Any horse’s path to an Olympic medal is always a case of stars aligning against all odds, and McKinlaigh’s rise to the top of the sport has been no exception.
In the summer of 2008, McKinlaigh and Gina Miles became the stars of U.S. eventing when they clinched the individual silver medal at the Olympic Games in Hong Kong after a decade-long partnership that began with a young girl’s dream and dedicated owners.
Though it happened more than ten years ago, owner Thom Schulz still easily recalled the first time he and his wife saw the huge liver chestnut, competing in the 4- and 5-year-old event horse class at the 1998 Punchestown Three-Day Event in Ireland.
“It was our first day there, and my wife wasn’t feeling well, so I asked if we could drive down to the arena to watch the horses,” Schulz remembered. “As we were pulling up, we saw this horse come right at us and jump two fences, and then he was finished for the day. It was just by luck that we saw him.”
Schulz, who owns Rainbow Ranch in Creston, Calif., with his wife Laura Coats, had flown to Ireland in search of a new, solid preliminary-level horse. Coats wasn’t keen on the idea of him buying a 4-year-old, but the young gelding was so striking that Schulz approached the rider anyway and arranged to look at McKinlaigh the following day.
“I liked him, but I thought, ‘Gee, all Irish horses must be like this. I don’t want to buy the first one we see,’ ” Schulz said. “So from there we went all over Ireland—all the way up to Belfast—and bought a couple of horses up there. But on the last day I told Laura, ‘You know, I’ve got to go back down and look at McKinlaigh again.’ ”
So the couple made the 500-mile drive back to Scarteen and eventually sealed the deal. But since Schulz wasn’t prepared to train their massive, talented new prospect, the new owners arranged to leave him in Ireland under the tutelage of rider Chris Ryan.
He didn’t stay there long, though, because a young rider named Gina Miles soon entered the picture.
Miles and her new husband Morgan were recent additions to the Rainbow Ranch, having taken over the managerial duties immediately after graduating from agriculture programs at California Polytechnic State University.
She’d been a working student for David Adamo and had competed at the two-star level with a borrowed Appaloosa, but the young barn manager was far from being an international-caliber rider at that point. Having attended the equestrian competition at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, however, Miles was among the millions of young girls across the country who aspired to ride for her country one day.
“It was so hard to make a U.S. team then, back when David and Karen [O’Connor] were at the height of their careers and were pretty much guaranteed a spot on every team,” Miles said. “I’m sure Thom and Laura weren’t even thinking of me at that point. They figured they’d just leave McKinlaigh in Ireland because he maybe had a better chance of making it to the top there.”
But back in the United States, Miles’ competitive aspirations were solidifying. Finding a made advanced horse wasn’t feasible, but she was a hard-working A-rated Pony Clubber willing to start a quality youngster from the bottom if he had real international potential.
In April of 1998, Miles traveled with Schulz and Coats to watch the inaugural CCI**** division of Rolex Kentucky. The experience was an inspirational shot in the arm for her career.
“We walked the course, and I just said, ‘Yes, this is definitely what I want to do,’ ” Miles recalled. “I really started trying to find something I could take up all the levels.”
Later in the year, Miles sat down with her bosses and had a serious discussion about her four-star goals.
Description: 15-year-old, 17.3 hand, liver chestnut Irish Sport Horse gelding, (Highland King—Kilcumney Hostess, Stretchworth Lad).
“Gina had all these aspirations, but her horses were never going to make it,” Schulz said. “So I said, ‘Well, why don’t we bring that Irish horse home and put them together and see how they do?’ We said we’d just keep them together as long as we could, and they just never hit a spot where they could stop. They just kept going. It’s been a fun 10 years.”
Onward And Upward
A small crowd greeted McKinlaigh at the airport the day he arrived in California. Miles’ longtime friend Sara Williams, a fellow Pony Clubber and Cal Poly graduate, was on hand with family and friends. A lesson barn owner and defense attorney, she never imagined at the time that a decade later she would also have served as McKinlaigh’s groom at almost every major competition he’s ever contested.
Williams lives several hours from Miles, but their friendship and mutual support of each other have endured throughout Miles’ competitive career.
“He doesn’t see me everyday, so it took him years to even acknowledge me,” she said, laughing at the gelding’s stoic nature. “He usually sees me coming and hides his face in the corner of his stall, then he’ll come over later and say hello. But now I think when he sees me he really does know, ‘All right, this is a big show!’ ”
In their first two years together, McKinlaigh and Miles started out at training level and won nine of 10 events. The gelding’s amiable nature and typical Irish appetite for cross-country helped him move quickly up the levels, and by the age of 7, he had completed his first CCI*** and made the U.S. Equestrian Federation Winter Training List.
