Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

The Irish Horse Who Took Gina Miles On An Olympic Ride

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When Gina Miles first laid eyes on McKinlaigh, she didn’t see an upper-level horse, much less one that would go on to win an Olympic silver medal.

“He arrived, and he was so big, and this was in ’99, so people were still mostly riding Thoroughbreds,” Miles recalled. “There weren’t many warmbloods yet, [and] there certainly were no horses his size; there were no giant horses. And so I looked at him and was like, ‘I can’t ride this horse. He’s way too big for me. He’s way too big to be an event horse.’ He had a crooked leg. He’ll never stay sound. I was like, ‘You guys are crazy,’ but it was the only horse I had to ride, so I’m like, ‘OK! I’ll see what I can do.’ So that’s how we started.”

Owners Thom Schulz and Laura Coats encountered the 17.3-hand Irish Sport Horse (Highland King—Kilcumney Hostess, Stretchworth Lad) at the young event horse class at the 1998 Punchestown Three-Day Event in Ireland. Schulz was hunting for a horse for himself, and the liver chestnut was the first one they saw.

Determined not to jump on the first horse to catch their eye, the pair drove around the country for two weeks, but they kept coming back to McKinlaigh. 

“Of course there was nothing else like McKinlaigh, so they were like, ‘Oh, we have to go back,’ and they were at the other end of Ireland, so they drove all the way back to see McKinlaigh again,” Miles said.

The giant Irish Sport Horse McKinlaigh might have seemed an unlikely match for petite Gina Miles, but the pair climbed the levels of the sport to ultimately win individual silver at the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong. Shannon Brinkman Photo

Because the gelding was just 4, they left him in Ireland for further training with breeder Chris Ryan of Scarteen Event Horses, but a meeting between the couple and Miles and her husband, who worked as ranch managers at their farm, changed the course of McKinlaigh’s career. 

“Gina had all these aspirations, but her horses were never going to make it,” Schulz told the Chronicle in 2009. “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.” 

Their first ride, however, got off to an inauspicious start when McKinlaigh bolted the moment Miles put a foot in the stirrup.

“Thom calls Chris like, ‘Hey, Gina’s having a problem getting on this horse. What’s the deal?’ And Chris is like, ‘Oh I just vault on him,’ ” Miles recalled. “Chris Ryan is 6’4″, and I’m 5’3″.”

For months Miles worked in the round pen, armed with a mounting block and ample patience as she got on and off, rinse and repeat.

“And it still didn’t go away,” she said. “The first few horse shows I went to, I would have to get on him in the stall, and people would let me out of the stall because I could not get on him out of the stall—he would bolt.”

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A natural horsemanship trainer eventually solved the problem. They realized McKinlaigh was nervous when the rider disappeared into his blind spot, so they spent a weekend desensitizing him, and then Miles could get on the gelding from anywhere.

The Making Of McKinlaigh

McKinlaigh’s natural ability might have tempted Miles to race up the levels—but under Brian Sabo’s guidance, she kept him at training level for their first year together to establish correct basics.

“By the time they’re going intermediate or advanced, they’re so confident,” Miles said. “They know what they’re doing, and now you’re trying to come in and tell them new information, and they just don’t absorb it as well as if you do it when they’re younger.”

Miles still lives by that lesson, encouraging others to make sure they have all the necessary tools first rather than trying to fill holes later.

“[Sabo] kept us there until he felt like McKinlaigh really understood the basic foundation of it, which paid off, because then the next year he did the whole year at prelim,” she said. “He moved up so fast after that, because we took the time at that lower level.” 

While the gelding needed some refinement in his flatwork, he was a phenom cross-country, no matter the obstacle.

“He just took his time and would analyze it and figure it all out,” Miles said. “He was a genius in terms of figuring out whatever was in front of him. He just looked at it and went down there, and he did it. It was remarkable how quickly he picked up all the difficult things because that was also sort of when those [questions] were all new to the sport. Skinnies were becoming popular; the angles, the corners, all of that was new, the new rage on the courses, and he just picked it all up.”

