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February 20, 2011

Living Legends: Rodney Jenkins Thinks Like A Horse

Photo by Budd.

No one taught Rodney Jenkins to ride. The man who would become one of the greatest hunter and jumper riders of all time never had a formal lesson from anyone.

Instead, Jenkins learned by listening to the horses and watching. “I learned a lot by the seat of my pants,” he said.

“We had woods behind the barn, and I’d build courses of old logs and branches and play horse show. Then, when I went to horse shows, I watched the people who won. I’d see their style and try to integrate it into the way I rode.”

That thirst for knowledge, combined with a natural talent and feel, made Jenkins into “magic on a horse, pure magic,” said Elizabeth Busch Burke.

It was said that he spoke the horse’s language. For more than 30 years, Jenkins was the one to beat in both the hunter and jumper rings. His soft hands, unerring sense of pace and laser-accurate eye for a distance made it possible for him to coax beautiful round after beautiful round from each horse he showed.

Jenkins, 66, was an unmistakable fixture of the show circuit in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, with his trademark pipe hanging from the side of his mouth and his flaming red hair, which earned him the nickname of “the Red Rider.”

His grand prix wins with horses such as Idle Dice, Number One Spy, Playback, Coastline, Czar and Gustavus were the headlines of his career, but he was equally dominant in the hunter ring. Jenkins could ride a jumper around hairpin turns at breakneck speed, then walk to the next ring and finesse a hunter around a flowing, elegant course with ease.

Jenkins has been inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame and the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. He won the American Gold Cup five times and the grand prix at the National Horse Show (N.Y.) and the Washington (D.C.) International’s President’s Cup three times each. He rode on 10 winning Nations Cup teams, placed eighth in the 1974 World Championships at Hickstead, England, and was sixth in the 1980 FEI World Cup Final.

For the majority of his career, Jenkins was prevented from riding in Olympic and Pan American Games as a result of the International Olympic Committee rule disallowing professional athletes. But later in his career, the restrictions eased, and Jenkins represented the United States at the 1987 Pan American Games, winning team and individual silver.

“It was a great life and an amazing thing to imagine when you come from a poor background,” said Jenkins. He retired from the show ring soon after that, but he’s still speaking a horse’s language in his second career as a Thoroughbred racehorse trainer.

By The Seat Of His Pants

Jenkins comes by his innate feeling for a horse honestly; his father, Enis Jenkins, was a remarkable horseman in his own right. While Rodney was growing up, Enis was the huntsman for Manly Carter’s private pack in Orange, Va. When Rodney was 10, Enis transitioned to the huntsman position with the now-defunct Rapidan Hunt, and the family moved to Hill Top Farm in Orange.

“He was one of those kinds of people who could look at a young horse as a yearling and tell you what it was going to grow up to look like,” Rodney said. “He had a lot of vision for that. And he was a very honest man. If you wanted to know the truth about a horse, you’d ask him, because he’d tell it like it is.”

Rodney’s early riding education was all in the hunt field, whipping-in to his father.

“We hunted all the time,” Rodney said. He and his two younger brothers, Dale and Larry, helped care for the horses and hounds as well.

“At the time, I didn’t know what it was other than a lot of work. But we had a great time.”

Rodney’s first forays into the show ring were on the field hunters. He intently watched the top riders of the time—riders like Bobby Burke, Ben O’Meara and Dave Kelly—and studied their style and technique. His natural empathy for a horse and innate ability caught the eye of some of the top trainers and owners, and he held the reins of some of the nicest hunters in Virginia as a teenager.

In 1961, Rodney graduated from high school and embarked on the only career he ever considered possible—a professional horseman. He was hired by Gene Mische and ventured beyond Virginia’s borders to horse shows up and down the East Coast, including the infancy of the Florida winter circuit. But Rodney wasn’t just a rider in that first job.

“I’d ride all day, but I took care of all the tack, mucked the stalls, fed the horses, drove the truck and started all over the next day. I made $250 a month, and I loved it. I probably would have done it for nothing,” Rodney said.

After three years with Mische, Rodney came home to Orange and his family’s farm. He worked with his father and brothers, dabbling in training racehorses and still whipping-in to the hounds. But he also trained and showed horses, building his own business. It wasn’t until Enis died in 1983 that Rodney established his own farm in Montpelier Station, Va.

In the 1960s, the hunters were the main attraction at the shows. Rodney rode horses for owners such as Peggy Steinman, Kathryn Clark and Mrs. Randolph. At the time, the jumper ring was the place where hunters who didn’t make the cut showed. But the jumper divisions quickly became an exciting and dynamic showcase for fast horses who jumped high. As the jumper ring grew in popularity and people like Mische began organizing high-profile classes, Rodney found a new niche.

By the ’70s, Rodney became the master of the jumper ring as well as the hunter, competing as an individual in the 1974 World Championships in Hickstead, England, and placing eighth. Owners such as Patrick Butler and Harry Gill supported him, and he became one of the winningest riders in history.

Jenkins kept up a hectic pace of riding but always had an easy smile ready.

“I’d say he must have been incredibly driven, but he gave a very laid back appearance, puffing on his pipe and relaxing. I don’t think he ever worried,” said jumper trainer John Madden.

