BY NANCY JAFFER
She’s a firecracker; always has been. Nothing can slow down the perennially energetic Karen Healey, who attacks her mission to teach, judge, or give a clinic with the same enthusiasm that began building her reputation more than a half-century ago.
“Karen wakes up every day and thinks she has to prove herself again, in spite of everything she’s accomplished,” says Fred Bauer, her husband of 20 years.
“She works harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She has an incredible appetite for it, she loves doing what she does. She loves teaching, that’s really the heart of it,” he adds.
Healey’s resume sparkles with the big names she’s taught and the honors they have won, which include more than 100 national hunt seat equitation championships, along with scores of hunter and jumper titles.
That record is particularly impressive considering where she came from. Growing up in suburban Berkeley Heights, NJ, she wanted riding lessons desperately.
“I was the oldest of five children; my father worked for the phone company. When I said I wanted to ride it kind of went over like a lead balloon,” she says.
Her chance came when the family moved to Harrisburg, PA, where a neighbor had a horse.
Healey seized her opportunity, as she would so often, and started going to the barn with her neighbor. The trainer at the stable was Sally Dohner, who once owned half of the Olympic show jumping gold medal mare, Touch of Class.
Healey mucked stalls, watered horses, soaked up knowledge, and did everything she could to be able to ride. She got her first horse for $750 from a Maryland auction when she was 14. Keepsake was 15.1 hands, spotted, with a bullseye marking on his butt. A far cry from the fancy horses she eventually worked with, but still useful.
Healey also exercised race horses. While she was practicing her riding, she began teaching riding. That was the start, but she wasn’t yet ready to make horses a lifetime pursuit.
After Sally sold the farm and moved to Southern Pines, Healey focused on college at Dickinson and thought she would be an attorney. Then she dropped out of school in the second semester of her junior year.
“I loved school, but I needed to make money,” she says. And what she knew how to do was give riding lessons.
In 1971, she went to work as a groom for George Morris, who had just opened Hunterdon Inc. in Pittstown, N.J.
She joined Morris on the Florida circuit, and by the time they got back to New Jersey, she ended up managing everything. Healey also hit her stride teaching. After more than four years with Morris, she went to Tewksbury Farm, about a half-hour’s drive from Hunterdon, and stayed there for three and a half years.
After that, it was Jimmy Kohn’s stable in Pennsylvania, and then Boulder Brook in New York. During her time in the Northeast, the riders with whom she worked included Ruthann Bowers and Francesca Mazella, who would go on to win the ASPCA Maclay and the American Horse Shows Association Medal.
But California was calling, and she headed west.
“I took a look around and felt California needed me,” Healey says. She was right. In 1982, there were only 10 recognized horse shows.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, not enough horse shows.’”
California was on the rise in terms of horse sports, however, and soon there were more. At the same time, the people she dealt with, “figured out very quickly I knew what I was talking about.”
She went to Griffith Park, eventually moved to Westlake Village, and her business kept building. It was a turning point when a 12-year-old girl named Meredith Michaels joined her roster of students.
A Standout Professional
“Meredith was not the most talented rider I ever taught,” Healey says, “but boy, she was laser focused, so determined, and her parents did the right thing by her.”
Meredith, now Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, describes Healey as “an amazing person, a hard worker and a great teacher. She was an amazing instructor. She had an incredible ability to connect with her students and explain details of riding, basics of riding.”
As Michaels-Beerbaum notes, “A lot of professionals out there have a hard time explaining what they’re doing. Karen was one of the best explainers of all time. She could tell even a very basic beginner how to find a distance, how to get around a course. Her own riding ability was outstanding. She could actually get on a horse, show you how it’s done and communicate to you how you should do it.”
Michaels-Beerbaum rode with the likes of Michael Matz and Rodney Jenkins during the summers, but she always came back to Healey.
The trainer really impressed her with a demonstration of can-do when the grooms disappeared at one show and she had to do everything herself, from mucking and braiding to longeing. Healey could do it all, which was among the benefits of learning from the ground up. She knew every aspect of the business, including exactly how to fix things when they went wrong.
One summer, Michaels-Beerbaum recalls, she went back East to ride with a well-known hunter trainer.
“By the end of the summer, I was so confused by his training methods and techniques I was chipping in and could not ride a decent round to save my life. I will never forget going back to California feeling down, depressed, and humiliated because I had been a disaster as a working student hunter rider,” Michaels-Beerbaum says.
“I remember Karen putting me back together, going back to my simple basics, which I had totally thrown out the window. I’d gotten so complicated in my riding and thinking that I could no longer ride a simple course anymore. In one month, I was back in form again. I won the USET [Talent Search] finals on the West Coast. She put me back together and I went right back to the top where I had left off.”
Michaels-Beerbaum went far beyond that, of course, going on to ride with the German team, winning a plethora of medals in the show jumping world championships and Olympics, as well as taking the FEI World Cup Finals trophy three times and ranking number one in the world. She also married German rider Marcus Beerbaum. To this day, Healey still keeps an eye on her.
“She’s always followed my career because she has always known how I was doing,” says Michaels-Beerbaum, the mother of 12-year-old rider Brianne Beerbaum.
“She follows my daughter’s career now, too. It’s not just about me as the student at the time. It’s like generations later, she’s still supporting me when she can. I send her videos of my daughter and get comment from her. We are still very close and it’s important to me.”
