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Horse, rider, owners work together on a national championship

Heather McCarthy trains with Saphira, who won the United States Dressage Federation's 2013 Fourth Level Horse of the Year award. Saphira is owned by John McGuire of Elburn.
Heather McCarthy trains with Saphira, who won the United States Dressage Federation's 2013 Fourth Level Horse of the Year award. Saphira is owned by John McGuire of Elburn.

CAMPTON TOWNSHIP – Five years ago, John McGuire set out to acquire a horse "that could do absolutely everything."

McGuire, now 71 years old, said he "looked all over the country," but couldn't find the perfect fit, until he saw some footage of a mare named Saphira. He teamed the horse with local rider Heather McCarthy, and he said he knew he had his winning team.

Saphira is now 9 years old, and McGuire, his wife, Marilyn Johnson, and McCarthy know they have a winner. Saphira was honored as the United States Dressage Federation's Dressage Horse of the Year at the fourth level.

The next goal? The 2015 Pan Am Games.

The horse resides with McGuire on his property in Campton Township, near Elburn. McGuire, once an NFL draft pick, selected by the Baltimore Colts, likens his team to a football franchise.

"Heather is my Tom Brady," he said. "I'm the coach, and my wife is the owner of the team."

And there is Saphira, who McGuire called "spectacular." He praised the mare's "cool and calculating demeanor" and said Saphira and McCarthy were a perfect team.

"She has a following around here, and Heather has a following," he said. "Heather is very well-liked in the riding community. She's likable. She's respected. She has a very, very good work ethic."

McCarthy, 29, spends her days working with horses in western Kane County, and training out of Copper Ridge Farms in Maple Park. She is the head trainer at Copper Ridge.

"It's been a wonderful opportunity for me," she said.

She competed at the U.S. dressage nationals with two horses – McGuire's Saphira and Sandro Paix, owned by Sandi Chohany. She's been competing in championships for years, and the whole endeavor has been something she has been a part of for years. She said she has been working with horses for most of her life.

"I can't remember my life before horses," McCarthy said. "I've been riding since I was a really little girl."

McGuire said he had known her since she was 12, and "she never lets you down … she gives it her all." He said he considers her to be part of his family. He said he chose to compare her to NFL star Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, because she delivers when it counts most.

"She knows when to go for the long bomb or the short pass," McGuire said. "She rides to win. … I think you should always play to win."

He said he has confidence that she could achieve that in any situation, and he said in Saphira, McCarthy "has got a NASCAR that is capable of beating everybody in the race."

"Heather, at some point, is going to beat everybody in this country," he said, adding that "she has the capability and the brains to reach the highest levels."

McCarthy said the Pan Am Games would be "a realistic goal for me. … It's something that is in my sight." She said she would like to compete at the international level, and she said she would love to be in the Olympics someday.

"That's every girl's dream," she said.

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