By Catie Staszak/Catie Staszak Media, Inc.
In Cegléd, Hungary, Eszter Kiss lived her life pragmatically. At age 18, she enrolled in the Corvinus University of Budapest with an eye toward an economics degree, with a focus in improving small enterprises. Upon the completion of her studies, she was offered and accepted a job offer from Samsung to head up the company’s growing accessory market in the Hungarian region. She earned a competitive salary and was in a strong position to advance within the company.
To many, it appeared as if Kiss had everything she could have wanted. But she felt unfulfilled.
“I ended up buying a horse and quitting my job at Samsung,” Kiss recalled. “At the time, my family was not happy about it, because it was a great salary and good position for my future.”
A career in the corporate world was not meant for Kiss, who in 2021 began her fifth year of professional riding in the United States. In October, she began working with Scott Stewart and Ken Berkley’s famed River’s Edge operation as a flat rider; she mostly works on invaluable basics with their young and up-and-coming talent—and as one of hunter sport’s most successful figures, Stewart’s standard is pretty high.
“You have to find joy in the basics—that’s where life took me,” Kiss said.
Kiss was first introduced to horses at a young age; her grandfather owned horses and, on a family vacation to a freshwater lake called Lake Balaton, he brought Kiss and her siblings to a barn for pony rides.
Kiss was immediately taken by the environment. But she did not want to ride the pony offered to her.
“They brought a pony out for me, but I didn’t want to ride the pony. I wanted the biggest horse in the paddock, named Barbara,” Kiss recalled. “I still remember. They put me on the horse, and they rolled up the stirrups as high as they could go and put me on a longe line. That’s how it started.”
Kiss would go on to ride competitively through secondary school (Hungary’s version of high school), but she temporarily stepped away from the saddle when her horses were sold to fund her university studies. A few years into her career with Samsung, she found herself spending an increasing amount of time perusing online horse ads. That’s when she knew she needed to make a change.
Kiss altered course and decided to pursue a career in the horse industry; her new journey began working at a prominent Hungarian breeding and sales operation, where she held an administrative role, overseeing the care of the more-than 120 horses that came through the operation’s gates each year. She was also tasked with building connections with potential clients in the United States. She hosted the likes of international show jumper Charlie Jayne and top hunter rider Brady Mitchell. That time, Kiss connected with amateur rider Phoebe Weseley, who invited Kiss to experience Wellington, FL’s famed Winter Equestrian Festival in 2016.
“I spent two months there,” Kiss said. “At that point, I had no idea about hunters, about the equitation [division].”
Kiss fell in love with the horse-centric culture of Wellington and desired to return. In 2017, she did, this time with her own equine scouting and sales business, EKS Horses. Just as she had been introduced to American sport, she sought to make more U.S.-based professionals aware of the equine talent available in Hungary. Expanding her reach to a few other European nations, Kiss continues to import exciting prospects to the U.S. throughout the year.
“As I learned about hunters and equitation, I realized Hungary wasn’t a well-known area. We have a lot of good breeders, good bloodlines,” she said. “We’re a horse nation.”
Still, Kiss wanted to continue to hone her skills and set herself up for success in the American market, and she aspired to learn from the best. She journeyed to Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, NY, home of two-time Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward, and asked if she could help.
“It was always in back of my mind that it would be such a wonderful opportunity to learn from his team, even if I just had to sweep the barn aisles,” Kiss said. “I came over to New York and walked into to McLain Ward’s barn and asked, ‘Do you need anyone?’ I wanted to learn. So he took me on.”
Kiss spent six months working with and learning from the Castle Hill team, including Ward’s right hand, Lee McKeever. During that time, Kiss got great reward out of riding a talented Ward mount, Hija van Strokapelleken. The mare won three CSI5* classes and finished sixth in the CSI5* $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix with Ward that winter in Wellington.
“I was very proud,” Kiss said. “Obviously it would not have been possible without McLain’s team. Lee McKeever is an amazing manager. His knowledge—I don’t know if it has any limits! He has a lot of natural feeling for horses, he’s an amazing rider, and I learned a lot from him.”