“He was my first advanced horse,” Miles said. “Looking back, I now know that it’s actually better to get a lot of mileage at the three-star level before moving up, but, of course, we didn’t. He’s just such an unusual horse. Horses like him don’t come along very often.”
The pair catapulted upward immediately. After their first three-star at Fair Hill (Md.) in 2001, they went on to the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** the following April, where their 11th-placed finish earned them an individual spot that summer at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain.
“When I got to the WEG I’d only been going advanced for a year,” Miles said, laughing at her implausible history. Riding an 8-year-old horse, she dove head first into an entirely new league of the sport.
“I remember walking around that cross-country course with David O’Connor and John Williams,” she said. “We get to that water jump, and they’re like, ‘I don’t think this is possible. I think the course designers got it wrong.’ And I’m freaked out beyond belief. I’m looking at them like, ‘Oh my God. If David O’Connor doesn’t think it can be jumped, what am I going to do?’ But, of course Mark was like, ‘Oh it’s fine. Your horse will just go right through it.’ ”
And go through it he did.
The pair racked up some hefty time penalties but posted clear jumping rounds on cross-country and in show jumping to finish 25th out of 81 starters.
“They weren’t competitive in terms of winning a medal at that time because it took Gina too long to organize before the fences, and McKinlaigh’s dressage just wasn’t at the top,” said U.S. Chef d’Equipe Capt. Mark Phillips. “Those things had to change.”
Miles sought to make those necessary changes the following year. The fairytale continued to get even better for the pair, as they finished 11th again at Rolex Kentucky before heading to Germany to train and compete. They placed second at horse trials at Varsseveld (the Netherlands) and third at Gatcombe Park (England), then finished third at the inaugural FEI Eventing World Cup Final in Pau, France.
“That European experience means so much,” Schulz said. “That’s why we sent McKinlaigh over there. When you start doing that, you put out a lot of money to gain that experience. But it’s just like everyone says—there’s no substitute for that kind of experience.”
With two years of impressive international results on her résumé, Miles was beginning to look like a serious contender for the Olympic team in 2004. Two decades after her first experience as a spectator at the Los Angeles Games, she had legitimate hopes of actually competing. But a series of serious setbacks began that spring.
“He came out roaring at Galway (Calif.), and that was only a month before Kentucky,” Miles explained. “We clearly couldn’t do wind surgery before that, and he just couldn’t get enough air to go fast enough to get around the course.”
Miles still finished ninth in the modified division and secured a spot as an Olympic alternate. McKinlaigh underwent partial wind surgery that summer and came back in time for the Burghley CCI**** (England) in the fall, only to suffer breathing problems once again in atypical stifling heat and humidity. Miles had to retire, pulling up during the ninth minute on cross-country.
“He was still jumping, but I could tell that I was getting to the bottom of the tank,” she recalled. “We needed to do the second half of the wind surgery. Plus, he was blessed with a slightly crooked right hind leg and had accumulated quite a bit of scar tissue in that ankle and had quite a large lump. So we went ahead and cleaned up that scar tissue also.”
Her horse recuperated nicely that winter, but it was soon Miles’ turn to cope with medical issues. She fell while competing an intermediate horse in the spring of 2005, and though she landed on her feet, she broke her tibia and fibula in the process. She recovered from that surgery just in time to have her second child (son Austin was born in 1999), daughter Taylor, in the fall.
“It was a year after the Olympic Games where there really isn’t much happening, so it was the perfect year to have another child because there wasn’t a major championship that year,” Miles explained. “So I broke my leg, had the baby and then we were all ready to go in 2006.”
Gearing up for another World Championship year, Miles decided to pack her family up and head to Florida for the early spring events to really test her mettle.
|Tall And Small: Making A Partnership
McKinlaigh’s raw talent was undeniable when Thom Schulz and Laura Coats imported him from Ireland in 1999, but making him into the international competitor he is today wasn’t an easy task for Gina Miles. She stands at 5’3” and McKinlaigh is nearly 17.3 hands.
“I was working a lot with Brian Sabo when McKinlaigh was young,” she said. “He really focused on rideability from the very beginning and deserves so much credit. He made gymnastics exercises and placing rails and combinations a huge priority. He really instilled that rideability from the start.”
Sabo encouraged Miles to drop McKinlaigh down to training for his first year in the United States, even though he’d been competing at the equivalent of preliminary level in Ireland.
