The first year Hannah Sue Burnett set her sights on competing in the Kentucky Three-Day Event, it was anything but certain she would make it there: Along with all the unknowns most first-timers face—there were soundness issues and money issues to overcome—she was dealing with a trailer so battered she wasn’t certain she would make it to Lexington in the most literal sense.
So, when the then-20-year-old pulled into the driveway of the Kentucky Horse Park in 2007, with her off-the-track Thoroughbred Keep The Faith in tow, it was with excitement and relief: They had made it to their first 5*-L.
Burnett, who is entered in her sixth Kentucky Three-Day Event this year with Harbour Pilot, found her first 5* mount when she was 13. She discovered “Benny” (Big Jim Taylor—Tangled Miss, Spring Double) while watching a horse show in Connecticut and flipping through the sale ads in the Chronicle. She and her mother, Sue Burnett, drove to New York to see the gelding, who had been going preliminary with Christiane Spina.
Known as Savannah Sammy on the track, he’d raced four times and earned $120.
“I begged my mom to go look at him, and I just remember running my hand down him and thinking, ‘This is the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen in my life,’” said Hannah, who had a pony at the time. “We went home and sold my pony as a pony jumper and immediately bought Benny.”
Moving from a 14.1-hand pony to a 16.2-hand horse was an adjustment, but Hannah Sue and Benny started out at training level and moved up the levels with help from her mother, who taught riding lessons at the family’s Leap of Faith Farm in Finchville, Kentucky, as well as Martha Lambert and Cathy Wieschhoff, who helped them make the leap to advanced.
“He was just a complete saint all the way. He always took care of me. He was really scopey and a beautiful, great mover,” Hannah said. “If I had him now, he would be so incredible. He just took such good care of me. We didn’t always have great results, but he was always safe and took me through my first Kentucky, which was pretty cool.”
By the time Hannah was ready to tackle Kentucky, she had been training with Karen and David O’Connor in Ocala, Florida, and was a working student for their assistant trainer at the time, Clark Montgomery.
Both Montgomery and Wieschhoff believed in Benny, which gave Hannah the confidence to enter.
“[Wieschhoff] said all along, ‘This horse is incredible.’ Everybody that saw him was totally amazed by him,” she said. “I guess, naively, I believed I would get there with him. Riding him made anything possible, it felt like.”
While scope didn’t seem to be a limiting factor, Benny had soundness issues that did threaten to cut short their march toward the top level of the sport.
“He had some feet problems and maintenance arthritis stuff we had to maintain, and it was quite expensive for my family. That was the only worry; that I would get to that level before he would need to be retired,” Hannah said. “But he was retired sound, which I’m really proud of.”
Leading up to Kentucky that year, they finished 10th at the Red Hills International CCI4*-S (Florida). Hannah wasn’t able to compete Benny much because of his on-and-off soundness issues, and because he was her only horse, the O’Connors let her ride some of their horses for practice.
Before Hannah even hitched up to drive to Lexington for the big event, a local newspaper wrote a story that mentioned that her trailer was so dilapidated she was unsure she’d even make it there.
“All these really nice people pitched in and got together and got my trailer all fixed up. Clark and [his wife Jess Montgomery] bought me a new tack trunk and a cooler for Benny. Everyone was really supportive and sweet and rallied behind me,” she remembered. “My family doesn’t have a ton of money, so it was everything we could do to get there. Competing there is already really special, but when you have so many people that are there helping you, it just makes it even better.”
Dressage went as well as it could have for the pair.
“He has a pretty bouncy trot, so in dressage, I remember by the time I got to the walk work I was so nervous I thought I was going to puke off the side of him,” she said. “He just went along and did the test.”
On cross-country day, Clark and Jess helped Hannah in the start box. She’d never ridden in front of such large crowds, but Benny took it all in stride.
“[Clark] told me, ‘If you can steer him, he’s gonna do it.’ I was so scared and nervous going around in the warm up, I could not even canter forward enough to jump a small cross rail!” she said. “Clark was leading me around the start box because Benny was quite wild in the start box, probably because he knew he had to do all the work out there! Jess looks at us, and I’m as white as a ghost, and she just says, ‘Jesus, take the wheel.’ It was so funny, so now we always say that.”
“I was just like a frozen blob on top of a horse until the first water!” she continued. “I just cantered right by the C element. I went into drop position down the drop and just stayed there and cantered right by it. He had no idea there was a jump there.”
Despite the 20 penalties, they crossed through the finish flags.
“Galloping through crowds like that, I was just completely terrified. It was a crazy experience, and he was just amazing. He was like a schoolmaster,” she said.
Three rails down the next day left them in 23rd place, but just finishing was a huge accomplishment.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she said with a laugh. “I think I gave him as good a ride as I could, and he did his best.”
Benny retired from competition after his Kentucky completion and lived out his retirement with Hannah’s mother and another top horse, St. Barths. He died peacefully in 2019 at age 28.
Hannah has since been around Kentucky five more times, as well as the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (England). She is entered in Kentucky this year on longtime partner Harbour Pilot.
“I just loved him, and our partnership just got us all the way to the top. I have a partnership with all of my horses, but that one really sticks out in my mind,” she said. “He was my best friend, and he was such a good boy that was always there for me.