January 2019 - Van Vleck Sporthorses

cover story

Joy of the process drives top hunter/jumper team.

by Kim F. Miller

The Van Vleck name is as recognizable as the broad-brimmed sun visor Kelly Van Vleck wears everywhere on the hunter/jumper A circuit, except at awards banquets. The double Vs have graced many year-end honors since the Sacramento-area native turned professional in 1993. But, to Kelly, Van Vleck is more brand than name and more reflective of her entire team than of any one individual, especially herself.

She describes her lead rider Chelsea Brittner as “a better rider than I,” and her longtime show groom Victor Alvarez as perfectly capable of coaching her students if the need arose. The statements speak volumes because Kelly is a master at both. That’s in addition to expert horse preparation for her clients, and managing a calendar and work flow chart that keeps her show-oriented, 34-horse program humming along at home and on the road.

Chelsea Brittner on Cappo at the Sonoma Horse Park Grand Prix. Photo: Sofia Jain

Sustaining a successful training program is difficult, Kelly notes. The secret is finding quality people, letting them know they are valued and treating them accordingly. “The barn is going unbelievably,” she says. “But I am positive I would not be doing so well without all of the people who work for me.”

The Perrys are longtime Van Vleck family members. Mom Kassy and daughter Kaitlin (pictured) are both top equitation and hunter competitors. Photo: Alden Corrigan Media

Van Vleck Sporthorses is the only resident training program at the Murieta Equestrian Center, a popular show venue in the Sacramento area’s Rancho Murieta. Since assembling her dream team staff-wise, Kelly loves the fact that her clients have embraced the chance to work with and learn from them.

“These people are workers,” she says of her clients. “They love to lesson, to practice, and they always show up to ride. They are type A personalities who love the process as much as they love the showing.” That attitude permeates every aspect of her program, whether preparing young rider Jayme Omand for the Grand Prix ranks or safely shepherding a child into the sport on their first pony.

Presenting Jacqueline Vail with the CPHA’s 2017 Sportsmanship Award was a top career highlight. 'My speech was based on how I wanted to be Jacqueline in my next life,' Kelly shares. Photo: Tish Quirk

The Van Vleck Sporthorse clientele is a mix of juniors and amateurs, ranging from 4- and 7-year-old pony riders to the 60-somethings who ride every day but show less often. In the middle are the students for which Kelly is best known, serious competitors who win frequently in all divisions but are equally, perhaps more, interested in horsemanship.

“I think we have one of the only barns out there, where at 6:30 a.m. at a show, it’s not just me and Chelsea preparing the horses, it’s the kids, too.  It’s not me giving a lesson, it’s them taking what they’ve learned in lessons and preparing their horses: suppling and softening them well before show time.” A compliment from Kelly about how well their horse is prepared often stirs more excitement than a ribbon resulting from it later in the day. “Most of my kids don’t even know how to sleep in by the time they’re 17,” she laughs fondly.

Kelly & Stanley F. Photo: Captured Moment Photography

Results Beyond The Ring

Instilling that depth of horsemanship is one of many factors that creates client loyalty. Diane Omand knew of Kelly from their junior days, dating back to when Kelly rode with the late Barbara Worth as a pre-teen. It was a no-brainer where to take her then 7-year-old daughter Jayme for riding lessons 15 years ago. “There is a certain kind of excellence that she expects from the kids and they strive for it,” Diane reflects. “It makes them a better rider and a better person.” Kelly’s influence through Jayme’s junior years helped Jayme get recruited for the National Collegiate Equestrian Association team at Texas Christian University, then to make the most of the opportunity as a team captain in her senior year.

Audel Hernandez, Gennaro Hernandez, Isreal Hernandez, Victor Alvarez

“Kelly has been a great role model for Jayme all these years,” Diane continues. At 22, Jayme is now excelling in the 1.2M jumper division, but that didn’t happen over night. “She was slow to move up the ranks,” Diane recalls. “She did the 3’3” hunters, then 3’6” equitation, forever!” It’s Kelly’s method of solidifying each level of a strong riding foundation before moving on to the next. “It’s been fun to watch because now she rides the jumper classes like they are equitation classes,” Diane remarks.

Alycia Otte

Lessons apply beyond the ring. Determination, persistence and the ability to appreciate a job well done, even if the judges don’t, are among the character traits cemented during Jayme’s years with Kelly, Diane notes. Those are far from over. Since graduating last spring, Jayme works part time in the family business and is bringing along a 6-year-old jumper and campaigning her seasoned star, Zador.

Diane rode with Kelly, too, until sustaining a major back injury. “Nobody is better than Kelly,” she concludes. “Everybody at the barn feels that way.”

Kelly’s husband, Van Van Vleck, with one of Van Vleck Transport’s trailers.

Kay Barnes confirms that. Her daughters, Nikola and Makenzy, started with Kelly as pony riders and continue to ride as a college freshman and high school senior, respectively. (Nikola joined the TCU team this year and Makenzy recently signed her letter of intent to become a Horned Frog NCEA rider for the Ft. Worth, TX university next season.)

