The story is a familiar one. Girl loves horses, rides and competes throughout her childhood, but then takes a break for college or maybe to start a family. However, the love for horses never truly burns out and the girl (now a woman) returns to horses and eventing when she can. For Jenny Tucker (now Brinkley), it was one very special horse that brought her 110 percent back into eventing and has been a hero to not just her, but many in the last 19 years.
“I left behind eventing to start a family. In 2003 when my daughter Matilda was 6 years old, I signed her up for riding lessons from my veterinarian’s daughter, Mary Bess Davis [née Sigman],” explained Jenny. “I remembered Mary Bess from my eventing days when she was just a kid with a red pom-pom atop her cross-country helmet! My daughter and I both loved our weekly outing to see “Miss Mary Bess.” One day during Matilda’s lesson, Mary Bess suggested that I ride a cute horse at the barn just for the fun of it. I found myself astride for the first time in many years with what can only be called, a “perma-grin!” With that, I asked Mary Bess to help me find a horse to get me back into eventing.”
Enter Guinness X, a 16.1 Irish Sport Horse gelding (Carlow Clover x Choose) foaled in 2000 in Georgia. Guinness was in training at Mike Winter’s (then Mary Bess’ trainer) farm in Newnan, Ga. when Jenny first met him. At just 3 years old, Guinness had been with “Mike only long enough to know to go round and jump what was in front of him.”
“His mind and his hoof were his selling points,” explained Jenny. “I will never forget, farrier Karl Meyer, who I had just met that day in Mike’s barn, pulling me aside, pointing to Guinness and saying, ‘buy that one . . . HE will last a long time.’ Being a small woman at age 40, and only having ridden through the Training level, I had no business with a young horse! I bought him with a promise that Mary Bess would stay close and manage us both up through the levels. By spring that year, I found myself once again riding in lessons, opening gates, and tromping through pastures with all the joy and frustration that a life with a horse in it brings!”
At the age of 7 Matilda remembered when Guinness first arrived, “As an only child, my mother brought home a little brother, a beast so overwhelmed by his own massive curiosity that I simply saw him as a bully 12 times my size. His affection and ploys for attention could throw my little body across a wash rack, drench me in sprays of sweat, or rip clean through my favorite barn jacket. I really, really, really didn’t like him.”
In Jenny’s first summer of owning Guinness, he came up lame in his hind end and spiked a high fever. For over a week there was no diagnosis and his hip muscle began to atrophy. After speaking with her vet, Dr. Sigman, Jenny decided to bring Guinness home from the hospital and set up what she dubbed a “horsepital” in her own barn. Jenny cleaned his catheter several times a day, took his temperature three times a day, kept copious notes, and hand-fed and grazed as he slowly and thankfully regained his health. “While this illness was a huge set back to Guinness’s training, it gifted Guinness and me with that deepening of connection that can only come from caring for the gravely ill. Funny that in the years to come, Guinness would care for me as his rider as carefully as I had cared for him,” said Jenny.
“I remember a summer of getting to know a humbled horse, confused and limited by an affliction he didn’t understand. I talked to him for hours and attempted to convey that we didn’t understand either. I loved this little brother,” added Matilda.
Guinness pulled through his mystery illness with a crooked tail and “an even bigger attitude” as the only evidence, and he and Jenny made their USEA recognized event debut at the 2005 Poplar Place Farm February H.T. – finishing on their dressage score for third in the Beginner Novice. Jenny was back in the saddle as an eventer once again! So what was next?
“My mom and dad kept my daughter one weekend the first winter I owned Guinness while a group of us met in Tryon for a few days of schooling and fun,” Jenny remembered. “Upon my return home, I came blowing into the house, red face and chapped and began to excitedly share the riding highlights and escapades of the trip. My dad being a successful business type, asked me very seriously, ‘So what are your goals with your investment of this horse?’ With that, I fell out laughing and said, ‘To feel just like this! Alive and high as a kite!’ Only my mother really understood as she noted to my dad that they had not seen me this happy in years!” And her daughter Matilda agreed, saying that competing Guinness made her the happiest she had seen her in life.
