I moved to Florida in August 2010 and went to Valhalla farm. My youngest sister, my Mom, and my dog came along. I took a working student position under USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist Erin Brinkman. Her mom, Jean, was the barn owner and also had her gold. Iris Eppinger was the farms other trainer, who is also a USDF gold medal recipient. There was a lot of learning to do! The position did not pay, but it did offer me housing, lessons, and a stall. I did not have a horse at the time, so I thought creatively as to how I could make ends meet while working there, and advertised for months that I had a spot open before I even moved there. It worked, and even though I was just a working student at the time, I found someone who had tried to get her horse in training with Erin, but was told her stalls were all full. In this arrangement, she could benefit from Erin's training even though I was going to be the one in the saddle. It was a reduced rate for her, but the training fee went to me . Meet Glory B, my first paying client!
She was half draft, half quarter horse. Her owner stopped riding her because she had started bucking. I worked with her for several months, just sending her forward when she wanted to buck, and she soon realized it was easier just to do the right thing. Her owner came to the farm often to watch her progress and take lessons with me. It wasn't very long before I had successfully joined them back together! I really enjoyed that experience, and still hear about how much her owner is enjoying her again.
When Glory went back home, Jean saw what a success it was for me to have my own client's horse to train and actually set me up with my next few sets of clients. It was great that she had that much faith in me. I will touch base on a few horses that were very special to me.
My next horse was Lucheese (Luc), who was a Trakehner/quarter horse that the owner had bred using Stilletto, one of Jean's stallions. She was also having problems with him bucking under saddle. I had him for a bit longer and ended up taking him to a few shows, where he did pretty well. Gilda, his owner, became a good friend of mine, as she also came regularly to take lessons. She usually stayed with me. When she took him back home, I went with her to help transition him. There was a lot of demand in that area for dressage help, so I went back several times to teach clinics. I got a lot of good feedback and really Enjoyed that. Here is Luc and I at one of our shows.
I also got another Trakehner/quarter horse in training. This horse needed to be started. I had been learning from Erin how to start horses, but I had never done it myself before. It meant a lot to me that Jean thought I was up for it. Kite ended up being the perfect first horse to learn from. She was just really easy, smart, and enjoyed her work. She sold to an eventing home about 6 months after I started her. Her owner still tells me what a good job I did with her, sent me another horse, and has more that she wants to send my way as well! I am not in that area right now, or I think she would keep my barn full of youngsters!
About a year after I started working at Valhalla, I came upon what I thought was the opportunity of a lifetime. An older gentleman, who had been a client and a friend to Jean for 30 years was building a barn and needed someone to work for him. He was a self made millionaire. He had imported a few top quality youngsters and had Bilinda Nairn, two time Olympian, as his head trainer. I rode with her a couple times while I was deciding whether or not to take the position. She was very complimentary of my riding and wanted me to come work for them. Not only was I going to get lessons from one of the top trainers in the country, but he had also promised to buy me my own show horse, my own saddle, etc. I was going to have the opportunity to show a lot! However, my room would be in his house. That should have tipped me off, but I was still pretty naive at the time.
Each time he visited the farm, he took special interest in me, and would routinely sit by me at group dinners and pay for my meal. A girlfriend told me she thought he was interested in me. He was 40 years older than me! I didn't believe it, but I guess I did feel strange when people looked at us getting out of his expensive vehicle whenever we went places. I asked another visiting trainer, a stunning young lady who had been friends with him longer than I, and who had considered the position offered before it was offered to me. "That's just AJ!" She said when I told her my concern. So I confidently proceeded to take the job and move to Ocala.
Working with Bilinda was a dream. She taught me things in just a few lessons that I still use today. However, my time at the farm was cut short when, after dinner and drinks, we stopped at the barn to do night check and he tried to kiss me! That was not what I wanted! Fortunately they were willing to have me back at Valhalla, and I was moved back within 2 days.
Things changed when I got back to Valhalla. Erin had replaced me as her assistant, which was heartbreaking! The other trainer, Iris, had several working students already and did not need me. However, I had progressed enough to work on my own, and with nearly 100 horses at the farm, there was no shortage of horses to ride!
I got my own string of horses, which included youngsters that needed to be started, some horses a little farther along, but also Tanzeln, a beautiful Trakeher stallion owned by John and Kari Cassel. I had about 10 horses on my list, so I could just not get to every horse each day, but I rode Tanz nearly every day! He was a great stallion. You could not beat his temperament. You could put a mare right next to him in the cross ties and he would not even look at her, when other stallions would get excited and unmanageable. In fact, I am fairly certain that we put him in the wash rack next to a mare fairly regularly. There were a few stallions on the farm that we could do that with. To this day I am puzzled as to how Trakehners
got a reputation for being hot and "crazy."
