Kevin McGinn: Importing Top Irish Horses & Ponies for California Riders

by Cheryl Erpelding

Los Angeles-based trainer Kevin McGinn entered the horse business here in California in 1990. What began as a part-time instructor’s gig at T.E.S. riding school at the LA Equestrian Center, soon turned into a partnership with owner Patricia Kinnaman, followed by the outright ownership of Stonebridge LTD, a 45-horse riding school/training operation at the Hansen Dam Horse Park in Lakeview Terrace, but Kevin’s interest in horses began at a much earlier age.

When he was in first grade, being walked to school by his grandmother, he’d pass the 102nd precinct headquarters for the mounted police unit in Forest Hills, Queens New York. Each morning he’d stop to marvel at the beautiful horses in their stalls trimmed with polished brass, the smell of wood shavings and saddle soap. He was mesmerized by the sound of horses munching their morning hay and the sounds and the sight of the farrier’s forge. Getting past the stable and on to school on time became increasingly difficult for his grandmother. They had to reroute their morning walks despite Kevin’s protests. Besides, there is a multi-generational gap between him and his great-grandfather, a blacksmith from County Mayo, Ireland who immigrated to the United States in 1898. He died suddenly from appendicitis forcing his then 8-year-old grandmother and two older siblings to find work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This was 1907 which was long before child labor laws. His grandmother worked 10 hours a day six days a week manning an Industrial sewing machine. He credits that work ethic being passed down to him as a central facet of his personality.

Caffe Corretto with her owner Gillian Penna of Jenny Meyers’ Capistrano Riding Club. She competes in the Adult Amateur Hunters with Gillian and shows in the National Hunter Derbies with Katrina Pattinson.

Aside from his great-grandfather, Kevin had no other association with horses. However, after a rough-and-tumble childhood, his stepmother felt that his next encounter with the police might include a ride in the back seat of a squad car. In her wisdom, she shipped him off to horse camp. While that ignited his love of horses, it didn’t change the fact that regular lessons, purchasing riding clothes, showing horses, etc. were not in the family‘s budget.

Kevin thought of the stories of work and sacrifice he had heard of his family‘s entry into American life and realized that if he wanted to ride, he would have to work a lot. He cleaned stalls, saddle broke, and breezed racehorses. He worked with the jump crew, shoveled snow, and loaded the van for horse shows.

Throughout his professional career, Kevin trained and coached, and after striking a friendship with three-time Olympian Kathy Kusner who lived down the street from him in West Hollywood. Through her influence and emphasis on learning and trying to do everything better with her help, he began producing a multiyear-long clinic series featuring Olympians Joe Fargis and Linda Allen as well as World Cup finalist Susan Hutchison.

Glackmore Chico a.k.a. “Bobbi” and Kai Kulkin are a newly formed partnership. Arriving just last November, Kai who rides with Rebecca Bruce Glynn, jumped right into the show ring by attending Ali Nilforushan’s Jumping Nee series in Temecula. Then they had a consistent Thermal Circuit, and recently they won the .80m Jumper Classic at the Blenheim Spring Classic.

Through the influence of these giants of the show jumping world, Kevin realized there was much more to learn. He headed off to Germany and met up with fellow Kusner alum Jean Wingis. He supported himself by importing horses from Germany back to his base in California. Among them were circuit champions Stonebridge Alias, Stonebridge Levantos, and a National Champion Large Pony Hunter champion named, Kasper.

Kevin noticed the European experience to be quite different than ours in America. He noticed the more integrated population that rode young, old, men, and women, and generally, a greater feeling of real engagement with the horses themselves. Horse shows were family, events. The dad might drive a small horse trailer, the mom might do the braids, and a family friend or older brother or sister might set jumps, and offer coaching tips like go faster or do it better! Absent at the European shows were mother hen-like trainers hovering over their students and grooms who did everything, who knew how to play the game, and how to make good tips by presenting the horses like pageant contestants. He realized the European kids had a stronger relationship and better understanding of their horses at an early age than our kids did when they left for college. He also noticed that at all the shows small and large, in the spectator area it was standing room only. Also, unlike the shows in the U.S. everyone seems to be having a lot of fun. Everyone acted like they had no place else to be, and that the spending the day at the horse show was enough.

Cheesecake 3 has just landed in the U.S. and is making his American debut in the Children’s Large Pony Division trained by Kate Considine of Willowbrook Stables of La Canada Flintridge.

Ever aware of the expense related to the sport, Kevin was always looking for the most cost-effective way to mount his riders. He noticed that the U.K. and Ireland’s horses seemed to be far more reasonably priced. This prompted him to contact his friend Kevin Babington a member of the Irish Team, who had finished fourth in the 2004 Athens Olympics. With some advice from his friend, Kevin headed off on an exploratory visit to the Waterford area of Ireland which coincidentally was his ancestral home.

