TPH Young Rider Spotlight: Grace Klein’s Swift Ride to Success

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Read the cover story from TPH March Young Rider Style issue and more by CLICKING HERE.

Grace Klein is a poised young woman with a shy smile and quiet demeanor – until she talks about her horses. In an instant, she is all in – explaining with great detail the nuances of each of her jumpers, their strengths and weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. At just thirteen years old, Grace speaks with focus and detail about the sport to which she is dedicated: show jumping. Dressed in her CWD themed attire and white britches, she looks like many of the well-dressed riders waiting to walk the Classic course on Sunday morning. It is amazing how far this young lady and young rider has come in just a few short months. Today, she is a top competitor in the High Children’s Jumper division. Just a few short months ago Grace was just beginning her journey to success.

Just about everyone that meets Grace or talks to her Trainer, Lance Williamson, asks “How did this happen?” “How did Grace skyrocket to such unbelievable success in just 9 months?” The answer is clear once you talk to Grace and get to know her a bit. Grace is a young lady that is devoted, athletic, determined (her parents may use the term “stubborn” every once in a while), and lets nothing keep her down. She was born with spinal scoliosis and it was diagnosed at the age of 3. However, Grace started riding horses at age 4 and never looked back or thought that her physical condition created any limits for her.

Grace grew up in St. Charles, Illinois near Seven Oaks Farm, a local barn. At the age of four, she begged her parents to stop at Seven Oaks, announcing, “I want to ride!” Assuming the impulse was a passing fancy, Joe and Leanne Klein stopped at the barn to assuage their daughter’s wishes. The family was greeted by Toni Knight-Utoff. Grace pleaded with her parents and Utoff to let her try out riding. Despite her youth, Grace’s affinity for the sport was apparent from this early “trial” ride. Convinced by her training ride and her tenacity Utoff began to train Grace and the Klein’s equestrian odyssey began.

For the next few years, Grace was devoted to her weekly lessons at Seven Oaks. Riding Saddlebreds, she learned the basics of riding in a productive lesson program. After leaving Seven Oaks to pursue more of a hunterbased riding program at another barn, Grace took some hard falls and as a result she did not ride for about a year. However with the help and kindness of Michele Muenzenmay, owner of Dunham Woods Farm in Wayne, Illinois, Grace worked her way “back in the saddle again”. Initially, when she arrived at Dunham Woods, she was afraid to ride off of a lead line. Her father Joe recalls thinking that “this kid being led around was the one who had competed before. I don’t know if riding will work out again.” But Grace’s grit became evident as she persevered. Soon she was riding with confidence and was part of the gang of barn kids. Leanne Klein explains, “On the weekends, we would drop her off at eight o’clock in the morning and pick her up at five o’clock at night. She had so much fun riding and taking care of the horses all day.” The torch for horses had been rekindled in Grace. Dunham Woods Farm quickly became a part of Grace’s riding foundation and social life. She combined riding with her love for swimming and spent the next few years juggling swimming at a Club level with riding at Dunham Woods Farm.

For three years, she took lessons during the school year and even helped to teach in the summer program at the riding club. Grace incessantly asked her parents for her own horse. They placated her by saying, “Wait until your tenth birthday,” again believing that she would migrate away from equestrian interests and toward other hobbies. Her Mom, Leanne, laughs, “She had been asking for her own horse since she was four. We kept telling her to wait until she was ten. Whatever lasts with a child from age four to age ten? It seemed so far away.” Grace held her parents to their promise and received her first pony, Whisper, on her tenth birthday. She describes Whisper as “sweet and naughty and fast. She was a hunter, but she was fast!” At age ten Grace was already showing a need for speed. She acquired her first jumper and continued to ride at the same barn (now known as Wayne Equestrian Center) under the training and mentorship of Chery Kindl and her business Partner, Kelly Fencl. However, Grace experienced the challenge of riding a difficult jumper horse. “It was a tough start,” she admits. Looking for assistance, the Kleins contacted Lance Williamson. After working with Grace for a few weeks, Williamson realized that Grace needed to be paired with a different horse. “She was a kid with a lot of talent matched with the wrong horse,” he explained. Williamson matched Grace with a new jumper horse and with his training she started winning and has continued winning ever since.

Beginning in late June 2016, Williamson and Grace worked together day after day at Lance Williamson Stables in Gurnee, IL. The one-way trip to Lance Williamson Stables is 75-90 minutes – quite a stark contrast to the 7 minute ride to her former barn. However, every minute Grace spent driving to and from Lance’s Barn and riding for 5-6 hours a day was well worth the effort and dedication. The Kleins then bought Grace’s successful mount, Nabuco, and the winning team began to take shape!

