The Long Road

For NRHA Professional Christian Rammerstorfer and his stallion Maddox, patience and perseverance paved the way to success for an enduring career in the show pen and the breeding barn.

By Windy Lind

A lengthy career in the show pen was almost cut short. But a special bond and commitment to the horse allowed this pair’s story to last and continue. (Photo by John O’Hara)

If we’re lucky, we have a handful of horses in our lives that are truly special. This is especially true for reining horse trainers, whose careers can take an upward trajectory on the back of one talented equine athlete. For Christian Rammerstorfer, that horse came in the form of a 2003 stallion named Maddox. The duo’s trajectory, however, took longer—and lasted longer—than most.

‘Back Off’

A native of Austria, Rammerstorfer attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to earn a bachelor’s degree in animal science then went on to Texas A&M University, where he received a master’s degree and a PhD in equine nutrition and exercise science. While in River Falls, he purchased his first reiner-—yearling filly Pistols Leo Sandy (Lynx Pistol x Regina Star San) from NRHA Professional and Judge Larry Kasten. 

“She was my first real reining horse, and I trained her up with the help of Larry Kasten, Steve Archer, and Scott McCutcheon,” Rammerstorfer recalled. After showing the mare a few years, Rammerstorfer began breeding her to reining stallions he could afford. When Rammerstorfer started the mare’s fifth foal, a 2003 sorrel colt by NRHA Six Million Dollar Sire Magnum Chic Dream, he knew he had an upgrade.

“When I started him as a 2-year-old, I could tell right away he was different,” Rammerstorfer recalled of the colt, which he later named Maddox, in homage to Denver Broncos quarterback Tommy Maddox. “The talent level was something I’d not experienced on a 2-year-old before. I start my colts pretty slow, and on the fifth or sixth ride, I just picked up my inside rein to ask for a few turn steps, and I couldn’t believe it. He knew where to put his feet and turned.”

Rammerstorfer’s wife, Liz, also a reining horse trainer, happened to be watching. 

“Liz said, ‘OK, you need to not do that…back off,’” Rammerstorfer said with a laugh. “I had to tell her I wasn’t asking him to turn that hard—he was doing it on his own.”

Maddox continued progressing in his training, and the Rammerstorfers entered him in the 2006 NRHA Futurity. Unfortunately, the colt suffered a slight bow to his superficial flexor tendon in early summer of his 3-year-old year. Not wanting to risk the colt’s long-term health, Rammerstorfer reevaluated. 

“I knew we were going to keep him, so I just backed way off and gave him plenty of time to heal.”

Later that fall, once Maddox had fully healed, Rammerstorfer showed the colt in a small futurity in Washington State. The following year, the pair showed a handful of times. As the year progressed, Maddox started marking higher scores and winning or placing second in several derbies on the West Coast. The next year, in 2008, the Rammerstorfers moved to Colorado to become head trainers for 6K Ranch in Elbert. At nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, Elbert’s altitude proved problematic for Maddox.

“He was riding well, but he had several episodes of minor colic, which can be caused by the lower atmospheric pressure at higher altitudes,” Rammerstorfer explained. He continued showing Maddox successfully, finishing out the year by winning the L2 Open of the Mile High Derby on the 5-year-old stallion. Not long after, however, a serious bout of colic led Rammerstorfer to haul the stallion to a veterinary hospital in Denver for colic surgery. The surgery went fine; the recovery, on the other hand, did not.

A team effort, with husband and wife Christian and Liz Rammerstorfer at its heart, saw Maddox through hard times, reaping immeasurable rewards. (Photo by Kathleen Cook)

‘Something Is Wrong’

When Rammerstorfer went to check on the stallion after surgery, he knew something wasn’t right. He asked the attending vet about Maddox’s left knee—which was nearly double the size of the stallion’s other knee—and the attending veterinarian dismissed it as Maddox being stocked up after surgery.

