“I don’t remember where his name came from, but it suits him because I feel like I hit the jackpot having him in my string.” – Gillian Johnston
Clad in her striking Coca-Cola red, Gillian Johnston’s reputation proceeds her as she rides on to every polo field. Not only is she one of the only female players regularly taking part in the Florida high-goal season, but her standing as one of the best mounted players and her talent for breeding world-class polo athletes is sealed each time she enters the competition on one of the homebred heroes that makes up her famous G-String.
While the equine power she has cultivated is clear for all to see on the fields of the International Polo Club Palm Beach (Wellington, Florida) as she takes part in the inaugural GAUNTLET OF POLO™, it is behind the scenes in Big Horn, Wyoming, where the real magic happens. Each of the horses making up Johnston’s fine-tuned string are the result of years of planning, training and hard work from the whole team that forms her breeding operation based out of Flying H Ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming.
One of the most notable horses to come out of this prestigious breeding program is Jackpot, the flashy grey gelding who has been part of Johnston’s string since his high-goal debut at just six-years-old. The 15.3 H gelding is now 11-years-old and has performed at the highest level of U.S. polo for the past five years, showcasing his skills and highlighting the success of Johnston’s homebred string, year in and year out, on the most competitive polo stage in the nation.
The culmination of years of unique training methods, endless patience and utmost respect, Jackpot’s performance on the field is the epitome of all that it means to be a polo pony and he is brought out every match to play the fifth or sixth chukker as Johnston’s reliable powerhouse mount. A jack of all trades, he is the embodiment of what it means to hit the jackpot in the game that is horse breeding.
We spoke to Johnston about her handsome gelding to find out a little bit more about what makes him stand out in an enviable string of homebreds.
Tell us about his breeding?
“His breeding is Ceniza and Kings Gent. Ceniza was a small mare I played for years bred by Robert Graham and made by Will Healy and Kings Gent was owned by Julie Nicholson.”
What made you decide to breed him from that sire and dam combination?
“Miguel Novillo Astrada and I owned and played many horses from Robert Graham and Will Healy with similar breeding all by a stallion named Surprise. They were all top horses. But I bred Ceniza to Kings Gent because I had used him in the past and he always threw horses with top speed and great mouths. I was also trying to get a little more height into the breed because Ceniza was a smaller mare.”
What was it about Jackpot that made you so sure that he would make a good addition to your string?
“Jackpot went through our training program in Big Horn, Wyoming, showing talent at a very young age. I started playing him when he was six. Our six-year-old horses normally come to Florida and have their first competitive year in the 20 goal and then get turned out early for the remainder of the season, but Jackpot was so talented and had such a good mind he stayed up and played the U.S. Open Polo Championship® for me that year. He has been one of my top horses every season since.”
What are his strengths?
“Jackpot’s strengths are definitely his mind and his heart. He is the same horse every chukker you play him, and you never get to the bottom of him. I think he’s done a full chukker every time I’ve played him. He just never gets tired. He also has amazing speed and handle and a mouth like butter. He is everything you would want in a polo pony in one package and I always have the most confidence on him because I know I can go into any play.”
How would you describe his personality off the field?
“His personality off the field is a little different than the horse he is on the field. While he is a very sweet horse, he is also a bit quirky and gets scared of the strangest things. He can definitely be a bit goofy around the barn. His self-preservation has always been a little high.”
What’s next for Jackpot?
“He will be turned out on vacation after the Florida season and will spend his summer in Tennessee.”
Does Jackpot have any siblings? Are they similar?
“Jackpot has some younger siblings that have not made it to the competitive season in Florida yet. They are quite a bit younger than him because we struggled to get Ceniza bred for a few years. They are still in my green horse operation but they’re already showing a lot of talent.”
The USPA also spoke to Johnston’s right-hand man and head of her green horse program, Brendon Whittle, to see what it takes to turn these perfect pedigrees into polo playing legends. Whittle has worked with Johnston for 20 years and lives and breathes the behind-the-scenes operation that has helped put Johnston in the high-goal hot seat.
Whittle found time to take us through the training process that the young colts go through on the ranch, talk to us about the unconventional and yet highly effective timeline they use to train young horses and give us insight into exactly how Jackpot went from nervous young colt to high-goal champion.”
“It’s a long process and, as is the case with all our horses, he was raised by a village.” – Brendon Whittle
What makes the Flying H breeding program different to others? And how do you achieve such consistent results?
“It’s a combination of factors. Gillian’s genetics are so good. She has a nucleus of mares that are proven polo ponies that have played good high-goal polo. That’s so fundamental, if you’ve got good material to work with you just need to train them and almost get out of their way and let them do their thing.
Something that makes us different to those who have polo all year round is that we have to work with our seasons. We get shut down in the winter so we can’t, and don’t, rush the horses. There’s only so much polo you can get in to them in the year and then we have to wait. Contrary to what a lot of people think, that waiting period is actually as important as the going because it allows them time to mature.
We’re in it for the long game to develop the horses. Many people need their horses to start performing at an early age, but we are lucky to be able to take our time over the process.
While there isn’t much polo going on there is a lot of cow work and country to cover. The ranch is really nice, and a lot of other people don’t have the luxury of these facilities.”
How was Jackpot to train?
“He was pretty straightforward to start. I get a detailed description from our starter of any horses that give him trouble and I didn’t hear anything, so no news is good news!
To watch him playing now, he’s quite high headed. He can run like the wind and have his martingale stretched out, but he definitely has a bit of a climbing action when he travels and that’s something he’s had since he was a youngster.”
Can you tell which horses will make it in to Gillian’s string? Did you know that Jackpot would be such a hit?
“More often than not I can tell which ones she’s going to get on with and which not, although now and again you get a surprise. And it’s so nice when I’m wrong. She likes a horse that’s level headed. She needs the speed for the calibre of polo she plays and like most people, she doesn’t like a complicated horse.
I had a feeling that she would enjoy Jackpot. You can feel whether they can do it or not from an early age and he definitely had a good mind and was very athletic. You get those horses and as the trainer or developer of young horses you almost have to get out of their way, because they’ll do it on their own.”
How do you feel watching horses play that you have devoted your time training?
“With all of them it’s fantastic to see them out there and playing. I think as far as training goes, when they’re with me and the guys, I don’t push them much. It’s just the basics and getting them to slow chukkers. People often ask me if I knew a certain horse was going to be powerful, but it’s tricky because I don’t get them out of a light canter really. I don’t ask them that much. When they’re with us it’s about setting a base so that one day, when they do get asked and the hammer drops, they can handle it. To watch Gillian play the horses and push them to their full potential is great. It’s why I do it.”