After 50-plus years working with horses, Georgia Coyle knows a winner, no matter the discipline, possesses a certain indescribable quality. The horses may have different temperaments and different jobs, but that special characteristic remains the same in her eyes.
“I’ve been around top jumpers, and I’ve been around top hunters, and I’ve been around top Standardbreds, and a champion is just a champion,” said Coyle. “They’re special. You can see that they have the heart and the brain.”
At her Olive Branch Farm, which she runs with her husband Christopher Coyle, Standardbreds dot her pastures in Wingate, North Carolina. The Coyles handles foaling and broodmare and foal care, as well as providing a rest stop for top harness horses during the off-season.
“The past three or four years we’ve been averaging 25-30 foals. We do have a pretty good broodmare operation,” Georgia said.
“[As far as our resting component] there was a mare who won the Hambletonian this year, Ramona [Hill]; she was here last winter,” she continued. “The year before a mare named Atlanta won the Hambletonian, and she was also here the winter before. We’ve had several that are world champion status Standardbreds come here just to hang out in between their grand circuit racing thing.”
But Georgia’s lifelong vocation caring for horses originated in the hunter/jumper world, where she spent the 1970s taking care of some of the sport’s bests. In 1971, with her high school graduation looming, Georgia searched for the next step. She didn’t want to go to college. She wanted to do something with horses. The solution to her dilemma materialized in the form of Walter “Jimmy” Lee, a friend of Georgia’s trainer Nora Cook.
“I took some little clinic with him, and I ended up talking with Jimmy,” Georgia said. “I wanted to stay with the horses. I didn’t really have enough money to go have a horse at somebody’s stable and do that. So, when Jimmy offered me the job, I was like, ‘Yeah that sounds pretty great.’ ”
From Lee, Georgia received her first lessons in how to be a professional groom, working at his Belcort Farm in Virginia and tending to Perfect Stranger, a horse Lee bought from Cook that Jane Gaston and Katie Prudent rode.
“[Belcort Farm was] the first time I’d ever seen the real attention to detail,” said Georgia. “[With] Nora, our show stable was kids; we thought we did everything pretty well. We’d polish our boots and braid and stuff like that. But his whole game was on a different level—as far as neatness and how to present things. He taught me more about respecting the things that they could do and being aware of the things that could happen.
“He definitely gave me the basics on the way things should be done,” Georgia continued. “And then you pick up little things here and there that you might do a little bit differently or a different way. But [you’ll] not really change; the base or the core is always there, and I definitely would give that to him. I told him that, ‘Jimmy I learned everything from you.’ ”
When “Stranger” moved to Winter Place Farm in Salisbury, Maryland, Georgia followed, working for Ronnie Beard. By 1974, she’d moved on to work for Rodney Jenkins. And at Jenkins’ farm, Georgia got her first taste of the international show jumping world, as she flew with Jenkins’ head manager Wendy Matthews to Hickstead, England, for the men’s show jumping world championships. Over there, she took care of the Show Jumping Hall Of Famer Idle Dice when his normal groom, Luke Raglin, couldn’t be at his side.
“ ‘Ike’ was a rock star,” said Georgia, who remembers grooms asking to take pictures with Idle Dice. “It was like all the Europeans, they hadn’t seen him except a little bit at the indoor shows or something. They all wanted to see this great horse from America. It was very cool.”
In the midst of her budding grooming career, Georgia stumbled upon an up-and-coming business idea, started by her friends David Deutl and Butch Henry: freelance braiding. Back in the 1970s, grooms were expected to braid all their charges. But when Deutl and Henry established Blue Ribbon Braiding, Georgia joined in. Considered an odd idea at the time, their business ultimately altered the industry as the concept of professional braiders took off.
“There are so many different steps that we would do that I see that are just not really done—like the braiding. [As grooms] we did our own braiding. That was just part of the job,” said Georgia. “Wendy and I would braid all the hunters. Somebody would take over our little job in the morning while we were braiding all the horses. The same with all my jobs that I had before the whole freelance braiding thing really took off. At one point I went around and did the braiding thing, and we made good money. But we were like $10 a mane and $5 a tail. We thought were rolling in dough. That was a great gig.”
In 1976, Beard asked Georgia to return to Winter Place to groom. Robert Ridland and his mount Southside were aiming for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and Georgia first met up with the pair at a show in the Midwest. Georgia quickly bonded with the sensitive Thoroughbred.
“I would say he’s my heart horse,” said Georgia. “He was nervous. He was very smart. But he was a sweetheart of mine.
“[I tried to relax him] just being with him and talking to him. That sort of thing—just trying to keep him away from the busy spots,” Georgia continued. “Probably the coolest moment was winning the [American] Invitational. I was walking around with him in the barn when Ronnie came back and said that he had won. It wasn’t like he jumped the last fence, and he won the class. It wasn’t one of those things; there were still some horses to go, and he went back to the barn. That was wonderful.”
Prior to that Olympics, the U.S. Equestrian Team always employed their own grooms. Along with Karen Golding, Georgia believes she was one of the first private grooms at a championship and one of the first female grooms.
“Before that it was all team grooms, and they were always all guys, unless somebody wants to tell me otherwise because I don’t know for a fact,” she said. “I was floating on high anyways just being there. I don’t know what they would have done if they had said, ‘Well you can’t take the girls with us.’ I think Robert, Ronnie, especially Ronnie, I know he would have fought very hard. I don’t know if he had to. I know for a fact Michael [Matz] would have been the same way with Karen. ‘We’re a team. You take us as a team. It doesn’t matter what we are.’ ”
Into the 1980s, Georgia continued learning from top professionals. She worked for Michele McEvoy and her mounts Night Murmur and Semi Pro. She freelanced for Guatemala’s Jose Oswaldo Mendez Herbruger and traveled to the 1980 Moscow Olympics—even finding some free time to see the Bolshoi Ballet.
“I learned a lot from a lot of different people—and am still learning!” said Coyle. “Things just work out, and I loved that I went to so many different things. I look at [McLain Ward’s longtime groom] Lee McKeever, and I’m like maybe that was the way to do it. Maybe you just get a job, and you just work with the person for 20 years, and you just have this great relationship and great job. I just didn’t do it that way. I was kind of a nomad.”
Though she ended up diving into the harness racing world after meeting Christopher, Georgia never truly left behind the horse show community and the friendships she made. She helped establish a Facebook group called “Back In The Grooming Stall” and continues to be involved with The Grooms Award program.
“It never left my heart,” said Georgia. “That’s where I started out. That’s my true love, and I have so many great friends in the show world. Back when we worked, people were so great—friends were so great—with helping out so much. If there was something you didn’t know how to do or were questioning, you could go ask so many different people, and somebody would know something. And I learned the basics from Jimmy Lee. All the great professionals that I worked for I would learn something from, but I learned so much from my friends.
“Horses are kind of like a disease,” Georgia continued. “I don’t ever want to be away from them. And I feel very lucky to be where I am and to have spent most of my life with them. Jimmy took me on and taught me a job, a career, and that’s basically been my career forever. It’s a great life. It beats a lot of stuff; it really does. You can be outside. You can be with the animals you love—and travel. There are just so many pluses to it. It was a pretty good gig.”