At home at Phoenix Equestrian in Wilfrid, Ontario, grey Thoroughbred gelding Wabbit is a lovable attention-seeker.
“He’s the sweetest guy,” according to Canadian Team eventer Jessica Phoenix. “He’s always trying to pull you in for a cuddle. Wherever I am on the farm, I see him staring at me.”
Under saddle, though, the 12-year-old, 16.3 hand gelding “can be a wild man” who is “always up for a party,” says Jessica, who owns Wabbit with Jim Phillips. Since the horse came to her in 2018, she’s learned to focus those wild man tendencies into a competitive advantage. After top-10 finishes in four-star competitions in Kentucky and Bromont this year, Jessica and Wabbit tackled the five-star course at the Maryland 5-Star at Fairhill in October where they had a double-clear cross-country and finished 19th.
“He makes cross-country effortless over those huge tracks,” says Jessica. “His gallop is exceptional and he’s never pushing for time. He’s one of the best cross-country horses I’ve ever sat on.” As brilliant as he is, Wabbit is “an extremely quirky boy and you need to truly understand him. His brain is always functioning at a high-intensity level,” she adds.
Jim Phillips, who worked in veterinary pharmaceutical sales and owns a farm in Mono, events and show jumps himself and has acquired quite a few Thoroughbreds over the years, including his current mount, Mike. He met Wabbit, registered as Molinaro Kissing (Line of Departure x No Kissing), as off-the-track five-year-old at exercise rider Tabitha Lee’s barn. But she said the horse wasn’t for sale.
“I told Tabitha ‘if the grey’s ever for sale, let me know,’” Jim recalls. A few months later, he got the call and acquired Wabbit. “My wife (Dr. Colleen Mitchell) thought I was crazy, as we had quite a few Thoroughbreds at the time.”
Johan Letimonier helped out and rode and showed Wabbit in lower level jumpers the following year. “It was very clear he was extremely athletic and extremely brave, but he was a lot of horse.” Jim next sent the horse to Momo Laframboise who started Wabbit’s eventing career and got him successfully to preliminary level. Next, the gelding went to Ocala with Cathy Inch, a lifelong friend of Jim’s, where he showed in the jumpers up to 1.5 metres. “It went well, but his true calling was always eventing.”
Jim approached Jessica, whom he hadn’t met before but knew of her reputation as being good with difficult horses. She tried the gelding at Jackie Mars’ farm where David O’Connor was based.
“I remember the first time I rode him, I said to Jim ‘This horse is a five-star horse.’ He had so much balance in the canter and so much range and in his brain was a very competitive horse,” Jessica says. They struck a deal for Jessica to show and compete Wabbit, as well as becoming part owner.
“Momo did a great job with him, Cathy did a great job with him and Jessica’s done an amazing job with him,” Jim says. “He totally thrives under her system. That’s the thing with Thoroughbreds – it’s important to put them in the right hands.” He had warned Jessica that Wabbit was impossible to jump at home – and during his first jump session at her place, he jumped one fence then streaked off with her into the adjoining field.
“He has a high propensity for going forward and gradually over time, we’ve built a relationship,” she says. “He is stronger in his balance and now knows how to position his body to hold his power. Now he’s more settled and relaxed.”
She is thankful she had prior experience producing Thoroughbreds to the top levels, including Exploring and Exponential, because “Wabbit is full-on and I’ve had to use all of my knowledge to ride him.”
Jessica moved Wabbit up to the three-star level pre-pandemic. In 2021, he made his four-star debut in the short format competition at the Kentucky Land Rover event. Due to Covid, Jessica didn’t travel south for the winter to prep her horses, so Wabbit went from her arena in Ontario straight to the Kentucky competition.
“The four-star course was very challenging and he was the first horse to go,” Jim recalls. “The horses that followed him had a lot of trouble. He cruised around like it was nothing. He was the only horse to get around clean and finished 10th.” He and his veterinarian wife travel to all of Wabbit’s competitions.
As well as eventing, Jessica and Wabbit compete at show jumping tournaments and together have moved up to the 1.35 metres. He’s done well as a jumper but like most Thoroughbreds, dressage has been a challenge to get him to let go of his back and use his gaits more naturally.
“Full Thoroughbreds are a very different ride from warmbloods,” Jessica notes. “Their brains are more intricate and they are constantly thinking. They want to be 10 steps ahead of you and Wabbit is no exception. He is such a lovable guy and such a workman, and such a partner.”
Wabbit loves being in front of a crowd, says Jessica, and he enjoys showing off at the jog. “He loves feeling special.” But he doesn’t like being confined to a stall at shows, so he’s assigned his own person to keep him grazing and walking. Jessica keeps his warm-ups short to keep his excitement in check “as he definitely knows what’s coming. Once we’re out of the start box and on the cross-country course, he’s as straightforward as they come. He’s so fearless, so straight and he looks for the flags. It’s an incredible feeling riding him.”
Wabbit will travel with the other Phoenix horses to Ocala in February; then the plan is for Jessica to compete with him at the Badminton Horse Trials in England in May. Although Jessica is the only Canadian to start in more than 100 CCI four-star events and only one of 17 eventers worldwide to achieve this, she’s never competed at Badminton.
“I’m so excited to prepare Wabbit for Badminton,” she says. “It’s such a technical course and he’s so good at technical courses.”
Until those preparations begin in earnest in early 2023, Wabbit will hang out at home in Ontario where “he loves all of his people and all of the treats,” and can hang with his best equine friend, Patron. Patron is one of Jessica’s up-and-coming horses, the son of Patras VR, a horse Jessica campaigned to the three-star level and Gin & Juice, Hawley Bennett-Awad’s Olympic and World Equestrian Games mount.
“He and Patron get each other. They do everything together ‒ they eat together, drink together, are in the run-in together,” says Jessica. “They have the best time!”