Elle McKinney and Hanna Keegan out on cross country at the Area II championships at Loch Moy Farm (Patrick McKinney and GRC Photos)
Elle McKinney and Hanna Keegan out on cross country at the Area II championships at Loch Moy Farm

Patrick McKinney and GRC Photos

Getting back in the saddle again: Keegan and McKinney return to equestrian competitions

November 4, 2021

Juniors and friends Hanna Keegan and Elle McKinney both had to face some of the biggest obstacles any horseback rider has to face.  At the start of last year, 2020, Hanna very suddenly lost her horse to a colic and was given the opportunity to ride her trainer’s horse. Adding to that, near to the beginning of the season Hanna had one of the worst falls of her equestrian career. Similarly Elle McKinney’s 10-year-old pony had the worst injury of her career and it took one year  for the pony and rider to get back into eventing. Elle was unsure if her pony would make a full recovery. 

Hanna Keegan and Beans

On January 13, 2020 Hanna lost her partner Finnegan, Finn, to colicing. This is one of the most unimaginable things to happen to a rider, to not only lose their partner but their best friend.  

Later on in the early season Hanna was ready to get back into the riding game. She tried to find a new partner through leases, but nothing was working. David Taylor, Hanna’s jumping trainer from Elevation dressage, offered up his #1 horse Serendipity, also known as Beans. 

“Hanna began to ride another horse and showed her eagerness and hunger to continue to grow and learn. Ultimately she lost the ride on that horse as well, due to his owner wanting him back home in Florida. Nicki [David’s wife and Hanna dressage trainer] and I discussed that we wanted to feed the hunger Hanna had shown for eventing and put together the opportunity to let Beans show Hanna the ropes. Beans was my first event horse, both her and I tackled each level of eventing together for the first time from a green 3 year old off the track Thoroughbred to running Intermediate level eventing. This would be her [Beans’] opportunity to now be the school master and help Hanna,” said Taylor.

Just as Hanna was getting comfortable again, a second disaster occurred.

“When I had my concussion, I was devastated. I had gotten the huge opportunity to travel down to Aiken, South Carolina. . . It was truly gut wrenching and pretty scary as this was my first time having a real injury from riding,” said Hanna Keegan.

As anyone can relate, having a traumatic injury from their sport can easily rattle somebody’s confidence. This is especially true when that injury comes from being bucked off of a relatively tall horse that doesn’t have a history of acting up. 

Once Hanna got back on Serendipity, also known as Beans, there were so many emotions going through her mind. There is a huge mixture of anxiety and happiness. 

“To get back on her for the first time was the best feeling in the world. I definitely shed some happy tears walking her around the race track that was on the property,” said Keegan.

Hanna Keegan and Beans Cantering out on Cross Country, GRC PHOTO LLC

When Hanna and Beans got back from Aiken there was a lot of work that needed to be done. 

“After my concussion, I won’t lie when I say that my confidence was extremely depleted. I was very scared and anxious when jumping, which when riding, cannot be a factor as your horse feeds off of your energy 100% of the time,” said Keegan. 

However, Hanna had a great support system, trainer David Taylor. 

“As a trainer, it’s not our job to only instruct. We are counselors, friends, sounding boards, therapists, and teachers all at the same time. Our expertise goes beyond riding. We have to be quasi sport psychologists all while continuing to help our students grow in their riding,” said Taylor

“When it came to Hanna, I wanted to remove added pressure, help her find the joy and fun in riding. Help her overcome her fear and know that we all stumble at some point. I needed to make sure she knew she was not alone and we weren’t giving up on her or her goals, but that we needed to alter the course we were on,” said Taylor. 

