Written by: Sally F. Kay – The Carolinas Equestrian Published: 09 March 2019
“I have horses in my blood and gratefully I don’t remember a time in my life without them in it,” begins Karen Kelley of Silver Hill Farm in Waxhaw, NC. Karen was born into a horse family in Weston, Connecticut, with her father as well as her uncle working as hunter/jumper professionals. “Additionally, my father owned an insurance agency. He was one of the first to insure horses in the US as previously it could only be done through Lloyds of London.”
Believe it or not, the first horse Karen rode was the famous ‘Snowman.’
For those who may be unfamiliar with this ‘rags to riches’ story that became a 2016 feature film, ‘Snowman’ was a former plow horse of mixed breed – possibly a cross of Quarter Horse, Morgan, and Draft. Harry de Leyer purchased the horse for $80.00 on his way to a slaughterhouse and became a champion in show jumping in the United States during the 1950s. “My family and the de Leyers were close friends. Harry had us all out to the farm and we all got to ride him. One time I even got to hold the reins.”
Karen’s older siblings took riding lessons at close family friend Ronnie Mutch’s Nimrod Farm. Unfortunately for Karen, they would not allow children under age seven to take lessons. “It was like a form of torture for me as I was the only one in the family with ‘horse fever.’ Ronnie saw me crying one day in the lounge and brought me outside in the snow and pointed out a small Shetland pony named ‘Teddy.’ This wayward Shetland pony who had been his sons roamed the farm freely and sometimes interrupted lessons in the indoor ring. “Ronnie told me that if I could catch ‘Teddy,’ I could ride him. I was instantly on a mission with as many sugar cubes as I could fit in my pockets. After what seemed like years to me at age six, I managed to climb on him bareback for a few seconds.” Karen’s antics with ‘Teddy’ provided a great source of entertainment for her as well as everyone who watched. Her first official lesson on school pony ‘Woody’ did not occur until her seventh birthday.
Nimrod Farm had a large lesson program in addition to a top ‘A’ show string of horses and riders. Riders of various abilities lessoned simultaneously in the enormous rings; therefore, Karen was exposed to some amazing talent while she was on either her school horse or pony. “Yes, back then seven year-olds rode horses, too, and survived. There were many horse shows held at Nimrod for all levels so my showing experience began there out of the lesson program.” Later, Karen was lucky enough to show at all the wonderful facilities in the Northeast including Old Salem, Ox Ridge, Farmington, Saratoga, Lake Placid, Hampton Classic, Attitash, Mt. Snow, and Killington. “My favorite horse show still and will always be Fairfield Hunt Club. The huge grass polo field with double panels and 20+ stride lines, just stunning. I was fortunate to ride at the Hunt Club for three years, and those were three of the best years.”
With a mom and dad standing 5’8” and 6’3” respectively, Karen’s pony days were short lived with her moving on to horses by age ten. Nimrod Farm’s show program was growing and the lesson program was shrinking. Subsequently, only Karen and one of her brothers were riders in the Kelley family. Her sister was allergic to horses and her other brother pursued football. “Dad got us into Wayside Farm in New York with Barbara Lindsay and Gerry Barden where we worked and rode, learned everything about horses we could and met friends that have lasted a lifetime, many who today are top horseman around the country.” They all developed a tremendous work ethic, sense of responsibility and extensive knowledge of horsemanship. “We were all blessed to be part of the Wayside family and have such a wonderful start with talented, funny and kind trainers. Following Wayside Karen rode with Carol Maloney at Cedar Lodge Farm in Connecticut, attended Stoneleigh Burnham School where she rode with John Manning and Fairfield Hunt Club with Leslie Burr Howard. “All of these trainers taught me horsemanship, technique, patience, style, and diligence. Most of all, they each helped me believe in me.”