After just a few days in he knew he had made the right decision and began to feel at home in his new surroundings. So he set off to work on his first trip spending hours traveling from barn to barn looking at horses and going to horse shows. Because Ireland was eight hours ahead of California he’d returned to the hotel and began sending videos back to the US and calling his friends to tell them about the horses he’d found that day. One standout was a 1.30m horse who was quiet and beautifully trained on the flat, and whose owner wanted a Grand Prix horse. Kevin felt he would make an excellent hunter/equitation horse. So he called his friend Jenny Myers whose student Gillian Penna was shopping for a new horse. Kevin had imported several other horses but it was Gillian’s Caffe Corretto who exceeded all expectations. Gillans showed him in the adult amateurs and he was also very competitive in the National Hunter Derby and earning a high placing in the Equitation Challenge.

Miss River Lee and Southern Oracle are doing great in the Pony Jumper divisions.

Always looking at the industry through the lens of the teacher, Kevin felt that American students essentially learned to ride twice. He felt they learned the conservative and safe way of showing hunt seat-inspired equitation style and pony hunter riding, focusing on very small obstacles over perfunctory tracks repetitively emphasizing counting and presentation. He felt that there of course is a place for that type of underpinning or structure, but was lacking in intention or as he calls it doability Then as teenagers they had to reconfigure their understanding to address the more complex issues that take place in the equitation and jumper divisions. He wondered, “Why couldn’t those two things be taught at the same time?”

Noticing the attention placed on the Irish pony jumper division in Europe wasn’t about being cute. No one told their rider to smile when they entered the ring. Those kids were viewed as the stars of tomorrow. Both Bertrand and Harry Allen had one the European pony jumper championships where they competed at 1.35m. Harry and Bertrand went on to become internationally, regarded representatives of their countries. Kevin thought why can’t that take place in America? These kids were galloping down to fences as high as 1.35m safely and in style. with form following function instead of some preconceived idea, they held in their head. The kids sat down on the ponies and told them where to go. They didn’t get up and perch in a half seat and throw themselves on the neck of a horse that had been prepared earlier by their trainer. Also apparent was the athleticism and wonderful disposition of the Connemara ponies whose origin is the Emerald Isle. These guys were having fun. The scoring was objective. It was about faults and time and to win you had to simply ride better. Ponies did their part. Being small and nimble they did not need to be perfectly placed. The kids weren’t fearful of missing a distance. This was to become Kevin’s calling. He felt that perhaps his greatest contribution to the sport would be to infuse real interest in what seemed to him to be a very underutilized portion of the horse show daily schedule. By injecting some enthusiasm into the pony jumper division and having the means to import competitive pony jumpers that he felt were as worthy of spectator attention as the horses that jump in the bigger classes, he set out to find willing subjects for his experiment.

Kai Kulkin is already winning blue ribbons with his new Irish pony Glackmore Chico a.k.a. Bobbi.

He found the perfect candidate and kindred spirit in Miss River Lee who was riding with his childhood friend of 40+ years Ginny Planck. A search for a Pony Jumper was put into motion and Southern Oracle, affectionately known as “Holly,” arrived just after Christmas 2022. River and Holly hit the ground running headed straight to Thermal in 2023 they began in the .70m . By the end of the circuit, they were winning classes and shaving seconds off the next best leading times.

River traveled back east to Traverse City with Rebecca Bruce Glynn as her coach. In subsequent conversations with Rebecca, she and Kevin decided they too would get some Irish ponies. Scheduling was always a problem as Rebecca had just gone east to show at the Hampton Classic, Becca’s mom, Erin grabbed Shayne Lezcano and hopped on the flight to Dublin. Glackmore Chico soon a.k.a. Bobbi was scouted along with a dozen more by Kevin’s partner, Edward. Erin and Shayne landed, tried the ponies, and even got in some sightseeing before returning home within 72 hours.

MCL Sparkle is preparing to fly to the US and was recently purchased by Rebecca Bruce Glynn of Sunnybrook Ranch. He is a very competitive pony Jumper from Ireland having competed regularly in classes up to 1.25m.

Here’s what Becca’s mom, Erin had to say about their impromptu trip. “Kevin’s fellow hunter/jumper trainer and mentor Rebecca Bruce Glynn of Sunnybrook Stables said: “It was such a pleasure doing business with Kevin and Edward in Ireland. Edward was such a wonderful host, showing us great pony jumpers. He was very organized and on point with what we were looking for. We came home with two wonderful pony jumpers that are doing great with their new riders. They are winning multiple championships and taking great care of the kids while teaching them the ropes. Both ponies are exactly what were represented to us I can’t wait to make another trip back.”

Kevin is very pleased with the success of his first few imports which has yielded more interest. Harmony Farm’s director Deirdre Davis and some of her students just returned from a week-long excursion with three horses and a pony for Kate Constantine.

Hunter Jumper trainer Deirdra Davis of Harmony Farms with Arlo who made his debut at the Gold Coast May Hunter Jumper Show at Hansen Dam Horse Park last month.

As of press time this issue, both Kate’s pony and Deirdre’s horses have all made their LA area horse show debuts. We are happy to report Cheesecake, Kate’s Grand Prix jumping pony turned Large Pony Hunter collected dual Tri-Colors at the Blenheim Surf and Turf show held at the LA Equestrian Center, and Deirdre’s horses surpassed expectations already.

Kevin has always felt blessed and he’s always sought out the very best teachers, advisors, and friends.To reach Kevin to have him help you find your next Irish horse or pony, call or text 818-512-4550. Or visit his website www.KevinMcGinnRiding.com.