Sometimes the goals we set for ourselves can create our own confidence sucking monster’s,”

— Taylor

“It took many months of ups and downs that definitely taught me like none other that progress is certainly not linear. Then came qualifying which I honestly was doubtful we would do this season which was sometimes a hard pill to swallow, not because I’m necessarily a very competitive person, but rather that I knew we were capable of laying down the rides and scores needed to qualify and for a while but I wasn’t able to get my results down which was very very frustrating and led to lots of self doubt which I had to learn to work through and not let hinder me,” said Keegan. 

Taylor also started planning Hanna’s progression once she was ready to get back in the swing of things.  

“In Hanna’s case we started small: let’s go XC schooling; let’s work on simple stadium exercises; let’s go to a schooling show or focus on Dressage for a bit. We then also scaled back the goal of qualifying for USEA American Eventing Championships as the pressure of qualifying and attending would set back the fragile confidence we were working so hard to build up again,” said Taylor.

Hanna and Beans in their stadium round (Megan Kelley)

Once Hanna improved on these skill sets it was time to start progressing in a safe manner.

“Once we got a better handle on those situations, we could then start pushing the comfort zone again all while keeping Hanna’s confidence building. A big part of Hanna’s progression was the horse she was riding. Beans has been there, done that with miles of experience when it comes to eventing. Making sure Hanna knew that was paramount. This amazing mare knows more about how to do her job, than Hanna does. And with a horse that is this good, we could continue to work on Hanna’s issues safely,” said Taylor. 

After Hanna got her confidence back where she needed it to be, it was finally time for her and Beans to shine at one of the biggest and best championships. Hanna and Beans were able to qualify for Area II championships with a fifth place win at Seneca Valley Horse Trials. This championship is considered the best of the best in all the states of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. 

Hanna and Beans warming up for dressage, Megan Kelley

“I was so excited to be there after building up to it all year long. I was able to see lots of friends I met over the season which is always one of my favorite parts! On top of it all I was surrounded by my most favorite supporters consisting of my family and friends which was really special to me. Loch Moy farm is a venue that is very near and dear to my heart and has really become a second home in terms of showground over the past few years. Competing there was super fun and familiar which was helpful and Loch Moy never fails to put on an organized and successful show day,” said Keegan. 

Hanna was not only able to conquer one of the toughest challenges in eventing and qualify for such a big event but she was also able to win 4th place in her division.

“Winning 4th place after having such a rough start to the season, especially one where I had such a rough time feeling like I wasn’t capable or good enough to make it and be in such a place in my riding, was one of the best feelings in the world. Walking off of cross country, hugging Beans and patting her with the biggest smile plastered on my face and happy crying while celebrating with two of my biggest supporters on the way back to the trailer is a priceless memory I will never ever forget. I never imagined finishing in such good placing and after struggling mentally to be satisfied with my performance in each phase earlier in the season, this was the biggest pay off and rewarding feeling I could’ve asked for laying down my best dressage score of my record, having my first clear stadium on my record, and then having a blast around our favorite phase of cross country to end in 4th,” said Keegan. 

By the end of the season there was one very distinct moment in Hanna’s season that really stood out to Taylor that made him very proud. Hanna was signed up for a show with Beans and by the third and last phase of the competition Hanna made one of the hardest but bravest decisions any rider has to make. Hanna decided to not finish the competition because she knew it wasn’t safe for her or Beans since Hanna was really struggling in her confidence. 

“As odd as this sounds, I am almost more proud of Hanna not going out on cross country while in Aiken (when her confidence came crashing down while at an event) than anything since. In that moment, Hanna put her and her horse’s safety #1. This sport is inherently dangerous. We could get seriously hurt and so could our horses. It takes a brave person to head out on cross country and jump solid objects at a gallop. It takes a braver person to be able to say ‘,Today isn’t our day, we better stay home,’” said Taylor.

