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THE BIG READ: Kirista’s enduring animal love affair

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Fascinated by the sight of a horse from the age of 5, the recently crowned Adult Sportsman of the Year talks to PATRICK BEAN about a passion that has defined her life in the sport of equestrianism

“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.”

— Sir Winston Churchill

Obvious is the magnificence of the beasts the ancient Romans referred to as Equus caballus and the Greeks called Hippo, which stood as an element vital to daily life by means of transport, and a source of power, prestige and financial value.

In modern times, racing is yet categorised as a “sport of kings”, as is polo, a ballgame played on horseback, which stands among the world's oldest-known team sports.

Bermuda’s Kirista Rabain, like Churchill, was not born with an official title symbolic of nobility — he was knighted by the Queen in 1953 — and similar to the revered former British prime minister, she has had a lengthy love affair with horses.

However, perched on the saddle or in the sulky, whether it be dressage, competitive show jumping, harness racing at breakneck speed or poised on board a pleasure-driven carriage, all signs of commonness are thrust aside as Rabain’s true majesty becomes regally apparent.

The recently completed local harness racing season revealed Rabain’s maturation into a driver of high quality, her exponential time improvements on varied rides during the course of the period increasing her value and demand among competing stables as a “gun for hire”.

It was Rabain at the controls of Aaron Sims’s Simsfield Hardtimes when it equalled the gelding record and registered the fastest time of the season, while on the way to an impressive sweep of victories at the National Equestrian Centre on the penultimate day of racing. Her handling enabled the Indiana-bred pony to post a stunning 1:01/2 — 1min 1.40sec for the layman — in the Free for All, with the time equalling the gelding record held by the Mello family’s pony War Machine.

Later, as the season reached a climactic end, her supremacy was confirmed when she occupied the bike as Lee and Sergio Raynor’s Special Gold broke Big Red Machine’s 12-year-old stallion’s track record with the fastest time of the season of 1:01/2, again in the Free for All division.

Such record-breaking feats, together with numerous heat wins throughout stamped the 2021-22 season as the most successful Rabain has had on the track, even as the modest 30-year-old painted her prosperity as more a result of other, more established riders opting out of the local scene in favour of overseas participation. Her record times told a clear story of her having joined that elite level, confirmed when she was named Adult Sportsman of the Year at the Driving Horse and Pony Club awards ceremony last month.

“It’s really exciting to go fast and have those fast times with the horses I do work with,” said Rabain, the daughter of golf teaching professional Rawn Rabain and granddaughter of the iconic late Frankie Rabain. “It was very unexpected because I had no idea my season was going to go like it did. I’ve never had so much success as what I’ve had this year racing, especially while driving other people’s horses.

Kirista Rabain in harness racing action with her mare, IC's Overextended, at the National Equestrian Centre on Vesey Street

“I’ve never been on top of the board, so to speak, and it’s exciting and kind of reassuring to me of my talent and capability, considering the time I’ve been in the sport because there are people who’ve been in the sport for less time and enjoyed great successes, too, which is amazing, and I’m happy for them.

Kirista Rabain handles the elements at the FEI World Jumping Challenge at the National Equestrian Centre in 2017

“But now it’s making sense to me that everything I’ve learnt over the years is coming to fruition and making a difference and giving me that confidence and belief that, ‘You do know horses! You are good with horses! You can trust yourself!’

Kirista Rabain with Dakota on the young horse’s first hunt this year

“It’s just given me a real belief and inspired me to want to do even better. A lot of conversations I have with the owners is just trying to get better. We take each other’s suggestions and when we come back the next week, we usually get positive results.

Kirista Rabain at Jobson's Cove with young prospect Dakota, who was given this treat as a birthday present

“So it’s a positive feeling to be able to work with somebody so efficiently and effectively and come out on top. It’s very satisfying to be able to do that and share the success.”

Kirista Rabain the dog trainer. Here she is at TN Tatem school field working out with rescue dog Eleven

Chief among those who have mentored and helped shape Rabain into the No 1 driver for 2021-22 is none other than stable owner Sims, with whom she struck up a relationship more than a decade ago. After some time away freelancing, she has returned to her “roots” with stunning success.

Neighbourhood children visit Kirista Rabain's barn in Warwick, matching her early affinity for horses

“Aaron’s the one who got me into the racing when I was only 15, and those three years I spent learning and driving with him were so informative, so eye-opening … a real game changer,” explained Rabain, who works as by day as a junior accountant and payroll manager at Bermuda Press (Holdings) Ltd, parent company of The Royal Gazette.