“Something about overcoming his illness gave him a matured assuredness that he was THE man,” explained Matilda. “Guinness should be fed first and spoken to last. Any barn was his barn. My feelings towards him rescinded somewhat into a causal tolerance, however, our bond remained. When he was fit for competition, I spent most of my hours at my mother’s horse shows sitting in front of his open stall, his chin nibbling softly on my jacket shoulder, watching as I played game boy. Sometimes my mother would catch me reading him his dressage test or jump courses. My time at his stall, however, did serve some functional purpose. Without a human barrier, Guinness would eat every saddle, helmet, bridle, girth, or glove in sight. Those objects were his too, obviously.”
Jenny did have a secret goal – to go Preliminary. A level she had gotten close to before, but lost when her older event horse was retired due to navicular changes. Jenny and Matilda (who then had her own pony Sam I Am) spent several years training and competing together at events around the southeast. By the end of 2006, Jenny and Guinness were solid Training level competitors and Mary Bess competed Guinness at the Preliminary level several times in preparation for Jenny’s debut at the level. Unfortunately in January Jenny fell off cross-country schooling and fractured her pelvis. Then in March, she entered her first Preliminary, but “two days before the show, my mother passed away,” Jenny explained. “Instead of competing that weekend, I took Guinness out on trails where he helped ease my grief and conjure the eulogy I would speak days later at her funeral. This was the first of many times Guinness would be the necessary constant I so needed.”
Mary Bess kept Guinness competing – introducing him to his first FEI events and going solidly at Preliminary. A year later Jenny was ready to try again. Her first attempt ended up with a retirement, but in May they returned to Poplar Place, the same location of their first event and successfully completed. “Coming through those finish flags, my heart felt it would truly burst with gratitude to my horse and my trainer, Mary Bess,” said Jenny.
Jenny met her lifelong goal and went on to complete a full season at the Preliminary level, but an accident would change Guinness’ path. “I did not have the skill or fortitude to continue competing at the upper levels,” explained Jenny. “Guinness, on the other hand, showed a love and talent for the sport that was worthy of continuing onwards. Just as we were planning what and where to go with Guinness, Mary Bess had a freak, back-crushing fall from a young filly in training. True to her character, and sporting a Madonna-esque back brace, Mary Bess was out coaching her students as soon as she was able.” Mary Bess’ mom asked Jenny if she would be willing to allow Mary Bess to take over the ride on Guinness since he “was the best, truest, and safest mount for Mary Bess to ease back into the upper levels after her recovery.”
Once she was cleared to ride Mary Bess and Guinness worked up the levels – finishing seventh out of 73 starters at the 2009 Fair Hill International Three-Day Event and several top finishes at the Advanced level. In 2010, Jenny lost her dad and also went through a divorce, but she said that “my daughter and I had the horses and especially Guinness and Mary Bess’s competitions to keep us focused on something positive and something we loved!”
“I think he was an unexpected gift to me from Jenny,” said Mary Bess. “She gave me the opportunity to keep going with him. I really never thought of him as being for me to ride upper levels until it was happening. He was the youngest of the string and kept stepping up the levels and telling me to ‘watch this.’”
Guinness surprised Jenny and Mary Bess with his speed and ability to gallop, but he just didn’t have the scope for more. They decided not to have him compete at the Advanced level anymore. “What seemed a sad decision became a gift to another up and coming rider in need of a true and safe mount. My daughter held a deep desire to ride on the Area III North American Youth Championships (NAYC) Team and Guinness was just the good man to help get her there! This time, watching what felt like both of my children run those upper level courses made this mom burst with pride and tremble with concern! Those were truly some of the most exciting and heart-wrenching days . . . both my babies out on course!”
Guinness’ core trio shuffled roles once again – Jenny as show mom, Mary Bess as coach, and Matilda as rider – and as Jenny said, “We took our show on the road to getting qualified for the 2012 NAYC Area III CH-J* Team. The road to qualify was hard-fought and bonding.”
