For this installation of “The One That Started It All,” Kate Samuels talks with Jill Henneberg about the $600 OTTB supermare, Nirvana, who put her on the eventing map.
Every horse that we ride has a lot to teach us. The longer we ride, the more we can pick out skills that specific horses have taught us along the way. However, there is always one horse that starts it all for us. The one that teaches about riding and makes us into the rider we are today. This new series is going to tell the stories of the horses that started it all. This week, I got to chat with Jill Henneberg about her first Advanced horse, Nirvana. Photos are used with Jill’s permission.
For many little girls, the world revolves around horses. Getting one’s first horse is a major milestone in life. For Jill Henneberg, getting her first horse would put her on the path to achieving big things.
In 1988, at the age of 14, Jill saw a picture of a horse for sale on the wall of a tack shop. She went to see the horse, and though many tried to steer her away from the “crazy” 3 year old OTTB mare, Jill saw something special in that $600 horse. Jill had only been riding for about 2 years when she brought Nirvana home, but she was determined to make it work. Nirvana was very tolerant to the many mistakes that Jill made along the way, and they formed a very strong relationship. The barn was 10 miles from Jill’s home, and she rode her bike there every day to ride her horse.
Jill with a 3 yo Nirvana
Finally, they were ready for their first event at Snipe Hunt. They competed in the Chicken Little division and brought home their first blue. They continued to progress through the levels, and when they reached Training level, Jill decided to take things a step further. She became a working student for Jane Cory of Pleasant Hollow Farm. During her time there, Jill learned a lot. One day, as a treat, Jane took Jill and Nirvana to Bruce Davidson’s for a lesson. Bruce took them out on the cross country field at Chesterland and tested their skills.
“He had us out there jumping some pretty serious fences. It was a very defining moment in my life. The more we asked of her, the more she stepped up to the plate. I realized then that I had a horse that was seriously nice and didn’t seem to have any limitations. After that, we put her into a very specific program. She would only tolerate about 20 minutes of real dressage work a day, so we did that daily followed by fitness work or jumping. Dressage was our weakest phase, but back then, you could be in 60th after dressage and still finish in the top 3.”
Jill and Nirvana, the early years
After Bruce’s, Jill and Nirvana moved up to Prelim. In 1992, They competed at the CCI* Long Format at Essex and finished 4th and received the Best Conditioned Horse Award. They went on to compete on the Young Rider Team at the Preliminary level. The team won the competition, and Jill placed 4th individually. They went on to complete 3 or 4 Intermediates before moving up to Advanced in the spring of 1993 at North Georgia. They competed in the Advanced Horse Trials at Rolex later that spring and finished 2nd and received the JD Reeves Trophy for being the highest placed Young Rider. That fall, Jill completed her first CCI*** at Fairhill and was the highest placed Young Rider.
The following spring of 1994, Jill and Nirvana set off for the three star at Rolex. They finished 8th and, again, received the Best Conditioned Horse Award. Jill was only 18 at the time. It was the year of the World Equestrian Games, and she and Nirvana were alternates for the short list. They continued on in the season, only to have Nirvana fracture her splint bone. Jill opted to have the surgery to remove the splint, as she thought it would make the recovery process faster. They were short listed for the Pan Ams in 1995, but they had to withdraw, as Nirvana was taking longer than expected to recover.
Nirvana was back and better than ever in the fall of 1995 and ran around Rolex in 1996. They placed 10th there and were short listed for the Olympics. They ended up making the trip to Atlanta for the Summer Games and were part of the silver medal team consisting of Karen O’Connor, David O’Connor, and Bruce Davidson.
They were chosen to be on the winter training lists following the Olympics and were planning to attend Badminton in the spring of 1997. After running their first horse trial of the season, Nirvana injured a tendon. Following that injury, Jill decided it was best to retire her. She had nothing left to prove.
Nirvana at 28 and retired
Following her retirement, Nirvana was bred to Espiritu and had a colt named First Mark who went on to compete at the Advanced level with Heather Morris. She was also bred to Cruising, and the foal went on to compete in the jumper ring. Nirvana had some trouble with the pregnancy and birth of the second foal, so Jill decided not to breed her again.
“I would not have been able to live with myself if something had happened to her during pregnancy. She deserved better than that. I ended up leasing her to a student of mine that took her to some events at the Preliminary level. What fun it was to watch them. That student was so lucky to ride that horse and have her teach her everything she knew about riding cross country. I don’t think I will ever own a horse that I would rather be sitting on in the start box. She was just an amazing horse, and it was unfortunate that her career got cut short.”
When Jill made the move back to Virginia from Florida, she was worried about how well Nirvana would deal with it. The mare didn’t ship well, and that was quite a big change. Sonny and Martha Little offered to keep Nirvana for Jill until she was ready for her. They ended up keeping the mare for 2 years, and they took amazing care of her. Jill says she will forever be grateful to them.
Nirvana is now 28 years old and as feisty as ever. She wants for nothing and has her life made. Jill is very thankful to her parents for giving her a budget, as she is sure she wouldn’t have looked at a $600 horse otherwise. On a fun note, Jill lives on the same road as the O’Connors in The Plains, Virginia. They were talking over dinner one night and realized that 4 of the horses from the 1996 Olympics are retired on that road and living the life they deserve.