Kirista Rabain at the FEI World Jumping Challenge Final in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2017

“I went to Inwood Stables for a while and just kind of freelanced for a bit and then last season I went back to Aaron’s place, where I knew the pony. She is incredibly complicated, but me and Aaron were able to talk about matters and he taught me a lot of how to get the best out of her and helped me get her to the point we’re at now.

“Even when I’m not racing for Aaron, he’s always explaining things to me and giving positive advice and encouragement. So we can always have a conversation about things and I would say that he’s definitely been the one to stimulate my career.”

Kirista Rabain during the course walk at the FEI World Jumping Challenge Final in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2017

Not only has Sims been able to use her blossoming talents, as evidenced by Rabain’s sitting in the bike for several other owners, donning her trademark blue-and-white striped helmet and appropriately star-festooned racing jacket.

Kirista Rabain at the FEI World Jumping Challenge Final in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2017
Kirista Rabain receives the High Point Trophy from the Ag Show. Presenting is Ian Truran, the now-retired president of the Bermuda Equestrian Federation
Kirista Rabain on board Helsinki at the FEI World Jumping Challenge at the National Equestrian Centre

“I’m an easy catch when it comes to driving and working with horses. It’s hard to find people you trust with a horse because they can be difficult animals to manage,” explained Rabain, who additionally placed first in the Pleasure Driving Pony Non Trotting Bred (Single) Class at the Bermuda Equestrian Federation’s Welcome Home Show at the Botanical Gardens in April.

Kirista Rabain on her first pony, Desert Storm, which helped her to win a first blue ribbon

“I just have a lot of experience working with and racing horses, and people trust me to do the right thing with their animals. Also, because I’m naturally conservative, I always have the horse’s welfare at the top of my mind, so people feel comfortable allowing me to take charge of their horses. And it’s not just with the ponies; I’ve also gotten on other people’s jumping horses at horse shows and at various barns, where I’ve had to quickly figure them out and adapt to their nuances and tendencies and really adjust on the fly.”

Still, while many plaudits have been justifiably thrust in the direction of Rabain for her track exploits, her first love and calling card remains within the confines of the ring — jumping fences and offering what is considered the highest expression of horse training in the discipline that is dressage, where horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.

Kirista Rabain all dressed up with Ranger at the Welcome Home Show in April, when they won first place in the Pony Driving Class

“Harness racing is very much a hobby. I really love it as a hobby, but I don’t think I’m excited enough to do this as a sport every day,” answers Rabain, when asked if she would consider racing ponies overseas, just as she has often performed in representation of Bermuda on board the bigger animals. (Horses are taller than 14.2 horse hands, while ponies are always under 14.2hh.) “Show jumping definitely excites me more. I find it’s a lot more practical and the chemistry, the connectivity with the horse, whereby you’re actually on their back, offers so much more of a trust situation.

“They could actually do whatever they want, but because of that connection you have, it ends up being a beautiful relationship. With the harness racing, it’s more thrilling because you have only a short moment that makes for life-or-death decisions.”

It certainly appeared a “life or death” moment for Rabain, when as a kindergartener out for a weekend stroll along Front Street, she spotted a horse and carriage across the street and completely “lost her mind” in appreciation of the beautiful beast.

“That’s a funny story,” said Rabain of her initial encounter, one that initiated a lifelong love affair. “I’ve always had a passion for animals. My parents knew they were in trouble. We were walking across from where they had the horse and buggy stand — it must have been a Saturday or Sunday — and I had a complete meltdown in the middle of the road because my mother would not let me go and touch the horse.

“I’ve just always had a thing for animals, and with horses we’ve always gotten along and had a chemistry with each other. “On my 7th birthday, I got my first horseback ride at Spicelands and that was just the most ecstatic day of my life. There was the opportunity to go and work the horses, and I was so scared to give the horse a treat the first time, but it was a lovely period.

“At 10 years old, I got my first pony. I still have nostalgic pictures of that, as it was on my birthday that I received the greatest surprise with all my friends there.

“We had gathered and taken minibus ride to the horse stables and my dad was like, ‘This is your horse.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God!’, so you could imagine how excited I was. And, from there I was captured and never really left the sport from that moment onwards. I was actually riding and competing before I was 14 or 15.”

It was during a globally sanctioned competition in Bulgaria that Rabain famously took a tumble, yet got up off the turf to complete the round and, remarkably, still manage a sixth-place finish among a world-class field.

“I had a really difficult horse that day,” she remembered with a chuckle. “I got the one horse nobody wanted to ride. It was definitely a tough ride that day, but it wasn’t too bad a fall, though.”

She performed consistently well in jumping competitions with the warmblood Helsinki, earning invites to compete in many prestigious events, while collecting precious rankings points.

