Numerous junior athletes and their mounts entered the ring at the 2023 Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final, but one horse’s name may ring a bell from over the years—Any Given Sunday. “Sunny” is a seasoned pro when it comes to equitation finals, and both he and people passing by don’t know that he is 20 years old.
Despite his age, Sunny is still delivering great jumping rounds. He and rider Abigail Gordon made it into the top 25 at the 2023 Medal Finals. Gordon and Sunny’s owner Don Stewart shared their thoughts about Sunny’s character and what makes him so special.
Stewart has owned Sunny for about four years after leasing him for a few years before purchasing him from the Holloway family. However, he has known Sunny for a long time.
“I've been training the horse since he was seven, and he's now 20,” said Stewart. “He's an awesome horse.”
The Holloways had much success with Sunny, with mom Brandie having him as a grand prix mount before he shifted focus to the equitation ring with daughter Hunter. Several years before earning top international jumping results, such as third in the 2023 FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final, Hunter racked up impressive equitation results with Sunny. In 2014, the pair was second in the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) Equitation Final and the ASPCA Maclay Final. The following year, they were third in the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final—East, second in the Medal Final, and third in the WIHS Equitation Final. In 2016, Hunter and Sunny won the WIHS Equitation Final.
“He’s quite a top-of-the-line horse,” said Stewart. “He goes in a rubber snaffle; he has a real light mouth. He’s a very balanced horse with a big stride and lands both of the leads. He’s a top eq horse for sure.”
Fast forward to the 2023 show season: Stewart didn’t have a rider lined up for the year who suited Sunny until Abigail Gordon, a student of Ashland Farms and Lynn Caristo Forgione, came along.
“The Gordons have been longtime friends of mine. They rode with us previously for quite a few years, and I remained close to the family,” said Stewart. “And of course, Ken and Emily Smith [of Ashland Farms], they're like family, so I was okay letting the horse go to them. I look forward to getting him back after this circuit.”
Gordon tried Sunny in the middle of the 2023 winter circuit, and it turned out to be a great match. She said she was thrilled to have the chance to ride such a special horse.
“I'm super lucky to have had the opportunity to ride Sunny, and people believe in me to ride him,” said Gordon. “I know he's had a wonderful past with Hunter Holloway, who is now an amazing jumper rider, and I am so glad that I get to ride him after her. It gives me a lot of confidence, too, because I get to see all the success he's had, which gives me motivation to do the same on him this year.”
Stewart said that Sunny isn’t a horse for just anyone, so the rider must suit him.
“He's quite feisty and opinionated,” said Stewart. “He doesn't love all the riders. He’s a very careful horse and brave, but you have to be a little bit passive and do it his way. You don't want to fight because it might be a fight to the finish.”
Gordon agreed that Sunny demands respect from everyone—people and horses.
“Sunny has quite the personality,” said Gordon. “He is like no other horse that I've ever been around. He knows he's the best. He walks around with other horses, and he's like, ‘Don't be near me.’ He's not going to do anything bad. But he's like, ‘I like my space, I like my people, I'm the best, and all of you need to follow me.’”
Gordon added that Sunny loves treats, but on his terms.
“He loves all types of treats, all types of food,” said Gordon. “He definitely will give you love bites—never in a bad way—but he loves his treats, and the love bites are because he knows he's getting treats. And he has the squishiest face. He reminds me of a pony.”
Despite his attitude, Gordon said Sunny does like quality time with his people.
“He does let you love on him,” said Gordon. “I always go in the stall with him and do carrot stretches. And when you give him the love, even though sometimes people can be scared of him, he loves it because he knows, ‘Okay, this rider is confident with me and that's what I like.’”
While Sunny is getting older, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
“Sunny loves to show,” said Gordon. “No one knows that he’s that old. He looks like he is seven, and he loves his job so much.”
Stewart said that Sunny has stayed in good health throughout the time that Stewart has known him. And since Sunny is so experienced, he doesn’t require tons of preparation before shows.
“We don't jump him much until it's time to maybe school before big competitions,” said Stewart. “I like to just keep him very fit, his back strong, and keep him in good health. I think it's more about keeping happy. He knows the job.”
After a top-25 finish out of 208 entries in the 2023 Medal Final, Gordon plans to do one or two more equitation finals with Sunny before he heads back to Stewart’s barn. In terms of what is next for Sunny, whether it is more horse shows in the future or retirement, Stewart will leave that up to Sunny.
“We will listen to Sunny,” said Stewart. “Believe me, he will let us know.”