By Nina Fedrizzi
People often think of a life’s work in vast swaths of time; a slow march of days and weeks that, if you’re lucky, ultimately culminate in success. In reality, though, it’s more like a smattering of key moments: brilliant victories, unexpected tragedies, and perhaps even a few petrifying minutes of fear thrown in. Taken all together, these disparate paint splashes make up the full picture of a person’s story.
Today, Robin Greenwood is one of the country’s most venerated pony trainers. Her business now, a seven-stall barn and boutique client base at Grand Central Ponies in Southern Pines, NC is exactly what she wants it to be. “I always carry a couple of my own ponies that I buy with the intent of showing and putting a record on them with the kids that ride with me,” she says.
But before the famous ponies and the big wins, Greenwood was getting her own education at the horse shows.
One moment she’ll never forget is riding in the First Year Green Hunter Stake aboard her horse, Twentieth Century Limited. The place was the Washington International Horse Show; the year was 1975. “I remember, to this day, standing at the in-gate, and there were trees and bending lines everywhere,” said Greenwood, then in her early 20s. “You couldn’t even see the jumps. It was like this horrifying forest filled with goblins and gremlins. I just held onto the mane and went.”
She wasn’t supposed to be riding in the professional class to begin with. Her trainer, Ronnie Mutch of Nimrod Farm, had been campaigning “Florida” in the First Year Green division up to that point. But Mutch, who was known for his competitive nature, decided that his week at the Washington wasn’t going well. Although he and the then-indomitable Twentieth Century Limited had won the hack, they ended up fourth in their first class over fences, a placing that dismayed Mutch.
“When Ronnie came out of the ring, he took off the riding jacket that my mother had just had made for him, and he stomped on it on the ground, and said, ‘I’m never wearing this coat again—it’s bad luck!’” Greenwood said. But he wasn’t done yet. “In the Stake class, Ronnie decided he was going to let the judges know how he felt. So, he put me on the horse.”
Despite the formidable course and a class list that included the likes of Bernie Traurig and Royal Blue and Rodney Jenkins and Lost His Sock, Greenwood won the Stake; a round she calls the highlight of her riding career. “I’m sure the judges were like, ‘Oh, Ronnie’s sending us a message,’” Greenwood said. “‘Let’s send him one back!’”
At 13, with a mostly self-taught resume, Greenwood volunteered to take over stall cleaning duties on the $500 grade horse she boarded at a local stable on Cape Cod, MA. A couple of years later, when the barn went up for sale, she and a 21-year-old barn friend took over management of the 20-stall facility themselves. Her father, excited his daughter was a budding entrepreneur, paid the $500 first month’s rent so Robin and her friend could go into business together.
Though far from lucrative, the experience provided Greenwood with a skill set she’d call upon countless times in years to come: bathing, clipping, and braiding horses, and eventually, driving a trailer. She began attending rated shows in the Boston area, where, she says, she would “stop three times at the first jump—or fall off. It was one of the two.”
With the help of her mother, the aspiring equestrian purchased her first serious horse from Olympic showjumper Jimmy Day in Canada. When the shipper showed up a few weeks later, he handed over the Thoroughbred, named Talisman, with a warning. “He said, ‘Be careful, this is the craziest horse I’ve ever been around!’” Greenwood says. The assessment proved accurate, and not long after, when some horse show friends offered to introduce her to Ronnie Mutch, Greenwood jumped at the chance.
“I needed help. My mother, who was an extreme horse lover, and also an incredible enabler, was all for it,” said Greenwood, who began making the nearly four-hour drive to Nimrod Farm in Weston, Connecticut every week. The move, and the doors it opened, would alter her trajectory in the sport.
“Ronnie was an amazing instructor, and he was especially good with particularly talented kids. When I arrived, I was a little frustrating,” said Greenwood, who, despite her years of show experience, was only allowed to compete in the Maiden, Novice, and Limit Equitation divisions. Years later, Mutch told her that, at Nimrod, they would joke about her hutzpah. “I could drive the trailer, body clip, and wrap and braid horses,” she says, “but I couldn’t ride them.”
During the 1970s, Greenwood would establish her reputation on a series of mounts named after New York railway icons. The first of these was Jessica Fleischmann’s Grand Central, a horse that would become the namesake for Greenwood’s business. Even today, the trainer is wistful when she speaks about the petite Thoroughbred with a big heart, often referring to him as “a little bit of magic.”
“Grand Central might have been 15.3 on his tiptoes. He was very hard to keep weight on and grumpy in his stall,” Greenwood said. But from the time he was purchased, he was almost undefeated in the Second-Year Green hunter division for the rest of the year, and ended up second in the country.
“I showed him in the amateurs, and some days were good, and some days weren’t, but the horse didn’t care. He was just always the same. I can still remember what his canter felt like,” she said.