When first asked if she wanted to ride Guinness Matilda had no answer as it was too unexpected of a question. “I had revered Guinness as an unattainable mount, too talented and too distant for my skillset. He was an Irish hunk and I was accustomed to my sensitive, limber Thoroughbred dandy,” she said.
“Guinness had retired from Advanced to Novice in the blink of an eye and his ego just wasn’t having it,” continued Matilda. “We tore about the dressage arenas with his nose so high I’m sure he couldn’t see. On cross-country, more times than I can count his ears locked onto the blue and red flags of the upper levels when I really needed him to see the white ones. All of this being said, we finished on our dressage score every single weekend.”
Matilda and Guinness were set to represent Area III at the 2012 NAYC in Kentucky and Matilda said that everything began to click with Guinness just in the nick of time. “Instead of fighting like brother and sister, we listened and worked with one another. We pulled through with the finest dressage test we’d ever executed. Guinness’s consistency was rewarded in the most appropriate way: Coach Kyle Carter put Guinness out first for the team on cross-country. ‘I know you’ll get it done, come hell or high water. You two are wild.’ My heart swelled, burst, and earned the team and individual bronze medals.”
“As my child stood on the podium, hand on her heart, with that dearest of animals beside her as our national anthem played, this mom and owner felt the fullness that is our sport and life with these beloved creatures,” said Jenny. Matilda and Guinness continued on to compete at the 2013 NAYC on the Area III CCIY2* team where she was on the gold medal-winning team.
“He was so much fun to ride at [the upper levels] and made me even more proud to watch him make Jenny and Matilda’s dreams come true. . . the partnership I had with him was so special to me, so watching Jenny and Matilda ride him made me a nervous parent. I loved every minute, but you can ask anyone that was around me while they were running cross-country, and I was a nervous wreck. I knew they had it, but the love you share with an animal that has taken you around an Advanced course is indescribable,” said Mary Bess.
Guinness served faithfully helping Jenny meet her goal of going Preliminary, bringing Mary Bess back up the levels after her accident, accomplished Matilda’s dream of NAYC glory, and as horse stories are often told, Guinness picked up a minor injury on cross-country with Matilda which caused the circle to close fully and Jenny to resume the role as rider. “As thankful as I am for the care and career he gave me, I’m even more touched that he continues to care for my momma,” said Matilda.
When Matilda went off to college, Guinness was 14 and Jenny hadn’t ridden in him in several years so they had some fun at the Novice level where they are still going strong winning the 2017 Area III Novice Championships, finishing third at the 2017 USEA American Eventing Championships in the Novice Master Amateur division, and most recently finishing fourth at the 2019 AEC in the Novice Rider division. Jenny joked that in his prime at the upper levels, “Guinness had the look of an athlete and a wholesome, handsomeness of a Jimmy Stewart-like leading man. Today at 19, he sports a bit of a ‘Dad Bod’ and we have to be careful as when sporting certain royal blue and gold saddle pads he could be mistaken for a metropolitan mounted police horse!”
“As I look back over the last 16 years of having Guinness in my life, the interesting thing is that all those highs we three women experienced with him were only bettered by the every day and the non-event days,” said Jenny. “Such as those evenings when I was simply walking into the barn for night check and was greeted by Guinness’ soft snort or whinny or his big old head hanging out of the trailer window at a gas station on the road to yet another competition. Not to mention those moments when life brought some of its inevitable pain and there, always steadfast, was Guinness with his soft eye, and sweet face filling my heart with a healing gratitude. This is what horse heroes are made of. They are consistently there for us, trying their hearts out, allowing us to get it wrong, and ultimately making us better.”
“Every day with him is a gift and every time I ride him, we take a long walk after the work to bird watch and just breath in the moment while I think . . . ‘How lucky I am?’”
The USEA Horse Heroes series celebrates equine athletes who have contributed to the sport again and again, competing with multiple riders at the upper levels of the sport. Do you know of a horse hero who deserves recognition? Email your tips to [email protected].
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