Since retiring her top horse, McKinlaigh, after winning an individual silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, Gina Miles has been quietly keeping busy bringing along young horses and students at her Gold Medal Equestrian in Templeton, Calif.
Like many professional riders, she juggles balancing time with her family (husband Morgan and two children, Austin, 14, and Taylor, 8) and competing, all while hoping to find her next star.
This year, Miles, 39, has been campaigning Chanel at the advanced level and has high hopes for her. While Chanel incurred a minor injury before the CCI*** at Galway Downs and wasn’t able to compete, Miles sat down with the Chronicle in between rides on her CCI* horse, Haley Dwight’s Jameson, to talk about the past, the future and what it’s like to have that one special horse.
Tell me about the horses you’re riding right now.
I’ve got two advanced horses. Chanel just banged a fetlock at Woodside (Calif.) and I want next year to be a really good year for her, so we just decided to play it safe and leave her at home. She came from Danish rider Peter Flarup. [My student] Zachary Brandt also got his horse, Cavallino Cocktail, from him.
[Chanel] is just beautiful. Julie Richards sent me the video. She reminds us all so much of McKinlaigh. She’s got the striking face and the big movement. I wasn’t looking for another big horse. I really like small ones! She’s 17 hands. A big, strong mare.
She’s 11 this year, so that puts her at a really good place [for the 2016 Olympics.] That’s the big plan with her.
She’s half-owned by an English woman named Liza Jane MacNaughton who’s owned event horses for different people over the years. Her sister owns William Fox-Pitt’s horse Cool Mountain. So she and her sister will get on the phone and talk about when they’re get to go head-to-head. They’re very competitive!
My other advanced horse is SVR Ron. He went to the Pan Am Games for Uruguay, but he needs a lot more work on his dressage.
I’m looking to put more young horses in the string, so I’m riding Haley’s really nice horse, Jameson.
I also rode [Lauren Burnell’s Arnell’s Bugatti] in the 5-year-old Young Event Horse Championships. He came from Mike and Emma Winter. We’re really excited about him. He should have all the pieces and parts to go to the top.”
After McKinlaigh retired, did you find it hard to stay active at the upper levels?
McKinlaigh is obviously the horse of a lifetime. You’re lucky if you get one like that in your career. I recognize that and I treasure the fact that I had one in my career ever. But it is a little weird having it in the beginning of your career as opposed to midway or toward the end of your career. I would never want to have an enormous program with huge strings of horses, but yeah, it's tough when your one big horse is retired and you have no one coming through the pipeline.
I did have some young ones along there that tried and another one that got up to the advanced level, but then fizzled for different reasons or had different issues come up.
It is frustrating. Once you’ve been at that level, you’ve tasted it and you’ve done it and you want to be back and do it again.”
Did you find it strange to go back to the lower levels?
Yes! Sometimes beginner novice is scarier! I always loved the young ones. I started McKinlaigh when he was 5. It was actually fun the first couple of years. It was so intense getting McKinlaigh to that point. I traveled so much and I have a young family. We went so many places and I lived in Germany without my family. I trained so intensely, that for two years after, I think I was really just catching my breath.
It was nice to just not have to travel. It was fun to go to Rolex and just be there and be a spectator and enjoy it.
Now, though, it’s really frustrating! (laughing)
What is McKinlaigh up to these days?
He’s retired living in a field. His owners [Thom Schulz and Laura Coats] were just so happy to be able to have him back home and not have him out on the road. He’s in Paso Robles, Calif. He’s 19. I actually haven’t seen him since he retired. I know he’s well looked after and that makes me happy.
What are your thoughts on the U.S. team now that you’re back in the hunt?
I’m super excited about David [O’Connor, chef d’equipe.] I learned a lot from Captain Phillips. He was there with the team in the early part of my career. David’s here in this country, so he’s a lot more available in terms of training sessions and the riders that aren’t listed, so I’ve been able to ride with him quite a bit.
He’s right on when he talks about the way that we’re going to win is by being really dedicated to our education and the training and philosophies. It’s really evident in the training sessions. We’re getting beaten in areas that we can control. It’s about taking our sport back to the chalkboards and learning the ins and outs and the technical aspects of it.
I grew up riding with [current USEA president] Brian Sabo, who’s very analytical. That really rings true to me. I don’t think I was a natural rider at all coming along. I had to learn and study and break it apart.
I like that [we’re getting the] camaraderie back. I was in Spain [for the WEG in 2002] and I rode as an individual, but when they won their team medal, for sure, the U.S. team worked so cohesively. Everybody does better when you work together.
I do think the last few years because we haven’t been doing great, there’s a lot of blaming and that negative energy doesn’t help anybody do well. I think the best thing we can all do is focus that positive energy and help each other out. I think David will help bring that out.”
What is it like running your business with a young family?
Austin is a freshman in high school now. He’s a little bit more independent now. They both ride. Austin has a really cool pony named Tommy and Taylor has a great pony. We go out and ride together.
Taylor’s mad-crazy about riding. She’s going to be a better rider than me since she started out riding when she was 3 and I didn’t start until I was 7. She just did her first little intro event.
Austin is really serious about school. I couldn’t drag him out of school to bring him to a horse show if I wanted to! He’s into soccer too.