Roll, Pony Roll: Tide athletics co-workers surprise trainer with a new show pony after loss

Becky Hopf
The Tuscaloosa News

His name is Red Zone, a nod to his owner who works with the University of Alabama’s football team. But he could easily also be named Friend Zone because it was the owner’s Crimson Tide co-workers and friends who came together to bring him to Tuscaloosa.

Red Zone is a pony now owned by Ginger Gilmore Childress, who is the director of behavior medicine at UA’s athletics department and one of the team’s athletic trainers. She made history as a student as one of the first female trainers to work with Alabama football.

A trainer for the U.S. Equestrian team at the 1996 Olympics, Childress is also nationally respected in dressage. Aboard Killian’s Red, the pair won ribbons at the prestigious National Dressage Pony Cup.

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Childress competed in the showcase twice and was planning to take Killian’s Red in 2019 when the pony died.

Ginger Gilmore Childress rides her pony, Red Zone, at the 2021 National Dressage Pony Cup at the National Equestrian Center in Missouri. Red Zone, named in a nod to her role with the University of Alabama football team and a gift from her Crimson Tide athletics colleagues and friends, placed third in the Training Level Championship in his first appearance at nationals.

That’s when the first proof of her Friend Zone surfaced. Her fellow equestrians surprised her by establishing a perpetual trophy, the President’s Choice Award, to honor Killian’s Red at the NDPC.

The second came from former Crimson Tide rower Jacqueline Guezille. Guezille and Childress both boarded horses at Tuscaloosa’s Pembroke Farms.

“After my pony, Killian’s Red, died, I was looking at Facebook and saw that Jackie put an ‘in-search-of’ ad on Facebook," said Childress. "I thought, ‘Oh, Jackie’s looking for a pony.’ As I was reading it, I realized, ‘this is an ad for me.’ I thought, ‘nobody asked me about this.’ I was so mad. I just wasn’t ready. Then I started looking at the ponies who had responded to the ad, and I got less mad.”

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One of the ponies that caught her eye was named Bouie. Bouie had been seized from a farm in South Carolina. He was emaciated and abused, his flesh scarred from being tethered. He was likely destined for slaughter before being rescued by a horse trainer, Katie Erpel.

Childress realized she and Bouie needed each other. She started making arrangements to buy him when her plan was upended. Her husband lost his job. Taking on the finances of purchasing and boarding a horse was, at least temporarily, out of the question.

Erpel knew Childress and Bouie would make a good match.

“She said, 'I really want you to have him because I want him to have a good home.' ”

And then the next Friend Zone surfaced.

Childress has had horses since she joined Alabama's staff in 1996. Her co-workers knew she dearly missed that world. So, tipped by Guezille, Jeremy Gsell, Alabama's director of football rehabilitation services, initiated a fundraiser for Childress to buy Bouie and to help defray boarding costs. They surprised her with the news at a staff meeting, and Bouie, who she renamed Red Zone, became hers in October.

Red Zone's age and breed are sealed as part of his seizure’s court documents. Emaciated when she got him, “He’s real chunky, muscular,” she says of him now. “I call him Little Gronk because he reminds me of (NFL player) Ron Gronkowski."

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In mid-July Childress entered him in the NDPC. Despite having stage fright initially, Red Zone placed third in Training Level Championships.

“This little guy just keeps trying and trying," said Childress. "With a rescue, they know you are their person. He really tries hard. He’s well out of his comfort zone and maybe out of his league because who knows what kind of horse he is? I don’t even know. He’s like a mutt. Killian’s Red was the best breed you could possibly find for a Welsh pony. So this one is like a pound puppy and here he is going to the biggest show that he can go to.”

Football practice begins soon, so equestrian competitions will have to wait. Meanwhile, she’ll ride and train Red Zone before and after work, and, doubtless, grow to love him.

“It wasn’t my time frame for getting another one, but God had another plan,” Childress said. “He’s totally different. His personality is different. He’s not the professional show pony like my other horse was bred to do, so he’s just figuring it out. And he’s only doing it because, and it sounds cheesy, but because he loves me.”