By the show season of 1974, Greenwood had been riding with Mutch for six years, but still actively struggled with her confidence. “I wasn’t a rider who thought I could just go in and do it,” she said. Grand Central helped to shift that perception, especially after she and the gelding won Amateur Champion at Devon. It was just one in a series of victories that would thrust the pair into the national spotlight. Unfortunately, their time together would prove all too short-lived.
Grand Central was champion in the Working Hunters at the Cape Cod Hospital Horse Show, but he colicked in the truck on the way home to Connecticut. At that time, colic surgery was only offered at a handful of major universities. “Our vet tried to operate on him on the barn floor at Nimrod. He didn’t make it,” Greenwood said. “He was eight years old.”
Were it not for the doors opened by Grand Central, Greenwood believes she would not have had the opportunity to own her next horse-of-a-lifetime, Twentieth Century Limited. “He was the best mover in the country, and anyone from that time would still tell you that,” she said. “We won the hack at Devon three years in a row, and two years in a row at the National Horse Show. I think he lost three hacks in the time that we owned him.”
If Grand Central had helped to build Greenwood’s confidence, however, “Florida” reminded her how far she still had to go. “He was the most sensitive horse I had ever ridden,” she said. “He went in a rubber snaffle with no martingale. You really just thought what you wanted to do. I struggled getting to know him, early on, and Ronnie actually wouldn’t let me ride him for a while.”
The following year, however, the pair were back in action with a string of successes, including their Green Hunter Stake win at the Washington. Those were the heydays of the 1970s horse show circuit, when exhibitor’s parties included a seated dinner, drinks, a brass band, and dancing—and often roared on late into the evening. After one such weekend celebrating at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, Greenwood returned home to Weston, where she was living at the time, and climbed into bed.
At 6:25 a.m. on Monday, her phone rang. It was Mutch’s barn manager, and he had a message from his boss. “Ronnie says, if you want to ride, be here by 7 a.m.,” he told Greenwood, who didn’t stop to consider her options before tugging on her breeches and running out the door. In the days before Florida circuits, most trainers in the Northeast used the months of December through February to turn out their ‘A’-level string and bring along their young horses for sale. Over the next few months, it was 7-8 of these prospects that Greenwood would ride every day, unpaid, for up to six days a week. The experience changed her life forever.
“I literally learned how to ride in that one winter,” she said, adding that the progress was evident when she returned to the circuit in March. “I was a totally different person.”
Pony for Your Thoughts
Despite years of success riding hunters and jumpers in the most prestigious rings in the country, Greenwood is unashamed to admit that her first love is, and will always be, ponies. “Part of the appeal to me is that people tend to say ponies are brats,” Greenwood said. “But I’ve stood at the in-gate at the Washington or Devon or the Meadowlands, explaining a course to a kid, and I’ve never, ever had a concern that that pony wasn’t going to go in and jump that course.”
During her tenure running Grand Central Show Stables out of Old Salem Farm in the 1990s, Greenwood’s roster included tri-color-winning pony combinations with students such as Jessica Newman (Gayfield’s Blue Nile and Asia Minor), Tory Grauer Ketchum (Espresso and Unlock the Magic), and Emma and Georgina Bloomberg (Jetsetter, Casey Jones, and Kid You Not). In more recent years, she coached Caroline Passarelli to multiple national championships aboard Little Black Pearl.
When it comes to training ponies, Greenwood says, what most coaches get wrong isn’t how they work with their animals, but how they communicate with their kids. “The simplest things you hear trainers say all the time—‘go forward,’ for instance—that’s a totally fine thing to say if [the child] understands what that means. But I listen to trainers when their kids come out of the ring, and they’ll say things like, ‘Why did you do that?’ To me, it’s like, ‘Well, why would you ask that?’
“If the same thing keeps happening [in the ring] every day, well, maybe [it’s the words you’re using]. Maybe that’s on the trainer.”
Years ago, at Nimrod, Greenwood learned the virtue of good communication the hard way. When Dr. George Yeaton sent three ponies to the farm to be broke and shown for sale while Mutch was away at Indoor Finals, Greenwood was instructed to fast-track “the prettier of the two grey ponies” in the group for a client that was coming to look at him the following week. In just a few days, Greenwood had the pony walking, trotting, and cantering under saddle, as well as jumping small jumps and swapping its lead.
Overjoyed, she put him through his paces for Mutch when he returned, beaming with pride the whole time. When she looked up, and to her surprise, Ronnie wasn’t smiling.
“I said, ‘What do you think? Isn’t he great?’” Greenwood says.
Mutch replied, “‘Yes, yes, he’s great. But that’s the wrong grey pony.’”
The grey pony Mutch had in mind, however, ended up being 15 hands, while Robin’s choice measured. And so, as the story goes, it all worked out for the best. In fact, it’s just one of many examples in Greenwood’s 50-plus years in the business that align along that common theme. Events may not always go the way that you expect them to, but with a little luck—a little bit of magic, maybe—you’ll end up right where you’re supposed to be.
*This story was originally published in the March 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!