Sara Gumbiner rode through the famous chute into Rolex Stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park on her way into the dressage arena with a fierceness on her face that never would have given away that she about to perform for the first time at the four-star level.
But as Sara piloted her horse, Polaris, down centerline for the final salute, tears welled in her eyes. The 5-foot, one-inch rider collapsed onto her 17.1-hand grey Irish Sport Horse gelding’s neck, patting him with endless gratitude in between wiping tears from her eyes.
Dressage was the hard part, but now it was in the rear view. Sara would go on to rocket around cross-country with a confidence reserved for much more veteran riders. Despite some time penalties, their partnership shone through during their performance on a rare sunny cross-country day.
But for Sara, 30, just being there as a competing athlete, at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, was a dream come true. It was a childhood fantasy she paved into reality – but not without a lot of help, some hard work, and plenty of setbacks along the way.
Plans B, C and D
The first time Sara ever evented was at age 18, and that was aboard a 13-hand pony. She’d grown up taking riding lessons around her home in New Jersey, but never owned her own horse.
“My parents were and still are very supportive of my riding. My mom used to say back in the day, ‘you can ride whatever you want, just no eventing,’” Sara recalled. Yet here she is, riding around four-star courses.
She cast a wide net while experimenting with the horse industry. While studying at Delaware Valley College, Sara was the hunt seat team captain but also rode on the dressage and western teams. She spent a summer in Oklahoma with world champion working cow and horse trainer, Todd Crawford.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” she said, as she did that summer roping cows. “The mentality is the same as eventing. It’s the same intensity and the caliber of the horse is the same.”
That perspective gave her the clarity she needed to pick a path and stick to it. Sara knew the rest of her life was going to be tied to horses in some way. But she missed jumping. And she was brave enough to event.
Sara began working for Boyd Martin on a whim. She went to a show she knew he’d be at just to shake his hand.
“I told him I wanted to work for him,” she remembers. “But he said no because I didn’t have a horse.”
So Sara went back to an old friend and advocate, the owner of the 13-hand pony she had evented before. She took that pony and went back to Boyd, who gave her the job.
“It’s amazing that he took me seriously as a 20 year old with a 13-hand pony,” she laughed. But in reality, “he saw how hungry I was.”
Sara worked her pony, and a few of Boyd’s horses along the way. But eventually it came time to find her own horse. The problem was, Sara couldn’t afford it.
But Sara had created a network of supporters through her hard work and horsemanship. Her childhood trainer knew somebody who knew somebody, and that’s how she got connected with Ann Nawn, a former racehorse owner.
Sara and Ann quickly developed a special relationship, and they set off to find the right horse for Sara to campaign on. They tried dozens of them, many off-the-track Thoroughbreds, until Boyd called one day and told her about an Irish Sport Horse he found.
“We just got in the car and drove there,” Sara remembers. “We kept calling the owner on the way there, and just showed up in her driveway.”
The second Sara sat on the big, dapple grey gelding, she knew, said Lindsy Gumbiner, Sara’s mother and her biggest supporter.
“She just had this big smile on her face and we all knew,” Lindsy said.
Shine Bright Like a Diamond (In the Rough)
Sara affectionately named the personable, goofy gelding “Larry.” But like any good “diamond in the rough” young horse, Larry was a challenge.
“He was like a feral horse, rearing and bucking,” on the flat, but boy, could he jump, Sara said. He would constantly bolt, swap leads, or rear during dressage. On the flat in the Fair Hill CCI3* in 2016, Larry reared and veered sideways while cantering down centerline. They were eliminated.
Sara was devastated, as it was her last chance to qualify to compete at Kentucky in 2017. But clearly there was more to work on. So Sara moved Larry to Wellington to spend a season with dressage trainer Jessica Jo “JJ” Tate. Despite all that they learned, Larry “exploded again” in his dressage test at the Jersey Fresh CCI3*.
“I needed help. So I asked Boyd,” Sara admitted. Boyd rode Polaris at the Great Meadow International CIC3* last year. “That was our breakthrough.”
Angel On Her Shoulder
Just as the pair were getting going again, the unexpected death of Larry’s owner, Ann Fawn, hit Sara and her team hard. There was a period of uncertainty surrounding Larry’s ownership while they grieved. But a close friend and supporter of Sara’s stepped up and purchased the horse from Ann’s husband.
“Ann will be with Sara and Larry forever,” said Lindsy. “She was so kind and committed to Sara’s success. We’ll never forget that.”
Her dedication to her horse and the journey shown through during the pair’s quiet debut performance in Kentucky.
“Sara has this amazing gift in that she is able to connect with these horses,” said Lindsy, whose watched her daughter’s determination drive her to the top of the sport. “Sara has always been very competitive, but it’s the love of the horse that’s gotten her here.”
As a sales representative for many equestrian businesses, Lindsy has a pretty good idea of what life in the horse industry is like.
“It’s an incredibly difficult life,” she said, though she knows that it’s destined for her daughter. “Some people don’t have a choice. It’s part of their DNA. And that’s Sara.”
She firmly believes that Sara will be back to Kentucky. Again, and again.