December 2015 - Horse People: Kelsey Holmes
Written by Kim F. Miller
Saturday, 28 November 2015 01:48
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Plan B has been pretty sweet for talented young eventer.

by Kim F. Miller

Seventeen year old Kelsey Holmes learned early that “Plan A” doesn’t always pan out.

In the summer of 2013, Kelsey was thrilled to purchase the experienced Two Star horse, NZB The Chosen One, from two-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Todd. They debuted that fall at Training Level, then segued successfully into Preliminary, intent on qualifying for that summer’s North American Junior/Young Riders Championship for Area VI.

Kelsey and Sofia (Heart of Gold SE), right, and NZB The Chosen One. Photo: Brooke Bohm Photography

But “Squid” sustained an injury in March of 2014, then another after he’d returned to full strength a year later, in April of 2015. “He’s really been good when I’ve been able to ride him, but we’ve had some bad luck,” says Kelsey.

The silver lining in Plan A’s demise is the remarkable partnership that’s emerged between Kelsey and 8 year old Heart Of Gold SE.

Kelsey’s trainer Jennifer Wooten Macouzet had been bringing along the young mare for breeder Rose Sullivan of SE Farms. When Squid was hurt, she thought Kelsey and “Sofia” would make a good match, even though the mare was just “a green Training Level” at the time.

At their first event together, Sofia balked at going down centerline to start the dressage phase. “She was so not into it,” Kelsey shares. “She was definitely a challenge at first. There were a lot of times when I thought I knew more than her and times when she thought she knew more than me.”

But the two head-strong girls have brought out the best in each other. At presstime, they led the Area VI standings for Preliminary – Juniors, even after moving up to the One-Star level with a second place at the CIC1* in Woodside in early October.

“Sofia has taught Kelsey a lot about being a good horseman, a good rider,” observes Jennifer. “She can really take a lot of pride in having brought the horse along to where she is.” Jennifer sees plenty of upward potential in the pair.

Kelsey had her eye on Sofia well before she owned her. “I’d always loved her and been really excited whenever Jen let me ride her. She’s so cool!”

Doing well with Sofia has been especially rewarding because of how far they’ve come together. “With her, I know that all the hours I’ve put in with her are really paying off. She really came into her own this year.”

Personality-wise, Sofia is “sweet and sassy.” In Kelsey’s view, she’s the perfect event horse. “She’s super fancy on the flat and a clean jumper and she loves her job. She gets really excited when we’re in the start box.”

Sofia is by the Holsteiner jumper Cathalido and out of the Thoroughbred Sulphurs Class Act XX.

As Sofia gets some downtime through the winter, Squid is back in full health and being legged up for the 2016 season.

The two horses couldn’t be more different. Competing at the Fresno Horse Park early this year, Kelsey experienced that first hand when she rode Squid and Sofia back-to-back. “With Squid, I didn’t have to do much. I just chose my line and he went,” she explains. “Then on Sofia, she was full of energy and off and running, and I had to be spot-on for her.”

What she’s learned from riding and training Sofia will be much appreciated by schoolmaster Squid, Kelsey predicts. “I know a lot of times I didn’t give him the best ride, but he was always there for me. I can’t wait to start competing him again because I know I can give him a better ride now.”

Age-wise, 2016 is Kelsey’s last year of eligibility to contest the One-Star division at the NAJYRC, so that goal is back on the front burner with Squid. She hopes to get the year off to a great start by clinicing with William Fox Pitt, assuming the recently injured rider has recovered in time for the Jan. 26-27 clinic at Hawley Bennett’s base, Sweet Oak Farms, in Temecula. Jennifer hopes they’ll get up to a few Intermediate runs, if all goes well. But, both she and her student are happy to take things “one step at a time.

Kelsey with her trainer Jennifer Wooten Macouzet after Sofia’s first Preliminary Horse Trials win, at Shepard Ranch in June.

