OTTB Donner, a Sporthorse With Heart


Donner and Lynn Symansky during the stadium jumping phase of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2015 where they finished 12th. (Photos by Melissa Bauer-Herzog)

Looking at eventing superstar Donner now, it may be hard to believe that the 13-year-old gelding didn’t excel in a fast sport like racing. A speedy cross-country jumping machine, Donner has been on multiple U.S. eventing teams and competed in over 20 FEI events since 2009.

But one look at his race record shows that the gelding would rather be galloping around a cross-country or stadium jumping course than a racetrack.

When Donner, registered with The Jockey Club as Smart Gorky, stepped onto the turf at Belmont in July 2006 he looked to become the third winner from four foals for his dam Smart Jane. But after he made six starts that year it was obvious racing wasn’t for him with the gelding’s best race seeing him finish 14 lengths behind the winner with the running line saying “passed fading rivals.”

Donner was retired after a sixth-place finish at Laurel Park on Dec. 23, 2006 and went back to Dresden Farm where he had been raised. He was purchased by an amateur rider the next year and was put on the path to being one of the most well-known upper-level eventers in the United States.


In 2008, eventing rider Lynn Symansky was contacted by a friend who thought he’d be the right fit for Symansky.

“I was kind of looking for a young prospect and I got a call from a friend on him that he was a very athletic horse who was quite special in his personality and brain but if challenged the right way thought he could be something. I didn’t know he’d turn out to do everything he’s done but I liked his build, I liked his type, you know, he was a nice stamp of a horse,” Symansky said. “The biggest thing was he is very quirky, he’s a hot horse, he’s a sensitive horse, so the biggest struggle with him was going to be getting his brain and his energy channeled in the right direction. I always thought he was a good enough jumper and athletic enough but he’s not the best mover so we’ve worked a lot on his flat work.”

The biggest challenge for Symansky was getting him to relax and know what his job was. A naturally spooky gelding, Symansky spent a lot of time getting the gelding to trust her and his other handlers so he was confident in himself and what he was supposed to do at competitions. Getting to know his quirks and creating a partnership with him that has helped bring out his potential is one thing that Symansky lists as one of her biggest accomplishments with him.


Another accomplishment she is proud of is taking an off-the-track Thoroughbred and taking him to the top level of the sport.

“Being able to do so many international competitions with an off-the-track Thoroughbred from just around the corner [is my biggest eventing accomplishment],” she said. “He’s done a ton of international competitions, he’s been on two U.S. teams by the time he was 12 years old, he’s done multiple 4-stars at a fairly young age for that. He did his first one when he was 9 and I think he did his fifth by the time he was 12 so I’d say just setting out and doing more than anyone would have probably guessed he would have done with being kind of a locally bred racetrack reject.”

For Symansky, Donner isn’t the only Thoroughbred you’ll see her on. A big fan of the breed, she calls Thoroughbreds her “weakness” when horse shopping.

“The biggest thing for my sport, I really like being able to sit on a Thoroughbred at minute 11 or 12 of a 4-star course. It’s a very different feel, I love the feel that they give me on the cross-country,” she said. “I find that they are just such workmen and try their heart out and what some of them may lack in movement compared to some of the crossbreds and warmbloods and lack in some scope compared to ones that are crossbred as jumpers they make up for in heart and endurance. They’re going to dig deep and try for you once the going gets tough so it makes me confident setting out that I know that any Thoroughbred is such a phenomenal partner in that you’re going to have a little bit left in the tank not just in terms of speed but it terms of their try.”


She does advise that those who want to buy something off the track in hopes the horse turns into the next Donner make sure they are aware of what kind of horse is right for them. She said that in addition to knowing what skills a rider has, knowing what personality will fit that rider and that expectations are realistic are just as important, as is working with a knowledgeable trainer. 

“I’d say for some greener riders, I see a lot of people making the mistake that they have dreams of buying something off the track and making it up into their superstar. I think it’s great but I think it’s definitely important to work with a knowledgeable trainer that helps ... It’s very difficult to tell when they’re right off the track and haven’t had a lot of education underneath them what kind of road they’re going to go down,” she said. “I always like to be open minded and not try to put the square peg into the round hole and listen to the horse and see what they’re best suited for. Some make great eventers, some end up being great just pleasure or dressage horses, some aren’t that athletically gifted and some will take you far beyond where you thought.”


But for those who want to try out a Thoroughbred, Symansky believes that they shouldn’t be discouraged from the move as long as they have the proper skills or trainer to help them with the transition from racehorse to sporthorse.

“There are some riders who don’t necessarily match with a Thoroughbred and there are some that that is their type and they would never sit on anything that is a crossbred or a warmblood,” she said. “I personally absolutely love them, it doesn’t mean I only do Thoroughbreds but when I have the choice it’s my weakness for sure. So I would encourage anybody who has ever thought about it and has a trainer they’re working with or the ability to do it to try and help recycle a Thoroughbred that’s not working out on the track and needs a second career. Even if it doesn’t mean that they’re going to end up with you in the end, just to try and help them find a second career whether it’s with you or with someone else.”

As for Symansky’s goals with Donner, at the end of this year the gelding will celebrate his 10-year anniversary of being retired from the track and what better way to celebrate than for the pair to compete at the Summer Olympics, held in Rio de Janeiro in early August?

The U.S. team hasn’t been announced yet but Symansky and Donner were part of the team that earned bronze at the Aachen CICO3* event in Aachen, Germany last summer and are currently on the USEF’s High Performance Training List for this winter.

If the pair is named to the Olympic team later this year, the Mid-Atlantic racing region will be able to celebrate one of their graduates reaching the highest level of a post-racing life when Donner canters down center line to start his dressage test in Rio de Janeiro.

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