Williamson put a very well-crafted, organized, and grueling plan into place from day one to train Grace. He taught her how to “go fast”, how to show, how to walk courses, and how to remember the courses she walked. In addition, Grace received lessons from Williamson’s training partner Frank Hernandez, a well-known trainer in equestrian circles. Hernandez would work with Grace day after day on her flat work. Both Williamson and Hernandez place a strong emphasis on flat work being the key to Grace’s success in jumping. Through long days on many different mounts Grace persisted in pursuing her dream. Work without stirrups, work on circles, work over gymnastics – all were part of a stringent training program at Lance Williamson Stables. Williamson relies heavily on Hernandez to teach Grace and reinforce detail in all her lessons. The combination of Williamson’s ability to motivate Grace to never give up and Hernandez’ patience and strong attention to detail proved to be the recipe for a winning training team.

So what makes Grace such a winning rider? Williamson beams with pride as he explains that he recognized Grace’s natural ability from the start. Williamson has encouraged Grace in all the right directions to make her dreams come true. Williamson praises the young rider. “She practices a lot over many hours on many horses. She never babies herself and will take on as much as we give her.” Williamson goes on to say that Grace’s desire and ability to achieve is the key to her (and any young rider’s) success. Per Williamson, a rider learns to compete but they can’t just compete to be successful. A rider must apply correct technique together with the will to persevere to achieve a winning performance. “There is nothing more powerful than a positive winning attitude,” Williamson states. He finds Grace to be one of the best students ever. “She has the ability to absorb information easily, which will lead to her continued success. Grace is developing a feel for what the horse is doing and thinking which allows her to anticipate and plan 2 or 3 jumps ahead. Although nothing is perfect, Grace learns from class after class which contributes to her unbelievable number of wins.” Williamson and Grace both agree that “Team Grace” is also the “secret weapon” to her winning. Grace’s parents are willing to devote every available resource, from their time to their love. Her parents don’t miss a class that Grace is competing in. They film her rides, say silent prayers for her safety, and constantly cheer her on in every way. Williamson shared how he spends many hours developing Grace’s plan after both lessons and show days with the help of his wife, Lisa. “Lisa is in charge of all details involving my schedule and she is able to keep all hands on deck and organized as we develop an on-going training system specific for Grace and each of her horses individually.” Grace is surrounded by this devotion and it reflects in her accomplishments and the amazing young lady she has become.

Williamson also attributes her success to the care taken in finding the right equipment for both Grace and each of her horses. Grace’s Scoliosis prevents her from sitting down in the saddle. Rather than thinking of this lack of flexibility as a deterrent, she views it as enabling her to go faster. Grace rides in the CWD Hunter 2Gs Buffalo saddle. Both she and Williamson agree that the organically tanned full buffalo leather is amazing and sticks like glue. The saddle has a “dynamic tree” that flexes with the horse’s motion and the pre-shaped gullet in the flap keeps Grace’s legs supported and in place and her upper body in balance over the jumps. The CWD saddle is an important piece of equipment that keeps her safe, solid, and comfortable while training or showing.

In late June of 2016, Grace began in the “Puddle Jumper” division at 2′ on her horses Nabuco and Piper. By July she had moved up to the Children’s Modified Jumpers with consistent first place and weekend Champion wins at the Showplace Summertime series, including numerous wins each Sunday in the always hotly-contested WIHS Jumper Classics. In August, the team left their home state of Illinois to travel to the heart of horse country, Lexington, Kentucky. Against large fields of experienced riders, Grace again sped through the timers to victory with a Championship in the Children’s Jumper Division at the Bluegrass Festival. The young rider blazed through Illinois, Tennessee, and Minnesota that Fall on a consistent winning streak, culminating with an invite and the opportunity to show in the WIHS Finals in Washington, D.C. The WIHS Finals is a coveted competition – a Jumper being invited after competing for only 8 weeks in Children’s Jumper events is remarkable. From tiny 2′ jumps to competing in the National Finals, Grace has never lost focus or sight of her dream to stand out in her sport.

Since early 2017 Grace has been commuting to Florida to compete. So far she has been successful with this new adventure and commute. She visited the WEF in Wellington for the first time. Grace’s maiden visit to Wellington resulted in her winning the NAL/WIHS/MS on Nabuco and Reserve Champion in the Low Children Jumpers on Madonna. Before leaving Wellington, she competed at the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center and captured several blue ribbons. To date, Grace has been awarded Mid-Circuit Champion of the High Children’s Jumpers and Mid-Circuit Champion of the Medium Children’s Jumpers in the HITS Winter Circuit in Ocala and hopes to continue her success throughout the remaining HITS Winter Circuit. Looking forward into 2017, Grace has set lofty goals for herself. “I want to win both indoor finals!” she says with a smile. She is focused on moving up to the Junior Jumper division in 2018 and aims to eventually participate in the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships. Grace is well on her way to achieve these goals. She has been invited to ride two mounts, Nabuco and Piper, in the LGCT this April in Miami Beach… yet another amazing accomplishment.

Given her physical limitations and unwavering dedication to being the best of the best in her sport, Grace Klein is an inspiration to all young riders. It is easy to focus on limitations in any endeavor, but as this remarkable young rider demonstrates, the qualities of perseverance, discipline, commitment, and talent can combine to transcend any barriers to success.