In the early 1980s, Kim Walnes and her legendary eventer, The Gray Goose, trained in the Virginia countryside in preparation for the big courses at Kentucky and Luhmühlen, Germany. Forty years later, Walnes watched a new gray gelding and rider crest the same rolling hills.
Skyeler Voss and her four-star eventing partner Argyle have been cast in an upcoming documentary, “The Gray: The Kim Walnes Story,” set to be released in 2024. The film will weave scenes of the modern-day horse and rider with iconic footage of Walnes and “Gray.”
“When Skyeler galloped up that first hill, when she came over the rise on Argyle, wearing my old cross-country shirt—which fit her to a T—I just lost it,” Walnes said. “Everybody felt it. Every single person there on the grounds, at one point or another, remarked on how Gray was very present and how it was like Argyle was channeling Gray.”
The documentary, co-directed by Shanyn Fiske and John Welsh, with filmmaker Caleb Doranz, tells the story of Walnes and Gray’s unlikely rise to eventing success. Walnes first encountered Gray in Ireland in the 1970s as an overlooked gelding with a long back and spooky disposition. Although Gray was wary of her, Walnes sensed something special in the horse, and her intuition was right. In 1982, Walnes piloted Gray to a win at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, and the pair took bronze at the World Championships the same year.
The documentary will also discuss the unsolved murder of Walnes’ daughter Andrea, or “Andy,” at age 18. After her daughter’s death, Walnes’ own riding and training transformed; she now works with riders using a trauma-informed approach toward healing through horses.
Fiske, who is also a writer and producer on the film, first connected with Walnes when she interviewed her for an article. During their conversation, she learned that a documentary of Walnes’ life had come to a standstill during the COVID pandemic. Walnes was wary of forcing the production.
“You can’t push the boulder,” Walnes said. “It isn’t going to happen before it’s meant to. If you’re patient and you stay open, then really cool things come along. It all works out.”
Upon hearing of the stalled project, Fiske immediately thought of her friend Welsh, a documentarian. It wasn’t long before the three were in talks to restart the project together.
A Mirror Image, Four Decades Apart
When Fiske put out the call on social media to cast a strong rider in the Virginia area with a gray horse, she was met with unexpected enthusiasm—to the tune of about 100 applicants. Voss, of Morningside Eventing in The Plains, Virginia, applied for the role at the urging of her students. The rider and trainer grew up with Walnes’ story mythologized in eventing, and she says that horses like Gray made her fall in love with the “magical unicorn fantasy” of having a gray horse.
The filmmakers and Walnes met Voss over Zoom to discuss the role and quickly knew they wanted her and Argyle for the part.
“I have friends in the horse world who were like, ‘[Skyeler] is an amazing human being,’ ” Fiske said. “That has been really key in having people to join the team—and it’s important to Kim as well—that you not only have to be a good rider or good at what you do, you have to be a good person.”
The filmmakers envision that Voss and Argyle will help depict the horse-rider connection and give a sense of the Virginia landscape that Gray and Walnes called home, but they’re not meant to dramatize the duo exactly.
“We don’t want to have a cheesy re-creation where we want to have the audience think that Skyeler is Kim, necessarily,” Fiske said. “It’s not a reenactment. It’s more an artistic re-creation of what Kim may have felt at the moment in her life when she was galloping up through those fields—when she was riding Gray and training and schooling him.”
In August, Voss and Argyle traveled to Dublin, Virginia, to film on the farm neighboring Walnes’ former home, where she first conditioned Gray after bringing him over from Ireland. The crew then headed to Voss’ farm at Morningside to capture jumping and dressage scenes. Because Voss isn’t playing a character, she’s become part of the story. As Fiske has watched the connection between Walnes and Voss grow, she considered writing their relationship into the film’s narrative.
“I have no problem with being extremely transparent in showing Kim interacting with Skyeler,” she said. “What I’d like to do is create a story of what it means to Kim to see a younger version of herself, and how she’s also learning from, as well as teaching, that younger self.”
