You can’t know the dynamic shared between Adrienne Sternlicht and Just A Gamble simply from watching them compete in major grand prix classes. For Sternlicht, learning to navigate “Justy,” a 12-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare (Toulon—Tsarina, Corofino), has been one of her greatest feats in the saddle.
“I have said for the past year that she’s kind of my teacher,” said Sternlicht, 26. “As a rider, I would rather help the horse, [to] be quite active in the saddle and be able to fight a bit to help the horse. And with her, I have no option but to be calm, so in some ways, she’s gone from being my most difficult horse to the easiest for me because she’s teaching me this ultimate presence of what it really means to be there.
“As soon as I’m taken away from the moment, I lose that connection with her, so I have to be ultra-focused and present when I ride her, and in many ways, I see that as the greatest gift that she’s given me,” Sternlicht continued. “She’s teaching me a level of presence when competing that I never knew I needed to have in order to be successful.”
Sternlicht clinched her first international win with Justy in the $209,000 Holiday & Horses Grand Prix CSI4* on Nov. 30, 2019, at ESP Holiday & Horses in Wellington, Florida. Three months later, they contributed to the United States’ win in the $150,000 Nations Cup CSIO4*, held March 1, 2020, at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington. Justy’s already secured top placings at this year’s WEF too.
The mare was competed to the five-star level by Belgium’s Frederic Vernaet before Sternlicht bought her at the end of 2018, and she’s become much more than a back-up grand prix horse to Sternlicht’s other top horse Cristalline.
Go behind the stall door with Justy, the horse that’s grown to become one of Sternlicht’s greatest teachers.
• Sternlicht and Just A Gamble are zodiac sisters.
“One cool thing about her is we have the same birthday; she’s such a Taurus, just like me,” said Sternlicht. “She’s so stubborn in her attitude. She has a lot of depth to her as a mare, not only in terms of her ability but her personality. She’s so sweet and so intelligent—you just have the feeling that she has a true awareness of the moment, and there’s a lot to her.”
• Justy is the closest horse to a Thoroughbred in Sternlicht’s barn.
“She had more blood than anything I’d ever sat on, by a mile,” said Sternlicht. “I could barely get her to trot when I tried her. She has two speeds; she’s either at a halt or a canter. I could tell that she had a ton of ability. It took me a few minutes after I got on to get a good feeling for her, but I felt that she was a mare who wanted to work with me rather than against me. I knew it was a bit of a gamble because she’s so unlike anything I’d ever ridden, but she has a really sweet disposition, and I could tell that just from meeting her on the ground.
“She’s an interesting mare because she has the quietest, most serene disposition on the ground, but as soon as you get on, her adrenaline gets going,” she added. “Her adrenaline is so high that, when she’s competing, she transforms into more of a Thoroughbred type.”
• A bad fall (and a muscle tear for Sternlicht) impacted their partnership early on.
“The first week I showed her, McLain [Ward] said to me, ‘We’re going to take it slow and really hone your partnership with this horse,’ ” said Sternlicht. “I ended up jumping the [$25,000 CaptiveOne Advisors 1.45m Classic at the 2019 Winter Equestrian Festival], which she won.
“Things seemed to be happening fairly quickly for [us], and then I had a bad fall with her in the schooling area midway through circuit, just as I was starting to step her up to the five-star level,” Sternlicht added. “I fell, and that honestly frightened me a bit, and it took me a while to find a sort of equilibrium with her and a happy medium and to trust her again.”
- Patience proved to be the greatest virtue for Sternlicht as she worked on rebuilding trust after the fall. She spent the rest of the winter circuit and that spring rebuilding confidence.
“It was when I went home and my horses were living with me for the first time that I was determined to spend all the time that I could to understand her and understand how I could serve her better as a rider, how I could make it work. There were certainly moments during that process that I wasn’t sure if things would come together the way that they have.
“I spent a bit of time over the summer competing on my own, and it was really towards the end of the summer that I started to have a really great feeling with her,” she added. “Then we spent the fall—I think we had four faults in six, seven grand prixs in a row—until we won the grand prix at Holiday & Horses. I changed back to her original bridle midway through the fall, and as soon as I did that, that’s when I started to feel like things were beginning to come together. Ever since then, I have a lot of confidence in her and in my partnership with her.”
• Learning Justy’s triggers has helped Sternlicht better navigate their partnership.
“Doing any sort of warm-up in the schooling area really just sets her off,” said Sternlicht. “So I like to get on early, walk with my feet out of the stirrups, get her to relax as much as possible, but I really only start working her when I’m six out. Having become educated about the way that she’s going to perform best has forced me to put aside my own anxieties when competing because I know that so many of my tendencies as a rider simply don’t serve her. Therefore, she’s forced me to reevaluate and readjust the ways that I approach my warm-up.
“We ride her very infrequently at home,” she added. “She’s amazing in turnout; she’ll stay out of the majority of the day. We really try to let her decompress at home. We know that we’re never going to take away her blood, so we try to keep her as calm and mitigate any sort of pressure environment for her as much as possible.”
• Justy’s partner in crime is Taco, Sternlicht’s miniature horse.
“He goes out in the paddock with Justy,” said Sternlicht. “Taco is for sure her favorite. She does sometimes get a little bit vicious towards him, but he gets over it quickly.”
• Don’t let Justy’s intense nature fool you.
“She’s the sweetest, most sympathetic, kind animal,” said Sternlicht. “Aside from Cristalline, I feel most connected to her because she’s taught me so much over the past year, and I finally feel like I’m at a point where I really understand her and can serve her. She really means a lot to me because I had to break through my own mental barriers and, in some ways, my own fears that came after a bad fall with her, in order to move forward. The success I’ve had with her for the past few months, if anything, is representative of patience is the greatest virtue; she is it for me. I think that the time I’ve taken and will continue to take in understanding her—she gives you a feeling that things will only improve.”
• Sternlicht works on keeping Justy relaxed at home.
“She is so hot and so Thoroughbred-esque,” said Sternlicht. “After competing, we like to let her down. At the end of last year, she wasn’t ridden for five or six weeks. She’ll just stay out in the paddock all day. It takes her a second to acclimate to that, but she’s really good and sensible in the paddock.
“I really do minimal with her,” she added. “I’ll spend 45 minutes on her just doing walk-trot transitions, just getting her to relax because she’s never going to be quiet. She turns out and stays in very light, relaxed work.”
• Justy knows exactly where her favorite treats are kept.
“She really likes apples; she’s not super picky,” said Sternlicht. “We always have two massive buckets of Mrs. Pastures, and we go through them very quickly.”