In the lead-up to Rio, we revisit our interview with US showjumping sensation Reed Kessler, who became the youngest ever showjumper to compete at the Olympics in 2012.
Photography THOMAS SKOU Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.7 2013
In 1997, a parade of pint-sized American tots were being led around on ponies during a horse show’s intermission for a fun ride and photo opportunity. Some of the little riders were quite familiar with horses and some were not, but everyone got a ribbon and a taste of what it was like to ride in a horse show with the big kids.
When the leadline class ended, a little boy was announced the winner and awarded a blue ribbon, and in second place came a cute and very disappointed three-year-old Reed Kessler. Unlike the other children, she took the leadline competition very seriously and was loudly displeased about finishing second. Her mother Teri told her off and asked her to behave, at the very least until they got back to their truck.
A stranger who had witnessed the episode between mother and child tried to cheer up the young rider by reassuring her that the leadline class was about having fun. Reed promptly confronted the well-meaning lady: “If it’s just for fun, why practise?” Back in the truck, young Reed didn’t cry from disappointment, as her mother might have expected, but instead instructed her to saddle Reed’s pony every day the following week. Because next week she wanted to beat the little boy.
For Reed’s mother, that episode defines the moment when she discovered the strength of her daughter’s determination. Now some 15 years later, and one of the hottest names in showjumping at the moment, when Reed is asked about her strength as a rider, she answers: “I own the ring. People often tell me it looks like I own the ring when I enter, like I know I’m going to win. It’s something I’ve done my whole life. I grew up in the ring.”
Our meeting takes place in the impressive oval Scandinavium arena in Gothenburg, Sweden, which seats 12,000 people and will have no less than 90,758 visitors passing through in the coming days for the Rolex FEI World Cup and Reem Acra FEI World Cup finals in jumping and dressage. All-American and drop-dead gorgeous with pearly white teeth and shoulder-length dark hair, Reed is wearing a red show jacket and white breeches. Slung over her shoulder is a small navy backpack that seems to follow her everywhere, adding an innocent schoolgirl twist to her confident and all-grown-up attitude, a reminder that she’s in fact still a teenager. Introducing herself to the photographer, Reed says: “My claim to fame is that I’m the youngest ever to ride at the Olympic level in the sport. And like a stereotypical American I ate McDonalds for lunch.”
But Reed Kessler is far from stereotypical in most respects, since this charming American does things differently than most. Being at a World Cup final at her age is remarkable enough, and her Olympics appearance makes her quite unique. Born 9 July 1994, since completing her first Grand Prix in Switzerland at 13, Reed has enjoyed young-rider team victories in the United States and Europe, and a Grand Prix win at the glamorous Gucci Masters in Paris three years ago. At 18, Reed was named in the US showjumping team for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and became the youngest rider ever to represent the United States in Olympic jumping. Just a few weeks before our meeting today, Reed came second in the Saut Hermès Grand Prix in Paris aboard Cylana, standing on the podium between German superstar Ludger Beerbaum and European Champion Rolf-Göran Bengtsson.
Reed began riding when she was only six months old, literally before she could walk. Her parents Teri and Murray also rode competitively, and they put her in a basket on her first pony. Kessler family life revolves around horses; it’s the first thing they think about in the morning, it fills their minds and it’s a constant part of the conversation at the dinner table at night. “I’m a single child, we’re a small but close family and do everything together,” says Reed. “Both my mum and dad are great riders. I go with my dad to horse shows for support. My mother is on her way here now, she just flew in and my dad is coming here tomorrow.”
In the corridors of the Scandinavium arena, Reed and the photographer are busy giving it their all to shoot the photos for this article when Reed’s mother Teri arrives. Mother and daughter haven’t seen each other for two weeks and reunite with a long hug, before Reed continues her energetic posing. Asked to describe her daughter, Teri says with a smile, “She’s very much alive, intellectually and emotionally. She’s a very passionate person, stronger than other girls her age and more confident. She’s a doer and she wants to live. She excites people and she connects with horses, she’s got a good feel and the horses are calmer and happier when she rides them. I had a very different childhood, but horses have given me a life full of joy. Riding without love for horses would be empty, and it gives me great comfort to know Reed got that same joy and love in her life.”
Reed grew up in New York, but the Kessler family home is now a 155-acre farm housing 14 horses in Lexington, Kentucky. “I’ve got my own apartment at our Kentucky farm,” says Reed, “but I only stay there for a month each year. When I’m in Europe I have my own apartment at my trainer’s farm in France. I’m working hard to be in the world top thirty, meaning the opportunity to go to any show on the circuit and basically travel from show to show throughout the year. To do Florida, go to Europe and come back to America for the indoors would be ideal.”
The family spends winter in Florida on their other farm near Palm Beach for the Winter Equestrian Festival, a 12-week international equestrian extravaganza. Reed describes the special atmosphere: “It’s like constantly living at a horse show for three months. When I’m in Florida I show 10 horses a day, but that’s not normal; when I’m Europe for a couple of shows, I just bring two or three horses.” Unlike many riders who depend on sponsors, Kessler has the advantage of financial backing from her parents. Murray Kessler is the chief executive of the tobacco company Lorillard. “I must say my father is one of the people I admire the most. He started with nothing at a low position and worked his way up; he’s a self-made man. And my mum is simply the best.”
Reed’s education has been a somewhat atypical. Until last spring, she was attending the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, where she graduated like Scarlett Johansson, Vera Wang, Sarah Jessica Parker, Uma Thurman, and Macaulay Culkin before her. “It’s a special high school for kids who have full-time jobs – actors, ballerinas, athletes. You could stay for a month, and they would give you work so you could leave and do exams on the Internet. I’ve decided not to go to college; I’ve known all my life I was going to be a professional rider. Of course the last couple of years have been special, but I’ve always been very successful as a pony-rider and junior. And being a professional rider was always Katie’s plan for me.”
Katie Prudent, Reed’s trainer, and her husband run an international training programme at Rosières aux Salines, France and at Plain Bay Farm, in Virginia, USA. “Katie is also my godmother and we’re very close. She knows me inside out, and we have a lot of faith in each other. Katie pushes me to be the best I can be. She wants me to leave each ride and show with something; it’s not just about winning, it’s about being the best rider I can be. We have many talented kids in America, but they don’t push themselves. They stay and win the same classes over and over again. I’ve learned not to be afraid to make mistakes or to look foolish, because you’re guaranteed to learn from it, and to be a better rider because of it.”
One thing is for sure: Reed does not lack ambition. “When we bought Cylana she was ridden by an amateur and hadn’t competed much. I would like to bring up another horse like Cylana all by myself to prove I can do it again. There are so many things to improve and I’ve still got so many things to learn: I can win Grand Prix, but I want to be a good championship rider too, and to do that you need strength and experience.”
Many, or in fact most, of the other showjumpers on the circuit and at the Rolex FEI World Cup final are decades senior to Reed in both experience and age. Doesn’t she miss being around people her own age? “All my colleagues are at least in their thirties. I’m 19, but the European riders have been very gracious to me, and friendship isn’t about age. I would say my best friend here is French rider Roger-Yves Bost, and how old is he? He’s been doing this forever and Bosty is just the sweetest man. The travelling just means I have friends everywhere.”
I offer my final question as Reed has to head back to the stables: What is her first childhood memory involving horses? “My favourite childhood memory is eating ice cream while riding my pony. There was a store down the road and we would ride there for ice cream. I can’t remember when I wasn’t riding. Horses and riding are what makes me me.”•