Courtesy photo

Cal Poly alumna Gina Miles can thank the flu and a chance meeting for giving her a shot at representing the U.S. equestrian team in this year’s Olympics.

Miles, 34, who graduated in 1997 with a degree in crop science and a minor in agricultural business, met her horse, McKinlaigh, when his co-owners (Laura Coats and her husband Thom Schulz) brought the Irish sport horse to Creston from Ireland.

Coats and Schulz were heading to an equestrian event in Punchestown, Ireland 10 years ago. Because Coats had come down with the flu, they drove to the arena instead of walking.

“Just as we drove up ringside, we saw this beautiful animal jumping,” Coats said. “If we had had to go park, we would have missed him.”

The couple bought McKinlaigh, now 14, on the spot and soon he and Miles made quite a team in three-day eventing, a triathlon-like competition.

“When they started out together, here they are, both rookies, and they just won everything,” Coats said. “They just kept moving up and all of a sudden there was a connection there that is visible even to people who don’t know them. He just loves her; there is no mistaking it. And she is very connected to him.”

Miles’ husband Morgan, also a Cal Poly graduate (in agricultural engineering technology) has watched horse and rider grow together over the past nine years.

“He’s definitely a member of the family in terms of he’s probably as important as one of our two kids,” Morgan said. “They have a very strong bond and she’s able to know exactly where he is mentally (and) physically more than anybody else. She can know when he’s not feeling right before a vet can diagnose what’s wrong.”

Miles and McKinlaigh’s connection only got stronger as the horse’s unwavering work ethic shined through.

“When we turn him out (to play), he spends most of his time standing at the gate waiting for us to come and get him, watching the other horses work,” Coats said. “He always watches Gina if she’s on another horse.”

The two have seen some setbacks with McKinlaigh losing the spot he had on the 2004 Olympic short list due to a respiratory problem requiring surgery and a small pulmonary bleed that put him out of the 2006 World Championships. Miles also went through a rough patch, breaking her leg in 2005 after falling off another horse, causing her to miss most of the season.

However, Miles and McKinlaigh learned to bounce back. Some recent successes were Miles becoming the No. 4 U.S. rider in the 2002 World Equestrian Games, winning a bronze medal in the 2003 World Cup Final, capturing the 2006 U.S. Eventing Association Advanced Horse of the Year and last year winning a team gold and an individual bronze medal at the Pan American Games. And now, they stand poised to compete in Hong Kong.

“We have some very talented horses and riders on our team, although we are not the favorites,” Miles said of this year’s Olympic team in an e-mail interview. “I think that is an advantage for us, as no one will see us coming and if we all deliver the performances we are capable of, we could end up on the medal podium.”

Miles, who, with her husband, manages Schulz and Coats’ Rainbow Ranch and teaches lessons to younger riders, credited her time at Cal Poly with helping her today.

“I loved everything about Cal Poly, from my tractor driving class (which) has definitely been useful for dragging and preparing arenas (to) the enterprise project growing oat hay,” Miles said. “Having an understanding about agriculture in California in particular and how my equine business fits into that, as well as the contacts that I made, has helped me to be successful.”

Three-day eventing requires the horse and rider to compete in dressage, disciplined and choreographed movements on the first day, timed cross-country jumping on the second day and show jumping on the third day, when the horse must clear jumps in an arena without knocking any down.

“McKinlaigh’s greatest strength is his ability to put on a different game face each day,” Morgan said. “Dressage day he looks like a dressage horse, cross country day he looks like a warrior and show-jumping day he understands he can’t touch the poles. For such a large horse, he’s very adaptable and he will fit into small spaces and open up into big spaces.”

McKinlaigh has traveled more than most people with competitions in France, Spain, England, Holland, Kentucky, Wyoming and most recently Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“He has more frequent-flier miles than I do. . It’s going be a challenging environment for all of them. He’s a real large horse for that sport, one of the largest in the world, so with that humidity it will be a bit of a challenge.”

With all the training and experiences McKinlaigh has undergone, his admirers are confident in his abilities.

“When we have come against difficulties in our training, I have kept working at it now matter what,” Miles said. “He has been right there with me, still trying and never getting sour.”

Coats said there is something special about the horse that captured her eye the minute she spotted him.

“We’ve owned a lot of horses and there’s something about him that’s just different,” Coats said. “Even the gentleman we bought him from in Ireland said, ‘When we sold him to you we thought he would be a nice upper-level horse; we had no idea he was going to be this good.’ I think that somewhere in there, he has an inkling that he might be the exception.”

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