By Jess Clawson
Those of us who grew up riding alongside our parents know what a special privilege it is to be brought into the horse world at a young age and with at least one parent who “gets it” – gets the need to be around horses, the drive to improve in what sometimes feels like an impossible sport, to skip so many school functions and parties to sweat at a horse show all day in pursuit of a cheap ribbon. It’s an irreplaceable experience.
Kassy Perry and her daughter Kaitlin have spent the last two decades not only riding and enjoying horses together, but pushing each other to be better riders. “As soon as I could hold my head up, my mom put me on a pony,” Kaitlin, now in her mid-20s, recalled.
Kassy grew up riding in the 1970s in Southern California. “I had a thoroughbred off the track, and I did dressage, eventing, fox hunting, all of it, until I was 13 and moved to Hap Hansen’s barn,” she said. Her all-rounder style education gave her a terrific base of knowledge and confidence in herself and her horses.
“Even after I moved to Hap’s barn, I would take my big-withered thoroughbred out bareback with just a rope around his neck – I idolized the Foxfield drill team – and gallop the trails. I think that’s so important to good riding, that ability to take a small risk with your horse, maybe run into a little trouble, and figure it out together,” Kassy emphasized. “Sometimes in today’s big show barns, riders don’t have that opportunity.”
When it was time for Kaitlin to start taking lessons, Kassy’s own background factored into the program she chose. “I wanted her to learn horsemanship,” she explained. “It was in those programs Kaitlin learned how to ride, how to care for her horse from start to finish and that ribbons come and go, but what was really important was the bond you have with your horse.”
Eventually, she and Kaitlin moved into Kelly Van Vleck’s barn. “I was asking myself why we didn’t do it sooner,” she said. “Kelly is wonderful – she runs a great barn providing top notch horse care, is a gifted trainer and fosters a wonderful rapport among the students.”
Kaitlin had a good junior career, and often found herself competing against her mother. “We loved it,” Kaitlin said. They shared a philosophy: both would ride their best, and may the best rider win, but they would also always cheer for and support each other. Often, one of the two of them did win, and the other would come in second.
“Kaitlin has always been such a good rider, with terrific instincts and feel, so I told people that I had to beat her while I still could,” Kassy laughed.
Kaitlin recalled a time her mother really showed what “going for it” meant to her: “We were the only two in a jump-off in a 3’6” class; I was probably 12. We walked the course together and I thought we had the same plan. I went first and did as well as I could. I didn’t think she could beat me. But then before the buzzer sounded for my mom, she asked the jump crew to move out of their tent in the ring. She rode right through that tent to shave two seconds off the time and beat me.”
When it was time for Kaitlin to go to college, she chose TCU and rode on their NCEA team. “I realized that I was a bit of a late bloomer in terms of my riding,” she said. “I hadn’t learned how to handle my nerves. But the NCEA teaches you to catch ride all kinds of horses and it really helped my confidence.” Kaitlin ended her college equestrian years as TCU Women’s Equestrian Team Captain.
Kassy and Kaitlin had a deal: after college, if Kaitlin wanted to keep riding, it would be on her own dime, just as Kassy’s parents had said to her many years before. “I knew if I wanted to ride as an amateur I had to work hard and find a career that would allow me to afford the horses and showing,” said Kassy. “I wanted Kaitlin to have the same drive and determination to create a career that allowed her to own horses and show, if it was important to her.”
Kaitlin agreed, and started in her political communications career for one of Kassy’s competitors, but she knew horses were going to be on the horizon for her one way or another.
And then Kassy bought Figaro, a young Dutch warmblood import.“Figg is a talented horse, but he’s also very athletic and green, and I’m almost 60 and don’t need to hit the ground anymore,” Kassy explained. “So, I called Kaitlin and said hey, I know I told you that riding was going to be coming out of your budget from now on… but do you want to ride Figg and get him going in the show ring?”
Kaitlin, of course, leapt at the chance to ride the talented, if rambunctious, young horse. Even after she moved to South Bend, Indiana, where her fiancée works for a top-tier presidential campaign, Kaitlin would regularly fly back to California. For one thing, less than 5 years out of college, she had already become a vice president at her mother’s public affairs firm, Perry Communications Group.”
But traveling often to California also meant she got to compete on Figaro, often with great success, but it also became apparent that he wasn’t going to be the easiest horse to manage. “He’s had a weird couple of years,” Kaitlin said. “He had a tooth abscess, and he came from Holland with not-great feet that abcessed often, so we’ve had to take our time with him.”
