A personal highlight of the weekend I spent at the Galway Downs International Horse Trials on March 28-30 was the tremendous performances of two truly special mares—R-Star and Gin ‘N Juice. R-Star won the CIC3*, with Gin ‘N Juice third.
I’ve had the pleasure to watch both mares, who are now each 14, in action for the last six or seven years, and last weekend I was mesmerized by the sight of them in the prime of their athletic careers, in full expression of their unique athletic and mental gifts, going in lovely harmony with their riders.
Neither been an easy project for their riders. R-Star, known as Rosie, is so powerful and possesses such tremendous scope that Kristi Nunnink has labored to teach her how to control her awesome power, to not just jump herself into trouble. Gin ‘N Juice, or Ginny, has been more like a half-crazed genius. Literally no one else but Hawley Bennett-Awad wanted to ride her, because she was so unpredictable and her moves were so quick and so big. You had to be young and brave, as Hawley was when she met Ginny a decade ago.
Kristi wisely selected Rosie as a young horse, and since then she’s turned down huge offers from others who wanted to buy her. But Ginny selected Hawley, and I doubt anyone has seriously tried to buy her since then. Hawley still rides her in a neckstrap, to make sure she’s stays aboard.
The common thread between them is that both riders have patiently and thoughtfully developed their gifted but unusual partners into consummate athletes who are now at the top of their games. Ginny has already contested one World Championships (with a team bronze medal) and one Olympics, and she’s a top candidate for the Canadian team at this summer’s World Championships. These World Championship could just be the first team for Rosie, who’s about to make her fifth trip to this month’s Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Ginny been going there since 2009 and is certainly going for at least her fourth time.
These two mares remind me of two great NFL quarterbacks, one who’s still defying his age and playing masterfully and one who retired a few years ago. Rosie reminds me of Peyton Manning, now leading the Denver Broncos, and Ginny reminds me of Bret Favre, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. Let me tell you why.
When Peyton Manning walks out onto the field, he takes the field over. The other players stand aside for him before he bends down into the huddle to call the play. Then he steps to the line, surveying the battlefield like Gen. George Patton or Gen. Robert E. Lee, moving players around to counteract what he sees the defense doing. Then he drops straight back, knowing exactly where he defenders are, before he throws a perfect strike for a completion or, very often, a touchdown. After watching him direct a play, you sit back and say, “Could that be more perfect? That’s how you do it.”
It’s much the same with Rosie—her size, her almost white coat and the scope of her gaits and her jump simply command your attention. You watch her confidently float around the dressage ring or gallop around a three-star track as if she’s going preliminary, and you think, “She makes it look so easy. That’s how a horse should go.”
Kristi told me at Galway Downs, “It’s almost euphoric every day that I ride her, because she does everything so well. And she jumps so soft that she makes things you’d never think of doing look easy. It’s truly a blessing to ride her every day.”
Bret Favre was an unpredictable gun. He would scramble around behind the line, searching for a receiver, and he’d usually either throw a touchdown or he’d throw an interception. You never knew which, but he won far more games with his passing than he lost with his passing. You usually held your breath watching him, fists clenched, almost afraid to see how the play would end up.
Ginny is a lot like that. Her dressage tests can look a bit like Favre scrambling, although she’s far more settled these days. Still, Hawley’s first priority is to keep Ginny calm and under control in the ring. And usually on cross-country and show jumping, she looks like she’s going far too fast, close to out of control. But she mostly keeps the show jumps up because she’s careful and unbelievably quick with her feet, and Hawley long ago gave up trying to convince her that cross-country fences weren’t meant to be attacked, as if they were hated enemies.
Yes, you hold your breath (and so does Hawley sometimes), but then you say, “Holy cow! That horse is just amazing.” Because she is.
“She’s taught me patience,” Hawley told me. “It’s been nine years of ups and downs, but she’s made me a better rider, and I hope I’ve made her a better horse.”
I take my hat off to both Kristi and Hawley for their handling and riding of these two extraordinary mares. They’re shining examples of why extraordinarily athletic horses don’t always fit into a neat training or performance box. They’re reminders that sometimes you have to expand that box and sometimes you have to just throw that box away and make a new one.