Just two weeks shy of the ten-year anniversary of their first horse trials together, Lynn Symansky and her off-track Thoroughbred Donner will canter down centerline at the Tryon International Equestrian Center representing USA at the World Equestrian Games.
Photo by Shannon Brinkman.
They’ve come a long way in those ten years and this won’t be the first time Lynn wears her pinque coat on the world stage. She and Donner (Gorky Park x Smart Jane) - affectionately known as ‘The Deer’ - were first called up from the reserve list to compete in the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara. Under pressure to qualify for the London Olympics, Team USA won gold in Mexico. In 2014, Lynn and Donner were named to the team for WEG in Normandy, where USA failed to finish with a team score. Will USA taste sweet redemption in Tryon?
"I’m always trying to figure out how to get better, make the horse better, prep better..."
I caught up with Lynn on the phone during a brief break from packing. She was getting ready to head down to North Carolina from her home base in Virginia for the final team training camp ahead of WEG. A less experienced rider might not have had the mental capacity to do an interview in the midst of final preparations for one of the biggest events of her life, but Lynn is seasoned pro at this point.
“I know what to expect so that gives you a way to feel much more settled,” Lynn says. “I’ve known the horse so many years. Does that make me feel like I’ve got it in the bag? Absolutely not. I’m always trying to figure out how to get better, make the horse better, prep better, but it does make me less nervous than I would be going in with a horse I’ve never ridden on a team or on a greener horse. I know how to deliver to the best of my ability what is needed for my team.”
Photo by Kaitlyn Karssen.
Having completed nine CCI4* competitions since Donner’s first trip to Kentucky in 2013, where he and Lynn finished on their dressage score for fifth place, Donner is the most experienced horse on the USA WEG team this year. Bold, scopey and fast, there was a time in his career that he was selected for teams based on his reliability across the country. But like a fine wine, the ex-racehorse once known by the name ‘Smart Gorky’ (he won less than $3,000 on the track) just gets better with age. His dressage scores have steadily improved and he’s lowering fewer rails on the final day.
"He makes it look so easy so you’d never know that he’s quirky and spooky..."
“He’s bred more for the second day more than the first or third, but it’s all three. You’re always having to make sure you’re doing the right balance of cross training with them,” Lynn says. “I’ve been working hard over the past few years to improve his dressage. I’m more confident going into this Games than the last WEG knowing how to prepare him to keep his brain and body happy. He’s not blessed with the best movement but he’s very trained and accurate and not throwing away points. Richard [Picken] has helped me in show jumping. He can get flat and to keep him in [the right] shape I had to ride slower on the final day, so we’ve had time penalties in the past. We’re working on keeping the tempo up and having a clean round.”
While Lynn has to work for every point on the flat and to keep the rails in the cups in show jumping, Donner is a cross-country machine. But no matter how experienced an event horse may be, a foot-perfect cross-country round is never a given. Donner is a notoriously quirky horse and it can take several minutes for him to settle into a cross-country round. The track at Tryon, built on the narrow fairways of an old golf course, will test his focus, but knowing her horse so well, Lynn has a plan to play to his strengths.
Photos by Kaitlyn Karssen.
“He’s such a workhorse but he can get a little overwhelmed,” Lynn says. “Spooky horses you can be quick on because you ride forward to everything, but he takes a bit to settle into the course, especially with the crowds. That’s the challenge, to have him on the job and have his brain. He’s very much a CCI4* type of horse because he really becomes rideable and easy at minute six.” (A typical CIC3* course is only about six minutes long, while a CCI4* pushes 11 minutes.)
“He’s 15 years young this year and he’s not done yet.”
Lynn laughs at her partner’s idiosyncrasies, but you can hear the fondness in her voice when she talks about Donner. “The horse has tremendous heart and has matured so much over the years. He makes it look so easy so you’d never know that he’s quirky and spooky, but that’s the benefit of me knowing him for several years. Having the partnership and trusting him wholeheartedly. He knows his job at this point. It’s getting his head in the right place from the very beginning and then he’s on autopilot.”
Donner’s story is the familiar ‘bought as a resale project but then realized his potential’ kind of narrative. When Lynn first saw him he was skinny and under-muscled but he was a beautiful type. More importantly at the time, he needed a rider who could deal with ‘tricky’. Lynn recalls that first competition with him ten years ago, when he spooked at a photographer and bolted on cross-country and barely made it between the flags in show jumping. Soon, however, he started to figure out the game and kept marching up the levels. And here he is, days away from his second WEG and tenth CCI4*.
“He’s 15 years young this year and he’s not done yet.” On the contrary, Lynn says, he’s really just starting to come into his prime.
Written by Leslie Threlkeld
Having grown up on horseback, Leslie Threlkeld, Managing Editor at NOËLLE FLOYD, treasures her career in the equestrian industry as a writer, photographer, and eventing technical delegate. Leslie thrives on frequent travel but never tires of returning home to the serene mountains of North Carolina.