“He’s also shown us he shines on the big fields and arenas at Thermal, The Oaks and Showpark,” Kassy added. “He is still green and he gets a little claustrophobic in indoor arenas”
While Kaitlin was building her relationship with Figg, Kassy needed a ride of her own. Fortunately, she is still riding with Kelly Van Vleck, who has an eye for “family horses – the kind that siblings or parents and their kids can share.” Kelly found the perfect horse for Kassy in Cappo 7.
Seven, as they call him, has been a game changer for the Perry women. He was fairly green and came from a jumper program. “Kelly has a good eye – she saw an amateur owner hunter in there,” Kassy said. Kassy and Seven have had enormous successes in the A/O hunters, winning the champion tricolor at prestigious west coast competitions.
“He’s an incredible horse,” Kassy said. “Nothing fazes him. He’s safe and honest and will do anything you ask. You don’t need much leg, you don’t have to touch his mouth – you don’t even have to see a distance.”
Seven also has the rare and valuable trait of going well for riders of very different styles – like Kassy and Kaitlin. “My mom has the softest hands and the best eye I’ve ever seen,” Kaitlin explained. “I ride differently, with a lot more leg. But he and I figured each other out quickly.”
And thank goodness for that, because when Kaitlin qualified for the West Coast Equestrians Medal Finals, they had already decided Figaro was done showing for the year. “We had just won Foxfield Finals and Kassy and I didn’t want to rush him into another finals, let alone one indoors,” said Kaitlin. The heightened indoor atmosphere and cramped warm up rings would do the talented, sensitive horse no favors.
Kassy had qualified to compete in the A/O Hunters at the USHJA/AON National Championships in Las Vegas, the same venue hosting the WCE Medal Finals, so Kassy offered Seven to Kaitlin for the finals after talking it through with her trainer. Although he’d never been asked to handle a jumper medal at that height or level of difficulty, they felt confident he’d be able to handle it.
Kaitlin was surprised at the offer, made before she’d ever sat on the horse. But the opportunity to catch ride once again, and on such a quality and proven horse, was one she couldn’t pass up. She brought all of her skills from TCU to the ride on Seven, and within a couple of practice rounds before the finals, they’d figured each other out.
“Seven is the least complicated, most reliable horse I’ve ever ridden,” Kaitlin said. “At WCE, we had no expectations. We’d get up at 6AM and walk him around to see what he’d spook at, but he never spooked at anything.”
The day of the finals arrived, and Kassy walked the course with Kaitlin. “It was huge,” Kassy said. “I looked at her like, better you than me. All tight turns big oxers and bending lines set on the half-stride.”
But Seven showed up like he always does. “I’d turn and have no time and see no distance and he was like, no problem, he’d just canter down and jump,” Kaitlin gushed.
“As a proud mother, I stood at the back gate when she received huge scores in that arena competing against 60 great juniors and amateurs, and I don’t know who I was more proud of, Kaitlin or Seven,” Kassy said. “He went in, didn’t bat an eye, jumped around. We’d never asked him to do anything like that. A lot of people didn’t even get around the course. It was difficult. I had tears in my eyes at that gate. The trainers were laughing – are the tears over your daughter or your horse? And I was like I think maybe my horse.”
After the three-round competition, Kaitlin was reserve champion at WCE on Seven – a testament to his quality, and also to the teamwork and good horsemanship she and her mother had been rehearsing for almost 20 years.
Kaitlin and Kassy are planning for another successful year, with Kaitlin showing Figaro in the hunter derbies and medals, and Kassy showing her new pre-green hunter Samba K and Seven in the amateur medals. “After watching Seven in the WCE it became very clear to me that he needs a young rider who wants to move up to the bigger medals and needs a confidence builder,” said Kassy. “I want to spend the next year in the 3′ hunters bringing along a new partner.”
Now, back at Kelly’s farm, Kassy will take Seven on solo trail rides, bareback and in a hackamore, as a chance to relax and enjoy each other – not something every show horse does well, but Seven loves it, and Kassy gets to return to her roots.
Seven is a kind, sweet horse, the type to lick your face and nicker when he hears his favorite people walk into the barn. And he always gets his rider around. “I know he’s going to jump, so I can work on things like a softer takeoff or tweaking the bending line,” Kassy said. “I’m not a spring chicken, and I think it’s time for Seven to take his next rider to the medal finals.”
Seven was as lucky to find Kassy and Kaitlin as they were to find him. He came into a family that would appreciate his can-do attitude and laid-back personality – “although he’s never dull,” Kassy clarified – and foster his talent. And they found a horse who could really showcase what it means to be a team in this sport.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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