Born in the Netherlands and imported to the U.S., Starr Witness’s career didn’t begin on the cross-country course – it began in the hunter ring. When her owner Emil Spadone decided she wasn’t cut out for the hunters, he sent her to Doug Payne to try her hand at eventing.
“He sent her down and said, ‘I don’t know, maybe she’s a little too hot to be a hunter’ – he neglected to tell us she was a chestnut mare,” Payne explained with a laugh. “So the horse shows up – this big chestnut mare – and I hopped on and she’s amazing. Better yet, he sent the papers and she’s listed as dark brown!”
Known affectionately as "Gin," or the “Ginga Ninja,” the 8-year-old KWPN mare by Chello III and out of Carmen began her eventing career with her first Training level event at Sporting Days Farm in February of 2018. She progressed quickly from there, moving up to Preliminary at Paradise Farm two weeks later. “The thing is, she’d already jumped through 1.20 meters and so [I didn’t] necessarily have to teach her to jump per se, it’s just teaching her the tricks of cross-country,” Payne said.
Payne moved Gin up to the Intermediate level at the Millbrook Horse Trials that August, and that’s when he started thinking about the Pan American Games. “She went around with ease and I figured, you know what, it’s going to be a little bit tight to get there, but let’s see if we can get her to Jockey Club.”
Gin won the Intermediate at Five Points Horse Trials and was seventh in her first CIC2* at Stable View before making the drive south to the Ocala Jockey Club, where she came in second in her first CCI2* on her dressage score of 29.6.
Gin ran Intermediate at Pine Top to kick off the 2019 season and after a small bobble in the Carolina International CCI3*-S they came back out swinging to win the CCI3*-S at The Fork. From there, they went on to win the CCI3*-L at Jersey Fresh on their dressage score. After being named to the Pan Am team, Payne and Gin were seventh in the CCI3*-S at Maryland International.
“I fell in love with her pretty quick and was lucky to find a group with Laurie McRee and Catherine Winter and was able to figure out a way to keep her,” Payne said. “Emil still owns five percent. He basically said that if she wins something big or goes to the Olympics, he wants to be in the picture.”
“It’s a very rewarding experience for sure,” Payne continued. “I’m very appreciative of [her owners] because they took a chance. Laurie and Catherine and Emil took a shot and trusted that we could turn it over. It’s incredibly exciting. She’ll stay at this level through the year and probably move up next year to Advanced.”
“She’s so athletic and smart and willing,” Payne observed. “She goes in a rubber snaffle and you’ve hardly got to touch her reins. She’s learning still, I think she will continue to get better. She was fitter [at Jersey Fresh] than she was last fall. She’s just learning now how to relax and open up her step and be more efficient on cross-country.”
“She’s an amazing horse - super athletic, willing, she loves it and just keeps getting better and better every time out.”
"Gin is super sweet, especially for a mare," said Courtney Carson, Payne's groom. "The only time she ever gets offended is if you’re tightening her girth. She can be barn sour if she gets ridden around what she believes to be lunchtime, poor girl will never miss a meal! She’s one of the most food motivated horses I’ve ever met. If you open any snacks around her then be prepared to share. She loves Twizzler bites and spent all of Millbrook last year reaching over the wall into the tack room asking for them!"
"Gin loves all the attention that she gets. It’ll start because everyone sees her walking around and goes, 'Wow, she’s beautiful' and then they see her move or jump and they’re hooked," Carson continued. "It definitely works in her favor because it turns into a '2 for you, 1 for me' treat system. I get more attention on my Instagram because of pictures for her than any other horse. One friend of ours gave Doug a mini voodoo doll of a 'Ginja Ninja' (our nickname for her) that travels everywhere with her. It’s pretty cool that she’s turned out this special because she’s had an incredible presence since I hauled her home. I’ve never been a big mare person, but she’s the exception to that rule. Don’t get caught sleeping on Ginja though - she will lure you in and then spook at a butterfly and she’s gone! I honestly think she just does it to mess with you - like a cat playing with its food!"
It’s the turn of the world’s best Eventing athletes to stand under the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games spotlight over the next few days as all but one of the horses presented at this morning’s horse inspection at Baji Koen Equestrian Park were confirmed for action by the Ground Jury.
And they're off! Eventing kicks off today in Tokyo (Thursday, July 29 – 7:30 p.m. ET), with the first of three Olympic dressage sessions. Competitors from 29 nations will go head to head, vying for a spot on the coveted Olympic podium.
There were a few last-minute dramas at the first horse inspection for the Tokyo Olympics which took place in the main equestrian park at Baji Koen Equestrian Centre at 9:30 a.m. JST today.