Rider pays tribute to Olympic medal-winning horse: ‘He shaped my entire life’ *H&H Plus*

  • US event rider Gina Miles has paid tribute to McKinlaigh, the horse with whom she won the individual silver at the 2008 Olympics, following his death earlier this month.

    “McKinlaigh shaped my entire life,” Gina told H&H. “He was a force that all who met him felt.”


    Gina gained the ride in McKinlaigh in 1999, shortly after the birth of her son Austin when she was working for Thom Schulz and Laura Coats.

    “My husband at the time and I were having a routine meeting with Thom and Laura when I asked to structure my job in such a way that I had more time to pursue my dream of riding for the US team,” she explained.

    “Thom and Laura had purchased McKinlaigh the year before and had left him in Ireland with Chris Ryan to compete. Their response to my request was ‘We will bring McKinlaigh home for you to ride.’ I was incredibly honored by their generosity, but not without trepidation when he arrived. He was huge — 17.1hh at the time and not done growing yet; he ended up being 17.3hh.

    “I made it a deal with myself that I needed to be able to mount him from the ground, but McKinlaigh had a bit of a quirk. When I put one foot in the stirrup, he would bolt. Even after weeks of working on it in the round pen, he would still bolt when I tried to mount from the ground, to the point where I had to get on him in the stall at competitions and then have someone let me out. The issue was finally resolved when we spent a weekend working with natural horsemanship expert David Hilman.”

    Gina remembered that McKinlaigh also disliked flying changes and it was a long and difficult process to teach him to perform them.

    “During one lesson with my long time coach, Brian Sabo, after McKinlaigh had once again landed disunited, Brian instructed me to tap him on the haunches with my whip to get him to correct the lead. After McKinlaigh bolted two times around the huge ring before I could get him pulled up. Brian said, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’

    “I travelled with Sandy Phillips to work with Hubertus Scmidt in Germany in 2003. When I first arrived, Hubertus said there wasn’t a horse he hadn’t been able to teach flying changes to, which was a huge relief to me. But after a couple of days, Hubertus came back saying, ‘This might be the first horse I cannot teach a flying change to.’”

    This wasn’t what Gina wanted to hear, but she said the upside was that she pursued her goal with numerous dressage instructors and eventually sorted the problem.

    “Sandy was my stalwart and in the last six weeks leading up to the Olympics, we didn’t not miss a single change, although I still have PTSD every time she asks me for a change in a lesson!”

    McKinlaigh was a brave horse who would “tackle any five-star question without a second thought”, but he had a fear of needles and took time to warm to new people, although he loved those in “his circle”.

    Gina remembers that she was very inexperienced when she took on McKinlaigh.

    “One month after he arrived in the US, I rode him in a clinic with Mark Todd. Apparently I proclaimed to Mark that I was going to take him to the Olympics. Mark asked if I had ever ridden advanced, but I didn’t think this was a prerequisite! Anyway, three years later I ran in to Mark in Jerez at the World Equestrian Games, and he had a bit of a surprised look on his face!”

    Gina and McKinlaigh did their first advanced together in 2001 and competed in the three-star (now four-star) at Fair Hill that autumn after just two advanced runs. When they completed Kentucky the following year, they had been competing at advanced for just over a year.

    “Had I been more experienced when we started together, I believe he would have had far fewer cross-country time-penalties,” said Gina. “At the Pan Am Games in 2007, I was so upset by our disappointing dressage performance, that I went out on the cross-country with a vengeance, coming in 34 seconds under the time.

    “McKinlaigh was just eight years old at the 2002 WEG, and he was still young, not that fit yet and so laid back, that he really preferred to gallop at 520mpm [rather than the 570mpm required speed for top level eventing]. To motivate him to go faster, I had to give him a few motivational taps with the whip. On cross country day at WEG, I dropped my whip around jump seven, so no longer had a way to tap him. He proceeded to canter around the whole track right around 520mpm, despite my attempts to motivate him for faster speed!”

    Gina thanked McKinlaigh’s owners for sticking with her despite her inexperience: “I know he would have had numerous more wins and credits to his record, had I been more experienced. But his owners Thom and Laura were loyal to us as a pair and turned down many offers from others to purchase him. For that I am eternally grateful.”

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