While Karen had every intention and dream of pursuing a career after college and riding as an amateur, an alternative path became necessary. “My father was diagnosed with cancer, so I moved home to Aiken, SC, in the late 1980s where my parents had bought a farm retired a few years earlier.” Her Dad did some breeding and became involved with Aiken’s racing scene. Karen’s brother also relocated to Aiken and worked for one of the top race stables, Dogwood Stables. Karen and her father attended an area schooling show called Progressive Show Jumping (PSJ) at someone’s private farm and ran into Mary Ann Parmelee (Rick Cram’s mother) whom they had met when they first moved to Aiken. “Mary Ann asked what I was doing, and I told her I was back and looking for a job. She put me in touch with her daughter- in- law (Cathy Cram).” Cathy and Rick were recently married and started Cranberry Stables in Lexington, SC. They were looking for someone to help her teach riding lessons, and the rest is history. “Life had come full circle, and it was my turn to run the lesson program which had taught me so much as a child.” Many of the students Karen and Cathy taught over the years are still riding, showing, and become professionals themselves. “Cathy, Rick and I are still the best of friends and colleagues.”
‘Silver Hill’ aka ‘Marty’ was an Off The Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) whose trainer was the Kelley’s neighbor in Aiken. He was an attractive 17 hand grey gelding too slow for the track. “My father and I decided we would make him our project, and ‘Marty’ went on to do the hunters, jumpers, equitation, and sometimes worked a school horse. He was the last horse my father and I trained together before he passed away from cancer and the first horse I sold as a professional.” Karen recently started her own business in Waxhaw, NC, and selected ‘Silver Hill’ to honor both ‘Marty’ as well as her Dad.
Karen considers each of her trainers as role models who helped shape her career as a horse professional. “Each have taught me horsemanship and technique along with how to win or lose gracefully. Namely Emerson Burr, Karen’s first job while in college was helping him with his endless string of ponies and pony kids. “He was a consummate horseman, kind and smart with a razor-sharp wit. He taught me to work harder than necessary to get ahead, a pony is never white enough, you can braid in sub-zero temperatures in a trailer in the dark, be humble, be kind, be on time, listen and laugh.”
Roger and Judy Young taught Karen not only how to think like a horse, but also the art of matching riders with horses and the business aspect of the horse world. While in Camden, Karen was fortunate to get to know Ron Danta and Danny Robertshaw as they have always been so kind and supportive of her. “I once found myself in Kentucky for the International Hunter Futurity with a 3-yr. old and a 4-yr. old, just me, shipping, riding, braiding, care, etc. as the person scheduled to help didn’t show up. They drove by the barn and saw I was alone; the next thing I know, they are helping me with the horses at the ring and the barn.” Years later Ron and Danny provided Karen with a pony for one of her students, Matthew Bravo, to show when his family could not afford to buy him one. Matthew and the pony ribboned at Pony Finals, and it was the experience of a lifetime thanks to them. “Ron and Danny have taught me to be a good friend and colleague and always try to be supportive and help others when they are in need.”
Karen believes that the most significant challenge in being a professional horseperson is finding the balance between personal and professional. “It is very easy to let the barn take precedence in your life, the horses depend on us and we are always on call for them 24/7/365. We all find ourselves working on our ‘day off’ to stay ahead, fielding employee or client calls or texts in the middle of dinner, a movie, vacation or on a plane.” Karen admits that she has many non-horse friends, and they do not talk much about horses other than when she will be home from a show, or a show near them where they could catch up or find a fun event. “I LOVE to travel and have a long bucket list. I set goals around creating the time for travel.”
This year includes many exciting plans and goals for Silver Hill Farm including the Devon Horse Show, Junior Hunter Finals and the Hunterdon Cup, Green Large Pony Hunter, Child/Adult Jumper Team Championships, Zone Team Championships, World Champion Hunter Rider (WCHR), USEF Medal Finals, Maclay Finals and more. “I find it so rewarding to watch my students and horses evolve into a partnership, where there is a level of understanding between them which is evident in their performance together as one.”