It was big news last fall—the fan favorite little mare Gin & Juice, who formerly competed through the CCI**** level with Hawley Bennett-Awad of Canada, was leaving Bennett-Awad’s barn. There was a lot of speculation about whose saddle she might appear under in the future.
This past weekend U.S. eventer Sara Mittleider quietly rode “Ginny” in the 15-year-old Thoroughbred mare’s first competitive start since her appearance at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, with Bennett-Awad. Ginny had also been Bennett-Awad’s ride on the Canadian team at the 2012 London Olympic Games and for Canadian team silver at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.).
Mittleider, 29, and Ginny won their open preliminary division on a score of 26.7 at the Aspen Farms Fall Horse Trials (Wash.) on Sept. 4-6.
Mittleider started her competitive career at age 7 and finished her first Rolex Kentucky CCI**** at age 19 in 2004. She and her petite Thoroughred gelding El Primero galloped around Rolex Kentucky three more times in 2006, 2007 and 2010. She recently spent more than a year in Germany, where she met her husband, Attila Rajnai, before returning to her home base of Kuna, Idaho.
Though it’s been five years since Mittleider competed in a four-star, after her time abroad and with a barn full of talented horses, she’s excited for what the future will bring. The Chronicle caught up with her to talk about her experience in Germany, her business, and the process of getting to know Gin & Juice.
Chronicle: Tell us about Gin & Juice—when did you get the ride on her?
Mittleider: I started riding her a little bit when I was based in California during the winter. We headed down there in January to get a jump on our season for this year, as we do have a ton of up-and-coming young horses.
I think I rode her maybe a total of seven or eight times just so that she wasn’t sitting in the field. But we did get on pretty well, and then before I left [the owners] did approach me about if I maybe wanted to try her.
It’s a big thing to take on; you’re going to get negative feedback, but also it’s hard to say no to that kind of an opportunity. I didn’t want that to be a regret just because I was afraid of negative comments. So I said yes, and she arrived at my place just before we left for Rebecca Farm, so the very end of July. I think she’s been here six or seven weeks with me at my stable.
What has it been like developing a partnership with her?
She’s very experienced. She knows her job, so mostly it’s just kind of getting to know who she is and kind of developing a feel for her way of going and how she’s been trained, and figuring out someone else’s buttons that they put on a horse because everybody does it a little bit different, and just being able to adapt to how she’s going to stay the calmest going around for you.
It’s not a completely foreign ride, as my little Thoroughbred, El Primero, was quite hot as well and very strong-willed and determined. He kind of gave me the experience to help me adapt maybe a little quicker to the way Gin & Juice likes to go.
Had you ever gotten the ride on a made horse like this before?
No. I’ve made all my own horses before.
What have some of the challenges been in taking on the ride?
I don’t really know her, you know? Based in Idaho, I’d see her at shows or see on the videos and stuff, and it’s hard to go into a relationship with something that’s pretty made, but at the same time it’s been a different challenge, and it’s been a fun experience to kind of play around with her.
She’s done a lot, so just keeping everything fairly low key and making it fun has been a big thing that we’ve been trying with her.
Tell me about your experience with her at Aspen.
Well, Aspen was our first show. You go into something like that, and I don’t know the best way to warm her up or the best time to spend on her, or with her, prior to each phase, so we’re still getting the feel for that.
I was really, really pleased with how relaxed she was the whole time. It’s been a while since she’s been out in a competition atmosphere, and it’s definitely a different experience in the northwest than California, temperature-wise as well as being on grass and in the trees and everything. So she handled it really, really well, and I was really pleased with how she was in all three phases.
How did it feel to come away with the win your first time out?
A bit surprising! Sitting her trot is very different than sitting the trot of a warmblood. I’m a little rusty at that, but hopefully it’ll come back soon.
I think probably the dressage phase was where I was the most unsure of how to adapt to her. She does have the reputation to get tense. Most of the horses I have had up to this point—I would have loved to have some of her “go” in them—but she was really good.
She’s so sweet and she’s a big trier; she gives you a very good feeling that she’s going to try her best. So you just have to keep working on the mental relaxation from her.
What are your plans with her going forward?
We don’t really have any set plans. It’s still so new; we don’t want to put any huge pressure on her. I’ve only got one more show I’m going to do with her this year and then we’ll just reassess and see what happens next year.
Are you thinking that she might make another team in the future?
Never say never.
What does your business look like these days?
It’s grown a fair amount. I have a bunch of new students and some really nice up-and-coming young horses, and we’re working at building up our sales catalogue for horses we have for sale.
How did your time abroad shape the way that you’re running your business now?
It was very interesting to experience a different culture with horses. I was in Germany for a little over a year at various barns, and it was very, very interesting since horses are a major business venture over there. Because they don’t have, at least where I was, as much room, just the way they can accommodate their facilities and utilize what they have to maintain a successful program was very interesting.
Where were you based there?
I was at a show jumping and dressage barn near Verden, Germany, with the Baumgart family. I was actually introduced to them through a friend in the Northwest, Jean Moyer, and she knew I was going to be in Germany for the keuring of the Trakehner Verband, and so she invited me to come visit her and this family prior to that.
I took some lessons from Hannes [Baumgart] and really enjoyed it quite immensely and was invited back to come and work with them for the summer the following year.
What’s it like running the business with your husband now?
It’s great! We met in Germany at the eventing barn I worked at; I worked out of Andreas Dibowski’s stable. My husband was also there and that’s how we met. It’s been really fun, actually. Most people say, “Oh, it might be kind of stressful,” but it’s been really, really fun to have somebody else with the same passion and who is just as invested in the same goals as you. So yeah, it actually is a lot less stressful than what I was expecting.
Are you parents, Gary and Brenda Mittleider, still heavily involved?
Yes, they are still very involved. My dad is still competing with his young stallion [Semper Fidelis]; he just moved up to the preliminary level. Unfortunately he ended up having colic surgery, so he missed a fair amount of the summer events, but he’ll be back out this fall campaign.
We’re starting to breed a few of our own young prospects, which is really exciting, and yeah, they’re still very much involved in the day-to-day running of the place.
In starting a breeding program, are you mostly producing horses for yourself to ride?
We are breeding for kind of a mixture. There’s still a need for good adult amateur/young rider horses, but also for our own purposes. But kind of an all-rounder; not everybody’s going to be able to or want to ride a horse that will go up the levels, so something that would be just as suitable to gain experience and confidence or have fun on is also an aim that we have.
What other exciting horses do you have in your barn right now?
I have my 10-year-old Trakehner gelding back up and running, Harry Houdini. He’s coming back off of being really sick for the last two years, but he’s been bouncing back, and he’s competed at two shows this season.
He won [his open preliminary division at the Event At Rebecca Farm (Mont.) in July] and then he finished second to Ginny in the prelim at Aspen.
Then I have La Paz, an up-and-coming 5-year-old that we imported from Hungary. He’s owned by the Solon family, and they’ve been huge supporters of this adventure, and I’m very excited about this horse. He’s got all three phases in him to be very successful, and he just moved up to training at Aspen where he finished fourth. Prior to that he’d won the last four shows at novice, and he’s qualified for the Young Event Horse Championships in California, so we’re going to do that with him. And yeah, we’ll just see!