BY LAURA RATLIFF
In the era of big-box horse shows and weeks-long winter circuits, one industrious Wisconsin trainer and show operator has carved out a niche that keeps people coming back weekend after weekend.
While Courtney Hayden-Fromm manages a 48-stall barn with a client roster of successful junior and amateur riders, she’s perhaps become best known for her grassroots horse show series, held from May through August at Seoul Creek, her family’s West Bend, Wisconsin, farm. The two- or three-day horse shows—the result of a bathtub brainstorm nine years ago, Hayden-Fromm says—began out of sheer necessity in the region.
”No one else had the facility to do that,” she tells The Plaid Horse. So she created one. Hayden-Fromm estimates that she and her husband, Doug, have put in more than $750,000 worth of upgrades to their facility to host their shows.
Now, the show series attracts trainers and riders looking for shows that are strong on affordability and family-friendliness with an emphasis on horsemanship. Hayden-Fromm’s shows offer a wide range of classes for all levels of horses and riders, culminating in the 9th Annual Wisconsin Equine Derby Weekend, held this year from August 13-15.
An Unlikely Barn Owner
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Hayden-Fromm was adopted and grew up in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and got her start riding because of a babysitter who dragged her to the barn. She grew up riding on the state’s local circuit and didn’t plan on owning a barn herself—but in 2009, when she found her current farm listed as a foreclosure, the rest was history.
“I’m the anomaly to a lot of trainers because when I was young, I never thought I wanted to do what Hunt [Tosh] and all those guys do. That’s not it for me,” she says. Even though Hayden-Fromm does travel to horse shows and spends all winter in Ocala, her perspective on life and horse showing changed again in 2011 when she discovered she was pregnant with her son. “But I didn’t want to raise a child on the road,” she says, adding that it’s been empowering, “to find my own balance.”
For Hayden-Fromm, that’s her horse show series: “It’s what makes me tick.” The horse shows, which have a “minimal profit margin,” she says, are supported by a laundry list of “exceptionally loyal and committed” sponsors. The generous sponsor support allows her to create memorable events for exhibitors—a recent show hosted a Mother’s Day brunch—and host classes that you won’t find anywhere else, like Lexi’s Class (see sidebar).
All of Hayden-Fromm’s horse shows have one thing in common: Opportunities. With the WHJA and USHJA Outreach governing bodies giving the shows flexibility, Hayden-Fromm gets to make the rules (“There aren’t many,” she says with a laugh), and she can go above and beyond for her exhibitors and students.
“I’m sure it’s against the rules somewhere, but one time we had a kid who just couldn’t jump the end jump, so I’m running into the ring and making it into a crossrail so that the kid could jump the jump,” she says. “That’s the root of who I am—you’re the same to me whether you’re on a $100,000 horse winning the national derby or on a $1,500 horse who just needs to jump the end jump.”
While the show schedule includes classes you’ll likely see at other local show series, like Short Stirrup and 2’6” hunters, Hayden-Fromm’s flexibility—no strict schedules with 250-plus trips in a day here—means that she can deviate from the norm as needed, just to ensure that everyone has a positive experience. For instance, a rider having a challenging day can go back in the ring and ride their unjudged warm-up trip again, just to end their show on a positive note.
Rebecca Hempel and Gray Street, and Annie Farley and Payard Vanja Anderson, Courtney Hayden-Fromm, and Emily Anderson Stonewall Farm’s Calipo 39 earns the Reserve call with Astrid Skarsten in the irons (Mom is trainer Mary Skarsten)
Barn Family Values
In addition to her more prominent sponsors, which run the gamut from Nutrena to the local tack store, Heels Down, Hayden-Fromm’s clients and barn family are also integral to her shows’ successes. “Their ‘home-field advantage’ starts on Monday by setting courses, sweeping the aisle, and filling flower boxes,” Hayden-Fromm says, laughing. “Everyone from the non-horsey mom who just brings me Starbucks to the person who sets jumps from morning until night, they’re all important.”
That overall attitude toward sportsmanship and horsemanship runs deep at Seoul Creek and is critical to running a barn of its size, Hayden-Fromm says. “I have zero tolerance for poor horsemanship or sportsmanship, and that extends to the horse show. My husband joked that there should be medallions on the stall to turn to red when a client’s behavior has been poor.”
Her program, which includes clients with “six-figure horses and clients who have to work to pay for a half-lease,” is culturally different but respectful of each other. “A parent who can only spend $500 a month shouldn’t feel like less of an equal. What they can offer their kid is different,” Hayden-Fromm says.
But if you’re looking for your big break with limited resources, once again, Hayden-Fromm says it’s all about looking for an opportunity. “Opportunities arise in the most unexpected ways and unexpected places,” she says. “Be prepared.”
At a recent show, a family emergency left one of Hayden-Fromm’s clients unable to ride but with a nice horse ready to show. Meanwhile, another student with an older horse moving down the divisions was prepared to step into the irons.
The student had a great time on her barnmate’s horse, but admitted to Hayden-Fromm afterward that she had had more fun riding her older horse—fitting right in with the barn values of education and horsemanship. Adds Hayden-Fromm: “Isn’t it more empowering to know that your bond with your horse is greater than any 90-cent ribbon?”
The Most Special Class at the Horse Show
“Lexi’s Class developed from a really good trainer friend of mine who had a girl who had worked for her for two weeks and desperately wanted to do a flat class,” Hayden-Fromm says.
“She asked me if I had a safe flat horse for her. She showed up in borrowed clothes, but when she walked up to me, her boots were spotless, and she treated that horse like he was Brunello.”
Hayden-Fromm’s appreciation for the young woman turned into Lexi’s Class, a free class open to anyone who’s never been to a horse show and is riding a borrowed horse.
“It’s my favorite class,” Hayden-Fromm says. “I hope it’s not the only opportunity that kid gets, but it’s a start. If there’s a kid that lives in southeast Wisconsin that wants to go to a horse show or sit on a back of a horse and thinks that’s unattainable, they should email me,” she adds.
*This story was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!
Photos: Hoof Prints Across the Soul Photography; Andrew Ryback Photography; Copper Arrow Photography; Doug Hempel