The two have a similar riding style—Walnes noticed Voss’ seat was much like her own, in ways she doesn’t often see in modern eventers. Discussing their backgrounds they realized they shared a common riding lineage; Jack Le Goff, who was Walnes’ coach on the U.S. Eventing Team, also trained Voss’ longtime coach, Jimmy Wofford.
As Walnes and Voss have gotten to know each other, they’ve also uncovered new layers of similarities in their personal lives, from the tragic losses of close family members, to being mothers pursuing ambitious riding goals.
“I really related to the fact that [Walnes] was a mother and trying to do all this with two kids, and so am I,” Voss said. “I really appreciated her story and how she did it—it was so funny to listen to how she balanced two kids and the upper, upper levels of eventing.”
Most compellingly, Walnes observed a closeness between Voss and Argyle that echoed her own relationship with Gray. Argyle’s story arc is reminiscent of Gray’s: The Thoroughbred gelding (Private Gold—Aunt Tizzy, Cee’s Tizzy) came to Voss on his first day off the track, spooky and mistrustful, but “Giles,” now 15 and owned by the Argyle Syndicate, has become Voss’ top horse. The two compete at the four-star level, and she hopes he’ll be her first five-star mount.
“He was just a very misunderstood, difficult horse when he came to me,” Voss said. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with him. He was pretty difficult. He just wasn’t trusting of people. So I really took my time with him, went really slow at the beginning, and then he just took to the sport, and that’s all he’s wanted to do since.”
A Story About Trust
Walnes and Gray’s success inspired a generation of eventers who saw a rider without great means training her own horse her way and bringing him to the very top.
“It’s kind of the classic Cinderella story,” Walnes said. “I am an ordinary person who had extraordinary dreams. Everybody laughed and told me I was crazy, that there was no way that was going to happen.”
Fiske knows the fairy-tale aspect of the story—where a humble horse and rider go big-time—is part of the appeal for audiences. She also believes part of what makes Walnes and Gray so compelling is that theirs is a story about trust.
“In some ways, this is the story of every rider—or event rider—that I’ve known, just pursuing their belief regardless of any external evidence to the contrary, and then succeeding because they trusted their gut and trusted their inner voice that told them this was the right thing,” Fiske said.
When Walnes first bought Gray, neither had evented before. After being “dropped in the dirt every day” by Gray at the beginning of their partnership, Walnes eventually learned how to listen to him.
“It didn’t matter what course we were jumping—all the way around, that horse was smiling,” Walnes said of Gray’s love for cross-country. “He loved his job.”
Years later, when Walnes’ teen daughter, Andy, disappeared and was found dead months later, the grieving mother was able to lean on her relationship with Gray to navigate her loss.
“In some ways she saved him, and then at the end of the story, he saves her in a lot of ways,” Fiske said.
A Homegrown Project
For the documentary, Fiske, a photographer and writer with an eventing background, merged her passion for storytelling with her lifelong love of horses. She’s taken on the unofficial role of bridging the two niche sides of this project.
“I am the person on the team who was able to speak the two different languages—both horses and filmmaking—because I’ve been involved in both worlds,” Fiske said.
While her directing partner, Welsh, is not a horseman himself, his fresh eye and awe for the horses comes through in his directorial choices.
“John has the capacity to feel and appreciate and integrate wonder,” Walnes said. “A lot of us, as we get older, we lose that childhood innocence that sees wonder in every day. There’s always new things to discover and new things to see. John has that; he never lost that.”
From the moment Walnes watched the film’s new teaser, she felt this team was capable of tapping into the emotional heart of her story. Her confidence has grown as they began interviews and filming, including the casting of Voss and Argyle.
In a similar way to Walnes and Gray, the documentary itself is a kind of underdog. Funding is being crowdsourced by the scrappy filmmakers, and the small team has rallied together around a belief in the power of Walnes’ story. For Fiske, that conviction hasn’t wavered.
“I don’t believe magical things; I’m a very practical, goal-oriented person,” Fiske said. “But I have to tell you, there have been moments in the making of this documentary so far—and Kim says this all the time—where I really feel like, if there are spirits out there, that Gray and Andy are watching over this in some way. I really feel like something is guiding this. I can say just in my own heart that we’re doing the right thing.”