An Interview with Jill Gaffney By Kathryn Lily Spokes Model Gianna Milo & Edited by Elise Rizzi.
Jill Gaffney and Carlton Cafe, AIG Million Dollar Grand Prix at HITS Coachella 2017, Photo Credit: Jana Kay Carter.
I wanted to interview Jill because I watched the $40,000 Equine Insurance Grand Prix at Sonoma Horse Park and Carlton Cafe is the closest thing that I have ever seen to a real life unicorn - she can really fly! Jill rode her beautifully and they seemed to be a very trusting team. ~ Gianna
Special thanks to Jill for allowing us to interview her for the blog.
Gianna- Tell me about the day that you found Carlton Cafe, did you know right away that he was the one?
Jill- My husband, Trevor Gaffney, found "Misty" in Ireland and recognized her bloodlines. She is by Carlton Clover, an Irish Sport Horse stallion from Sligo, Ireland. The Irish horses are known for their good minds and big hearts. Trevor purchased her and believed in her ability to jump the Grand Prix level from the beginning. It took me a little longer to believe in her ability, because Misty and I didn't always see eye to eye in training at the start. But once I learned to trust her, everything changed and the two of us finally clicked together.
Gianna- What is your most memorable win on Carlton Cafe, and why was it so special?
Jill- My most memorable win with Misty was actually not a win at all, but when we jumped the World Cup pre-Qualifier at Las Vegas National Horse Show in 2016 for a clear round over the fences and just one time fault. It was the biggest course of our career in an indoor arena and she was amazing. I realized I can trust her to jump anything we face together. But if I had to pick a win, it would be the $25,000 SmartPak Grand Prix at SHP in 2016 because my mother and grandmother were there to watch it.
Gianna- How do you and Carlton Cafe work both as individual athletes, as well as a team to prepare for Grand Prix classes?
Jill- As an individual athlete, Misty is on a very specific regimen of physical exercise, fitness and stamina work, diet, as well as body work and care. It is a program that involves myself, our grooms, her trainer Trevor, and our veterinarians. My regimen as an individual athlete involves physical exercise (I ride 8-10 other horses a day) as well as body work like chiropractic and massage. Together, we do not jump a lot in between Grand Prix classes, but instead work on flatwork, gymnastics, poles, and cavaletti to keep up our fitness as a team.
Gianna- Do you have a specific regime to prepare yourself the day of the Grand Prix? Any lucky items or apparel?
Jill- I am a little superstitious about Grand Prix day! I have a "lucky" coat and belt that I wear every Saturday. The coat was a gift from my friend Lauren Morlock, of Sarm Hippique riding apparel, that is dark blue with a light blue collar, like the colors of our farm, Freestyling Farms. I also wear a needlepoint belt I made about 15 years ago that is black with a colorful dragon all the way around it. On Grand Prix day, I am usually very busy with other clients and horses but I try to give myself a little quiet time before the class. If I can take a quick nap, that's my favorite! When I walk the course, I like to walk by myself and I tend to walk the course twice - once to get an initial feel for the course, and a second time to finalize in my mind what the strides are and where the turns are going to be. In the warm up ring I don't talk much, except to say good luck to or ask a question of other riders.
Gianna- You seemed very relaxed when I watched you ride, do you get nervous? Can you share some tricks with how to handle nerves?
Jill- A lot of people tell me I look so relaxed when I ride, but to be honest I'm always nervous! I am a perfectionist and I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. But I have some things that work for me if the nerves start to get to me. I always tell myself to trust Misty no matter what. She has always been there for me, even at my worst, and I can trust her absolutely. When a rider can trust their horse completely and a horse can trust their rider, that is the greatest gift of this sport. I also tell myself that my most important job every time I step into the ring, even more important than winning, is to give my horse the most confident, encouraging ride that I can so she will always want to try her hardest for me, especially on days where I am not at my best. When I tell myself these two things and really believe them, I ride my best rounds.
Gianna- Tell me something that most people don't know about Carlton Cafe.
Jill- She is very grumpy about getting her blankets on or adjusted. She makes a really mean face and pins her ears. She also falls asleep when getting body clipped.
One of the many reasons why I wanted to go to Pony Finals was the chance to participate in the free clinics. Every year, I wished the clinics would be recorded and posted online for everyone. This year, I was fortunate enough to go to Pony Finals on the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family grant and it was a life changing experience. In an effort to pay it forward to the numerous riders back home who are also interested in learning, I took notes and want to share them!
