A day after the curtains closed on the 2018 Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, operation “across the pond” was in full swing at Lillie Keenan’s Chansonette Farm. As the crew loaded the last of the barn equipment on a truck for its departure to Europe, Super Sox, Keenan’s Hanoverian gelding (Salito—Shalima, Silvio I), watched curiously.
Since their partnership debut in 2015, Keenan and “Sox” have gone everywhere together—jumping the biggest fences in locations all over the globe. They were underdogs when they finished second in the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Ocala (Florida) in 2016. That September, they rose to the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Jumping Final challenge (Spain) to help the United States finish third. A year later, Keenan rode Sox as part of the all-female U.S. team that captured the Longines FEI Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show (Ireland).
Then, towards the end of 2018, Sox injured a tendon. After two years of rehabilitation and attempts to bring him back to top sport, Keenan announced she was retiring the 14-year-old gelding on July 29.
“I knew it was time because he wasn’t going to be 100 percent comfortable doing the job,” said Keenan, 23. “I brought him back as slowly as we could, but also you’re fighting the clock. A horse at that age—OK, every horse is different, but you have to get the fitness up.
“I worked him on the flat for a long time,” Keenan added. “My team worked very hard at rehabbing him and trying to get him as fit as we could. When I started jumping him again, he felt the best he had since the day I bought him. His body just said it had enough. Some people might’ve tried again and again, but I had to ask myself, ‘What more does this horse owe me?’ I’d much rather the story end this way than being greedy.”
Sox will remain with Keenan as head of the Chansonette pack, which moves between Florida, New York and Europe.
“In time, there’s obviously going to be a point where he’ll have a formal retirement, but we’re not there yet,” said Keenan. “I still want him to get groomed every day. To be able to spend time with him in that way—I love that, and he’s happy that way. He’s the kind of horse that really wants attention. We pulled his shoes, and he gets whatever he wants. He has the mentality of a show horse. He wants attention, and he’s getting all of that.”
Go behind the stall door with Super Sox.
• Keenan was 17 years old and riding at Heritage Farm (New York) when Andre Dignelli and Emile Hendrix suggested she try Sox, who was based in Germany.
“We really had in our mind at the time that maybe he’d be a 1.50-meter horse,” said Keenan. “I did have Pumped Up Kicks, and I was definitely jumping some of the bigger classes. Sox was only 8 at the time; he had jumped the [FEI European Jumping Championships for Young Riders with Benedikte Serigstad Endresen], and he was always a horse that would catch your eye, but he was unconventional. He had a unique style. He kind of flung himself up in the air, but he was the type of horse that you had to watch. I remember I saw videos of him with Benedikte, and there was something about him that just really spoke to me. He was a fighter, and you could tell that he wanted to do the job.”
• Keenan didn’t have a flawless trial with Sox.
“I watch the video now from when I tried him, and I am amazed that I actually bought him,” said Keenan. “He pulled off a shoe. He was jumping in every direction but straight. It was an interesting trial, but he didn’t do anything wrong. For whatever reason, when I got off of him, I was like, ‘I am in love with this horse.’
“It was a feeling that I had had a couple times before with completely different types of horses, but I just loved him,” she added. “I remember going out the driveway, and my mom said to me, ‘What do you think?’ and I was very hesitant because I had never tried a horse of that caliber at that age. I remember Emile and Andre looked at each other, and then they looked at my mom, and they said, ‘I think we have to buy him,’ and they were obviously so right.”
• Sox piqued the interest of several riders before Keenan purchased him.
“Each one had a different reason why they thought he wasn’t going to work,” said Keenan. “Everything from he was spooky to he wasn’t scopey enough to things that were just not Sox in the end.
“Super Sox jumped the classes that he jumped with me and had the results that we had because of his heart,” Keenan continued. “It’s not like his pedigree was something that was what every breeder dreamed of or, as a young horse, that he was winning all of the young horse finals or anything like that. He jumped from heart, and no matter what class I put him into, I knew he was going to try.”
• When Sox arrived Stateside, he didn’t give the impression of a superstar in the making.
“Everyone said that he looked like a Quarter Horse because he was kind of overweight and furry,” said Keenan. “He just had this big white face and white legs and looked like a roly poly Quarter Horse.”
• Sox loves his toys. Maybe a little too much.