First to Arrive, Last to Leave
Healey seems to remember every round put in by her students, as well as their competition. She moved her operation’s location a number of times over the years, but wherever she set up shop, Karen Healey Stables was always a winner. She got to the shows earlier than everyone else, worked harder, and stayed longer.
During one of the first ASPCA Maclay Regionals at the Flintridge Riding Club, it was pouring rain at 3 p.m., but Healey was still teaching. Other trainers weren’t interested in following suit. Finally, Larry Mayfield approached her, saying, “I’ve been assigned to tell you to go home. The rest of us want to go home.”
Healey says that when she first came to California, she found she was the only one schooling in the ring at Griffith Park early in the morning, on the week when she won all the hunter classes.
“Shouldn’t others be out here trying to beat me?” she recalls wondering. “They would waltz in at 8 o’clock, or ten after 8. It wasn’t the worker ethic.”
Then, Nick Karazissis decided that if Healey was going to get on a horse at 5 a.m., “he would get on at 4:45 a.m. and might beat me,” she says. That had an immediate effect; she started a trend that elevated what happened on the California circuit.
West Coast trainer Archie Cox, a former employee of Healey’s, says that “her dedication to the sport and to the riders is almost unmatched. She loves teaching. She loves seeing anyone and everyone get better; she’s passionate about it. I worked for her for seven-and-a-half years and would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Going back East for the Fall indoor circuit became important for the top California riders, and Healey looks back fondly on those days.
Ask her what she misses most from the past and she doesn’t hesitate to answer: “The Garden.”
That was Madison Square Garden, home of the National Horse Show. “There was absolutely nothing like it,” she says. The show was held at one or another of the Madison Square Gardens (there were four) from 1883 through 1988, then again from 1996 through 2001.
“That was what anchored our year, getting qualified and showing there. Even to get there was such a big deal. It was important. We showed hard, and it was important when we showed, but we had fun,” she says, citing the exhibitors’ parties that were part of the experience. “The camaraderie among the trainers was different. We enjoyed ourselves.”
Much has changed during Healey’s run in the business. She remembers the era when so many kids were serious about the sport.
“There was not one of them who would ever question a 5:30 or 6 a.m. lesson. They wanted it.”
But today, she says, there are those who “come, they take the lesson and they leave. There’s a lot who just want to buy a fancy hunter and win the hack.”
At the same time, she quickly adds, “The hungry ones are still out there; there just aren’t as many of them.”
But those who work hard are set up for success. Healey cites Brian Moggre, Lillie Keenan and Jessica Springsteen, (“those kids can really ride”), all of whom were named to the U.S. team for August’s Show Jumping World Championships.
Although owning Karen Healey Stables was in many ways a dream come true, there were many difficult factors as well.
“The cost was so prohibitive to do it the way I wanted it done, with the care for the horses. It’s exorbitant,” she says, and finally decided to go in a different direction as a freelancer. The decision was the right one, but it wasn’t easy.
“I sat on a mounting block in the schooling area in Las Vegas, sobbing, at the last show when I closed my barn in 2015,” she says.
Her husband notes that several people approached her to be a private trainer. “I do lessons, not lunch,” was her typically succinct reply.
Healey’s plan going forward was to run a different enterprise, Karen Healey Training. Still very much in demand, she gives many clinics and also works closely with Michael Dennehy and Toni Hrudka.
“They are wonderful people, hard workers and totally believe in my system; no second-guessing, they buy in 100 percent,” says Healey. Today, she goes to Colorado and Traverse City, teaching three to four days a week. This fall, she’ll be judging the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show in her former hometown of Harrisburg, and is really looking forward to that competition.
“It’s long overdue,” Healey says. “I should have done it earlier.” But she couldn’t, because she always had students who had qualified and competed in the class.
Judging, Then and Now
Her judging resume includes the Talent Search finals four times, the USEF Pony Finals twice, Devon, and many times at the World Champion Hunter Rider Spectacular during the Winter Equestrian Festival. While the Medal is “probably the biggest” judging opportunity she’s had, she’s hoping for one more—the ASPCA Maclay at the National Horse Show.
“If I’m still sane in a year or two, hopefully I’ll get to do that too,” she says with a laugh.
Healey had mobility issues after back surgery five years ago, but in her typical fashion, she fought back.
Her devotion to the sport, a beacon throughout her life, includes involvement with governance. Healey has, not surprisingly, chaired the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Equitation Task Force and served on many of the organization’s committees, including its Hunter Task Force, as well as the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Developing Riders Committee. She also was on the board of the Pacific Coast Horsemen’s Association for 15 years.
But Healey is far from one-dimensional.
“She actually has a life outside the horse world,” says fellow California trainer Carleton Brooks.
“She can cook fancy phenomenal meals. It’s her hobby and a passion also,” he says, adding that she invites other professionals to join the feasts for the holidays.
She also “reads incessantly,” mostly fiction, and she and her husband enjoy traveling around the world, from Southeast Asia and beyond. They talk horses—her Harvard-educated spouse won the Medal finals in 1969 and the Maclay the next year—but that doesn’t dominate their eclectic conversation. They enjoy their Corgis and Bernese Mountain dogs, part of a well-balanced life that includes plenty of smiles.
“She has a very hidden, great sense of humor,” adds Brooks. When it comes to the business, though, “She can be as tough as needed as a coach.”
Perhaps her greatest asset is that she’s “extremely smart. She can fill in a lot of voids other trainers need supplemented,” says Brooks, adding that Healey always seems to have “another way to say something that clicks with a rider at that moment.”
“She’s always got that little knack.”
*This story was originally published in the October/November 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!