By Darlene Ricker
Portraits by Kristie Nichols
If you go to North Houston Horse Park in Houston, Texas, most days you can expect the unexpected. Everything looks the way it would at a top-notch equestrian facility like this, but what you hear in the arena can be surprising — unless you know trainer and grand prix show jumper Carli Kirsch.
On a recent day, she stood in the middle of the arena watching a student warming up for a lesson. Carli called out to her, “Knock, knock.”
The student looked at her quizzically. After a long pause she came back with the standard response: “Who’s there?”
“Snow use. The horse doesn’t understand what you’re asking for.”
They laughed and the lesson began. While deeply serious about horsemanship, training and competing, Carli has found that moments of levity can engage a student on a different level.
Starting With Support
“You don’t have to be a drill sergeant about things. It can’t be drill after drill after drill,” Carli said. “People don’t just come into my arena and I say, ‘Okay, pick up your irons and let’s go do a couple laps.’ As their coach and mentor, I ask things like how their day was, things that show I genuinely care about them and their horse. Then we get down to the work.”
Carli, 32, learned early on the importance of a supportive atmosphere. When she was 14 or 15 and a working student, a group from the barn went to watch the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, which is part of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup tour.
“I’m a kid in awe watching my idols and say, ‘I just can’t wait to be here some day and jump a grand prix!’ Everyone — even my trainer — turned and looked at me. They laughed and someone said, ‘You? A grand prix rider? Yeah, right. Your mother will never buy you a grand prix horse.’”
“I was so broken-hearted,” Carli said. “That night I called my mother in tears and said, ‘Mom, I love this sport with all my heart, and they said I’ll never be a grand prix rider.’ My mom told me to not let anything or anyone stop me from going after my dream. She believed in me and has been there every step of the way.”
Looking back, Carli sees the irony. “You know what? Those kids were right about one thing,” she said. “My mom never bought me a grand prix horse. I had to make it. Between my determination, my mom’s knowledge and skill and our teamwork, it happened. We did it together.”
Her mother, Melany Kirsch, an accomplished rider and trainer, is still Carli’s coach and greatest supporter. Melany acquired North Houston Horse Park when her daughter was 2, and they manage it together. She may not have bought Carli a grand prix horse, but, Carli said, her mother made it happen for her.
Her grand prix horse-to-be came to her 12 years ago in an unexpected way. Carli was in Europe with friends helping them try sales horses. She ended up finding what she wasn’t looking for.
“I had no intention of buying a horse because I was in no position to buy a horse whatsoever,” she said. Someone suggested that just for kicks, she should she sit on Casco, a 17.2-hand grey Holsteiner that had 30 days under saddle.
Not long into the ride, Carli realized, “’Oh my gosh, when they say scope, this is what they mean!’ I never understood scope until I felt it.” Her next thought was, I have to have this horse! How do I make it happen? Do I have to sell a kidney?
No, she just had to call Melany. Before she got home from Germany, Carli said, “My mom had sold my car and one of my horses. She did what she needed to do to make it happen.”
Casco, Carli says, has “the heart of a lion. He’s like a Navy Seal: fearless and brave. He’s not the most careful horse, and he might not always jump clean, but he always tries for me. If I said, ‘Let’s go jump through this ring of fire with alligators on one side and sharks on the other,’ he’s going to say, ‘Okay, Mom, let’s go!’”
New Meaning of ‘Win’
It wasn’t always that way, however. Shortly after she got Casco, Carli found out he was “a giant chicken” that was afraid of his own shadow.
“I’ve shed more tears with Casco than probably any other horse ever. I had all these hopes and dreams of him being this big grand prix horse, and instead I had a monster chicken,” she said. “It was impossible to jump around even a meter-10 class on him. He was scared of the world.”
At Casco’s first horse show, Carli said, “He seriously thought he was in outer space. He was such a train wreck.”
Things changed with patience and perseverance. “If you work hard and do right by your horse, he’ll learn to trust you and enjoy his job,” she added.
Their long and winding road together has shaped Carli’s perspective on winning. Everything came into focus at the Del Mar International Horse Show on what she calls the best day of her life, and she even remembers the date: October 22, 2016. “We didn’t win the class. We had five rails down, but we accomplished what we went there to achieve.”
The goal was to make the cut to ride in the World Cup class/qualifer. “Casco went in and jumped that meter-60 class. He did it!” Carli said. “After the class, I was making such a hot fuss about him; you would have thought I had won the Olympic gold. Casco gave 110 percent, and he gets the gold medal for that.”
Still, she acknowledges that winning is a big motivator. “If you’re competing in this sport, you love to win. Winning really is a great feeling, but it isn’t everything,” she said. “You can have other ‘wins.’ Sometimes that means just going double clean and you don’t win, but you’re happy with that. That’s what keeps you going in this sport. If you think ‘win-win-win,’ things get clouded, and sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself. You need to stay focused on the sport and doing your best. Do right by your horse, never give up and you’ll get there.”
Carli admires the perseverance of every top competitor in the sport, calling them all her idols — but particularly Nick Skelton. “I think Nick Skelton is my spirit animal,” she said, suppressing a laugh. “I want to grow up and be Nick Skelton. He’s amazing. Two years ago, he finally won his individual gold medal in his late 50s. It was his seventh Olympic Games. Talk about determination!”
With a Little Luck
In addition to campaigning Casco, Carli is bringing along two young horses, Casino and Mist, 5 and 7, respectively. She says Mist, her mother’s horse, is probably her most talented mount. Casino is special: He is Casco’s cousin. He came to her as a yearling and is now starting to jump a meter-20 and -25.
“He’s so much like Casco and so closely related,” Carli said. “That’s why we got him in the first place.” But how he came to her was a complete fluke.
One day she was gushing over Casco and said to her mother and some friends, “I’m never going to be able to have another Casco. He’s my once-in-a-lifetime horse.” But they weren’t about to let that happen. One of them went online and started typing in Casco’s bloodlines, and Casino came up.
“They found him! He was in the U.S. and for sale. I couldn’t pass the opportunity by,” said Carli, who realized there was no guarantee he would be like Casco. “Sometimes you’ve got to be the risk taker. When you take the risk and it works out, you get to be the hero of the day. And if not, you can own the mistake and say, ‘live and learn.’”
Mistakes, she says, are a big part of the learning curve. “Nobody means to make mistakes. Anytime we get on the back of a horse, we want it to be a good day. That’s why we ride. But horses are not machines. They’re like us; they have good days and bad days. We have to take something from the bad days and let it help us better our skills.”
Still, luck remains a wild card. “Sometimes I come out of the arena thinking, ‘Well, that wasn’t very pretty, but it worked. Maybe I got a little lucky,’” Carli said. “This sport has a lot to do with luck sometimes. You have to stay humble. If you don’t, this sport will do it for you.”
For more information visit nhoustonhorsepark.com
Photos by Kristie Nichols, moonfyrephotography.com, unless noted otherwise