The model clinic is a well known perk for those that attend Pony Finals. The model is an critical part of the pony hunter division, so those competing at Pony Finals have probably modeled many times. However, there is plenty to learn from these helpful notes whether you have been to Pony Finals multiple times, or aspire to compete in the pony hunter division and maybe even someday Pony Finals.
I had the opportunity to attend the model clinic twice - first with my pony and the second time to audit. I learned a lot both times and would recommend going at least once with your pony if you can. Remember to sign up in advance at the welcome dinner as early slots fill up fast.
Before you attend a clinic, I recommend you start by practicing at home; you can ask your trainer or a friend to help you. Personally, I practice my jog 3 times a week on the way to my trailer to load (which also serves to check soundness before hauling all the way to a lesson), and I now make it a habit to practice modeling during free times.
Here are my notes from both model clinics, feel free to message me (Ella Doerr) if you have any questions.
Derby Winner: An Inside View -Kathryn Lily SpokesModel Gianna Milo Interviews Jessica Allan after her win on Fanciful in the $25k USHJA International Hunter Derby. By Gianna Milo edited by Elise Rizzi
Kathryn Lily Spokesmodel Gianna Milo had the opportunity to interview Jessica Allan after her win on Fanciful in the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby, sponsored by Barn Style at Sonoma. It was a great class with beautiful jumps and horses - our own Kathryn Lily Spokesmodel, Sami Milo, finished second on Lulavani! Special thanks to Jessica for allowing us to interview her about her ride.
Photo by: Alden Corrigan Media
What was your favorite moment/highlight on course?
My favorite moment on course was landing off the last jump in the handy round and realizing I had given my horse a good enough ride that he had a chance at winning.
How did you plan to approach the course when you walked it? Were there certain plans you made to complement your horses' talents?
When I walked the course I had it pretty much set in my mind that I would do all the low options as long as the scores coming in before me weren't huge. I just wanted to put in a smooth first trip and put myself in a good position for the second round. The first round course was very complimentary for my horse because it was flowing with limited related distances. He jumps the best from a long approach where I can really show off his jump.
If there was one part of the course you could re-do or improve upon, where would that be and how would you ride it differently?
I would for sure like a re-ride on the last jump in the handy round. It was a hand gallop jump and I didn't really push it as much as I would have liked. I protected the pace a little bit too much because I was worried about getting too flat to the big high option and I think it cost me some handy points.
What are your future goals for Fanciful?
This year Fancy will continue to do the big derbies with me and the 3'3" junior hunters and small derbies with his owner, Jayme Jenkins. Next year Jayme will move up to the 3'6" juniors and I'd love to take him to derby finals in Kentucky next summer.
What's one quirky/fun fact about Fanciful? (favorite food, place to be scratched, stuffed animal, etc.)
Fancy's favorite things are eating, sleeping, and snuggling (in that order). He often enjoys "breakfast in bed" and will eat his morning hay while lying down. He also LOVES snuggles and will take any opportunity to give kisses.
How do you balance the importance of such a high-stakes class with the true meaning of horsemanship and enjoying the ride?
I am very committed to horsemanship. I believe the care of the horse takes priority over everything else. We make sure to balance Fancy's workload carefully when he has a big class. I also have to remind myself that this is all supposed to be fun! Every time I show Fancy I think of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to compete on such an amazing horse. He really is incredible and I'm grateful to have him in our barn.
With exhaustion I sit on our damp front steps and flick the grainy dirt off my boots as I unbuckle the spur straps and peel off my chaps. Greet my hungry kitty at the door... she must be starving, I've had another 12 hour day. Tossing the day's mail on the counter, I grab a can of food to turn off the constant crying at my feet. As I open the trash can, I catch a glimpse of the Emory University magazine mixed in the pile of junk mail and white envelopes. I pause and start to think of my Ivy league education ...along with all the Ivy league dollars..that earned that booklet to sit in the middle of my kitchen and a little ball of guilt starts to form in my belly. Are my parents disappointed that there is no DR before or PHD or ESQ after the name on all those letters on my counter? All the hours my mother worked overtime, all the hours I studied overtime... two majors, one minor... The smell of grass and sweat start to overpower my reminiscing and I trip over the cat on my way to the shower.
