I first met Kim Walnes when I had just graduated from engineering school. A friend told me she saw an interesting looking clinician on the list of clinicians for the Hoosier Horse Fair. The next day, I looked the clinician up and began to learn the incredible story of Kim Walnes. I was an aspiring, competitive event rider at the time, so her story of overcoming all odds to compete and win at the highest levels of eventing with her legendary horse, The Gray Goose, made it impossible for me to resist signing up to ride with her.
I was both excited and nervous about the clinic. I had never ridden at a venue like a horse expo before and also didn’t know anything about Kim other than what I had read on her website. I was lucky to have my incredible horse, Dart, who handled the chaotic environment at the Hoosier Horse Fair extremely well.
I will never forget the first time I saw Kim. She was doing Tai Chi in one of the tack stalls next to Dart’s stall in preparation for her presentation that day. This struck me as extremely unusual at that time in my life.
I attended Kim’s first unmounted presentation and was completely enthralled and inspired as she told her story. Kim then began teaching some unmounted exercises where she taught riders how to improve their position, feel, and how to center themselves. She emphasized the importance of the rider’s balance and posture. She gave me tools to help me address the issues she noticed with my posture and balance and insisted I stay aware and practice all weekend. This was the first time I had ever had an instructor who put so much emphasis on the minute details of balance and position as well as the first time I had experienced an instructor who could teach “feel.” AND...she did all of this without a horse present! I left her first presentation inspired and with a completely new perspective.
After Kim’s first presentation I had a few hours until it would be time to ride with her. I wandered around the Horse Fair processing all Kim had taught during her unmounted presentation and practiced the exercises she gave me to improve my balance and posture before heading back to Dart’s stall.
Dart is such a saint. So much chaos going on around him at the Horse Fair and things he had certainly never seen or heard, but he acted like he had seen it all a million times. He is truly the best horse I ever could have asked for to begin my riding career.
Dart and I worked our way through crowds of people as we made our way to the arena where we would have our first lesson with Kim.
When Kim arrived I was surprised the first thing she did was evaluate my tack. She checked the fit of everything and asked Dart how he felt about the bit he was wearing—it was a basic, eggbutt snaffle. She looked at him for a minute and then felt the bit in his mouth and said he seemed content with this bit...I was puzzled, but glad to hear that was her conclusion.
I had shown up with typical Eventing gear which included a figure-eight noseband and spurs. She asked me if there was a reason behind those choices. I told her Dart tended to be sluggish, so I used the spurs to help get him more forward. She suggested we try the lesson without them as she would be teaching me some new ways to help Dart stay more forward, so I removed my spurs.
I didn’t have any reason for the figure-eight noseband other than I thought it looked nice and it was a trendy thing for eventers, so I told her I didn’t have any specific reason for the figure-eight noseband. She didn’t say anything, but she had already made sure it wasn’t tight. What she did in that moment without saying anything was plant a seed that made me begin questioning my equipment choices from that point forward.
This moment seemed insignificant at the time, but I now realize it was this moment that began shifting the way I thought about and approached my work with horses.
After she had checked Dart over a bit more she gave me permission to go ahead mount.
Once I had mounted Dart, Kim asked me to come over to her. From there we began what she called, “Running the Loop.”
She started at my feet and had me work through various exercises with every part of my body all the way up to my head. She was not only focused on helping me find the correct position of my body, but helping me find the correct feeling within the position. She spent as much time as needed with each body part until she was certain I had found the correct position and feeling.
By the time we made it to the top of my head, finishing the loop, the work we had done with my feet had gone back to old habits. Kim told me this is very normal and is in fact precisely why she calls it a “loop.” She explained to create new habits and retrain my body I would have to run this loop frequently and be patient with myself.
This was the first time I had ever had an instructor go into so much depth in regards to the rider’s position.
What was most amazing to me was the way Dart responded to the changes in my position. He immediately felt more balanced and more forward. It was this moment that began to open my eyes to how the most subtle shifts in the rider affect the horse.
When the lesson concluded Kim suggested we practice an unmounted exercise she wanted to demonstrate during the next day’s session. I was so excited the learning would continue! Dart and I made our way back through the crowds of people to his stall where I untacked him and told him how proud I was of him.
Kim was carrying a green bridle with her when she met me at Dart’s stall. She suggested we go out behind the building where it wouldn’t be as crowded to practice the exercise. So, we made our way outside.
Kim explained she would be having me wear the bridle. I thought I may have heard her incorrectly at first! She demonstrated what she meant by putting the crownpiece and browband on top of her head and then held the bit with her hands. I took the bridle and placed it on my head as she had done and then she helped me figure out how to hold the bit correctly with my hands.
Once I was bridled, Kim stepped behind me and held the reins. She asked me to close my eyes and focus on what I was feeling. She then demonstrated different types of rider issues, so I could feel how they felt from the horse’s perspective. I was amazed at how something as small as dropping your hands or tightening your fingers felt through the bridle. This was a big eye opener for me and made me realize the importance of what I had learned in that first lesson.
Kim then proceeded to ask me to walk, so I could feel how the rider’s cues felt in motion from the horse’s perspective. It is a very vulnerable feeling to walk with your eyes closed. But, I couldn’t believe how easily I could interpret Kim’s cues when I started to trust her and focused on feeling‒she had me doing leg-yields in no time!
When we concluded practicing, Kim asked me about my “Horse Engineer” shirt. I told her I was an Engineer, but I taught lessons and trained horses in my spare time. “Horse Engineer” is what I had named my side business.
Kim has an amazing ability to read the subtle body-language of others which is one of the many reasons she can do such amazing work with both horses and humans. When she asked me about “Horse Engineer” it triggered an emotional response in me which I of course did my very best to hide. But, there is no hiding how you are feeling with Kim.
So, there I stood wearing a bridle at the Horse Fair doing my best to hide my feelings in front of Kim Walnes. Kim looked at me directly in the eyes and said, “Jamie, what you’re feeling right now...you need to explore where those feelings are coming from.”
Those simple words would lead me to change the trajectory of my life.
Here is a letter I wrote to Kim several months after the clinic at the Hoosier Horse Fair:
“I just wanted to tell you that you are the most inspiring person I've ever met. You prove it's possible for us "ordinary" people to accomplish amazing things if we just believe in ourselves and follow our dreams. After my lessons with you I realized that I am afraid to tell anyone my dreams, because early in my life I was often made fun of for being "obsessed" with horses and I was programmed to believe horse careers are not "successful." I guess I almost felt ashamed of my dreams. I now try to take steps towards my dreams everyday, and know that if I keep trying I can eventually make them come true.
You are also an amazing teacher. It has been over four months since I rode with you at the Hoosier Horse Fair, and I still think about all the things you taught me every time I ride. Most clinicians offer a few helpful tips, but nothing significant. After riding with you, on the other hand, my riding mindset and style feels completely changed. I feel more connected with my horses than ever.
You deserve to hear about the positive effects you have on people.
“The best teachers show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.” -Alexander K. Trenfor.