 I am also beyond proud that Hanna was able to look her demons in the eye and set forth a crusade of unwavering determination to conquer them. She never quit, she never looked back. When things got tough, Hanna kept her head down and pushed on. She did exactly when she needed to and is well on her way but now she is more ready, better educated, mentally stronger and exactly where she needs to be,”

— Taylor

Hanna, her family, and trainer at the podium, Megan Kelley

Elle McKinney and Superstitious

While Elle McKinney is extremely healthy and incredibly fit, her horse, on the other hand had the worst injury in her eventing career. Superstitious FLF [Flying Lion Farm], also known as Super, had a 70% torn bowed tendon at the start of the 2020 season. 

Elle and Super in their stadium round, Patrick McKinney

Super showed absolutely no signs of being injured until one day there was just a slight notice in her leg. 

“My heart sank the moment I noticed the slight bow in her tendon.  She wasn’t sore, or lame, but the injury was quite noticeable.  We called her vet and had imaging done the same day, which confirmed she had a significant tear through over half her tendon tissue in her right front lower leg.  We had to cancel all her competitions that were planned for that fall season. Our biggest fear was not knowing if the tear could be repaired and if Super would ever be able to be ridden or compete again,” said Michelle. 

Junior Elle Mckinney had just found out that her partner wasn’t allowed to walk, let alone go to shows and was lost in fears of what would happen to her best friend. 

“I was very sad, emotional, and worried if she would come back to the same level of competition. Worried about treatment costs and if they would work. Worried if Super would mentally be able to handle stall rest for a long time,” said Elle. 

Elle and Super in their stadium round, Patrick McKinney

One of the biggest struggles with this injury was that the fibers in Supers’ leg needed to grow in a certain pattern and Super had to live in her stall for a year and had to follow a strict schedule. Every two weeks Super could progress into a new activity, and every month her specialist would come out and make sure she was improving.

“One of the hardest parts about Supers recovery was patience and waiting on time for her to get back to the simple things in life,” said Elle. 

“This pony is such an important part of our horse family, and we just wanted to know that she would be okay.  After her stem cell treatment therapy and months of stall rest and careful rehabilitation, she has slowly returned to her former level of competition, but our concern for her well being is always there, and we keep a very close eye on her,” said Michelle. 

Michelle and Elle McKinney were grateful that Super was extremely healthy and young, but also the injury took place right at the start of the pandemic, so everyone’s attention could be on Super. 

Super’s recovery was during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a blessing in many ways.  It gave her the time to rest and heal and gave us the opportunity to spend lots of time visiting her and taking care of her,” said Michelle. 

Thankfully, Super was able to recover with no setbacks.  She was then ready to start her next phase which was getting back into regular work and competitions. 

Elle and Super did have one disadvantage this season after Super’s injury and that was not having a coach / trainer so Michelle McKinney used all of her expertise to be Elle’s trainer, mom, and groom. Michelle had to make lots of difficult decisions for Elle and Super like what should they be practicing at home? What level should they compete at shows? And what shows should they go to? 

Elle and Super had competed and placed at many shows to qualify for Area II Champs.

“I was really really happy to know that I had my pony back. I don’t really know how to explain it. I was a little shocked,” said Elle. 

After qualifying, Michelle asked Colleen Rutledge for some help. Elle and Super finished just below ribbons.

“The day of the show was nerve wracking. A lot of emotions on how we would do overall, but mainly how she would go. How was she gonna ride through the course? Would she be in good enough shape?” said Elle. 

Just when you think their season is over you’re wrong. Right before Super’s injury Elle and Super were working towards a 3-day competition. A year later they qualified for the Waredaca show.

Elle and Super galloping to the finish flags, Patrick McKinney

“My hard work and bond with my pony has now grown into something stronger,” said Elle.

No matter what sets you back, if you listen to yourself, your horse, and your support system, you can accomplish so much more than you ever could imagine. 

Elle and Super have grown even closer through this process over the past year and they have returned to full competition even more successfully than before. We could not be more grateful for Super’s amazing veterinary team and our whole family who all pitched in to help get Elle and Super to where they are today,”

— Michelle

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