When this photo made its way onto the USHJA Wheeler Museum Facebook page, there was much debate about who the rider was. Many people voted for the legendary Rodney Jenkins, and they weren’t far off, since Jenkins did show this big gray mare, Sky Ghost.
But the junior rider in this image is current hunter breeding trainer and judge Matt Collins. “So many people have mentioned this photo,” Collins said. “It’s a photo I hadn’t seen before, but it must have been from an equitation class. I wore those boots only for equitation because they hurt my feet. And I’ve been given some grief about that coat, which no one seems to like!”
Someone showed Collins the photo on their phone while he was attending the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association annual meeting. “She said it was on Facebook, which didn’t mean much to me since I can barely use my smartphone,” Collins joked. “But I knew it was Sky Ghost right away. She had this big head, so she’s easy to spot.”
Collins, who worked for Jenkins as a junior rider, showed Sky Ghost, a Thoroughbred mare bred by the legendary owner and breeder Mrs. A.C. Randolph of Upperville, Va., in the junior, equitation and working divisions.
Rodney Jenkins also showed Sky Ghost
“She was one of my favorite horses ever; I recognized her face right away. She was tricky to ride, but I loved her,” Collins said.
“I said the word “Whoa,” more in three minutes in the ring than any human should have to say it. She was a very strong-minded mare. She wore a double bridle, but you didn’t dare touch it. It was just a threat. She knew and you knew that if you did more than threaten her with it, that would be it. But she respected the threat, kind of. Rodney used to say she tired his arms out. She was aggressive, but a really, really good jumper,” he continued.
As a young horse, Sky Ghost showed a bit in the jumpers with Kathy Kusner before settling in the hunter ring with Jenkins and Collins for much of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “She won a lot for four or five years and that was a time when a lot of legends were showing. She was always right there in the ribbons,” Collins said.
Collins remembered that one year, after he and Sky Ghost had won quite a few classes at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, Mrs. Randolph decided she wanted to hunt the striking mare with the Piedmont Fox Hounds at their Rokeby meet. She was a Jt.-MFH of Piedmont.
So, Collins hunted Sky Ghost a few times to find out how she’d do following the hounds. “She was very good because Mrs. Randolph kind of hunted at the clip that Sky Ghost liked to go. They were of a like mind,” Collins said.
“I have one photo of me on her taken by Marshall Hawkins while Mrs. Reynolds and I were out hunting with Piedmont, where I’m wearing a top hat and the cutaway coat. I’ve always kept that and I have one picture of me on her in the working division at Madison Square Garden, but that’s it,” Collins said.
Collins’ job wasn’t limited to the show ring and the hunt field. During the winters, he’d break yearlings for Mrs. Randolph and for legendary racehorse trainer Mikey Smithwick. “That was how I spent my winters until we went to Florida,” Collins said.
“It served two purposes, because I’d spy on all the young horses and see which ones should be show horses and not go to the track. Mrs. Randloph really enjoyed watching them get started in the winter. She had a barn right by the house and she’d watch every day. I broke so many horses there, famous horses.”
Collins broke the famous War Dress and remembers Jenkins turning her down as a show horse because she was a chestnut mare. “Charlie Weaver was a kid who’d get dropped off after school to get lessons. I broke War Dress then he started playing with her, then the next year they won everything,” Collins recalled.
Sky Ghost retired to Mrs. Randolph’s Oakley farm in Upperville, but they were never able to get her in foal. “The last time I saw her, she must have been 15 and she was still dark and dappled. She was too tough to let them go!” Collin said.
Collins himself hasn’t shown since the ’70s, but has been a very successful trainer, handler on the line and judge. He remembers fondly growing up in the heyday of the hunters, when bold Thoroughbreds galloped over big fences.