“He’s got all sorts of toys,” said Keenan. “He has a bear with a little T-shirt that has the Superman sign on it, and it says ‘Super Sox.’ He’s gone through a few unicorns. He has a bit of a habit of killing his toys, ripping their heads off and pulling the stuffing out of them. He used to have this cowboy that my mom got him, made out of this very durable rubber, and he ripped his head off. So, that one died as well. Now he gets as many [Uncle Jimmy’s Hangin] Balls and Likits as he wants. In the paddock, he also has one of those plastic hexagon-type shapes that you fill up with treats, and they kick it around the paddock to get the treats out of it.”
• Pam Keenan, Lillie’s mom, is Sox’s favorite human.
“She’s the favorite of basically every horse we have,” said Lillie. “Every time she walks in the barn, he has now taught all of them, ‘That’s the woman you need to be nice to.’ I think she’s the only person he hasn’t bitten because he bites a lot.”
• Sox has his way of letting everyone know he’s in charge.
“Every time you adjust his blanket or whenever you’re putting the girth on, you have to be aware because he’s very quick,” said Lillie. “He wants to make sure everyone knows their place, and he’s the alpha.
“I talk to him like, ‘I’m going to adjust your blanket,’ which, people are probably like, ‘Oh my God. She’s insane,’ but I promise you he understands English,” Lillie added. “You’re like, ‘Now I’m going to do your girth, and I know you’re going to pin your ears, but you’re not going to bite,’ and he just snarky looks at you and lets you do it. He’s a character, that’s for sure.”
• Under saddle, Sox makes the impossible happen.
“He’s a horse that jumped out of heart,” said Lillie. “He’s got a unique way of jumping. His feet, the conformation is not exactly what you’d model. After five years of jumping at top level, his body just couldn’t hold up anymore, and he just needed a break.
“He was never a horse that looked to have any faults,” she added. “Some of the rounds that I jumped clear, I cannot explain to you how I did because I made some of the most ridiculous mistakes, and he just found a way.”
• Lillie would love to have another Sox in her barn.
“I just really wish I could find a relative of his, and I’ve tried so hard, but his breeding is not super popular, surprisingly,” Lillie said. “When I decided I was going to retire him, my boyfriend [Constant Van Paesschen] called the breeder and asked if there was anything he could buy for me, which was sweet, but we weren’t able to locate anything. I’ll keep searching.”
• While it’s hard for Lillie to pinpoint a favorite memory with Sox, the 2016 Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Jumping Final in Barcelona stands out.
“He had never jumped 1.60 meters, and he really hadn’t jumped 1.55 meters, so in that moment, I was obviously really nervous, but I believed in him so much,” said Lillie. “He’s such a confidence builder that it never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t jump clear.
“We went there as a reserve, and we really proved ourselves as a team, and he proved to me that he was capable of greatness,” she added. “He really jumped like the champion that he is, and I think that was probably one of the most important moments because I was so nervous.”
The 2017 Longines FEI Nations Cup in Dublin is another standout memory. “I had to jump clear, and it was like he knew,” said Lillie. “The same was in Barcelona. He had an uncanny ability to just know when we had to deliver. I was so out of my depth with some of the events that I did with him, but he never made me question myself, and I think part of what was so special was that that horse and I had such a relationship that everything that was a first for me was also a first for him. I never doubted that we could do it, and I think you take that for granted in the moment, but I definitely don’t take that for granted now.”
• Lillie hopes to apply some of her lessons learned with Sox to the up-and-coming jumpers in her string.
“I know for people that probably haven’t experienced this before, they think it sounds silly, but I do believe the horse loved his job, and I think part of that is a horse has to find its person,” said Lillie. “There’s a lot that he taught me about what a difference it makes when you actually believe in yourself and in your horse and how much more you can actually get out of them that I hope I’m going to be able to pass on to some of the younger horses I have.
“I watch some of the old videos of the first couple years I had him, and I’m just thinking, ‘I rode so bad, and I’m jumping clear,’ and I never questioned myself,” she continued. “I just thought, ‘Of course, I’m going to jump clear.’ And that comes with age. In some ways, when you’re that young and naïve, oblivious, it’s bliss because you never question it, and he never gave me a reason to question myself. No matter what, he fought, and I think there’s a lot to be said and learned from that.”