There are several adult amateurs who daylight as veterinarians, but few specialize in the small, scaly and exotic, and even fewer are willing to tackle bringing a young horse through the eventing ranks at the same time. Katie Malensek, 36, has the balancing act down to an art.
“I always tell people when talking about amateur stuff that there are amateurs, and then there are amateurs who have funding from their husbands and stay at home doing what they want,” Malensek said. “Working amateur is a whole different game. It’s something you have to be super passionate about.”
Malensek lives in Norman Beach, Fla., with her husband and a handful of horses on their 5-acre farm, but her story didn’t start there. She was born in Burlington, Ontario, to a non-horsey family. She started at the local riding school at age 8, and her first pony was an Arabian mare named Velvet. Her parents didn’t always understand her passion but Malensek said they were supportive in their own ways.
“My mom was always a little afraid of horses,” she said. “She was supportive in the ‘I’ll make the sandwiches and pack the cooler’ way. My dad helped when he could. He was holding a horse at an event once while I was show jumping, and the horse was pulling against his breastplate trying to graze so my dad thought he needed more room. He just started undoing buckles; when I came back to get the horse for the awards he had a ton of dangling straps we had to rush to redo.”
Malensek has been an eventer since the beginning. She trained with Olympian Bruce Mandeville through her junior years. Mandeville taught a strong foundation in dressage, which sparked Malensek’s interest in the sport that persists to this day. Mandeville also provided the opportunity to ride Forest Glen, one of Bruce Davidson’s former four-star mounts.
“Glen had mounds of experience but had decided he didn’t really want to jump at the four-star level,” Malensek said. “My horse at the time had an injury, so I tried Glen and ended up leasing him through the summer. He was quirky. He was very capable of putting in a good dressage test but he also spent a lot of time running sideways with his head in the air. Sometimes he jumped fine, sometimes he wouldn’t jump at all. He taught me a whole lot though and took me to Young Riders twice. The first year, someone tried to grab his face, and he flipped over and broke his tail. The second year he held it together all weekend, and we won individual bronze.”
Malensek had always envied the relative ease of showing in the United States, so she knew she wanted to attend college across the border. She enrolled in Lake Erie College (Ohio) for her Bachelor of Science, then migrated to Florida to complete her Doctor of Chiropractic degree at Palmer College of Chiropractic. Despite assuming she would ride through college, Malensek found herself without a horse for the first time since childhood.
“At first it was kind of nice,” she said. “I’d been riding and competing for so long and at such a high level that it was good to have a break. I did some triathlons and other things I’d been wanting to do and then of course horses crept back in.”
Malensek completed her chiropractic program, but a course on veterinary chiropractics made her realize her heart lay with a forgotten dream of veterinary medicine.
“I didn’t even try to get into vet school in Canada because it’s really competitive, and I was always kind of told that I didn’t have good enough grades,” Malensek said. “When I told my husband I wanted to go back to school he laughed and said ‘Well I want to be an astronaut!’ and I kind of said, ‘No, I mean, I’m serious.’ ”
She earned her veterinary degree at St. Matthew’s University in the Grand Cayman Islands and graduated valedictorian in 2012.
“I specialize in small animals and exotics, which mostly means reptiles and snakes,” Malensek said. “I didn’t set out to do small animals but I fell in love with it. I like surgery a lot, and you don’t have as much opportunity to do that with horses. Plus, people told me if I loved riding I shouldn’t go the equine route. It’s worked out. I don’t have to worry about the on-calls, I get to be in the air conditioning, and I don’t worry about getting kicked in the face by a 1000-pound animal. The strangest animal I’ve ever seen was a coatimundi, and it is an odd little creature. They’re not very friendly, I’m not entirely sure why people own them. Chameleons are my favorite, I love their colors, and their eyes can move anywhere in their skull.”
Malensek and her husband bought their farm in 2011, and she welcomed home her old two-star horse Louis to help her get back into riding shape. She found her current eventing mount, Juana Dance (Juan Valdez Carolina—Bring On The Crown) as a yearling on Craigslist.
“I always kind of buy young horses or get them off the track,” Malensek said. “Juan was my first baby baby, and I actually ended up trying some natural horsemanship with him. I wasn’t around that stuff growing up but I really liked reading about it. By the time Juan was almost three years old I was riding him around the arena though tarps and dragging stuff behind him. You mess with them a little here and there, and then all the sudden it’s not a big deal. They come out as a 4-year-old ready to do something, and they can advance really quickly when they’re not scared of everything.”
Natural horsemanship may evoke images of cowboys and carrot sticks, but Malensek said she takes a simple approach that benefits both her and her horses.
“I’ve seen horse breaking both ways,” she said. “I worked on a warmblood farm that didn’t believe in touching horses before they were four, and watching them trying to break those horses and introduce them to riding was harder on them than it would have been if they started younger. You’re not pounding on them; I’m talking once or twice a month take them out and do something so you’re not asking them to go directly from field to riding. When I break mine it’s generally just me, and it’s much easier if they’re used to things being around them and on them.”
Malensek, 35, started showing Juan in 2015. They completed dressage shows up to third level before contesting their first event together at Pine Top Thanksgiving Horse Trials (Ga.). They moved up to preliminary in 2016 and ran their first Intermediate at Rocking Horse Winter I Horse Trials (Fla.) in 2017. They finished the season this year with a win in the preliminary division at Exmoor Farms Horse Trials (Fla.) in October.
“My ultimate goal is to ride a four-star,” Malensek said. “That’s always been a goal. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen but I’ve definitely learned that the process is just as fun as the destination. It’s so satisfying to see horses go out and compete and do things, and I know that I made them like that. Juan might do a three-star next year, and I have an off-the-track Thoroughbred mare I want to take dressage. I want to try to get my [U.S. Dressage Federation] silver medal in dressage, and with Juan, since he’s still young, I want to get a two-star done on him and give him more experience at the intermediate level.”