Now that McKinlaigh has competed at the highest level on four different continents without a single cross-country jumping penalty to his name, Miles is even more grateful for properly laid groundwork. When shopping for young horses who can tackle the challenges of modern courses, she remembers the importance of temperament and control.
“It’s tempting to look at some really flashy horses with amazing talent but that are a little bit difficult attitude-wise,” she said. “You’re tempted. But then I always remember that what makes McKinlaigh really great is his rideability. And with the way our sport has changed in the short-format, that’s more important than ever before.”
“I love our eventing in California and the season out here is great, but having been out of it for a year, I really felt like I needed to go back into the thick of it where more of the intense competitors were,” she said.
But disappointment still seemed to follow Miles, as McKinlaigh suffered a pulmonary bleed at The Fork CIC*** (N.C.). The gelding still managed to place fourth at that event, but he bled again a few weeks later in Kentucky, forcing Miles to retire from her second four-star in a row and miss out on another team experience.
“You kind of look back on it and it seems like I would have been getting to that point of being discouraged,” Miles said. “But he was still such a young horse, so it never really entered my mind. I just kept trudging onward because I knew we were going to get to the bottom of it. I knew we’d have another shot at the Olympics and go on from there, so I just kept going.”
Her persistence finally paid off that fall at the Fair Hill CCI***, where McKinlaigh’s double-clear show jumping round allowed him to lead the victory gallop. More importantly, the pair proved they were finally back in sync, and they haven’t looked back since.
“That was amazing,” Miles said simply. “He hadn’t completed a three-day in so long, and we had so much support there. To jump that clean round and move [from third place] into the lead was shocking.”
After her Fair Hill victory, Miles refocused for the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the following summer. Although it was winter in the southern hemisphere, the weather still afforded plenty of heat and humidity, which had clearly proved difficult in the past for a 17.3-hand Irish horse. Looking ahead to the Olympic Games in Hong Kong, riders were already concerned about changing their fitness routines.
“When I first started doing three-days, we were still focusing on those long canter sets, because it was long-format,” Miles said. “Before my first Fair Hill I think we were doing three sets of 10. Then when we started looking at more of the short-formats, we started using this great hill that I have, which is about 1,000 meters.
“In 2007 I started combining the two methods,” she continued. “I was really impressed with his fitness at Badminton (England) [that spring]. And obviously it was the same thing getting him ready for Rio and Hong Kong. He was so fit.”
The U.S. team easily won gold in Brazil, and Miles brought home the individual bronze medal, finishing close behind silver medalist Phillip Dutton on Truluck and winners Karen O’Connor and Theodore O’Connor. Images of the giant McKinlaigh and the tiny “Teddy” sharing their victory lap together entertained equine enthusiasts the world over.
The Olympic Games At Last
After medaling at the Pan Ams and winning the Galway Downs CIC*** the following March, Miles finally had the Olympic Games back in her sights. Given the choice between attending a final USEF Mandatory Outing at The Fork in North Carolina or at Barbury Castle in England, Miles opted to send her horse to Europe in late June.
“It’s actually just as easy for me to fly my horse to England as the East Coast,” she explained. “It’s hard to get a flight to North Carolina. I just figured get him to England, let him recover and be well settled before hopefully making the big trip to Hong Kong. I also wanted to train with Sandy [Phillips, Capt. Mark Phillips’ wife]. Every time I’ve worked with her before a championship we’ve had a personal best, so I thought that would be the best approach.”
The move paid off. Finishing 22nd, Miles was the top-placed U.S. rider at the Barbury CIC*** and earned her trip to Hong Kong.
“It’s always a real eye-opener for us going from California to the East Coast, and it’s another step going from there to Europe,” she said.
“There were 120 horses in the three-star at Barbury, and the number of Olympic horses competing was huge. It definitely gives you a benchmark for where you are on the international scene. You’ve got to step it up.”
Schulz, Coats and Miles’ entire family flew to Hong Kong to cheer her on, and Williams, who won the Groom of the Year award at the 2008 U.S. Eventing Association’s Annual Meeting, was particularly thrilled to accompany McKinlaigh to Hong Kong.
Miles and McKinlaigh scored well in the dressage, lying 10th with a mark of 39.3. But it wasn’t until cross-country day that they emerged as the stars of the U.S. team. While her teammates incurred all manner of penalties on the twisty, undulating course, Miles logged a clear and deceptively quick round with McKinlaigh to move into fifth place. No one made the time, but the pair’s 16.8 faults were minimal when compared to most of the field.
“I felt like we were going so fast, but when I looked at the tape I thought, ‘Man, he just looks like he’s cantering,’ ” Miles noted. “Everything came up so fast with those bumps and the tight turns. But he’s just so maneuverable and sets himself up for the jumps.
