At 15.3 hands, Poker Face isn’t tall. Yet what he lacks in stature he makes up for in heart—and that heart belongs to his owner/rider, Jennifer BlissJennifer is a bit of an anomaly in the hunter ring, where long-term professional partnerships can be few and far between. When she bought “Pokey” seven years ago, he was a two-year turnaround project to help Jennifer make her name in the industry. But sometimes life and friendship have other plans.

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I bought Poker Face in December of 2010. Jimmy Toon had recently imported him from Holland and I was looking for a project. I went to try him the day before I was leaving to drive down to Florida from my then-home base in New York. He was four years old and obviously quite green to ride, but he was adorable to look at, and his jump was just so naturally correct.

I remember thinking that even though it could be a challenge getting to the jump perfectly, no matter what, I could just lean away with my shoulders, give with my hands, and he jumped in perfect style every time. I kind of surprised myself with how much I liked him.

So I went back to Jimmy’s farm very early the next morning to sit on him one more time. As a young horse, he went through this phase where he absolutely hated to be by himself. The first day I tried him, there had been other horses in the ring. But this next day it was super early and he was alone. He was screaming and being totally unruly. I had to get off and lunge him. Finally, we had to bring in one of Ellen [Toon’s] famous amateur hunters Invincible from the paddock and hold him in the ring to keep Pokey company while I rode him in order to do anything remotely productive.

I left straight from there to drive south. I made the decision to buy him on that trip, which felt like a very quick decision for me, as I can be admittedly conservative to a fault. But I really just loved him and felt a connection to him straight away. He got vetted and then we decided to leave him in New York for a few weeks so that he could ship South with Jimmy’s other horses. I fretted like crazy every day for those few weeks, like, That was such an impulsive move. What if I bought a total lemon? 

I had this little video of me jumping him over some jumps in the indoor at JT Farm that I must have watched 10 times a day every day, thinking, No, no. He’s gonna be a good one. That’s pretty funny to think about all of that now.

To be honest, Pokey is not the truly scopiest or stridiest horse I have ever ridden, nor is he the most classically rideable. But that horse is braver and has more “try” than any horse I’ve ridden in my life.

As a bonus, I developed a nice relationship with Jimmy Toon after we bought Pokey. He really helped me a lot with him as a young horse. Pokey was always an athlete, but he could be quirky and almost too smart. When I would get emotional and feeling like this was everything, or that I had to fix it right now, Jimmy was always very calm, but also very creative. He was a positive influence for both of us and I learned a lot from him. I have since gotten other good horses from him, and still very much value our friendship.

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Pokey is a real show horse. I thought of the name Poker Face on the very first day I tried him, because of the unique broken white markings he has on his face. As it turns out, his nickname, Pokey, also suits him perfectly, because unless he is in the ring heading down to some real jumps, he is very, very lazy! He is quite uninspired by flatwork, despite my best efforts. And he has always been a bit naughty to jump at home. But he loves to show. When he goes in the ring he is all business. Pokey is 15.3, but we joke that we never, ever call him “little.” He truly has no idea that he is small. His personality and heart are larger than life!

He is definitely king of the barn in his corner stall. Pokey likes to have his stablemates where he can see them, but if anyone gets too close, he makes the most ferocious faces. His favorite things are trail rides in his hackamore, his daily sessions on the Theraplate, and bananas. He is like my little pony at home. He nickers to me, I can ride him bareback or without a bridle—things I wouldn’t dare on most other horses. At this point Pokey really knows his job, so we just try to keep him fit and comfortable. My fiancé and barn manager, Deywi Rodgriguez, takes care of him and knows him as well as I do. Our lives kind of revolve around keeping Pokey happy! But I think everyone does that for their top horses, and at this point, he is really part of the family.

To be honest, Pokey is not the truly scopiest or stridiest horse I have ever ridden, nor is he the most classically rideable. But that horse is braver and has more “try” than any horse I’ve ridden in my life. He makes up for anything he lacks with sheer heart.
Pokey and I know each other extremely well and have the utmost trust in each other. I took my time with him for years, and was very protective of him for a long time. I have definitely lost some classes being too careful, but I always respected how hard he tries, and I never wanted to ask him to do something I wasn’t sure he could do successfully because I never wanted him to lose what I think is the most special part of him. Now we have such a foundation of confidence and trust in each other that I’m not so hesitant to call on him anymore—to challenge him in the show ring. We are able to count on each other at this point, and that has just come from years of experience together. It’s a great feeling.

The progression of our relationship over the years is something that is very special to me. We have literally gone together from baby greens at WEF that first winter, to the High Performance and International Hunter Derbies. As a rider and trainer, the experiences we have had together is something that I will be able to carry with me always, and pass on to other horses and riders. But on a personal level, Pokey has just meant so much to me.

You always have high hopes when you buy a talented youngster, but you never really know which horses are going to be the ones who change your life, so to speak. I obviously aspire to have many great horses in my career, but Pokey will always be the first great one, the one that as a young professional, made me feel like I could really do it—that I could compete in the big leagues and strive for the things that I had dreamt of since I was a kid on ponies.

Pokey was always supposed to be a project for just a year or two, and it probably would have financially impacted my life in a pretty major way if I had sold him as planned. But I get a lot of happiness from having him in my life, my constant partner and friend. And I always feel like there is more we can accomplish together. So my compromise it that everything else I own and am developing is for sale, and I do really enjoy seeing horses that I’ve had go on to successful junior and amateur careers.

You always have high hopes when you buy a talented youngster, but you never really know which horses are going to be the ones who change your life.

Every year on New Year’s Eve, my fiance Deywi and I have this conversation about what our favorite moments of the past year have been. And without fail, my answer always involves Pokey. Some of my most special rounds with him haven’t even been ones that he won, but moments that felt like milestones in my career that we achieved together: my first 90 at Devon as a professional, my first top-10 finish at Derby Finals. This month’s Hunter Spectacular was pretty magical. Being the last one to go and the only horse competing at 4′ was a bit daunting for me mentally. But he just totally rose to the occasion.

Even after all these years together, I feel like we are still finding a new gear, which is exciting. That’s part of what is so great about this sport and these long-term relationships—you’ve never done it all or learned it all. And to that end, it has been a valuable lesson to me as a rider and horsewoman to, of course, draw from experience, but also to evolve with him and very much remain present. To ride and manage the horse that I have now.

-As told to Nina Fedrizzi. Photos by Erin Gilmore for NF Style.