Coca-Cola team owner, Gillian Johnston’s reputation for outstanding horses has proved its worth on the polo field in Wellington, Florida, during the high-goal season. Her ability to make the plays that bring home the wins her team has accomplished over the years is a tip-of-the-hat to her incredible homebred horses. Johnston beamed as she walked down the barn aisle introducing her string. It is usually a ‘mission impossible’ to have a full string of horse perfection in one barn. Johnston’s G-String* polo pony collection comes pretty close, especially with her eight-year-old mare Lola (Coquetta x Renato). A petite chestnut mare with a solid white blaze down the middle of her face. She has a gentle look in her eye and a loving demeanor with her caretakers. Not giving a second thought to being taken away from her friends, she walked out to the polo field with groom Sergio Arias for her photoshoot and stared straight into the camera with her ears forward and body poised.
We stopped by the Coca-Cola stables to speak with Johnston about her favorite horse Lola.
How did you decide to breed her dam Coquetta with her sire Renato?
“I have several different studs and I try to match them up with personalities and size. Renato has an amazing reputation and his size matched well with the small build of Coquetta. Coquetta has been bred with a great deal of studs and everything that has come out of her has been good. It doesn’t seem to matter who you breed her to. Her bloodline is great and in the beginning I had no idea she would end up being such a good brood mare because she looks like a Shetland pony! But that doesn’t seem to matter because I’ve been able to breed her to anything and they come out as great polo ponies like Lola.”
What is Lola’s biggest asset on the field?
“She has lots of speed and can run and run. She’s very handy and has a good mouth, plus she’s quite small so she’s nice to hit the ball off of.”
How would you describe her personality?
“She’s super sweet, but she can be pretty hot. She’s a firecracker for sure, on sets and everything; she never walks, always prances.”
What sets this horse apart from the rest of the horses in your string?
“I love them all, so it was hard to choose just one to talk about. Right now for the 20 goal, she’s my sixth chukker horse because she’s consistent. Very reliable and never lets me down.”
Does she have any notable accolades?
“Last year was her first season in Florida and usually when it’s their first season in the 20 goal, they only play those tournaments and get turned out. She was doing so well, I kept her up and had her for the first 26 goal. She played three 26-goal games and I didn’t want to mentally fry her, so I turned her out for the rest of the season. She handled it very well.”
Do you have a favorite playing memory of Lola?
“She never gives you a bad chukker. She’s always on. I wouldn’t say there is a particular memory, more just knowing that I can always count on her. She’s a pretty cool horse. She just keeps getting better and progressing every game. She’s a little rocket for sure!”
Johnston’s methods for training horses follow one main concept; patience. This mantra is apparent when speaking not only to Johnston, but to Brendon Whittle who runs the breeding operation and young horse training program at the Johnston’s Flying H Ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming. Whittle, who began working for Johnston in 1999, has a true passion for the art of training young horses and believes in Johnston’s goals to develop horses at their own pace. Whittle has trained under the guidance of Buck Brannaman in starting young horses and Wayne Kvaslig in schooling horses for polo.
“I love the breeding and the training of the young horses, it’s my passion. The situation I’m in right now, it’s a dream come true,” Whittle said during a phone conversation. He’s in Sheridan, Wyoming, for the winter where it’s nine degrees Fahrenheit. We spoke briefly with him about his experience raising and training Lola.
What do you remember most about training Lola?
“The first thing that comes to mind when you mention her name is busy – a bit of a firecracker, but in a good way! She was never the type of young horse you could just lollygag on top of, you had to keep her doing something. If you were planning on riding her, you had to do your homework before getting into the saddle. She could be a little bronco, but only when you first got on her, once you had her moving, she was wonderful.”
What do you consider some of her most positive traits?
“Lola is always willing, always wanting to please. Like I mentioned, she can be described as ‘busy,’ but never belligerent. Some horses can be a bit dirty, but never Lola, she wanted to do the right thing, but always with a bit of sass. When you look at her she seems so little, but she doesn’t know that. She has a huge heart and has never been chicken about anything. There was never a horse that could beat her off of her food in the pasture, she was the head honcho and she always stood up for herself.”
How does she compare to her siblings?
“Many of her siblings come from the same mother, Coquetta, but have different sires. They all seem to have the same type of demeanor and athleticism, but progress at different rates. Prada, who is even smaller than Lola, is also very gutsy and busy. She ended up with Julian Mannix and played two chukkers in the U.S. Open one year. All of the siblings can be described as Jack Russells. I believe they get it from their mother. Always on and ready to go. There are two more coming up the ranks now, Vogue and Armani, both of which are showing great promise.”
What do you believe sets the G-String breeding and training operation apart other polo organizations in the U.S.?
“It goes without saying that Johnston’s breeding program is set up for success. She has chosen outstanding dams and sires that have bred athletic and talented horses. With the resources and encouragement the breeding and training program receives from Johnston, we are able to help develop the horses to their best ability. Our simple concept is that we allow the horse to develop at its own pace rather than at the speed we wish it to be a finished playing polo pony.
Also, the environment doesn’t hurt. We are spoiled in Wyoming with an immense amount of space and options for terrain to ride the horses. It’s tough in the winters but the horses seem to do well out here. We also have the advantage of working cattle off the horses. With a horse like Lola, this was the perfect way to keep her active mind occupied. She had a job and was encouraged to focus on it. I believe having a horse like Lola do this kind of job when they are young gives purpose to what you’re trying to achieve on their back.”
What are some things you always keep in mind when training Johnston’s young horses?
“I’ve always been told that horses are creatures of habit. If you ask the right questions, in a consistent manner your horse will pick up on it. The people Johnston has gathered to help develop her horses understand this philosophy. We all understand the importance of consistency, patience and communication.”
*G-String is the name of Johnston’s string of polo ponies.