What Do You Love?
Kiss reached a turning point following her stint at Castle Hill. In order to return to the U.S. to work, she’d need to apply for a visa, reserved for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement, which would require her to live in America for at least two years.
“I asked myself when I left Samsung, ‘What do you love?’ The only answer was horses,” Kiss said. “That’s always been the priority for me and to go and learn, to meet new people, to learn new methods. I try to be like a sponge and take in everything that people and horses can teach us and what we can teach each other. I wanted to improve as a person, as an athlete, and see what life brought me.”
With the support of respected equestrians Brownlee and Agneta Currey, Kiss was approved to stay and work legally in the United States. She stayed with for the Currey family as their equine manager in Nashville, TN, and for two years, she traveled with them up and down the northeast to compete at some of the nation’s most prestigious horse shows.
“They were wonderful people, I learned a lot there, and we got really good results,” Kiss recalled. “We got great ribbons at the Hampton Classic, which was a big show for us, because Mrs. Currey was highly involved with the show. She chaired the board of directors and co-founded a committee to continuously improve the show. The boutique garden is named after her, deservingly so. I had a great time, and after that, I decided to apply for my green card.”
Brownlee and Agneta tragically passed away in 2020, which was a tremendous loss for both the horse show industry and Kiss. As Kiss applied for her green card, Joe Fargis, who famously rode the Curreys’ Touch of Class to individual and team gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games, provided his support. While Tennessee remained her home base, Kiss traveled to Traverse City, MI, to assist as a temporary travel groom for Irish show jumper Darragh Kenny, followed by a stint in Tryon, NC, working with 10-time AGA Rider of the Year, Margie Engle. After the Tryon circuit concluded, Berkley reached out to see if she would accompany his operation as a flat rider.
“I’m a huge fan of Scott’s and a huge fan of Ken,” Kiss said. “I met them for the first time in 2017, when they came to Hungary to try a 5-year-old with me. I took them to the barn to see some jumpers. Ken got on the horse, and all the jumps were at the top of the standards. In sneakers and jeans, he jumped everything pitch perfect. I knew then that he was a genius.”
Finding Her Niche
“Life brought me to a path where it is all about flat riding and getting the horses ready and in shape,” Kiss said. “I feel very comfortable with that. I am happy to ride any type of horse—hot, lazy or sensitive.”
Kiss has found her niche as a flat rider and trainer, and she maintains her goal-oriented mentality in her day-to-day work with the talented prospects at River’s Edge. Finding joy in perfecting the basics to set her horses up for success in the show ring, her training philosophy is holistically horse-centered, her background anchored in lessons learned both stateside and abroad from some of the sport’s top athletes; her background further includes experience with Olympian Karim El- Zoghby and the breeders and trainers of the famous Zilverstar T—Herman Van Triest and Juulia Jylas, from the Netherlands.
“I want people to understand that flatwork and proper care are the basis of everything, and you have to do it right,” Kiss said. “If horses are not feeling physically and mentally healthy, we can’t expect them to respond to our aids. If horses don’t react to our aids, we can’t expect them to jump around a course.”
When working with horses, she stresses the importance of both verbal and non-verbal communication; building hind-end strength through transitions; and continuing a horse’s education with groundwork. She trains both in and out of the arena, breaking up the grind of ringwork with trail rides and flatwork in open fields, and believes strongly that mental fitness is as important as physical fitness.
“I like, in my training and when I’m doing flatwork, to try to pay attention to the horse. The primary focus has to be to keep the horses happy, sound and physically fit,” Kiss explained. “Everybody that has a connection with their horse has the capability to feel what they want to tell us. I trust in these feelings and intuitions.”
She’s also trusting the process.
“I’m really enjoying this journey,” she said. “My goal is to learn more, to get better, and to be able to bring more horses to a top level in a good physical and mental state. In the future, as my schedule allows, I’d like to teach it to others, too.”