Ringside Chat: Lillie Keenan Now Knows She Belongs At The Top Level

Nov 22, 2022 - 2:59 PM

Fresh off her first her first CSI5* grand prix victory just two weeks prior, Lillie Keenan notched her first World Cup qualifier win of the season in the $150,000 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Las Vegas on Nov. 19 with her longtime partner Agana Van Het Gerendal Z.

Keenan and the 11-year-old Zangersheide stallion (Aganix Du Seigneur—Naminka) also jumped to the top spot in the $40,000 CSI4*-W 1.50m Las Vegas National “All In” Speed Classic on Nov. 17 with a time of 59.76 seconds.

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Lillie Keenan and Agana Van Het Gerendal Z winning the $150,000 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Las Vegas. FEI/Andrew Ryback Photography Photo

Keenan is riding a wave of success this month, having earned her first five-star win in the $414,942 GNP Major League Show Jumping Grand Prix of Monterrey CSI5* (Mexico) on Nov. 5 with her other mount, Queensland E, a 13-year-old Zangersheide stallion (Quickfire De Ferann—Magie De Menardiere, Socrate De Chivre).

These wins came after a disheartening finish by the U.S. show jumping team at the Agria FEI Jumping World Championship in Herning, Denmark, this past August, where the team (of which she was a member) ended in 11th place, putting them out of the second round of team competition.

Keenan, 26, will always consider New York City home, and she spends Christmas there every year, but now splits her time between Wellington, Florida, where her family has a stable, and Europe.

We caught up with her after her wins in Las Vegas to find out about her current string of horses and recent success.

Tell me about how you found Agana Van Het Gerendal Z (“Aggie”) and how your partnership has progressed. 

I tried [Aggie] at the end of his 6-year-old year. His journey is very unique because the only two people that have owned him are the family that bred him, literally where he was born, and then my family.

When I tried him, I cantered down to a crossrail, the first jump on him, [and] I did chip. I just felt like I had no sense of his stride, and it’s a weird feeling. And my mom [Pam Keenan] was there when I tried him, and she just didn’t care. She said, “This horse is unbelievable, and you’re going to figure out how to ride him, and you’re going to figure this out because he is worth you figuring it out.” My mom has done this a few times, where she’s really been stubborn about certain horses. And fortunately for me, but also annoyingly sometimes, she’s always been right.

[As a 7-year-old] he jumped very extravagant; he would jump way too high over the fences. The really incredible thing about him is he figured out what he needed to do, and now I would say he’s an economical jumper. He always has a super style, but he can judge exactly how high needs to jump. And that’s what makes him so fast. It doesn’t matter if I jump him in the ranking speed class or in the grand prix, he could win whatever class I enter with him and most horses you can’t say that for. He’s extremely versatile.

Your mother exercises Aggie for you on the flat, tell me about that.

My mom is a very good rider, but she’s small, and she’s older, and she wouldn’t be offended for me to say that. And she doesn’t always like big horses now, because she is really tiny, and Aggie can be a bit intimidating. When I ride him, he’ll come out of the barn screaming, and I mean, he’s a breeding stallion, and he lets you know that. But when he sees my mom, it’s an unbelievable change in him. He sets his eyes on her, and his ears just go slightly to the side, and he stands like a statue. She rides him in a snaffle with no spurs and a little whip, and he is just a soldier. He loves her. I do think that horses go their best when they are their happiest, and that’s a really big part of my program. And I think that having my mom ride Aggie is part of what keeps him happy and enjoying his job.

How did it feel to win your first five-star grand prix in Monterrey?

I’ve jumped five-stars since I was about 17 years old. I’ve been third and second a lot; it feels like forever. And I’ve only ever won one other international grand prix, which was a two-star, and now I’ve won two in a month. So hopefully that’s a bit of a turning point.

I am not a good person to ask about courses after the fact because I often forget them, but that’s one round that I will never forget. My first round didn’t exactly go to plan, but with that horse, that’s a little bit how it goes. You make your plan, and then you have to really be in the moment and react because he goes in a very unique way. And then obviously only having three horses in the jump-off after such a challenging first round track, that’s something that you never forget.

How did you get the ride on Queensland from Dani  Waldman?  

[Dani] had a few horses that she was selling, and [my boyfriend Darragh Kenny] was talking on the phone next to me, and I didn’t know what the conversation was about. But then he said, “What’s happening to Queensland E?” I obviously had watched and shown against Queensland for quite a few years, and he was always a very nice horse, but he wasn’t a horse that when I watched a class, I thought, “Wow, that’s a horse for me.”