“She is a strong coach and well disciplined,” Kay says of Kelly. “I think that has helped prepare them for wherever they go next, whether it’s college or work later on.” Her girls are on board with Kelly’s “If you’re on time, you’re late” approach to shipshape horsemanship. They love the learning and preparation as much as the competing. “My girls would typically go to the barn for one lesson and be there for five hours. It’s a built-in family.”

Jacqueline and Christina Vail’s mom Maria echoes those observations. As a sophomore at Boston College, Jacqueline has had ample opportunity to apply lessons learned at the barn. A willingness to ask questions is an especially actionable lesson. “Kelly always says there is no wrong question,” Maria says. Applying that approach is a big part of Jacqueline’s success in navigating all aspects of college life: from academics and getting around the city to excelling on the school’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team.

Team Van Vleck

Although it was a financial stretch to hire somebody of Chelsea (Jones) Brittner’s abilities full-time, Kelly committed to making it work two years ago.  With extensive show and training mileage with Dusty Blackwood and Barb Ellison’s Wild Turkey Farm, Chelsea can “get on any horse and improve it,” Kelly says. Her willingness to embrace Kelly’s methods –“because we all think we’re the only ones who know how to do it!” – complete a perfect partnership.

“I’m very much a program person,” Kelly explains. “We do the same thing, nothing overly exciting, day in and day out. We train horses and teach people and we hope to shine on show day.” Chelsea adopted that approach so seamlessly there is no need for micromanaging. At home and shows, they divvy up horses to prepare, with Kelly knowing that Chelsea will give each the same quality of attention she would, so there’s no surprises.

Alycia Otte joined Van Vleck Sporthorses in September of 2017 and extends Kelly’s quality coaching to the program’s lower level riders. She can easily fill in teaching the A circuit riders when Kelly and Chelsea are away, and she, too, has very strong riding skills.

Megan Willison, a recent Cal State Fresno graduate, primarily cares for lay-up horses, and nicely fills training and teaching gaps as needs arise. Like the rest of Kelly’s team, she eschews barn drama and maintains a “level” personality. “I’ve learned the hard way that you have to be level, so that when there are unbelievably stressful moments, you can handle it.”

Victor Alvarez’ 20 years as Kelly’s show groom have earned him the “Horse Whisperer” nickname. From knowing just what lunge line work-out each horse needs on a given morning to quieting a horse that’s too skittish for clippers, Victor “does everything,” Kelly says. “I do believe he could train kids in the ring if he needed to.”

Audel Hernandez has been with Kelly a mere 18 years. She estimates he’s asked for only three extra days off during that time, while “doing the work of 10 people” with a daily attitude of gratitude.

Genarro Hernandez and Audel’s son Isreal complete a three-person home barn crew that works as seamlessly behind the scenes as the trainers and coaches do in the ring. “I have zero stress about what’s going on in the barn and with the horses,” Kelly shares.

Her only worry is losing any one of them. “If they quit, I might quit! I can’t imagine finding people that could do what they do.”

Family Feel

Kelly set out to train horses and riders. If she has helped train young humans in the art of life, it’s more an extension of their upbringing and her own than a deliberate mission. “I was raised to respect my elders, to know that life is not fair, to believe that you can do anything, but it won’t be easy,” she says. The families who commit to her program are so like-minded that their children’s behavior is rarely an issue. “I don’t put up with anything, but my students rarely challenge me.

“I believe that the people who ride with you are like you,” Kelly continues. “We spend so much time together we’re like a family. I’d be friends with all of my clients even if we didn’t have the horses in common.”

Over 26 years as a professional, Kelly admits to the occasional grouse or low moment. Yet appreciation for a life she loves gets her out of bed every morning – often at 3:30 a.m. to jump start the day. “I love what I do and not just the horses, but the teaching and making progress. I could have a day where six horses go great for their owners, but if one didn’t, I dwell through the night on what I can do to make that horse better the next day.

“It’s the rewards that keep you going,” she concludes.  “I love shows and winning, but a lack of winning doesn’t diminish the reward of what we are trying to do. It’s all about how much the horse or rider has changed and improved. That’s what I’ve come to gauge our success on.”

Visit www.vanvleckranch.com for more information.


A Few 2018 Show Highlights

Patty Gill & Stanley F
Champion NorCal Senior Medal Finals
Reserve Champion WCE Medal Finals
Kassy Perry & Cappo 7
Reserve Champion CPHA Foundation Finals, 22 & Over
Jayme Omand & Zador
USHJA Zone 9 & 10 Jumper Championship Amateur 1.20M Team & Individual Silver Medal
Corinne Gill & Happy Camper
Champion NorCal Year-End Child Pony Hunters
Kathy Nolan & Just Because
PCHA Champion Low A/O Hunters, Region 2.
Denim Schneider & Small Gift
Reserve Champion Horse & Hound Pony Finals