Thursday, May. 23, 2024

Behind The Stall Door With: Poker Face

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Sitting on her tack trunk after schooling in the main arena of the 2010 National Horse Show In Syracuse, New York, long before the sky began to lighten, Jennifer Bliss enjoyed easy conversation with Jimmy and Ellen Toon. With just one horse apiece, Bliss and the Toons, who were stabled next to each other, had plenty of time to chat.

One morning Ellen commented that they had just imported a cute chestnut that was exactly Bliss’ type. It was a comment made in passing, and when Bliss inquired about that horse again, Jimmy admitted he wasn’t sure if he wanted to sell the gelding.

“It was sort of one of those things, we talked about it, but none of us took it that seriously, and then as I was leaving Ellen was like, ‘You should come see that horse.’ ” Bliss recalled. “I went home, and we were getting ready to go to Florida, and I sort of blew it off a bit, to be honest. And then it was right before we were leaving, and I was like, you know they were 10 minutes down the road … I should go see that horse.”

Jennifer Bliss and Poker Face. Kimberly Loushin Photos

So the day before she left for Florida, she drove to the Toons’ farm to sit on the chestnut. Just a couple weeks off the plane from Europe, the gelding was obviously green, but his cuteness factor and the feeling he gave her to the jumps were just right. All night, Poker Face occupied her thoughts, so she asked if she could sit on him one more time.

At 7:30 the following morning, she took him for one last spin on the flat before turning her car south to Florida. She purchased him, but “Pokey” stayed with the Toons for a few more weeks because Bliss’ horses had already shipped south. In the interim, Bliss worried whether she made the right decision: “I made such a quick decision. I can’t believe I bought that horse. What if he’s no good?”

“I just fretted like crazy for three weeks until he got there, and it’s so funny to think about now because he’s like a part of our family,” she said.

“I drove everyone crazy worrying about it,” she added. “ ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’ And nobody else had seen him. I went by myself, and I had this 20-second video clip from the indoor ring that I would watch, like, compulsively. Like, ‘Oh my God I hope I didn’t make a mistake.’ I drove myself nuts.”

Poker Face’s unique blaze inspired his show name.

The insomnia-inducing purchase proved to be the start of a lifelong partnership. Bliss has spent 13 years with the 18-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Tangelo Van De Zuutheve—Nicolette V, Candyboy) owned by Harris Hill Farm LLC. They’ve attended the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship seven times, with their best finish coming in 2014 when they were seventh. This year they were 18th.

We met up with Pokey in Kentucky to get to know him better.   

• Pokey loves his snacks.

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“He is obsessed with bananas,” Bliss said. “If I show up at the barn, and I do not have a banana for him, I’m in big trouble. Every day we share a banana for breakfast—has to happen, non-negotiable. He has a very sophisticated palate actually. He goes crazy over Twinkies. He almost acts like a stallion. He gets all puffed up, and he’s nickering. He loves Twinkies. He loves Sour Patch Kids. It’s very strange.”

Twinkies are Pokey’s favorite treat.

• His obsession with Twinkies came out of one his bad habits as a young horse.

“He went through this phase where I was the only person who could bring him in from the paddock,” she said. “On Monday I better not go far. There’d always be the phone call of, ‘Uhh can you come get Pokey from the paddock?’ ”

In an attempt to break that habit, Bliss’ barn manager and husband, Deywi Rodriguez, experimented with different bribes. The winner? Twinkies.

• He’s a little suspicious of strangers, but give him a treat, and he’ll warm right up.

• He travels with two stuffed animals, a banana—won by one of their friends at the South Florida Fair—and Eeyore.

“One winter many years ago we stabled at Double H in Florida in Wellington,” Bliss explained. “We were stabled in the second barn on their property, and they had a mini donkey and a mini pony that lived there, and Pokey loved the donkey. He would whinny to it, and the donkey would sort of bray back, and it was the cutest thing. He loved it, so that’s how he ended up with the Eeyore stuffed animal.”

Pokey’s stuffed companions.

• Pokey is a true family horse. Bliss’ daughter Lulu Rodriguez met Pokey shortly after she was born, and he stepped in to be her leadline mount at her debut show in 2021 at World Equestrian Center—Ocala.

“I let Lulu feed him treats,” Bliss said. “A lot of the other horses you’re not allowed to do that because they’ll eat her whole hand. He’s very gentle about it.”

Pokey is best friends with Jennifer Bliss’ daughter Lulu Rodriguez.

• His relationship with other horses is complicated: Pokey absolutely hates being alone, but he also enjoys making mean faces at them.

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“With people he’s sweet and perfect, but when horses walk by he definitely has to make his faces,” she said.

When Bliss tried him for the second time, he was alone in the ring, and he made his feelings known by screaming. It was so bad that Ellen had to go get her amateur-owner hunter Invincible and hold him in the middle of the ring so that Pokey would quiet down.

He hasn’t outgrown that phase, and he gets very attached to whichever horse travels with him, but he’s not picky about who his companion is, as long as he has one.

“He falls in love with whoever is there with him,” she said.

While Jennifer Bliss has never put a measurement stick on him, Pokey is on the short side–definitely under 16 hands.

• His barn name, Pokey, suits him well because he is LAZY.

“My friends always make fun of me because in the schooling area it’s quite painful,” she said. “He really is like a small pony. You watch him in the schooling area or at home, and it’s like, can this horse do anything? He’s so unmotivated, but at this point I know him well enough that I trust it, and I know he’s going to go in the ring and grow a little. He’s definitely a show horse. He’s not into it at home. He thinks practice is for other horses.”

All the best scratches.

• When not in the show ring, Pokey’s go-to bit is none at all. Whether trail riding or schooling, Bliss rides him in a hackamore.

“I sort of joke that he’s trained me because I sort of do things his way to the extreme, and it’s just how we do it,” she said. “He’s always had a bit of a funny mouth, and oftentimes at home he would go from a lazy pony to a steeplechase horse and would grab the bit, and the more you would use the reins and touch his mouth—he was like a race horse—the faster he would go. So one day I was like, ‘I’m just going to try a hackamore, because maybe if he has nothing to pull against, I think he’s going to like that.’ He did, and so it just sort of became our thing. He just likes it. It keeps him happy. He can find his own balance. It sort of stuck. I would show him in a hackamore if I was allowed to.”

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