So, [Darragh] hung up the phone, and he turned to me, and he said, “We’re going to try Queensland tomorrow; call the vet.” I vetted him in the morning, tried him in the afternoon and as soon as I got off the horse and in the car, Darragh turned to me, and he said, “We’re buying this horse.”

He’s the type of horse that he definitely wants to feel he’s in charge. I don’t try to dominate him. I really let him go in his own way. We work a lot on the flat on trying to relax. He’s extremely high strung and has a lot of blood. So, it’s about getting him to just stay focused, so just trying to channel that energy and keep it contained. He’s just the type of horse that can turn back on the biggest oxer from the smallest canter, and he just finds a way out over it. He’s like a cat.

Lillie Keenan and Argan De Beliard at the Agria FEI Jumping World Championship in Herning, Denmark, in August. Mollie Bailey Photo

What did you learn being on your first championship team this summer in Denmark?

The number one thing I learned is that I belong. When I went, I was on a newer horse for me [Argan De Beliard], and a horse that to be honest, when I bought him, pretty much no one except my coach thought was going to be a championship level horse. And I felt a bit like I was trying to prove myself. Since then, I think I have matured a lot. I think that experience changed my mentality. I am much more confident and very self-aware and secure in my position and what I’m capable of with my horses.

And that’s a lot to say for a performance that was disappointing. We had quite a young team, and I think that is just a jumping-off point of the future for championships and that group of riders. Really the past 10 years of championships has been the same group of riders, and now that’s obviously changing, and it’s really wonderful to be part of that new generation.  I am really looking forward to jumping on many more teams and helping the U.S. qualify for the Olympics in the new year.

Can you talk about working with McLain Ward for the past four years and what his mentorship has been like for you?

When I first went to him, I was mentally in not the strongest position. I didn’t have much confidence in my riding and in my ability. And he, honestly, is the reason that I continued to ride. I felt defeated, and he really helped me find myself again. He spent about two years telling me to trust my natural talent and to shorten my reins. And that’s pretty much all he said to me, which was a change of pace.

To have someone as a coach who really understood from Day 1 that my goal was not to always be just the client, but my goal was to be him. I spend a lot of time in Europe, and McLain doesn’t, and I was very adamant that I wanted independence, and I wanted to prove that I could stand on my own two feet. He allowed me to do that and was still always holding the net if I fell and supporting me and pushing me to really push myself. I do believe that we will be working together for my entire career.

Even now when I win a big grand prix, he’s obviously very proud, but he’s very reserved, and he says to me he’s always expected this, so it doesn’t come as a surprise, which I think is refreshing.

Can you talk about your training philosophy?

I am at my heart really a horse girl. When I grew up that was the most important thing to me, and what I enjoyed the most was spending time in the barn. My mom was always a big believer that you’ve got to bring a lot of treats, and you’ve got to make sure that the horses look forward to seeing you.

We try during the week to do different things for the horses. Some days they go out on trails and other days they do dressage and then other days they have more free flatwork. We try to not make it boring. All of my horses go in the paddocks. I try to really let them be horses. Every day the horses get properly groomed, and they get to roll in the mud. I think that’s really part of what keeps them happy.

We try to keep it simple. McLain has always told me, “You know, don’t overdo it. Just because it’s good doesn’t mean then you have to do it 100 times.” So, for Aggie, that’s true. Like this week, I didn’t ride him at all before the class. He just would hand-walk three times and then he came to the class. That day that he didn’t show I gave him a 30-minute flat. He’s the type of horse that you could get on, and you could work for an hour, and you could still jump the class that evening, but I don’t think he’s very happy. Then he gets grumpy. And, you know, it’s about finding really the formula for the horse.

Do you have any young horses that you are prioritizing bringing along?

I have an 8-year-old stallion [Opium JW Van De Moerhoeve TN] that I’ve been taking my time with. I only got him in March of this year, and I think he’s really special. During the summer, I was able to take [him] to Aachen, and that’s such a huge opportunity and advantage, because I know that I will go back to that show with that horse in the senior level and will have already been there. It’s moments like that when you have young horses, you need to take advantage of them. And to be in a really fortunate position that I don’t have to rush my own horses, because I have older horses that are really doing their job already, is something that I’m very grateful for.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I think that the one thing that’s really important to me is, I have an army of people that make this happen for me. And the base of that is my parents; they’ve supported me in the sport since I was 6 years old and always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. Building off that, I have a team of grooms that work tirelessly for my horses to ensure that we maintain their program, and they’re healthy and happy. And then obviously McLain, my coach, who’s always there, and my boyfriend Darragh Kenny has actually changed a lot for me this year.

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