It’s definitely hard to miss El Nino competing in the medium pony hunters. With his loud brown-and-white spotted pattern, this Pony of the Americas stands out.
But its not just his unique coloring that makes El Nino special—he’s also a true veteran and professor in the ring. “Nino” has been jumping around medium pony hunter courses for more than 15 years and has won ribbons with more than a dozen riders in that time.
He’s now 22 and still going strong, placing fifth in both the handy and stake class at Washington International with Sophia Calamari. Nino has competed in Pony Finals seven times and at Devon (Pa.) and the fall indoor tour year after year. On the way, he’s taught many children how to navigate courses and have fun in the ring. He even has his own Facebook page!
Nino came into trainer Gary Duffy’s life in January 1999 as when he was about to turn 4. The leopard gelding (whose breeding isn’t recorded with the U.S. Equestrian Federation) had shown just four times in the children’s pony hunter division in 1998, and Phil Ake thought he might be a fun project for Duffy’s daughter, Augusta.
Augusta picked up the reins and immediately won ribbons with Nino in the green small/medium pony division at the 1999 Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) and never looked back, quickly moving to the regular medium pony division. That fall they earned ribbons at the Pennsylvania National. The year 2000 marked Nino’s first Pony Finals, and he and Augusta were third in the over fences. Later that year, Augusta’s younger sister Kelsey took over the ride. They debuted at Devon in ’01 and took home ribbons again from there and the Capital Challenge (Md.), Pennsylvania National and Washington International (D.C.)
After Kelsey outgrew Nino in 2004, a succession of young riders began riding and showing the pony. Since mid-2013, the Calamari sisters—Sophia and Francesca—have been leasing Nino.
Just who is this pint-sized dynamo? Here’s what you need to know about Nino:
- He definitely has some quirks! “Phil said he had a couple of quirks, and when he arrived, we found out there were a few more than we thought!” Gary said.
In Nino’s younger days, his riders had to mount in a specific process. They either had to approach Nino from the rear, with someone else holding him and covering his eye so he didn’t see them, or they got on in the stall like a racehorse being broken.
“Megan MacCallum has taken care of him on and off for almost his whole career, and when we first saw him, she thought I had my head on backwards, or that I’d gone blind,” Gary said.
- He’s won truckloads of ribbons, but big blues have escaped him. “I have 18 second-place ribbons from shows like the Pennsylvania National and Washington and Devon that he won. No one’s ever let him actually win, but he wears a different suit. It’s a loud color,” Gary said. “There are a few judges who really love him, and if he was a different color he certainly might win the model and hack each time.”
Nino’s coloring is anything but subtle. Photo by Molly Sorge
- Nino has no idea he’s a senior citizen in the division or should be slowing down. “He got leased out once to do the short-stirrup, but he didn’t like that, so he came home,” said Gary. “He never wants to tone it down. If he goes to the horse show, he thinks he’s supposed to be doing the regular division. He’s never told us he wants to do anything different.”
Nino knows the value of a good nap. Photo courtesy of Megan MacCallum
- There is nothing complicated about caring for Nino. “He’s great and healthy. He’s never worn a pair of shoes in his life and he’s gotten a joint injected only once his whole career. He shows on no medication at all,” said Gary.
- “He’s on a prison diet, hay and water,” Gary laughed. “He lives to eat.”
Nino doing what he loves best. Photo by Molly Sorge
- You have to do some things Nino’s way. “He’s a little claustrophobic in the in-gates, so I always make sure there aren’t a lot of people standing around when he goes in,” Gary said. “Nino has trained many in-gate people at the horse shows because they see him, and ask people to clear the in-gate. He doesn’t do anything bad—he just gets very nervous. Then he does a little parade walk into the ring, but then when you pick up the canter, he knows exactly what to do. I don’t ever remember him stopping or doing anything wrong in the ring.”
- Night check requests that Nino is tied into his stall at night, because he’s an escape artist. “He doesn’t go anywhere, though. He just wanders around and looks for food,” Gary said. “Eating is his favorite thing to do.” He destroys the barn aisle a bit in his quest for edibles.
An open trunk is just an invitation to play for the mischievious Nino. Photo by Molly Sorge
- He’s selective about his fellow four-legged friends. “I used to have a dog that came with me when I braided,” said MacCallum. “When I’d go into Nino’s stall and my dog would come in too, Nino would stop whatever he was doing—even eating—and give the dog a massage on her back with his nose. He liked that dog and he’d say hello and she’d curl up in his stall while he got braided.”
- “He’s been in my barn for most of the time; I don’t even know if I can name all the riders who have shown him and won on him,” Gary said. His USEF record includes: Augusta and Kelsey Duffy, Jasmine Bagwell, Becky Cohen, Samantha Batt, Ava Gurney, Claudia Freeman, Andrea Sciortino, Kate Taylor, Emma Garrett, Jordan Crivella, and Sophia and Francesca Calamari.
Nino and Gary Duffy, his trainer for more than 15 years. Photo by Molly Sorge
- When Nino finally decides he’s down showing, he’ll have a field full of grass and a luxurious retirement. “Oh, we’ll make sure of that. He’ll eat as much as he wants, finally!” Gary said.
Nino with his latest children—Francesca (right) and Sophia Calamari. Photo by Molly Sorge
Nino and Augusta Duffy at indoors in 1999.
Nino showing at the 2015 Pennsylvania National with Francesca Calamari. Photo by Molly Sorge