Riding's NOVEMBER, 2008 COVER STORY!


California Riding Magazine • November, 2008

Kismet Farms
Renowned training barn and
sporthorse source is "the place to be"
for serious California eventers.

by Kim F. Miller

MJ Lanni enjoys a lot of kudos about her daughter Johnita, an accomplished equestrian who is currently studying animal science at UC Davis. “Whenever someone compliments my parenting skills, I say, ‘Yes, she is a great girl, but I can only take half the credit’.” The other half of the credit for raising a conscientious, hard-working and great sport of a young lady goes to Tracy Bowman, MJ asserts.
Tracy is not a parenting expert or even a parent herself. She is an eventing trainer whose commitment to horsemanship and sportsmanship has deeply influenced her students, the sport in the States and those who have purchased the prospects she and her team at Kismet Farms have developed.

The Lannis found Kismet in the phone book when the then-5 year old Johnita wanted riding lessons. MJ had no idea then what a find she’d made. Her military career mandated two family moves during her daughter’s equestrian upbringing and each relocation meant checking out and working with other trainers. “I never found anybody that had as high a standard as Tracy had,” MJ explains. “When Tracy takes a student she wants to teach them to ride, period. It doesn’t matter if they are 5 or 15.”

These high standards apply to every facet of business at Kismet Farms, which is located in the Bay Area’s Martinez. Raised and educated as a horsewoman in Europe, Tracy earned her British Horse Instructors Certification and a Pony Club A rating and accrued many years of competition mileage. She came to the States as a groom during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and decided to stay. Since then she’s built a reputation for excellence and integrity in developing riders and horses and in the sales side of the eventing world. A recurring tumor on her spine, 14 years ago, put an end to her own riding career, but a wheelchair and, more frequently, an ATV enable her to lead students to successes at the highest levels of the sport.

Martinez may not be the geographic hub of eventing in the United States but “it’s the place to be if you are an eventing rider in the Bay Area,” says longtime student Courtney Pilla. She started riding at Kismet Farms 15 years ago and her ongoing competitive career already includes two Three Stars and one Four Star, both with the now-retired Tango. “We have tons of young riders on up to the top notch Advanced Level riders,” says Courtney, now 27 and juggling eventing with an investment career. “Everything is done correctly. Our horses are honest and happy in their jobs.”

Make It Happen

Courtney is one of several students to whom the pronouns “our” and “we” come naturally when talking about Kismet. She remembers the conversion many years ago of what had been an old cattle ranch and volunteer days as the covered arena, barns and roads went in. The day when Kismet’s horses were ridden from their former boarding stables nearby to their new home is fresh in her mind. “I think we made four trips that day,” she recalls fondly.

Like a handful of her contemporaries at the barn, Courtney opted for home schooling the last few years of high school so she could maximize her junior years on the eventing circuit. Juggling a real world job and married life today, she trades barn chores, some riding and teaching against expenses. As she has done throughout her youth, Courtney is also bringing along a for-sale prospect whose eventual sale will help foot the bill for her current campaign, in this case with a promising 5-year-old named Owen. The scenario reflects a common theme for several students at Kismet, where a make-it-happen mentality has helped many realize their equestrian dreams.
Tracy is especially proud of having turned out some of tomorrow’s professionals and her current partner Jolie Sexson is just such a student. The 27-year-old started with Tracy when she was a 7-year-old and now competes her own Killian O’Connor at Advanced Level, pointed specifically at next year’s Rolex Kentucky Four Star. With Tracy’s continued guidance, Jolie does the riding for Kismet client horses and brings along a steady string of eventing prospects. Many of these have gone on to big successes for outside riders, a point Jolie and Tracy take justifiable pride in.

It is unusual in any equestrian discipline for a student to stay with the same trainer as their riding progresses to the highest levels. “You always have the ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ syndrome,” Jolie acknowledges. “I have asked myself, ‘Am I getting enough? Am I doing the most I can to further my education and career?’

“Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the East Coast and England and to have cliniced with a lot of different people and see how they run their barns on a day-to-day basis. I always come home saying, ‘Tracy is right! This is exactly how we should be doing things’.”

Long listed by the USET for the last three Olympics and Pan American Games, Jolie began competing in the upper levels 10 years ago. She was a team gold medalist at the NAYRC in 1999 and has since completed and finished well in CCI and CIC Three Stars, and other Advanced Level events.

Perfect Pairings

Tracy’s experience and contacts give her clients access to the sport’s best, domestically and abroad. A long friendship with 2004 Olympic gold medalist Leslie Law is the basis of a professional partnership that has benefited Tracy and her students in many ways. Horse buying connections and opportunities to groom and/or apprentice with international veterans are some of these advantages. Tracy’s alliance with Nikki Caine in Great Britain has been another asset, especially in the horse finding department.