I start to smile as the bubbles run down my back. Her grin was from ear to ear as she high-five'd me after her jump today. She shrugged and giggled and brushed her pony for an hour after her lesson. I rubbed my shoulder and cracked my neck, that young horse really caught me off guard passing the gate earlier today. I exhale and then relax thinking about the jump combination that felt like an effortless dance with my newest partner in the barn.
I passed the five loads of laundry who are waiting for my return, and made my way to kitchen to draw my favorite tea. There sits the Emory magazine again, filled with alumni and their studies and achievements... I'm sure its residents are engaging in political conversations across long table tops and discussing the most recent medical studies they are working on. I grab some shirts and start folding, checking the sizes and carefully placing them in crisp plastic bags. I rub my thumb over the embroidery on the back of the next shirt. My first name is stitched with care and I think again about my Ivy league education....and decide it was worth every penny and every long working hour. I stack the shirts in a box and taste the cinnamon spice chai again.
My office isn't in a large hospital or on the 20th floor of a downtown sky scrapper. I come home with horse hair and dirt and work overtime at a cluttered kitchen table...but I get to fly and taste freedom everyday. I get to swim in the smiles and joy from innocence and I get to share a passion and hang it in a stranger's closet until I join them on a trip of their own freedom ride.
No, I don't use my degree to ride professionally...and I didn't need it to start a company with my best friend. But my Ivy league education took me on a journey to meet that best friend, and brought me to the city where I met my heart horse who led me to the barn where I work. My Ivy league education taught me dedication, how to set goals, and how to keep raising the bar. Thank you Mom and Dad for the overtime, for the phone calls of encouragement, and for sitting for hours waiting for me to walk on that hot Atlanta May day. The embroidered logo on all my "work clothes" feels really good. REALLY GOOD... and so does the taste of freedom to do what I love everyday.
Although this is a blog and personal pronouns are okay, my inner grammar nazi says that this blog needs proper introduction. However, despite the fact that this story's been told a thousand times, I could never find the right words to start us off. How does one summarize half a decade of pure love, aspirations, gruesome battling, achievement, discovering, and uncovering your soulmate in one sentence? I’ve never been one to be found at a loss for words, but there's one soul in particular that can simply take the breath out of me, and maybe even put it in too.
This is the story of a little pony who saved my life.
About 5 years ago, I went through the typical teenage struggles. I was having a really hard time, in and out of school, finding myself. I wasn’t the best runner on the cross country team, I rode any horses I could get my hands on, I didn’t have many friends in school, and I found myself creating a deep insecurity for little things like this. I absolutely hated myself and wished I could be more. I wanted to be like the pretty riders at the barn and the Varsity runners on the team, and the popular girls in school.
One cold January night, my trainer had me lesson on one of the new rescue ponies at the barn. This pony was a black and white pinto mare previously named #393 at the Camelot Horse Auction and now named As It Fits, aka Puzzle. Puzzle was a scrawny, typical mare with a huge attitude and a whole lot of sass. At first, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with her and as a few lessons went on with Puzz, other people started feeling the same. After she had scared off a few people, I had decided that having something of my own was pretty cool and I didn’t care what it was- it was mine.
With that, I decided to take Puzzle on. We spent a year butting heads and learning all about each other. In this year, I had started to find myself. A lot of the depressing nights and insecurities had disappeared when Puzz entered my life. She showed me the light that I had failed to see for quite some time. I took Puzzle in and completely loved her like one of our own. We had gone to some local show but we were rarely in the ribbons. We spent that entire year trying to make her into the hunter pony we had wanted.
After about a year of trying, we decided that it wasn’t her calling so for laughs and giggles, we threw her in the jumper ring at a local show and she took 6th out of 26! We decided that she was happier in the jumper ring so we switched gears and worked at the 2’9 puddle jumpers. We ended up Reserve Champion for the year through NHHJA in the Puddle Jumpers. Around this time, I had heard of the USEF Pony Jumper Finals and instantly fell in love with the idea of taking Puzz. I approached the idea with a few friends and my trainer, but the goal wasn’t as ideal to them as it was in my eyes. As far of a long shot as it was, I pushed and pushed and pushed to have a chance, so we spent the winter working our way up from the 2’9 jumpers to the 1.10m pony jumpers.