“When we got him home after the surgery, I began to notice that Maddox wouldn’t lay down,” Rammerstorfer recalled. “When I tried bending that left leg, he went straight up in the air. He was obviously in a lot of pain.”

Rammerstorfer called his own vet, fellow Aggie Clint Unruh, DVM. Radiographs showed several fractures in Maddox’s knee, which had occurred when the stallion was coming out of anesthesia from the colic surgery. 

“When horses come out of deep anesthesia, which is required for a colic surgery like was done on Maddox, it’s that phase between them laying down and then getting back up where injuries can occur,” Rammerstorfer said. “It’s the horse’s nature to be a flight animal, so when a horse comes out of a deep anesthesia, he often flails around as he struggles to get up. The goal is to keep the horse down as long as possible until he’s more awake, and then get him up and standing.”

Rammerstorfer took Maddox to Colorado State University Veterinary Hospital where Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, one of the leading equine orthopedic surgeons in the world, evaluated the horse and took more radiographs. His assessment: the damage in Maddox’s knee was significant. The Rammerstorfers’ greatest economic and professional asset would likely never be rideable again.

“There were several bone fragments; one was 2 inches long and had moved up the knee, right next to his joint, so surgery wasn’t an option,” Rammerstorfer recalled. “But Dr. McIlwraith told me I could try to get him breeding sound through rehab, which involved consistently bending that leg, even if Maddox didn’t like it.”  

Maddox began an intense IRAP (interleukin receptor antagonist protein) injection program to his left carpal joint, and Rammerstorfer set to work, flexing Maddox’s leg a little more each day in hopes of improving its range of motion. 

On the bright side, Rammerstorfer pointed out, 6K Ranch proved to be the ideal location for the stallion’s rehabilitation.  

Functional Fitness

6K Ranch’s expansive landscape varies greatly in its terrain, with everything from open flatland to rolling slopes with dense trees. Rammerstorfer bent Maddox’s knee several times a day, then made the most of the 6K Ranch topography, first walking the stallion on flat ground, then working up to the hills and valleys that run through the ranch. It wasn’t always easy. Maddox, then a 6-year-old stud, found the work rather tedious, and as a result he often found distractions.

“I finally called Dr. McIlwraith and asked if I could ride Maddox at the walk, which would make it a lot easier to control him,” Rammerstorfer shared. 

As soon as Rammerstorfer was given the go-ahead to ride Maddox, things smoothed out. While hand-walking the energetic young stallion proved challenging, once on his back, Rammerstorfer couldn’t believe how amazingly quiet and obedient the horse became. A typical Colorado winter offered deep snow drifts as another opportunity for therapy. “I asked the vets about walking Maddox through those drifts, because he would have to really lift his legs and bend his knees to get through them.”

The vets agreed and again gave the go-ahead. 

“It was like Rocky Balboa training in Russia,” the trainer said with a laugh. “He’d walk up the hills through the snow, lifting his leg way up, then stretch it forward, and then put it down to get through the snow, which is just what he needed. Maddox became so strong doing that-—much stronger than I could ever have gotten him just trying to rehab in the arena.”

Rammerstorfer spent several hours a day with the stallion, over what became a full year of rehabilitation. 

“Maddox was very well-trained before the injury, so it wasn’t like he needed to do the reining maneuvers,” Rammerstorfer explained. “After all that rehab work, he actually felt fitter and stronger than he was before the injury.”

Weekly radiographs became monthly, all sent to the CSU veterinary team for review. Four months after the injury, Maddox was sound at the walk, and McIlwraith was positive about the significant healing. He gave the green light to start trotting and loping the stallion, and Maddox continued making progress.

“Once I started loping him, he got stronger and his stride started to lengthen more like it used to be,” Rammerstorfer recalled. However, the stallion still couldn’t bend the injured knee more than 90 degrees.  

“That didn’t affect Maddox in terms of moving forward, but it made it hard for him to lay down. It took him several months to learn that he had to put his left leg, the injured one, straight out in front of him. Then he’d kind of just fall down. We always put a lot of shavings over on one side of the stall, and he figured out how to maneuver himself over there and get down. Since the injury, he always lays down flat on his side. It’s not comfortable for him to lay down with his head up like most horses.” 