Kismet’s 200-acre facility has put Martinez on the source map for sporthorse prospects. Tracy and Jolie have a special passion for this aspect of the business, likely because it most deeply involves their raison d’etre: the horses. “Even if I couldn’t compete or do the rest of this, I would still love my horses,” says Jolie. And Tracy? She’s the girl pining to ride the rental string horses on their infrequent and supposed “get-away from the horse world” vacations. Tracy is dead serious about training, but she’s still “just silly” about horses, she confesses.

With Tracy’s eyes and experience and Jolie’s feel for horses’ minds and bodies, the Kismet pair has attracted owners interested in developing top eventing horses. The Swedish up-and-comer Gauguin Du Cheval is one of a few stallions and several young prospects currently making their mark on the circuit.

Effective horse/rider match-ups have been an equally important part of Kismet’s success over the years. “We are quick to point out if a horse is inappropriate for somebody and we pride ourselves in setting reasonable goals,” Tracy explains. She is dismayed by how frequently a new client comes with a horse that simply doesn’t suit them. “They were never told to stop putting their money in a horse that was either always stopping, lame or doing poorly in some way.”
Matchmaking abilities are just one of the traits that have kept Kate Miller at Kismet since she started there in “tack-up lessons” as a 9-year-old. Now 26 and a full-time professional in the finance world, Kate says she could not continue her upper level ambitions anywhere but at Kismet. “Tracy’s talent and eye is spot-on. She can figure out when something is going wrong as quickly and effectively as any Four Star rider,” Kate enthuses. “The quality of instruction she provides is at the detailed level that most people go back East to find, but don’t even find there.”

Under Tracy’s tutelage, Kate has three successful runs, on two different horses, at the North American Young Riders Eventing Championships. Today, she and her Selle Francais-Belgian cross, Zara, are making steady progress at Preliminary Level and foresee a path to the Advanced ranks. She manages to ride herself four days a week, but says, “There is no other program where I could attempt to have a dedicated working life and a dedicated riding career.” With Tracy and Leslie Law’s help, she bought the now 6-year-old Zara as a 4-year-old and has thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of bringing along “my first baby.”

Simple Truths About Safety

Safety has been an increasingly hot topic in eventing. “I won’t say the sport is in trouble, but it definitely is facing a challenge,” Tracy observes. The concern isn’t new and neither is the fix: producing real riders and mounting them appropriately, both focal points for Kismet Farms since its inception.

“Safety comes in multiple facets and unsafe riding is what comes foremost to mind,” Tracy comments. “Some riding errors are deliberate. For example, riding at too great a speed because they are pushing to make the time, or tackling courses that are inappropriate for the horse at that moment in its training, often because there is a need to get qualified for a specific event.”

An incomplete riding education is another source of unsafe riding, one that often reveals itself in a horse that is not properly organized for a technically challenging fence or segment on a cross-country course. The ability to buy an upper level horse should not be confused with the ability to ride an upper level course, Tracy notes. “We need a system that rewards education and punishes risk taking.”

USA Eventing’s instructor certification process is a great step in the right direction, Tracy asserts. When Karen O’Connor was getting the program off the ground several years ago, Tracy was one of the first professionals the Olympian asked to be part of the faculty. As a BHSI certified instructor and Pony Club A rated horsewoman, Tracy had the credentials, but not the time. She had several busy Three and Four Star students and was coordinator of the Area VI Young Riders program, so she had to decline. But she has followed the program’s progress with great enthusiasm. “Education is the key and this is definitely going in the right direction, toward a common standard.”

The need for sponsorship is another long-standing issue in eventing, and especially so for a West Coast-based rider who must travel far and wide to accrue points toward USET rankings. The Kismet team is especially grateful to Western Saddlery for their backing of Jolie’s competitive endeavors. “They helped me get to Jersey Fresh (in Maryland) and Rebecca Farms (in Montana), and have been a huge help to me this whole year,” the rider reports. “We have been using their products and going to their stores for years. Having their backing is really great.”

As safety and sponsorship issues challenge the sport of eventing and the economic crisis affects everybody, Tracy remains upbeat about the future. “The world is searching for something good and I can tell you where to look: our sport.” In her 20-plus years as a trainer, she’s seen eventing generate excellent examples of sportsmanship.

A heartening case in point arose during The Event at Rebecca Farms this past summer. Jolie and Killian O’Connor were a solid first in the $10,000 World Cup qualifier after the dressage and cross-country phases. But one of Killian’s legs was a bit swollen and, even though no problems were evident in the vet evaluations and the final soundness jog, Jolie and Tracy opted to play it safe and withdraw him from competition. Doing that deed in the show office, they crossed paths with Tory Smith (see story on Tory Smith on page 42), who stood second going into show jumping. “Tory is a fantastic young rider and Jolie wanted to offer her encouragement,” Tracy recounts. “As we started our drive home we heard that indeed Tory had won. Of all the people she could have called in her excitement, she chose to call Jolie, to wish her a safe drive home and to say that she truly wished she had been able to give her a run for the money.

“You don’t often find character like that in young people,” Tracy concludes. “With them as our future, I think our sport will be just fine.”

For more information on Kismet Farms, visit www.kismetfarms.net or call 925-370-0460.