As spring approached, we attempted our first USEF show with the Pony Jumpers and left with a thousand things to work on. It was a difficult journey to have a trainer who had never really worked with USEF or Pony Jumpers, a kid who had never competed through USEF, and a pony in the same boat; it was an inexperienced team taking on the national circuit. We received a ton of hate, doubt, and negative feedback along the way and before Puzz, I would have instantly returned to my old, insecure habits, but having her allowed me confide in myself and to look past everything thrown my way. It was almost like tunnel vision from the world; it had to be one of the most powerful and decisive feelings I've ever felt in my life.
We had a bit of a set back at the 2nd show of the year. Puzzle flipped over after an oxer and lost all of her confidence. We were both so shaken up. I felt embarrassed, aghast, upset, and humiliated. I can still picture her on the ground and I can still feel the exact horror I felt in that instant, watching her helplessly in disbelief. The next day, we tried again and this one day of 17 years alive, still stands out like no other. I couldn’t even get her around 2’9 fences- she would just crash through them. She got to the point where she wouldn’t even go near the jumps and in that very moment, I’ve never felt pain in such a great amount. I felt like everything I had put into this pony for the past three years, was all ripped out over one bad distance to a big oxer. Everything I had worked for was gone. She didn’t trust me to guide her, she didn’t trust herself to do it, and I have never felt so empty. We made the heart breaking decision to let Pony Finals go for the year and to just decided to work on finding my pony again.
Turns out, taking that year off was the best decision we’ve ever been encouraged to do. I won several year end awards with NHHJA that year and took 7th place in Zone One for USHJA and USEF. I found my pony that year and our bond was stronger than ever. I’ve never had the pleasure to work with an animal so devoted to my happiness. Puzzle reminded me every single ride why I had started in the first place; she engraved a permanent mark of happiness in my heart that I truly believe I will hold until the day I die.
We started the next year taking champion at all 3 shows we did and Reserve at the 4th. We had shows almost every weekend trying to qualify and she took champion or reserve at every single one of them for the 2014 PJ calendar. That spring I had hinted around at the idea of applying to go to Devon so my mom secretly sent in an application. About 4 weeks later, I wound up in the hospital with a broken foot from running. As we sat in the waiting room, my mom got the confirmation that we were heading to Devon 2014! However, I needed to be able to continue to train so I begged the doctor for an air cast and nothing permanent (to avoid scratching my saddle!) and went on my way. Arriving at Devon weeks later, I was amazed by all the top riders and horses. We had a great first day that left me leaving the ring in tears of joy from just making it around! The second day, a man came down to us as we were warming up and wished me luck. He told me that he just had a strong feeling that he was looking at the winners. I hope he played the lottery that day because after 22 long rounds, Puzzle had won and I- well I was higher than cloud 9. We took home Reserve Champion from the week and did a few more shows before Pony Finals.
After 4 years of intense training and so many hurdles, my dream came true- I set out for Pony Finals with my best friend, my pony, and my entire team behind me. We had an incredibly successful week staying in the top 3 all week and making it into the championship round as one of only 7 rounds that went clean after day 2. We had 2 cheap rails on the last day, landing us in 7th but I couldn’t be happier. Although all of my dreams came true that week, I now had a big decision ahead of me and just as I had finally gotten everything I had ever wanted, I knew it was time to say goodbye. It was time for me to move up and for Puzzle to teach her next kid the ropes. To this day, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Nothing with Puzzle ever came free or easy. I worked for every ounce of accomplishment I had with that pony and what an honor it was! She changed my life entirely and made me who I am today. Just short of 5 years, I had fallen madly and deeply in love with the pony who had changed my life forever. I took every lesson she taught me and applied it every single day but more importantly, she remained to be the first and last thing on my mind before bed.
Although many look at our story and think that it was I, who rescued her- it was her who rescued me. She pulled me out of my dark and quiet hole and created a name for me. She helped me find a love for myself and an absolute passion to make this the most successful and positive life possible. It still blows my mind that she was garbage in someone's eyes, so much so that she was heading for a meat shop. However, I believe everything happens for a reason and it was no coincidence that she landed in my arms. As Marilyn Monroe said, “I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” Puzz taught me this each day and as I sent her on her way, I could only pray that she would be loved even half as much by her new kids as I loved her. I'd found my one in a million and set out in search of my next one however there wasn't a day in all of my new journeys where I haven't looked back on the one in whom I owe all of my new successes too; I will never forget the little pinto mare that changed my life forever. #teamAsItFits