Sara Gumbiner Never Gave Up on the Kentucky Dream with Polaris

Sara Gumbiner and Polaris at Plantation Field. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

For Sara Gumbiner and Polaris, the Kentucky Three-Day Event has always been in the stars. Sara and the 13-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Brandenburg’s Windstar X North River Lady) have been partnered for seven years, with Sara taking the gelding up through the levels all the way from Beginner Novice in the hopes of one day competing at Kentucky.

“I’m getting really pumped up and it’s getting really real now. It’s such a surreal feeling,” Sara said. “I’ve been talking about Kentucky since I got this horse seven years ago. It always seemed within reach, but it was still always ‘some day.’”

That day is drawing nearer, and Sara will be our only four-star first-timer galloping across the bluegrass this weekend. (Editor’s Note: So y’all better cheer extra loud for her!)

Sara has been riding horses her whole life and knew from an early age that she wanted to be a professional rider, but it wasn’t until later on that she would discover eventing. Her initial introduction to riding came from New Jersey-based horse trainer Tracy Wagner, with whom she trained with through childhood and throughout high school.

“My mom said I was allowed to do horses as a career as long as I didn’t event and I said that was OK, because I didn’t even know what eventing was!”

Sara’s mom, Lindsy Gumbiner, is very familiar with the equestrian world; she works as an independent sales representative for several different equine companies. These days, her mom is her biggest fan.

“She’s the best horse show mom and she’s been able to be a big part in this journey,” Sara said. “She jokes that she wishes she could help me more financially, but it’s been good because I’ve learned to work hard.”

In her quest to find her niche in the horse world, Sara attended Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania and majored in equine studies. She spent a summer in Oklahoma with accomplished working horse trainer Todd Crawford after cold-calling him and asking for a job.

“Looking back, it was surprising to me how similar the eventing and the cow horse worlds were with the work ethic and caliber of horses,” Sara said, “but it wasn’t for me.”

During college Sara also had the honor of participating in the International World Equestrian Cup (IWEC), a competition similar to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association in the U.S. in that the riders compete on unfamiliar horses, but IWEC consists of a dressage test, a show jumping round, and a written exam.

Sara and three other Delaware Valley students traveled to Holland to represent the United States against seven other countries in an IWEC competition. “Meeting people from other countries where eventing was more of a thing opened my eyes up,” Sara said.

Throughout college, Sara catch-rode any horse she could. “They’d always put me on the naughty ones that nobody else wanted to ride because I was so eager and maybe a little bit crazy,” Sara laughed. One of those naughty horses was a 13.1-hand pony, Daily Special, owned by Stephanie Barberra.

“Nobody could ride him because he would always buck people off, but she needed someone small to school him so she put me on. After riding him awhile, Steph said to me: ‘You look like an event rider to me — I want you to take him to an event.’ So I did and I was hooked from there!”

Sara Gumbiner and Polaris at Jersey Fresh. Photo by Sally Spickard.

With her newfound love of eventing, Sara was determined to find a way to gain experience and break into the discipline. Similar to how she approached Todd Crawford, she wanted to find the best in the business and work for them. Stephanie recommended that she call up Boyd Martin, who at the time was just establishing his own program at Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm.

“I went up to Boyd at an event and shook his hand and told him I wanted to come work for him, but he said he couldn’t take me because I didn’t have a horse. I didn’t quite know what to do then because I had never owned a horse at that point.”

Stephanie stepped up and offered to pay for Sara to take the 13.1-hand pony with her. After graduating a semester early from college and with a pony now in tow, Boyd agreed to take Sara on as a working student in Aiken.

“Looking back on it, I didn’t realize what I was doing,. Boyd could have taken one look at me with this tiny scruffy pony and said, ‘What is this girl doing?’ I actually pulled Lillian Heard, who was a working student with me, aside at one point and asked her what the levels in eventing were. I still didn’t know which way was up!”

During her time spent working for Boyd in Aiken, South Carolina, Sara proved herself to be a persistent, quick learner and a hard worker. At the end of the winter season, Boyd offered her a job and a stall back in Pennsylvania. She worked with Daily Special for another 6 months, moving him up through Novice, before taking the ride on another horse who then maxed out at Preliminary.

“After that horse, Boyd pulled me aside and said he knew my financial situation was tough, but he told me I needed to find a way to get an owner and find my four-star horse.”

As fate would have it, Sara’s childhood trainer Tracy Wagner knew of someone who might be interested: Ann Nawn. Ann had dabbled in ownership in the racehorse world, but decided it wasn’t for her. Sara and Ann hit it off, and they went horse shopping — “It was a dream,” Sara remembers.

Sara and Ann looked at horse after horse, but none of them stuck. Boyd was also horse shopping at this time and had just been down to Phyllis Dawson’s to look at at some of her prospects. Boyd liked a horse called Quinn Himself and thought his brother, Polaris, could be a good match for Sara. He called her and said, “I think he’s the horse for you.”

Sara remembers flipping through the ads and nearly skipping past Polaris because he was in a price range she thought was out of the question. But the big dapple grey caught Ann’s eye, and she insisted on going to see him.

“We were so eager to go see this horse that Ann, my mom, and I just drove to Phyllis’ house and rang her doorbell and said, ‘We’re here to see Polaris!’ She kind of sighed and took us out to the barn,” Sara laughed.

“When I saw him in the stall, I just started to shake and said, ‘This is my horse.’ I rode him around a bit, and of course I loved him. When I got back in the car with my mom and Ann they could just tell that I was glowing. Ann said, ‘So you like him?’ And I said, ‘We have to call him Larry!’”

Larry and Quinn were meant to arrive in Pennsylvania on the same weekend as the devastating fire that destroyed the barn Boyd rented at True Prospect Farm, taking the life of six horses in his program. In a twist of fate, the pre-purchase exams for the horses were delayed by a week.

