That Albion College alumna Kjirsten Sneed Lee ’11 introduced herself to then-Held Equestrian Center director George Halkett in 2007 by leaping onto the running board of his truck as he drove through the parking lot at the United States Pony Club Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park tells a lot about the way she lives her life.
Unafraid of risk.
Determined to make things happen.
It also explains how a girl from Washburn, Wisconsin who dreamt of becoming a veterinarian took a few French courses during her first year at Albion and dove headlong into a French major with the goal of attending law school.
And how this spring, even as she maintains a full-time career as an equine attorney in Minneapolis, she’s recently joined the thousands of other horse trainers who will prepare former racehorses for second careers as part of the Retired Racehorse Project.
It isn’t a typical path for a practicing lawyer, nor is it a typical path chosen by a lot of riders, but for Lee, it’s the right one because it’s unconventional. It’s also a logical path for the girl who was so horse-crazy as a second grader that her enthusiasm led to her first riding lessons, then incited her mother and a group of other parents to form the Chequamegon Pony Club in their area, a local chapter of the United States Pony Club that would give Lee and her friends a strong, correct foundation in the sport. And thanks to the Pony Club emphasis on in-depth horse care, as well as riding on the flat and jumping both cross-country fences and show jumps, Lee’s focus on the equine triathalon of three-day eventing took hold.
“I like to think I fell in love first with the idea of cross-country, and later with the excitement and rush of actually being out there with your horse,” Lee says. “I love dressage and believe that all equestrian sports require a level of trust and partnership. Cross-country, though, is a true test of heart for both horse and rider – I think that’s what draws me to the sport, because in order to truly succeed a horse and rider have to develop that heart together and trust each other.”
Pony Club and her experiences with Eli, her first horse and – as fate would have it – a retired racer, also cemented her affection for the Thoroughbred.
“In all the horses I’ve ridden, I always come back to the Thoroughbreds because of the level of partnership that comes from a relationship with them,” she says.
It was another retired racehorse – Gobain - whom she adopted in 2014 from CANTER Michigan (a non-profit agency dedicated to matching retired racehorses with new owners and careers), who provided stress relief during her time at the Michigan State University College of Law. Then the publicity achieved by Ichabad Crane, third place finisher in the 2008 Preakness Stakes and winner of the 2014 Retired Racehorse Project competition for “Most Wanted Thoroughbred” under Olympian Phillip Dutton, inspired her to take her passion for Thoroughbreds and eventing to the next level.
“It struck me as brilliant, the way that this organization was able to promote [off-the-track Thoroughbreds] as sport and recreational riding horses and educate people at the same time,” Lee says. “I was pretty much hooked. I have wanted to be a part of the Makeover in the years since, but haven’t had the opportunity until now.”
Enter Flat Out Nice (better known as Roz), a six-year-old mare who raced as recently as February and whom Lee acquired in March. She plans to compete Roz at the annual Thoroughbred Makeover competition in Kentucky this October in the disciplines of dressage and eventing.
Lee says of her choice, “When I spoke to the seller, she told me how quiet and sensible Roz was, and how sweet and personable. So [my trainer and I] did something we’d said we wouldn’t: we scheduled a pre-purchase and bought a horse off a video and our faith in her good attitude. It was a bit of a gamble but so far it’s paying off!”
Still, taking a horse trained its entire life to run as fast as it can and teaching it to perform the more controlled movements of dressage and as well as demonstrate the balance and control required to jump fences isn’t an easy task.
“These first few months between now and the Makeover are all about building her confidence and developing a relationship where she feels secure and that she can trust her rider,” Lee says. “Long-term, we will see what she is best suited for and make every effort to help her go in that direction.”
Lee credits the liberal arts education she received at Albion with giving her the perspective she now applies to both the practice of law and training horses.
“Having a liberal arts education taught me to think outside the box and try something that hadn’t been done before,” Lee says. “I knew I would be able to do these things because my education showed me that I wasn’t boxed into a specific path. Helping [Roz] navigate a new career is as rewarding for me as helping a client navigate the intricacies of a boarding contract.”
Roz the retired racehorse seems therefore to have found herself in wonderful hands as she discovers what challenges and excitement her next career will bring and undoubtedly Lee will apply the same boldness to their career together that she did on that long ago day when she introduced herself to her future college coach in distinctive fashion.
Or, perhaps more aptly, Lee will adhere to the words of R.S. Gray: “She believed she could, so she did.”
The staff and students of the Nancy G. Held Equestrian Center will follow the progress of Lee and Flat Out Nice closely over the next several months. If you’d like to follow along as well, you may like her Facebook page, “Flat Out Nice - 2016 RRP Thoroughbred Makeover Contestant.” You may also learn more about Lee’s experiences as an Albion student by visiting the Albion College Equestrian page and finding her profile in our “Where Are They Wednesdays” photo album.