It's hard not to ogle the towering, huge-strided grey gelding as he gallops effortlessly across a cross-country field, easily popping over maxed-out Advanced tables as if they were tiny Beginner Novice coops. A few weeks ago, I was at the Carolina International Horse Trials, trudging around the course and taking photos, and I caught my breath as Polaris and Sara Gumbiner rounded the corner to the combination where I was shooting. The handsome 17.2-hand Irish Sport Horse exudes a certain aura, and there's something about him that catches your eye and you get the impression that he himself knows he's special. Like he'd give you a cheeky little wink as he whizzed by. And it was that same charismatic quality that grabbed Sara's attention when she first laid eyes on him eight years ago, back at his breeder's farm, Windchase.
Like many great eventers throughout history, including his half-brother Arthur, Polaris's fearless spirit and athleticism come with a side of quirkiness. With the help of long-time coach Boyd Martin, Sara has worked to overcome training obstacles and establish a solid partnership with "Larry." Together, the pair inched their way up the levels, and last year they produced a solid finish at their first CCI5*-L at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.
I caught up with Sara after her 8AM dressage test at Carolina for a quick chat about her plans for this year's event. Even though she and Larry had a less-than-stellar performance that morning ("Someone once said that no good dressage happens before 9AM and clearly Larry took it to heart!" she lamented with a laugh), she was eager to share their story with me. Sara's quick to smile and has a welcoming, down-to-earth quality about her and her work ethic and genuine love of Larry, despite his occasional naughtiness, is incredibly endearing and you can't help but root for them. Sara enjoys teaching children and adult amateurs at her homebase in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, and with her positive attitude and focus on horsemanship, I can see why she's a fan favorite.
Emily Daily: How did you first get started in eventing? What drew you to the sport?
Sara Gumbiner: I actually got started a little bit later than most, I think. I rode in the hunter/jumpers, Western, really anything all the way up until college. Then I had a professor in college who reached out to me. She had an eventer pony who was super naughty and kept bucking everybody off. She asked if I could come and sit on him. I ended up falling in love with the pony and then she eased me into eventing (I think it was her plan all along!). Once I did my first unrecognized event, I was pretty much hooked. We had to do an externship in college, so right after that I started looking into eventing things and someone suggested Boyd [Martin]. I looked into it and I called him up and I got a working student position with him. The rest is pretty much history. (Editor's Note: Eventing Nation did a great article on Sara's background last year before Kentucky - check it out for a more in-depth look.)
Tell me a little bit about Polaris ("Larry") your 14-year-old Irish Sport Horse (by Brandenburg's Windstar). How did your partnership begin? What’s he like? Does he have any quirks or funny habits?
Actually, Boyd ended up finding him for me. He was horse shopping as well and he went to Phyllis Dawson's place and he found a few that he liked and Larry was among them. Since I was pretty actively looking as well, he gave me a call and suggested I take a look. So we went down and I fell in love immediately. He was unlike anything I'd ever ridden. He's got so much presence. The moment I looked at him in the stall, I thought, I have to have this horse.
He's always been a little bit of a struggle only because Irish horses are really spooky, especially this line I think are notorious to have that spook. So, it was a struggle through all three phases, really. I remember joking (well, it wasn't a joke at the time!) that there was a serious talk about whether or not it was okay to fall off in between the [cross-country] jumps and still get back on and finish. And I was very happy to hear that I was allowed to fall off and continue. Only because he would spin, he would bolt, he would spook. It was just a matter of trying to figure out how to keep his attention and his focus on the jumping. But once the jumps got big enough, he started to learn his job and it was a lot easier to keep his focus. That's always fallen through in the dressage. One of the main things we've been working on was trying to get that same type of focus that he does in the jumping. But it's coming along--we have good days and we have bad days.
He and I have formed a pretty cool partnership, just because I've had him since he was a baby. He's quite the character. He's very humanlike. He responds in ways you would expect a kid to respond. I think when you have these horses for so long, they sort of figure out how to speak English.
He was six years old when I got him and he'd done one Beginner Novice and one Novice. And that was it. I think he had three rails down in the show jumping, but it made sense because he wasn't done growing and his legs were all over the place. I remember when we first got him he used to wear four bell boots in the field because he would come in with literally four shoes missing. He was just an orangutan.
Now, he's the king of the barn. He's very aware about where all the other horses are and what they're doing. He's not real keen on you telling him what to do or how to do it, which can be good and can be bad. I think it helps me out on the cross country a bit! If I have an opinion, he usually overrides me, and it works out.
