As a little girl obsessed with the sport of eventing and watching the Kentucky Three-Day Event, Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L, on TV, Savannah Gwin wondered about the aftermath. When the anthems stopped playing and the crowds filtered home – what was it like back at the barns? What was it like for the people grappling with a life-changing victory?
“It was crazy that that was us,” said Gwin.
“Even taking care of him after show jumping, it was a surreal experience to think about,” she added. “When I was dealing with him afterwards, I realized that I was dealing with the horse that just won Kentucky.”
A Little Bit Of Everything
Gwin arrived at Smith’s Temecula, California, barn as a junior client, and when Smith offered her a working student position one summer, Gwin jumped at the opportunity. What started as a summer job morphed into two years working under the internationally ranked event rider.
“She definitely stepped into my life as more than just a trainer/boss,” said Gwin, now 21 years old.
“I kind of went from there; it just started as a couple months’ job that was supposed to be something fun,” she added. “I didn’t go to college, and I just decided to keep doing this. So, I worked for her for a couple years, and she was a big part of my life.”
After those initial two years, Gwin moved to the East Coast to sample barns on the other edge of the U.S. But she never found an equivalent to the atmosphere and training quality at Smith’s Next Level Eventing.
“When I was out East, it was hard for me to find both,” she said. “It felt like I either had some great atmosphere – it was a great team – but maybe the training wasn’t up to the level I was hoping for or vice versa where the training was great there wasn’t much of a team environment. I think both are really important to be successful. Especially when you don’t have all the means yourself to do it; you have to kind of rely on support from other people and everyone helps each other out.”
In January of 2023, she moved back to work for Smith. Her job doesn’t quite follow distinct roles; she works as a rider as well as overseeing the horses’ management and working hands on with their physio – especially with Mai Baum, or “Lexus”, his stable name.
With the Kentucky Three-Day Event highlighted on the calendar, Smith asked Gwin to add grooming Lexus to her list of duties.
“Tamie has another groom right now who’s a bit greener, so I kind of stepped in for the bigger events, just because it’s a lot of pressure,” said Gwin.
“People don’t really talk about how much the pressure gets to the grooms and the employees as well as it does to the riders. I do think that that’s a big thing that you don’t really realize until you’re there.”
The Lead Up
By mid-February, Gwin stepped in to help more officially with Lexus’s care. The 17-year-old German Sport Horse (Loredano 2 x Leoni), bred by Gunter Gerling, became a part of Smith’s string in 2015 and morphed into one of her top horses. Gwin didn’t have much hands-on interaction with him during her first stint at Next Level Eventing, but upon returning, she got to form a connection with the gelding.
“When I first came, I didn’t really do a ton of handling with him because he’s part of the A-Team,” said Gwin. “He’s one of the special horses, so it’s kind of something you have to earn a little bit.
“I haven’t really had a relationship with him until I came back this year when I was working with him more one-on-one,” she added. “He kind of has opened up in a sense to me. He’s gained some trust in me now that I’ve kind of been dealing with him more so than I ever really have before.”
At 17, Lexus doesn’t need a ton of training and instead, the team focuses on conditioning on hills as well as low-impact fitness like the walker as well as physio treatments. Gwin also uses a heart monitor sensor to track his fitness level.
“We have a really good hill in Temecula, which is really awesome to have,” said Gwin. “And we have lots of areas we can hack with different hills and stuff which I think is really good for their strength and their fitness without being so high impact on their legs.
“We have the BEMER, which we use on everyone,” she added. “Tamie has a laser for her horses as well, just to keep things strong and everything in top form. And then we have a hoof mat; it’s called the Bio-Pulse Iron Foot. They stand on it, and it just increases circulation and blood flow.”
In addition, Smith takes her horses roughly every other week for stays at a nearby equine spa with a water treadmill and a pool. With California’s increased rainfall earlier in 2023, horses like Lexus went even more often to stay in shape.
“When it rains in California, you can’t really ride like you can on the East Coast because our ground doesn’t absorb the water so fast,” Gwin said. “So, they went to the pool a lot, which was nice because the horses were able to keep going even when the weather circumstances didn’t allow for us to do what we needed to do. I would say they probably go at least on average every other week, and they go for a couple days when they go to the pool.
“They swim a lot because it helps increase their fitness without so much wear and tear on their legs,” Gwin added. “Tamie doesn’t overrun her horses. He’s also pretty trained, so he’s not running a ton of events to get trained. He kind of does a couple prep events and then his big show – which I do think helps a lot with the soundness.”
When Smith and Lexus crossed the finish line in their clean show jumping round – securing their first five-star win and the first U.S. win at Kentucky in 15 years – Gwin couldn’t control her tears.
“I had chills, and I started crying,” she said. “I didn’t even think I was going to start crying. I was looking around at everyone, and I was like, ‘I’m crying, and I can’t stop.’
“Lexus has put a lot of work into it, and Tamie too. She’s worked harder than anyone else I know for this. Even when the odds were against her, she kept going. For the horse and for her, it meant a lot for all of us. We’ve all watched both of them go through ups and downs and the highs and the lows of the sport and just keep going. They both really deserved that win.”
While she felt the accomplishment for Smith and Lexus, she also felt it for the entire crew. That weekend in Lexington, Kentucky, signified the months of hard work back at the barn.
“I was watching him going into the ring – and this goes for all the girls that helped get him ready because it was more than a one-person job getting him all ready – we’re all looking at him going into the ring, thinking, ‘He looks really good,’ ” said Gwin. “It was rewarding knowing that we got that horse ready, and we did that. People really don’t talk about how much time goes into it outside of just the horse show. It does really start at home weeks and weeks in advance.
“It means a lot to watch the horses do well because you know they feel well and that all the things you are doing are paying off,” she added. “It does get hard when the days do get really long, and it’s pretty rewarding when it makes it all worth it in the sense like that weekend. It made me think back on all the times we were up a little early to do something, or there a little late. It made it worth it.”
Featured photo courtesy of Avery Wallace/US Equestrian.
I started riding horses in a desperate attempt to be like my older sister. So, when she turned in her ballet slippers for barn boots, I did too. From 5 years old onward, I’ve never been far from a horse whisker, as I worked my way up the levels in the hunter ring. I graduated with honors in art history and communications at Washington & Lee University, where I captained the school’s IHSA team.
Leaning into my communications major and love of horses, I joined the editorial staff of The Chronicle of the Horse. For six years, I traveled the country covering top competitions and found a great love for long-form features (especially historical ones) and profiles. Currently, I’m freelancing out of Virginia, where I live with my horse Nelson and rescue dog Minnie.