Even though jumping high and running fast had become his trademark in the jumpers, Rodney didn’t forget where he’d gotten his start. He continued showing hunters right up until his retirement.

“In my opinion, to ride a jumper well you had to ride a hunter too,” Rodney said.

“You have to have that flow. If you just ride jumpers, you end up taking back so much. You never go forward as much. In the hunters, everything is a forward flow, especially in the days when we were doing it, because there were outside courses, and it wasn’t as ‘1-2-3, jump up the neck’ like you see now. You had to see a distance and have a flow and feel of the horse. The hunters were very important for the jumper side of it, as far as I was concerned.”

It wasn’t uncommon for Rodney to show 40 horses in a day, both hunters and jumpers.

“There wasn’t a horse he couldn’t ride,” said Rodney’s brother Larry, who managed Rodney’s barn for decades. “He could change his style of riding to adjust to the horse, and he’d get the best out of all of them. Horses really liked him.”

“He was very sophisticated in his riding, but he didn’t even know it; he just did it by feel,” said Wendy Matthews, who groomed for Rodney from 1971 to 1982 and works as a trainer now. “He was way ahead of his time in terms of getting the horses broke on the flat and in the right shape in the air. But he just felt that; nobody ever taught it to him.”

In spite of his fame, Jenkins had an easy Southern charm that made him approachable.

“I don’t think he would even consider that he taught me anything. But he was a great teacher for me,” said Madden.

“Our paths crossed a lot. He was always friendly and willing to share things he knew. I know he had a hard time articulating himself with words, but all you had to do was open your eyes. He’s a country guy with a lot of horse sense. I remember hearing him tell his student ‘This horse is going to come around this turn and spook right here.’ And he was right. He could think like a horse,” Madden said.

At that point, Rodney also was witnessing warmbloods beginning to take over the show jumping world. He was involved in one of the most famous warmblood imports, The Natural. He and a partner bought The Natural in 1985, and Rodney promptly won the American Gold Cup on him. Then they sold him for the storied price of $1 million.

“He was a heck of a horse,” Rodney said. “It was a shame to sell him, but that was the name of the game.”

But the Thoroughbred is Rodney’s favorite.

“I always liked a typey horse; I didn’t like the big, heavy horses. I like the smaller, keener horses. I didn’t like to push and pull all the time,” he said.

By the late ’80s, Rodney had won just about every accolade possible and was firmly entrenched as a living legend in the horse show world. There was just one achievement that had escaped him—to represent the United States on an international championship team. At the time, IOC rules prevented professionals from riding on teams, so Rodney was ineligible.

“It was a dream of mine, always, from the time I started, to ride on the team, but I couldn’t say I was something that I wasn’t. Who can say they are an amateur when they ride 50 horses a day?” Rodney said. “I was a professional. I couldn’t help it.”

In 1987, however, the rules began to relax, and Rodney was able to apply for an exemption and was immediately selected for the Pan Am team, where he rode Czar to team and individual silver.

In the years that followed, in his 40s, Rodney decided to show no more.

“I promised myself that when I got to the point where I didn’t think I was as good as I was, I’d give it up. I wasn’t going to ride until I was old. I felt like the time to get out was when I did,” he said.

As a rider whose talent came so instinctually, Rodney wasn’t inclined to make teaching a fulltime career.

“I taught, because I learned by practice and doing, it wasn’t that easy for me,” he said. “I like people, but I like horses better.”

So Rodney transitioned to training race horses, at first steeplechasers for a few years, then flat horses. He’s got a stable of 40 horses at Laurel Park (Md.), and is a frequent visitor to the winner’s circle. He was Maryland Trainer of the Year in 2004. Though he hasn’t been in the saddle for years, Rodney still enjoys his horses.

“It is the same thrill, with the big races and when good horses come along,” he said. “It’s just like show jumping in that it’s one out of every thousand that’s special. You can have a lot of winners, but when you get to that special category, it’s very few. And it’s fun to look for them.”

Rodney was quiet about his transition from show horses to race horses, and he built his success purely on good horsemanship.

“A lot of people in the race horse world don’t even know he can ride. He likes it that way; he doesn’t like to brag, even though he definitely could,” said Eveline Kjelstrup, who started grooming for Rodney at the shows in 1987 and followed him into the race world and works for him today.

“He’s calmed down a whole lot from the show horses. He was pretty intense when we were showing a lot. When he was getting on 30 horses a day, everything had to be just right. He’s mellowed a little over the years, but he still doesn’t compromise on the details,” Kjelstrup continued. “He’s an excellent horseman. Nothing goes unnoticed. He can see a loose nail in a shoe from across the track. Every little detail is taken care of.”

With his new career, Rodney is also able to enjoy staying in one place, a luxury he never quite had in his 30 years on the horse show circuit. He’s relishing the opportunity to participate in his children’s lives.

“He really enjoys his children. He goes to their plays and concerts and school activities,” said Kjelstrup.

Rodney has two sons with current wife Un Jin—Matthew, 9, and Ty,  3. He also has three adult children—a daughter and twin sons—from a former marriage.

Un Jin is also a former show jumper, having represented South Korea in the 1992 Olympic Games. She and Rodney married in 1998. She also no longer rides but has taken up painting.