By Cat Allen
Portraits and Photographs by Isabel Kurek
When you enter the Kessler family’s Wellington residence on the serene gravel road known as Appaloosa Trail, you’re greeted by the two family dogs and a stunning, almost life-size photomontage by Shelli Breidenbach. The collective portraits feature four of the Kessler family horses standing on a pure white cloth with matching background. “It was a surprise gift from Teri and Reed,” husband and father Murray Kessler explained, reciting each of the horses’ names, breeds, personalities and careers by heart with quiet pride.
Murray and Teri Kessler met at the Devon Horse Show in a fittingly equestrian beginning to the Kessler family story. Murray comes from a horse family and was at the horse show to compete, while Teri, not yet having started to compete, attended out of her admiration for the sport. Eleven years into their marriage, the couple gave birth to Reed Catherine Kessler, now a strong force in the competitive international show jumping world.
Olympian in the Family
Reed qualified for the 2012 London Olympics United States Team at the age of 18, making her the youngest rider in show jumping history to ever compete at the Olympic Games. Reed first sat on a horse at 6 months old. Her mother would put Winnie the Pooh and other toys in the trees and then Reed would be challenged to steer her pony around the trees to retrieve the objects. Reed’s first pony saddle hangs on a mantle above the television, and when the saddle is mentioned the family smiles and reminisces at the memories it holds.
Reed began training with Katie Monahan Prudent — who also happens to be her godmother — at age 13. “We were in the car on our way to our first lesson with Katie, and I turned to Murray and said, ‘Who do you think is going to cry first — Reed or me?” Teri said with a smile. “Katie is famous for breaking people down. At that point in time, Reed only knew Katie as a godmother; someone fun whom she loved. But I knew that lesson was going to be a turning point.”
It was with Katie that Reed truly began the rigorous struggles and hard work that a young competitor in the sport has to endure. Reed speaks of Katie with a strong admiration, but explained that working with her meant many hard lessons had to be learned. “With Katie, you could win the class, but if you didn’t ride well, she’d tell you that you should give your ribbon back!” Reed admitted matter-of-factly. “We have a tendency here in the United States to like to be told that we are geniuses. We like things to be done for us at a young age, we like to be told that we’re very talented, and we don’t want to struggle. I was very lucky because that’s just not Katie’s way of seeing things.”
Living Across the Pond
Reed currently lives in Holland and spends most of her year on the European circuit. She spent only a few weeks at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) this year, and in the first few weeks captured two major wins: the $130,000 WEF Challenge Cup during week five and the $130,000 Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge during week nine.
Following WEF, Reed will head back to Europe with her horses. “This has been a big year for me so far,” she explained. “My parents said to me, ‘Eventually you’re going to have to be your own woman,’ and I thought this year I was ready to take that step.”
Kessler Show Stables is entirely Reed’s business, which stemmed from the family-made plan post-2012 Olympics. “We started talking about what made sense to get where she wanted to be — that’s how she got to the Olympics,” explained Teri. “She had a plan, she worked at it, and with some luck and a lot of hard work, it went her way. So that was how we approached the next stage in her life.”
According to Teri, she and Murray usually sit nervously on the sidelines as Reed rides in her classes. They allow her the space she needs to truly be on her own as a businesswoman, but are always just a phone call away. “Murray and I are regular parents — here for the emotional support and encouragement. Reed calls all the time with questions for her father; he’s a great businessman,” said Teri.
When Reed first went out on her own, Teri found herself anxious and unsure of what it’d be like in a newly empty nest. “I found myself thinking ‘Oh my gosh, am I just going to fold up my tent and go to book club?’” she chuckled. But now, Teri is finding more time to focus on her own riding, taking care of her horses, and even moved up a division during the Winter Equestrian Festival.
“I always knew I wanted to be a rider from the time I was little,” Reed said. However, rising to the top of an industry as a teenager didn’t come without its challenges. Between the ages of 15 and 16, Reed was restricted by the age limit rules of the sport. She wasn’t allowed to compete in a Grand Prix above the caliber of a CSI two-star level. “I’d go to a lot of bigger shows, three- and four-stars, and I’d have really good results in all the classes; I’d win the qualifier, but I couldn’t ride the Grand Prix. It was really frustrating,” she explained.
When asked to recall a definitive moment in her career, both Reed and Teri have an immediate answer, looking at each other with wide eyes as if reliving the moment between just the two of them. “It was when the moment came when I was finally able to ride the Grand Prix,” Reed recalled. “I had to go first, it was a five-star World Cup class and it was on a Saturday night at the Winter Equestrian Festival! I was so nervous! It’s funny … when you haven’t been allowed to do something for so long and then the moment comes, you’re like, Oh! Now I have to actually do it!”
It was after the class, while walking out of the ring with merely a single rail down — a good round for any rider, let alone a 17-year-old — that Reed thought to herself: Okay, I can do this.
There’s no doubt that Reed has a standout career, but what sets her apart from the competition? “People don’t want to look bad, so they’re scared to even try,” Reed said with what seems like knowledge beyond her years. “If you’re ever going to be good at anything at all — and not just be good, but to be truly exceptional — you have to fail 10 times as much as you succeed. You have to look stupid and you have to push yourself. The first few times you do it, it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be gritty and you’re going to struggle — but you’re never going to be great otherwise. You’ll be good at a fairly average level. No matter how talented you are, no matter how wealthy you are, no matter how nice your horses are — you’ll never be exceptional if you don’t struggle a little bit.”
Watching the mother-daughter duo, one can’t help but notice the warmth and kindness of their body language as they silently mirror one another. When Reed speaks, Teri smiles and nods; as Teri speaks, Reed sits attentively listening. It’s a beautiful dynamic to witness. “I’m supportive of her, but I was also a very hard and a very firm mother. I was never a negotiator with her. Now, with her relationship with the horses, I see that coming back to me,” explained Teri with a proud, subtle smile. “If I’m frustrated and I call Reed and I sound full of self pity about the situation, she’ll do for me what I did for her when she was a child: She’ll say, ‘Okay, you’ve been crying for about seven minutes now, pull yourself together and let’s talk about how we’re going to fix it.’ That back-and-forth support, that’s really how it works with us.”
When spending time with the Kessler family, it’s obvious to see the loving and supporting dynamic they share. Now 21, Reed speaks deliberately, in articulately smooth sentences while holding perfect posture. She’s not boastful, not bashful; she’s a passionate young woman with a promising career ahead of her. She’s the sort of girl that inspires you just in her presence alone. “If I could have a career half as good as Beezie Madden’s, I’d be just fine with that!” she said with a laugh.
Teri shows an unmatched love and admiration for her daughter, and explains that many people think of her as someone who pushed her daughter in a certain direction, but in response to that assumption, she simply states, “I didn’t make her any way — Reed is the person she was born to be. She’s organically Reed — that’s who she is.”
About the writer: Cat Allen is a 25-year-old hunter/jumper rider living in Wellington, Florida. Originally from Chicago, and a graduate of Northern Illinois University, she found herself relocating to Wellington to advance her riding skills by working for some of the top barns in the area. She has a passion for writing about various aspects and individuals of the industry and has been published in a variety of equestrian magazines and media outlets.