“Maddox is a horse that so many people know and love after watching him show all these years,” Rammerstorfer said. “They know his story and how good-minded he and his offspring are.” (Photo by Norm Witt Photography)

Might as Well

With a rough 2009 in the rearview mirror, Rammerstorfer knew Maddox felt fit and strong enough to show in 2010. McIlwraith encouraged Rammerstorfer to continue to routinely exercise Maddox at the stallion’s tolerance level. If that tolerance level included spinning, running, and stopping, McIlwraith gave his blessing.

Following more than a year’s absence from the show pen, the Rammerstorfers loaded up the stallion with their other show mounts and headed to the Cactus Classic in Scottsdale. After cruising him through a class and earning a payout, Rammerstrofer decided he might as well keep showing Maddox, instead of just breeding him. 

It proved to be a momentous decision, because Maddox, a horse that likely would have been forgotten by most, went on to show another 10 years, thanks to the dedication of his owners and their skilled team of vets. Consistently at the top of their classes, Rammerstorfer and the stallion finished their first year back by winning the Novice Horse Open Level 1 and Level 2 at the 2010 Mountain Regional Affiliate Finals, earning a trip to the Adequan® North American Affiliate Championships (NAAC) in Oklahoma City. In fact, the duo qualified for the Adequan® NAAC nearly every year of Maddox’s show career, which ultimately spanned from 2006 to 2019.

“There are very few horses that show in the open level that long,” Rammerstorfer noted. “Open-level horses typically drop down to the non pro levels after a few years, then the youth and Rookie divisions. But Maddox was shown exclusively in open classes for 13 show seasons.”

It was rare that Rammerstorfer didn’t earn a check on the stallion, with the duo earning 143 separate payouts in NRHA events. At 11 years of age, Maddox had what proved to be his best year in the show pen during the 2014 season. 

“Starting with Reining by the Bay, there was a series of shows where he won every time I showed him,” the trainer recalled. 

That year, Maddox consistently marked 73s and 74s, winning 16 classes at some of the industry’s largest shows. Their highest payout came at the High Roller Reining Classic, where they topped 180 entries to win the ancillary open.

Day by Day

Rammerstorfer credits his ability to show Maddox competitively over such an extended period of time to his effort to always show the stallion within a reasonable bandwidth in comparison to the stallion’s ability. If they won, great. If not, that was okay, too. The main goal: keeping Maddox healthy and happy.

“I just showed him to what he could do that day,” Rammerstorfer explained. “If there was ever any sign that I was pushing him too hard, I backed off. I think that’s why he always gave me everything he had. Most of the time that was between a 72.5 and 74—that’s what he could do consistently.”

Near the end of 2016, Rammerstorfer retired the stallion from the show pen. As it turned out, that plan wasn’t ideal for Maddox.

“I didn’t think I needed to show him anymore, but he’s the type of horse that likes his job,” Rammerstorfer shared. “When I load up the trailer to go to the horse show, he starts hollering in his stall. He just wants to make sure we don’t forget him. We always put him on the trailer last because he likes that last slot. I could literally open the door to his stall and he’d load himself. He truly wants to go to the horse show; that’s where he’s happiest.

“I wouldn’t describe him as ‘studdy,’ but he’s really vocal at home when horses are coming in and out of the ranch,” Rammerstorfer continued. “But when we get to a show, he might holler once or twice, and then he’s dead quiet the rest of the week. He’s just so happy and relaxed at shows. It’s so odd…he just likes being a show horse.”

After trying to give Maddox a break from the show pen in 2017, Rammerstorfer decided to start hauling him again on a limited basis. That year, the duo won a circuit saddle, among other awards. Then in 2019, at 16 years of age, Maddox carried Rammerstorfer to another round of class wins and awards, including the WCRHA limited open year-end title. By the end of the 2019 season, Maddox and Rammerstorfer had accumulated over $30,000 LTE, mostly from wins at smaller added money events.

