BY JESS CLAWSON
Rittmueller’s father, Dr. Kim Braeutigam, runs Four Winds Equine Hospital and Michigan Equine Surgical Associates on the same property where her mother, Chris Braeutigam, established her riding school.
“My grandfather had a mixed animal practice,” Rittmueller explained, and so her father had a lifelong immersion in veterinary medicine. He knew it was his calling.
“When my mother was five years old, she would gather all the neighborhood dogs and keep them in the garage. She was the kind of kid who would save her own money and then buy a pony for $100 and try to hide it from her parents,” Rittmueller laughed. “She started out barrel racing and came to hunter/jumpers later.”
Her parents crossed paths when they were young adults, both living in western Michigan. Her father was working for a veterinary practice, and her mother – who had outgrown secret ponies – was training with National Show Jumping Hall of Fame rider Robert Egan. “He was kind of a local hero,” Rittmueller said.
In the early 1980s, her parents decided to move to Frankenmuth, where her grandfather was still practicing veterinary medicine and her entire extended family, “all the way to third cousins,” lived. Her mother took a job on an Arabian horse farm, but the market for Arabian horses tanked in the late 1980s. Her parents purchased Four Winds Farm in 1988, and have been there since.
Rittmueller and her sister, Allie Braeutigam Fox, were fortunate to grow up surrounded by horses, and both took advantage of the opportunities. Rittmueller and their mother are the two resident professionals at Four Winds. Fox was a very successful pony and junior rider who now runs her own training business in upstate New York.
Four Winds has two focuses: equine veterinary medicine and training horses, which blend to create a unique environment for bringing horses along in their careers. Their 25-stall barn is situated on 40 acres with 11 private turnout paddocks, a large outdoor arena, a grass jump field, and of course an indoor – essential in the northern climate.
The equine hospital itself houses two practices: Four Winds Equine Hospital, and Michigan Equine Surgical Associates (MESA). Kim Braeutigam opened his practice in the mid 1990s, around when his father was retiring, so he could focus on horses. At Four Winds, he focuses on lameness and sporthorse medicine and treats a variety of ailments, including horses needing intensive care treatment.
The surgical component of the practice is MESA, which he owns and runs with Dr. Brad Hill, Dr. Ty Wallis, and Dr. Austen Epp. They focus primarily on outpatient surgery, particularly orthopedic procedures. Often, when horses are recovering or laying up from surgery, Rittmueller and her mother Chris Braeutigam take care of the horses’ needs, like bandage and blanket changes, and administering medication. “It’s a more personal level of care than they get at some of the big hospitals,” Rittmueller explained.
Four Winds is lucky to have two veterinarians and two trainers on hand to bring horses along in their recovery. Dr. Braeutigam, along with his associate Dr. Michelle Larberg, keeps a watchful eye on each horse, and Rittmueller and Mrs. Braeutigam bring their thoughtful, deliberate training methods to each horse in the program. “We’ve brought back many horses who were considered useless and gotten them back into successful show careers,” Ritmueller said.
Their rehabilitation program is carefully tailored to each horse, taking into consideration the horse’s initial condition and what services are required to bring the horse back into work. In addition to Rittmueller’s professional riding skills when under saddle rehab is called for, Four Winds offers services like shock wave therapy, stem cell therapy, joint injections, and laser and physical therapy. They can also coordinate chiropractic services with a licensed professional.
Four Winds also provides farrier services for complicated hoof conditions. Richard Becker, past president of the Michigan Farrier Association and recently inducted into the International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame, is on staff to perform whatever corrective shoeing or resections the horses need, and consults with local farriers on complex cases.
Aside from horses coming back from injury, Rittmueller and Mrs. Braeutigam are teaching generations of riders. “I started this business over 30 years ago,” Braeutigam said. “I have people I’ve been teaching since they were six or seven years old. I have grandmothers, mothers, and kids here.” Her lesson student demographics mirror her family, as she is herself a grandmother and in the horse business with her own daughter.
Their lesson program focuses on individual lessons. “We teach lessons privately and in the smallest groups possible,” Braeutigam explained. “We bring things along slowly. I believe in taking the time to teach people how to groom and care for their equipment and the horses. Our business started with taking in horses that were hard for other people and they would become our show horses or our clients’ horses. Back then people weren’t buying six figure horses, they were buying $1000 horses and making them into “A” horses. But it takes time. It all takes time. It’s not magic.”
It may not be magic, but the gift has passed to Rittmueller, who has enjoyed working with green or tough horses since she was a young kid. She and her mother both love watching horses and riders advance and grow in their relationship to each other. “I ride a lot of client horses until they’re ready for each other and then they start showing together,” she said. “I love how we can bring along young horses, including horses my dad has treated. It’s always an added bonus when our rehab horses not only become rideable, but have show careers at the top of the circuit. Sometimes at first, we just hope they make it through the night.”
She loves the kinds of horses their special farm brings to them. “We try to keep our horses to a manageable number. This allows me to put the time into them. I’ve had people send me horses they’ve imported or purchased young who aren’t ready yet for what they were bought to do,” she explained. “I feel the type of environment we’ve created on our farm in Michigan, and with the ability to go to Ocala for the winter, is great for these types of horses. It’s slow and steady, yet educational.”
Four Winds journeys south for the winter, as the mother/ daughter pair bring horses to Ocala where they have a small farm and also keep horses on the show grounds in permanent stabling. That way, the young horses have plenty of opportunity to become used to the hustle and bustle, and the older campaigners can relax at the farm in their down time. “It’s not much fun to try to show in Michigan in the winter,” Mrs. Braeutigam laughed.
The passion for animals is a family tradition at Four Winds Farm and Equine Hospital, and the Braeutigams and Rittmueller carry on that tradition with pride and a commitment to excellence in every element of horsemanship.
Photos Courtesy Four Winds Farm, Diana Hadsall Photography