By 2002, the pair competed at their first Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, finishing 11th to earn an individual spot at the FEI World Equestrian Games (Spain). At that point, McKinlaigh was still new to the level, and his preferred speed was 520 meters per minute, so when Miles dropped her whip at the sixth fence, she couldn’t coax any additional speed out of him. 

“All that Jimmy [Wofford] said when I came off course, and I told him I dropped my whip, he was like, ‘That’s what rubber bands are for,’ ” Miles recalled. She rode with a rubber band around her whip handle from then on.

After missing out on the Athens Olympics in 2004, when McKinlaigh required wind surgery, and the WEG in 2006 because he suffered pulmonary bleeds during spring events, the pair finally earned their Olympic berth in 2008. Their near misses in 2004 and 2007, plus a blow up in the dressage at the 2007 Pan American Games (Brazil), gave Miles extra focus.

“[The excitement of making a team] can really overshadow your focus of, ‘I’m here to do a job. I’m here to compete. I’m here to have my personal best performance,’ ” she said. “All of that really helped me be in the right mental place that I needed to be in 2008 and really have the calm focus on the competition and what I needed to do, to have him be at his best,  trusting in my program and trusting in my training and all of that.”

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A Silver Medal Moment

Once in Hong Kong, McKinlaigh turned in a 39.9 in dressage to sit 10th, and on cross-country, his aptitude for the evolving sport came through. While their teammates accrued penalties on the twisting course, a clear round with minimal time penalties moved them into fifth. 

“It was so hard to make time on that track because it was so twisty and turny,” Miles said. “You would’ve thought it would’ve suited itself to a really quick, sharp, nimble little horse, but he was one of the [fastest]. He wasn’t the fastest horse of the day, but he was about the fifth or sixth fastest because he just was so efficient, and you didn’t have to spend a lot of time setting him up.”

After a few tense moments when he was held at the final horse inspection before being accepted on his second trip down the jog strip, the pair headed to show jumping, where two fault-free performances earned them an individual silver medal. 

The enormity of what she accomplished didn’t hit Miles until she was standing on the podium, watching the American flag going up. 

“For me, it was just such gratitude for all of the people who helped me make it there because it’s such a huge village that lets you be there,” Miles said. It wasn’t just those who were in Hong Kong with her, but everyone who’d taken a clinic, done a fundraiser or helped watch her kids, who helped bring about that silver-medal moment. 

“I felt like they were as much a part of the team, as much a part of the success,” she said. “That part was super meaningful for me. [So] many people lent a hand to get us there and contributed to make sure we got there. [I was] so super grateful to all of those people.”  

The equestrians were far removed from the Olympic athlete experience almost 2,000 miles away in the center of the host city Beijing, so after the eventing concluded, Miles stayed in the athlete village and ate in the dining halls, watching other events and cheering for the athletes.

“My advice to anybody that gets the chance to go is to just take the time to do that because you may get to the Olympics, and it’s the only time you’re going to do anything like that in your whole life,” she said. “There will always be another three-day event. I know it seems important to get home and take the other horses to the other three-day events that they need to go to, but it’s worth it to take a pause and just soak in the moment and really be present. This is something you’ve worked for your whole life; take a moment and be present and soak it in.”

McKinlaigh retired after the Olympics and spent the rest of his life with his owners in California. He died in 2020 at age 26.

The medal Miles earned with the gelding became one of her most well-traveled possessions. She brought it with her to every speaking engagement and clinic in the next few years so that others could enjoy it. She shared it so much that her mother worried she was too cavalier with the medal, allowing others to hold and wear it. 

“She was always so worried I was going to lose it, but I still have it,” Miles said. “It’s still in its little pouch ready to travel. Actually one of my friends made me a beautiful little case for it; it has a little case it can go back in on my mantle.

“The little ribbon that goes around it is very well loved,” she added. “You can tell it’s been loved, not kept behind a glass case. It’s been shared. People love to see it and touch it and wear it. I want people to experience that and to share that with people.”

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