The arrival of Sara’s new horse and his matching dapple grey brother was a bright spot during a dark time for Boyd’s team. “Boyd was still so gracious taking us in and said we all just had to keep marching forward,” Sara said.

Sara Gumbiner and Polaris, VA CCI* 2012. Photo by Kate Samuels.

Polaris was a 6-year-old who had just completed one Beginner Novice event when Ann purchased him, and Sara has brought him up through the levels to their first CCI4*. Of course, it wasn’t always easy going for the a 5-foot-1 rider and 17.1-hand horse.  

“When he first came home it was like he was a spider — all legs,” Sara laughed. “He had to wear bell boots on all four feet out in the field — otherwise he’d come back in with all his shoes off.”

“It’s been a bit of a learning curve, but I’ve had Boyd right there helping me the whole way. At our first cross country school, Larry was absolutely feral — he wouldn’t jump a log on the ground, he was rearing up and spinning around. He can be very spooky, but he’s always had tremendous scope. It’s never been about getting over the jumps — it’s been about keeping his focus and putting his energy in the right direction.

On the ground, Larry is a sweetheart. “He’s like a little human,” Sara said. “He’s incredibly intuitive and he’s always the center of the barn. He always knows where his people are. He’s very kind and easy to deal with (unless you’re clipping his ears!). He’s always been such a chill, cool guy.”

While the jumping has come relatively easy, the biggest challenge for the pair has always been the dressage. At the Fair Hill CCI3* in 2016, the pair came down the center line and Larry suddenly reared and cantered sideways, which resulted in elimination.

“He just fell apart. It was absolutely devastating. That was our biggest disappointment, and I really had to take a deep breath and figure out what I was going to do and how to regroup,” Sara said.

“Looking back, I think it was a little bit of a blessing in disguise, because even though we had the same number of Advanced runs and experience as we should have had, our dressage hadn’t really been there since the two-star level.”

That winter, Sara took Larry down to Wellington, Florida to work with elite dressage rider and trainer Jessica Jo (“JJ”) Tate. They polished the flatwork all through the winter of 2016, but it wasn’t until the following spring that they turned another corner.

“I thought we had been going so well, but then we got an 84.5 on the flat at Jersey Fresh CCI3*. It was so frustrating because I knew he’d jump around clear — we just needed the qualifying dressage score in order to get to Kentucky. After that I pulled Boyd aside and said, ‘You gotta help me — this is my four-star horse.’ It’s tough because Larry doesn’t behave like that at home.”

Seeking a dressage score that would meet the Minimum Eligibility Requirement (MER) of 67.0 or below, Boyd temporary took the ride on Larry and competed him in the Nations Cup at Great Meadow International CICO3* last year.

“Just that ride was so helpful — it was about serious discipline,” said Sara. “Boyd just barely held him together and they got a qualifying score. Larry has a massive ego, and the fact that he’s really big and I’m really small makes it even more difficult. After Boyd rode him we took some flat lessons with him, and it was about figuring out how to hold him together without forcing it and also creating a more fluid relationship.”

As to how Sara thinks Larry will handle the atmosphere of a four-star: “He’s not super reactive to things you think he’d be reactive about, but it doesn’t take a lot to set him off. We’ll be spending a lot of time in the arena familiarization for sure.”

When you watch Sara and Larry enter the stadium later this week, you may notice some unorthodox warm-up before they canter down the centerline.

“I feel that he’s the most relaxed when he’s stretching over his back, so I get into two-point and get him to stretch while we go around the ring. I️ think it gets him to take a deep breath and relax. We have a very strict plan now and we’ll keep to it.”

Another piece of the puzzle in improving their dressage was looking at Larry’s bodywork regimen. “Whenever a horse acts up like that, I think you have to look into a possible veterinary reason,” Sara said.

Larry had broken his hip as a 3-year-old, and while he made a full recovery, a significant amount of scar tissue remained over his hip. After treatment by Patrick McGraw, a specialist in myofascial release, Larry is feeling and moving much better.

Sara’s last chance to earn an MER with Larry in order to qualify to compete at Kentucky this year came down to the wire at Fair Hill CCI3* last fall. The fact that they had been eliminated in dressage the year before added to the intense pressure. They scored a 59.0 in dressage and finished with a handful of time in cross country and stadium jumping plus a rail — but they did it.

“It was an amazing accomplishment for us because we had that terrible go the year before,” Sara said. “I remember finishing stadium and saying, ‘I can’t believe we did it!’”

Sara Gumbiner and Polaris at Fair Hill 2017. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The elation of finally qualifying for Kentucky was tragically cut short. About a month after their long-awaited success at Fair Hill, Larry’s owner, Ann Nawn, who had been with him and Sara since it all started, suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.

“She was always there with me and went through so many ups and down together. She was supporting not just the horse, but me also. She was a great friend.”

Despite the tragedy, another amazing supporter stepped up to help Sara. Her longtime friend and supporter Venesa Crumpley came forward to purchase Larry from Ann’s husband, Jim.  “Venesa has watched it all along the way and supported us,” Sara said. “I hope she finds as much joy as Ann and I did.”

Before their first one-star, Ann gifted Sara a necklace with a pendant for St. Christopher, the patron saint of travel. “It was always special to me, but it’s even more special to me now. I️ never take it off.”

As Sara and Larry gallop across the country this Saturday, they’ll surely have another angel watching over their travels.  It’s been a long journey, but they’ve finally made it to Kentucky.

“It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t make it all the way to Kentucky,” Sara said. “I had the right help and I was on the right path. It was just about forming a relationship with the horse and getting on the right road.”

The EN team wishes good luck to Sara and Larry! Go Eventing.