Dedication

Kelsey has ample natural talent and a supportive family, but dedication is her greatest attribute, Jennifer says. The trainer splits time between the base of her Trinity Eventing in Santa Ynez and Trinity Eventing South, located at the Malibu Canyon Equestrian Center in Agoura Hills. That’s where Kelsey keeps her horses, along with a handful of Jennifer’s other southern students. Jennifer is typically at Trinity South three days a week. In between, she never worries whether Kelsey will work hard in her absence.

“She’s very self motivated,” Jennifer explains. “I lay out a lesson plan that incorporates our goals and preparation for whatever competition is coming up and I really leave it up to her to follow through.” When they next meet, it’s obvious that Kelsey has stuck with the planned conditioning and schooling routine.

Kelsey enjoys the chance to internalize Jennifer’s instruction by working her horses on her own. “I think I appreciate Jennifer more because I don’t have her there every minute.”

Mental toughness is another edge Jennifer sees in her student. Whether it’s a season-ending injury or a hiccup on course, “Kelsey is proving she can really take the mental pressure of this game,” Jennifer says. “She might get emotional for a little bit, but she brushes it off and moves on.

“She’s a hard worker and I think she’s someone we’re going to see in the future of our sport.”

Pie In The Sky

Kelsey first rode at 5, with trainer Katherine Odgen in Malibu, and got her first pony, California Pie, at 8. She and the buckskin Quarter Horse got off to a great start, winning the Beginner Novice division at the Coconino Horse Trials in Arizona, where she went “only hoping to have clean jumping rounds and a decent dressage score.” The wins continued through their first year together, so much so that a trip to Georgia for the American Eventing Championships in 2010 was in order. Just 11, she was thrilled just to be there, and even more so to finish 13th out of 65. “We were going Beginner Novice, but I felt like I was going to the Olympics!”

Meeting Jennifer was another happy outcome of that experience. Travelling cross-country with her own Four Star horse, The Good Witch, Jennifer hauled California Pie for the Holmeses, and that began their relationship.

“I was so in awe of her and how she rode and how she handled everything,” Kelsey remembers. Jennifer was at the peak of her international career. She’d been shortlisted for the 2008 Olympics after a seventh place finish at the Rolex Kentucky Four-Star and, in 2010, earned the USEA Adequan Advanced Gold Cup Championship trophy for her many accomplishments.

“I really looked up to her and it was so cool to strike up a friendship with somebody like that,” Kelsey remembers of her first impressions of her future coach. That following summer, she spent two months riding with Jennifer full-time in Santa Ynez. That became the foundation for joining Jennifer’s program year round when Trinity South was established in 2014.

(Jennifer and her husband, veterinarian Andres Macouzet, DVM, welcomed their first child, Santiago Liam, in July. Along with her busy coaching docket, she looks forward to getting back into competition mode herself.)

Now in her senior year at Malibu High School, Kelsey continues to maintain high academic standards. That’s been the deal with her parents, Brian and Lisa Holmes, from early on in her riding. At presstime, she was in the thick of the college application process, a stressful endeavor even without the time commitment of keeping two horses in shape. After school and the barn, she’s typically home at 7:30-ish, with minor details like dinner and a few hours of homework still to go.

Kelsey and California Pie in 2009.

Riding for and co-captaining the Malibu High School Interscholastic Equestrian League team has been a nice merger of Kelsey’s academic and equestrian interests. She joined the team in seventh grade and became a co-captain in her sophomore year.

IEL is predominately a hunter/jumper-oriented league, with dressage as a secondary component. Kelsey’s broad experience makes her valuable in both jumper and dressage classes. Malibu High School finished fifth at the Varsity Championships last year and Kelsey was second in dressage.

“Most of us don’t play a school sport, and the whole point of being on the team is that we share a mutual love for horses and for riding,” she explains. “I don’t understand hunt seat and they may not understand eventing, but we all get along and have a lot of respect for each other.”

Riding has taught Kelsey not to be overly attached to certain hoped-for outcomes, but that doesn’t stop her from dreaming big. “I definitely want to do Four Star competition and to compete internationally. I realize there are so many things that can happen, but I really love riding and I can’t imagine my life without it.”