little boys and girls grow up and fall in love with one another, they fall in love with horses ... forever. It’s a first love that can transform lives: an otherwise reluctant boy clutches his mare’s mane and hangs on for dear life on his first wild ride; a shy girl in pig-tails gazes up into her own reflection in her pony’s mysterious eye, and sees eternity.

ROYAL KALIBER plays out the very human love affair with horses on the very grown-up world stage of professional show jumping — a seemingly genteel sport that’s revealed to be rife with very adult stresses. Show jumping horses and riders compete in a nail-biting and dangerous pressure cooker where medals are won on fractions of a second and where one rail down can doom a year’s effort and trigger the most adult of anxieties — failure.

Continuing her revelatory explorations of the connection between psyche and performance that she began in FINDING ELEAZAR, the opera documentary profiling tenor Neil Shicoff, director/producer Paula Heil Fisher went looking for the soul of show jumping and found Royal Kaliber, the 2003 “Horse of the Year,” and Chris Kappler, the quiet superstar Grand Prix rider who had already matched his age with 34 wins on the circuit. This unstoppable pair dominated the world of show jumping in 2003, and then reached the 2004 Olympics in Athens in peak form ready for that one flawless minute — that one perfect ride. For Royal and Chris, gold was just one fence away.

But ROYAL KALIBER is not just a sports documentary. It is the story about two beings in perfect harmony, about that once-in-a-lifetime combination of a magnificent creature and the rider who had the hands, the heart and the patience to refine 1500 pounds of testosterone and muscle into the Nureyev of show jumping. ROYAL KALIBER is about how one would not have achieved greatness without the other. And about how if tragedy strikes one, the other falls, too.

When Royal Kaliber is injured in a freak accident, the story takes a turn not unlike the gripping story of Barbaro, the racehorse who captured the media spotlight and the nation’s affection after a horrible misstep a few strides into the Preakness shattered his right hind leg. As Royal battles for his life, the film becomes a poetic exploration of triumph, loss, recovery ... and hope.

“I’ve always been attracted to horses,” says Fisher, “and I wanted to find a story that could express how horses capture our imagination in a mysterious, even mythical way. These are large and powerful animals, and yet they are fragile. They are beautiful and soulful and affectionate, and they are moody. They are intelligent, and they are simple. They are Gods, and they are children. As we do with our children, we project ourselves on them; we pin our hopes on them. They reflect our emotions — our calm, our peace as well as our insecurities and fears. They can be influenced but not controlled. When we lose a horse, we feel pain and grief. We want to fill the emptiness with another. Like having another child. The heart of the film, to me, is how sport imitates life, how competition on the Grand Prix level is more than an athletic test. It’s an exploration of the intimate bond between horses and the people who love them.”

Aside from the focus on Royal and Chris, though, the film also shows how the sport really revolves around the rhythms of an animal and the “horse people” who care for them. We meet two lovable characters — Chris’ wife and barn-manager Jenny Kappler and Royal’s delightful groom Luis Hernandez. To them, Royal is part of their family and caring for him is a reflection of their inner goodness. Their investment in Royal is utterly complete, no less than a parent’s loving devotion to a child. To them, life with horses is its own reward.

During Royal and Chris’s journey to the Olympics, there’s another side show going on. Fisher slips behind-the-scenes to affectionately poke fun at the big business of professional show jumping, a sport where an army of specialists — acupuncturists, blacksmiths, dentists, farriers, fertility specialists, internists, physical therapists, sports psychologists, trainers and vets — cater to a Grand Prix horse’s every perceived need. We also hear from other riders, generous owners and wealthy patrons, as well as security guards, television analysts and the quirky show course designers. Another segment explains how top riders and their agents must tirelessly “shop” for the next million-dollar breakthrough horse in a business where you’re only as good as your next horse. As one horse owner quips, “it’s like rooting around in the woods for mushrooms.”

Then we meet the legendary George H. Morris, who one Grand Prix rider describes as the “John McEnroe of our sport.” He’s the hard-shelled coach, mentor, disciplinarian and technician who hectors Chris and Royal, along with Jenny and Luis, to the 2004 Olympic Games. But he also intuitively knows when a pound of sugar will do the trick.

ROYAL KALIBER transports viewers to some of the biggest competitive venues in show jumping, including Wellington, The Hamptons, Tampa and the 2004 Olympics, but it also takes them to the very special world beyond these colorful stages.

“I wanted to make a poem that captures the utter joy and beauty of living with horses,” says Fisher, “but in a context of the excitement of a competition that tests the bonds between a rider and his horse.” For Fisher, every trip around a show jumping course is a metaphor for the challenges of life.