When Kelly McKnight prepares to go into the show ring to compete Zan Chin in a speed class, he always attracts attention. After all, most horses go in with serious hardware in their mouths, whereas it looks like McKnight is riding his mare out to the paddock for her afternoon turnout.
“The first time I showed up for a grand prix in a halter, people thought I was looney tunes,” recalled McKnight. “Then they watch for a minute and see it work. In a bridle she was kind of bouncy and fractious. Put on a halter and she’s smooth as silk, and she’s simple to the jumps. Before it was up and down and right and left. Now it’s just smooth, crazy fun.”
Zan Chin showing in her halter with Kelly McKnight. Photo by Sara Jorgensen.
“What’d you do, forget your bridle?”
McKnight picked out Zan Chin in Ireland three years ago hoping she would be his next top grand prix horse. But when she came back to his McFarm in Pescadero, Calif., he found she was more particular than he originally thought. Sure the Dutch Warmblood by Chin Chin was talented, but she was more sensitive to his hand than any horse he’d ever ridden, despite McKnight’s soft hands and ride.
Vets and dentists couldn’t find a physical problem—“We went to the best vet and dentist, then the next best, then the next, next best,” he explained. So McKnight started experimenting with bits to try to find the right fit. He started her in a hackamore, the same bit she used when he bought her, but it was too sharp. McKnight describes himself as “a snaffle guy,” and he went that route next, trying different nosebands in hopes some combination would work. But again it was too much.
“I’d ask her to come back, and she’d abruptly half-halt, which would take away our rhythm and lose her scope,” he said. “The more momentum she has the higher she can jump, but the minute she comes off a good canter I lost all my scope. It was really frustrating. I tried snaffles, Happy Mouths, everything. Nothing made a difference.”
McKnight often rode Zan Chin in a halter on the trails, and one day he came back from a trail ride and decided to pop over a fence or two for fun. She went beautifully, but McKnight dismissed the behavior as beginner’s luck. He tried it a few more times and finally realized there might be something to his new tack as she steered and collected with much more ease than usual.
With his newfound proficiency in the schooling ring, he wanted to try stepping it up a notch. So he called up his mentor Linda Allen to see what she thought of showing her in a halter. “She said, ‘Well, there’s no rule against it,’ ” recalled McKnight.
He debuted in a halter in early 2014, and she immediately started getting better results. At first other trainers scoffed, but soon his results started speaking for themselves.
“I remember Buddy Brown watching by the in-gate when I was getting ready to go in,” said McKnight. “Everyone else was joking around, and he was real quiet and just said, ‘You better wait and watch what happens before you comment.’
“People are always joking around, calling out, ‘What’d you do, forget your bridle?’ Butch Thomas gave me the hardest time at first, and now he’s very congratulatory toward me. I get a lot of support from people now.”
Zan Chin is very happy in her halter set-up for showing. Photo by Erin Gilmore.
The Right Fit
Zan Chin topped five speed derbies in a row on the Northern California circuit, most recently at his last outing at the Golden Gate Classic (Calif.) where he claimed the top prize in the 1.20-meter Open Speed Derby.
These days she shows in a padded leather halter with a browband, with reins attached to the square pieces on the noseband. He’s added a stitch in the cheek piece to keep everything in place. At first he tried her with a running martingale, but now she doesn’t wear a martingale of any kind. It’s a look that McKnight describes as “makeshift,” but he also knows that the combination works for her, and he’s reluctant to switch it up.
“I really do try to go out of my way to have a happy horse,” said McKnight. “When I’m breaking the babies or doing the young horses, the goal is to make them happy, to find out what they do well and help them find a place where they can do that; this one’s just happiest going in a halter. She just loves her job. She can’t wait to jump.
“I know what Zan Chin is and what she’s capable of,” he continued. “She’s a little older, but she’s so fast and such a great speed horse. I look for opportunities for that for her.”
McKnight described himself as the luckiest person in the world to have owner Jane Hind supporting him with the horse.
“When I told her I was riding the horse in a halter she didn’t balk,” said McKnight. “She didn’t tell me I was crazy or wouldn’t get results. She said, ‘Wow, OK. Go ahead and do whatever you want to do.’ It’s that sort of support I get from her every step of the way.”
At home Zan Chin doesn’t live the life of a pampered show horse. She goes out in a four-acre field 24/7 with two other mares. McKnight credits that environment with keeping his vet bills next to zero.
Zan Chin enojying life in the field. Photo by Kelly McKnight.
That back-to-basics mantra has been McKnight’s ethos for a while. In the 1980s and ’90s he focused on breeding warmbloods, and these days he’s turned his attention to training, with a special interest in young horses and the Young Jumper Championship program. In addition to Zan Chin he’s been picking up checks on Highland Elegance, who shows in smaller grand prix classes.
McKnight was quick to point out that he’s not anti-bridle, nor widely advocating riding or showing in a halter; it’s just what works for this individual horse.
“The stewards are fascinated,” said McKnight. “The knowledgeable people are very supportive. She’s garnered quite a fan club because she’s winning with such unusual tack. I think it’s great—riders get too much attention. If a horse starts to get a name that’s known throughout the stands, things get really exciting. Really, it’s all about the horse.”
Kelly McKnight conditions Zan Chin on the hills near his Pescadero, Calif., home, and often ponies his grand prix horse, Highland Elegance as well. Photo by Kelly McKnight.