2020 and Beyond

Maddox consistently marked 73s and 74s each time he entered the show pen, even when he was older than most other horses in his class. (Photo by John O’Hara)

After settling on Maddox’s retirement from the show pen in 2020, at age 17, the Rammerstorfers have switched their focus with the stallion back to breeding. Over the years, the couple has bred Maddox to two or three mares a year, usually their own. Despite having only a handful of offspring—12 in NRHA’s database—six are NRHA money-earners with wins to their credit. Maddox’s breeding career has mostly been a regional endeavor, with the Rammerstorfers showing and selling Maddox’s offspring on the West Coast.

“Maddox is a horse that so many people know and love after watching him show all these years,” Rammerstorfer remarked. “They know his story and how good-minded he and his offspring are.” 

With the quality of mares now being bred to Maddox, Rammerstorfer is excited about the future. He’s currently riding two 3-year-olds by the stallion, including a colt out of Rachel Eady’s mare, Dunnit By Chex, who carried Eady to the L2 and L3 Non Pro championships at the 2002 NRHA Derby and ultimately earned over $23,000 LTE.

“I have liked all of Maddox’s babies, but this colt out of Dunnit By Chex gives me that vibe as if I was riding a 3-year-old Maddox,” Rammerstorfer revealed about his 2020 prospect.

“Maddox just has so much heart—it’s really amazing that he’s shown so long, and at that level, considering the magnitude of his injury,” Rammerstorfer continued. “During his lifetime, he’s become pretty well-known, and it’s always fun to have people follow his progress and ask about how he’s doing. All in all, I’m just so grateful that I have the privilege to have bred, raised, trained, and shown an individual like Maddox. I told my wife many years ago that if I never win a dime on him, he’ll always be the one I look forward to seeing every morning. Today, when he hears my truck arrive at the barn, he starts nickering. I ride him first thing every morning to keep him in shape, and in the afternoon, he gets to graze for a couple hours. He is my horse of a lifetime and my best friend.”

Letting Him Last

Maddox’s success story didn’t come without the dedication and efforts from everyone who helped him along the way. Christian Rammerstorfer gives thanks and high praise to the veterinary team that’s been critical to Maddox’s recovery and long-term maintenance: Marty Gardner, DVM, in California; Clint Unruh, DVM, in Colorado; and Wayne McIlwraith, DVM, and David Frisbee, DVM, at Colorado State University. Rammerstorfer notes that it’s been interesting to see how the stallion’s knee has changed over time, as judged by the last radiographs taken several years after the injury.

“Initially, the pieces of bone that had fractured off were really sharp—but over the years, the edges have become rounded, and a couple of the small fragments were basically reabsorbed,” Rammerstorfer explained. “Some of the bigger fragments have become encased in scar tissue, and therefore have not impacted his movement. Really, what affected his movement was the joint capsule as a whole—it had some calcification after the injury, which is why it was critical to keep bending that knee even though Maddox was uncomfortable with it. Even now, at 17 years, he doesn’t head-bob. If anything, the only thing I’ve noticed is that his stride has gotten shorter over the years, which is likely due to overall arthritic changes.”

The Rammerstorfers have kept a close eye on Maddox’s dietary needs, because a significant portion of the stallion’s colon was removed during the colic surgery in 2008.

“The colon is where a lot of the water and mineral absorption occurs, so we were concerned about his nutritional needs,” Rammerstorfer said. “I’ve noticed as he’s gotten older, it’s a little harder to keep weight on him.  We feed him all the grass and alfalfa hay he wants, all day long, and Strategy Healthy Edge—as much as he will clean up. He’s not thin now, but you can’t get him overweight. Part of that’s because he only has part of his colon, and I think the other part is because he’s a stud, and always in motion in his stall and paddock, paying attention to what’s going on around him.”