Tanz was approved as a premium stallion at his inspection, but he had broken his hip some time before I got him. They thought he could never be ridden again, but he proved them all wrong! The only thing about him that reminded us of his injury was the fact that he was given to bucking. And this was Olympic caliber bucking. The only time he got me out of the saddle in the year I worked with him, was when he took off bucking from a walk. I was not expecting it. I think this is why neither Erin or Iris wanted to ride him, but it was ok with me. I took Tanz to a few shows, and we showed through 3rd level. He was a very special horse to me.
I wanted to begin focusing on showing, so I bought my own horse. I wanted something that I could bring along that would not be sold out from under me. My good friends Andrew and Tiffany Palmer of Royal Palm farm had Preston in training with them. Bred by Anissa Cottongim, he was in training to be an eventer, but the moment I sat on him I knew he was going to be my dressage horse. The two best things about that horse are his canter and his mind. He was also so easy to move around in the lateral work. Well, you will hear much more about Preston in my blog. I have owned him 3 years now.
I worked at Valhalla for 2 years. When it was time to move on, I went I work for a woman outside of Daytona who had about 8 horses in training. She was having shoulder surgery and needed someone to take care of and ride her horses while she was healing. I took advantage of her and had her teach me as much as possible. She had a lot of young horses that were for sale. There was not a lot of room for me to advance my riding. I was thankful for my horse because he had the most dressage training of the lot. However, I did learn to jump! But, overall I was not really happy there, even though the beach was not far! A couple months in to it we had a really rainy spell, and I could not ride the youngsters for several days. When it finally dried up, I was riding a fresh young horse in the round pen, and when my helmet hit a branch of an overhanging tree and made a noise he
was unfamiliar with, he took off bucking and dumped me. I landed on my ankle. It hurt so bad, I thought I broke it. It was just a bad sprain, but I would not be able to ride for 6 weeks or more. She found a replacement and I went back home to Wi for a few weeks.
I found my next job online-
Jodie Kelly dressage. I flew into Florida to interview, and got the job based on my references. I was still on crutches and could not ride. I came on as the assistant trainer and barn manager in November 2012, just over 2 years after my move to Florida. Even though I had lots of good experience, nothing had prepared me for this. Jodie had a barn full of about 30 horses, some of them boarders, but many of them in full or part time training. She was younger than me and had already been showing Grand Prix for several years. She was extremely organized, motivated, determined and hard working. She has what it takes to be at the top of the sport, and I believe she will be in the Olympics some day. An average day for her included riding 12-15 horses per day, plus teaching lessons, many of which were haul-ins. It was my job to not only bring in/turn out all the horses, feed them, hire, fire, and train barn staff, help with the riding and teach lessons, but also keep her on time and groom when needed. The perks of the job included riding high quality horses, some upper level, and teaching lessons to some clients I became friends with. But I was in way over my head. I worked 12-14 hour days, and constantly needed to be in 3 places at once and was 10 minutes behind. Looking back, my main fault was that I tried to do everything myself and did not ask for help. I was the barn manager, but I did not delegate. I failed. I must be a glutton for punishment though, because when I get back to Destin, I will look her up to see if she needs help!
During my time there, I did meet Kendall and Vicki. Two people who would change my life.
Kendall is a self made, successful business man who owns Acentria insurance, which is headquartered in beautiful Destin Fl, and had 14 other locations in Fl at the time. Probably more now. I really admire that he became successful after growing up in the country and not having a lot of education. It inspires me to be around people like that. He is also a jokester. One of my favorite stories is of him being a school bus driver at a young age. Each day he would try to beat his own time driving his route! His wife, Vicki, is also one of the classiest, nicest women I have ever met. We soon became friends.
I met Kendall and Vicki at about 4:00 am on a cold February morning, when they had arrived to the stable from Texas with their stallion, Tucci. It was my job to help unload and get him settled in. It was cold! Our meeting was brief. Kendall had just purchased the horse, and gelded him shortly after arriving. The horse needed some basic work, and Kendall had not ridden in years. The next few months of working with Kendall and Tucci were some of my best memories. If you ever get a chance to meet Kendall, he will tell you all about the time I had him do an "improper procedure!" Haha!
When my time at JK dressage ended, Kendall moved Tucci out to Dr. Ennis' farm, about an hour away. Preston and I followed. There I managed a small private stable with 6 horses total. I took care of the barn and horses, as well as worked the horses and taught lessons to the girls who lived there. There was a lot of room to ride on trails, and we got to be good friends with the neighbors. It was a great job!
About 6 months later, Dr Ennis decided not to keep the horses out there full time any more, so I was sort of out of a job. Though, it was about that time that I
met my current boyfriend, who whisked me away to North Carolina!