“He also just covers so much ground,” she added. “His big stride is really suited to those huge open galloping courses, and everyone always thinks he wouldn’t do well on the other type of a course, but he can actually be really nippy around a course.”
For Schulz and Coats, seeing their horse conquer the Olympic course was a dream come true.
“That was really an exciting time,” Schulz said simply. “He looked so good. I’ve never seen him perform so well.”
Heading into the show jumping phase, tension loomed as the ground jury held McKinlaigh for re-inspection at the final jog. An obvious swelling in his right hind ankle caused serious concerns, but he did trot up sound upon re-inspection and was ready to jump into history with two double-clear rounds later that evening.
Six months later, Miles’ individual silver medal still rarely leaves her side. Its continual presence in her purse illustrates the way her Olympic experience has changed her life.
“It’s kind of crazy,” she admitted. “If I’d gone and won Badminton, people still wouldn’t get it. But when you come home with an Olympic medal, the whole community understands. That’s really neat. I’ve had so many different speaking engagements and stuff that it’s just been traveling with me in its little case. But there’s a spot waiting for it on the mantle.”
One More WEG?
After returning home to California, McKinlaigh underwent surgery to remove a fresh chip in the ankle that had caused him problems in Hong Kong.
“It was really fresh, so our best guess is that it happened on cross-country there or possibly in one of our final gallops in England, because it came on there at the last minute,” Miles said. “We obviously were monitoring his soundness all through the summer, and he was really at his absolute best.”
Rumors circulated that McKinlaigh was to be retired until his name appeared with Miles on the USEF Winter Training “A List” in December. But the gelding is recovering perfectly from the procedure so far, so if all goes according to plan, Miles will aim him for the 2010 Alltech FEI WEG in Kentucky.
“We’re bringing him back slowly,” Schulz stated. “He would have to come back 100 percent or we wouldn’t bring him back. We could never do anything to jeopardize his health.”
Miles agreed whole-heartedly and won’t push McKinlaigh in the coming year. He will only need to complete one four-star before the WEG, so she’ll likely wait until this fall and head abroad to Burghley or Pau.
“We’re really just managing his career at this point,” she said. “But McKinlaigh loves to do this. I really feel like he’s one of the most amazing event horses out there. You always know galloping down to a jump that there’s no doubt that you’re going to go over it,that you’re going to get there on a good stride, that he’s going to get there if there’s a skinny. You almost know what the other one is thinking. I feel so honored to have had him come into my life.
“He’s happiest when he’s out there competing,” she continued. “We’re just hoping that we can give it another shot in two years. We’ve got such a great group of riders and horses and support staff. We just had bad luck as a team in Hong Kong. I really think the U.S. can pull together and get a medal at the 2010 World Games, and I’d love McKinlaigh to be out there helping them do that.”
The Best In The West
Gina Miles has spent plenty of time training on the Eastern seaboard and in Germany, but she’s long been a passionate supporter of upper-level eventing in her home state of California. She said the quality of events, courses, footing, organizers and volunteers are all top-notch, but they simply need more experienced riders and trainers on the West Coast.
“You can’t go do an event and compete against seven Olympians,” she admitted. “But you can go to a big dressage show down in San Diego and ride against Steffen [Peters] and Debbie [McDonald]. And you can go to big jumper shows at HITS Thermal. You can get the experience, but you have to be creative.”
Unwavering support from family, friends and owners has allowed Miles and McKinlaigh to hit the road whenever needed, but the rider is always committed to returning to her home base.
“I’d like to see our California riders go out East and get that experience and then come back and actively give back to the upper level of eventing,” she said.
Whether she’s training young horses and riders or simply serving as an ambassador for the sport, Miles’ international experience has certainly made an impression on the West Coast scene.
“I don’t really mind where they come from, as long as they’re good enough,” USEF Chef d’Equipe Capt. Mark Phillips admitted. “The West Coast still doesn’t have enough competition, but having people like Gina be successful on the world stage helps people on the regional level.”
For many West Coast up-and-comers, 2008 was a banner year. Washington native Maya Black and Californian Kelly Prather journeyed east to win prestigious CCI** events, while Jennifer Wooten was short-listed for the Olympic Team and Tory Smith won the Adequan/USEA Advanced Gold Cup Series.
“On the West Coast we have two or three good events, but we have to travel so far to get to them,” said McKinlaigh’s co-owner, Thom Schulz. “It’s really a hardship. But this year the West Coast really showed that our riders were unparalleled [and competitive] with the rest of the riders in the United States.”