“I got to ride on Helsinki, a really big gaffer and we might have had four or five years of really successful competitions. He actually got me up in a position to represent Bermuda.

“We were doing competitions here and we were assigned up the rankings to where we ended up doing international competitions, whereby we could compete on island with the horse while being judged against people all around the world.

“We placed in the top ten among the rankings and the top ten get invited to the finals, which is usually held somewhere around the world. Growing up I did the harness racing, jumping and dressage a bit, and while I was jumping with Helsinki I also had another horse and did a bit of dressage with her. We had good success as well.

“I took a bit of a U-turn and started to get into a bit of harness racing and working with racing ponies, which opened my mind to a whole other level of horse care and training.”

A well-apportioned blend of beauty and brains, Rabain has also proved herself to be a savvy businesswoman, also operating Island K9 & Equine, an animals equipment and supplies import business, while also offering personal dog training and classes.

“I had dogs before I could walk and they would probably be my first love because Dad always had them around the house. He would get a new dog and bring it home from the airport, and I would come home from school, open the kennel and interact with the dog. Meanwhile, these were trained security dogs; they were trained to protect people, but I was never scared and took right to the dogs.

“I was involved with training them to protect and up until today I have a business helping people with dog training, especially highly active dogs as far as training and teaching them how to care and interact with their dogs.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of the pandemic she has also established her own horse stables atop Cedar Hill, where she has attracted much attention from the neighbourhood children and begun building a programme that teaches life skills via activities and care relative to horses.

“It’s an exciting new chapter and nice to have that space to work in,” said Rabain, whose stable has had frequent visits from classes of students at nearby Purvis Primary School, while she has also given presentations and lectures regarding her animal experiences. “Being at the stable provides me with a degree of peace and quiet to do things that I’ve envisioned.

“What I’m particularly happy about is that I have a horse that is young. Under previous conditions, she wasn’t allowed to walk around and move, but this provides a set-up for her to spend more time outside and be more active.

“I tried to find a place that was more accommodating to our needs. I’m still trying to build it up to where I want it to be, but it’s just nice to have my own spot. I’m the type of person that loves peace and tranquility; it’s just nice to be able to go to the barn and have that.”

Some of the tranquility has been interrupted by with the sound of youth eager to learn more about their equine neighbours, yet, rather than reject them as an intrusion, Rabain has embraced the opportunity to lend her knowledge to a potential new crop of equestrians and horse lovers via a mentorship programme, which is admittedly still in a formative stage.

“It all actually came about by accident,” explains the rider turned teacher. “We set up the stables and the neighbourhood kids would see it and come around and say, ‘Hey, can I touch the horse? Can I drive the pony?’ They really do get involved and it’s very exciting to see their reactions … how they look at a horse.

“Initially, many were scared, but now they’re not, almost to a point where I can send them to the barn to take care of the horses because they know what to do.

“We haven’t established a full programme yet, but I do have a little pony there that I want to utilise for the programme, and the kids really take care of it — and the pony likes the kids!

“One of the biggest things I find in dealing with kids is having patience and learning to listen. Because when they want to do something with the horse, typically they just go out and do it. And they’re like, ‘It didn’t work’, so you have to listen. If you don’t listen, they usually sulk.

“They learn the general skill of looking after another life. When they have to feed them or groom them, I’m asking them questions: ‘Would you like to look like this? If this was you or if this was your child or somebody you love, how would you like to be cared for? It may be just a horse and not your horse, but they do have feelings, too, and how can you make the experience better for them?’

“I ask them a ton of questions about processes. For example, the turn with a horse isn’t an instant turn, so I teach them how to process it and then I’ll set up cones and tell them that whoever hits the cone has to do some form of barn chore.

“As a result, every day they get better because no one wants to do the chores. But it is a fun activity for them to learn motor skills with the horse and it is very exciting to watch.”

Rabain expressed eternal gratitude to her parents, both of whom have given unconditional support throughout her journey.

“My parents have been very supportive as much as they’ve been able. My mother [Cheri] has been very inspiring and encouraging, always telling me, ‘You’ve got this’. She’s not just saying this, but explaining to me how I really do possess the capabilities to do what I’ve set out to do.

“My dad has been physically hands-on with my business — the barn, helping to feed and care for the horses as needed. He also will help me take the horse to the fields to work them out. He’ll walk with me, video-record for me as well.

“They’ve both been super supportive of me, although, in recent years, I’ve started to be more independent with my equestrian career.

And so it is for Kirista Rabain as was also intimated by Churchill:

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

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Published June 10, 2022 at 8:02 am (Updated June 10, 2022 at 8:09 am)

THE BIG READ: Kirista’s enduring animal love affair

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