You’ve been riding Larry for a long time—and you’ve been able to patiently bring him up through the levels yourself. What are some of the main things you’ve been working on with him lately? Are there any specific exercises or gymnastics that really help him in his training and why?
I think rideability is really key. With Larry it's tricky. Boyd has helped me with him from the very start and in the entire time I've had him, I've only jumped him a handful of times on my own. Boyd has always had his hand in helping me. So, the rideability is incredibly important because he has so many building blocks. The problem is when he starts to fall apart you have to be able to ride him through that. I think that with a horse like him that's just massive and has a lot of his own opinions, if you have all those buttons installed, you have half a chance of pushing him through it when things go awry. On a good day, he's perfect and when we're schooling at home, he's brilliant to ride. On a bad day, he's pretty tough.
But as far as jumping and rideability, any time I'm being really specific about a certain line or certain strides between jumps, then it's not height for him that's the issue. It's 'How many strides did I get here?' or 'Did I take this line right?' Did he stay round, did he stay connected?' So, we do a lot of slow, low jumping. It's funny because I coach a lot of kids at the lower levels and it's amazing how many of the same exercises I do with those kids I also do with my own horse. Just because those basics are so essential.
I've also been riding a bit with Silva [Martin, Boyd's wife] on the flat and one thing that we've started to do that I think has helped a lot is making him really take his time in the corners. And it's amazing when you really focus on taking the time in the corners how much more time you gain in the test to get him to relax. On a good day, it really works, but we're still working on it.
How are you yourself preparing for the event? Are you doing any extra fitness and strength-training work? Because he’s such a large, strong horse, is it more challenging to ride him? And how do you prepare mentally for such a huge competition?
He's almost 17.2 and I'm 5'1. That ratio is pretty ridiculous. There's not that many partnerships out there that are quite that drastic. Luckily, he's very soft in the bridle. I think that if he was heavy in my hand, it would make it nearly impossible. But when I start to lose him on the flat, just the sheer size of him makes him so difficult to ride.
I do have a very strict fitness regimen that I do for two reasons. One, because I think that it overall makes you a better rider. And two, because I really love it. I do strength and conditioning. There's a guy in Aiken that I work with named Kenny Ray and he's phenomenal. It's basically just functional strength training. I think it hardens you so you can take the falls better. Honestly, I think that the extra strength and conditioning makes your instincts better. When the horse hangs a leg or there's a split second where the two of you could fall down or something, it just gives you that extra amount of strength to stay on.
One of my hobbies is Muay Thai kickboxing, which I really love to do. I've dabbled in that and I hope to eventually do an amateur fight one day. But we'll see if I get that far. It's a lot of training, it'd be like a second job. But I'm pretty keen on it. I think if I really put some time into it, I could really get good at it.
As far as mental focus, I think it's a lifestyle. It's a matter of having these massive, lofty goals and making them part of every day life. Talking about them, putting them out in the universe and knowing you'll make it there.
Honestly, I'm a pretty spiritual and religious person, so there's a lot of prayer and meditation. Before I go and compete I take a few minutes and I pray and meditate and I kind of get my head in the game. I've had a lot of really cool people in my life and a couple that have passed on that I know are supporting me. So I just try to keep my head straight and channel that energy.
What was it like successfully completing your first trip to Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day event last year? What are your goals for this year?
I'm trying to have lofty goals, but also trying to stay realistic, so that I can achieve them. Any improvement on the flat, I'm going to be thrilled with. If I can get in there and ride for quality this time, versus survival... I mean, basically last year, I just wanted to survive and finish. We used to joke all the time that I was the happiest last place finisher after dressage. And it was, it was a game of survival, just so I could go jump around.
So, this year, my goal is a bit higher than that. Even if it's just a few points I'll be thrilled. Just a little bit of relaxation. I would like to come really close to making the time on cross country, because I know we can. It's something that we practice every single time we go cross country now--riding fast. Again, you start off at these big levels just trying to survive, just trying to go through the finish flags and I feel like we're beyond that now. I'm trying to be efficient and know that I rode well and try to come as close to the time as possible. Last year I had three rails in stadium and I think he was tired and I was a little overwhelmed. I've jumped plenty of double clears at the three-star level, so if I can go in there and have a double clear round or a single rail down I'll be thrilled.
Follow along with Practical Horseman's coverage of #KY3Day19 on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Special thanks to our sponsors, Absorbine, Dublin NA and Kent Nutrition Group/Blue Seal Feeds for their support!