Kristen Vanderveen didn’t sugarcoat the position she had open in the slightest when Kami Marcussen first joined her team as a working student a year and a half ago.
“I wasn’t going to over-sell the job,” Vanderveen, 28, said. “She’d be expected to be a groom, with no riding, and we would expose her to bigger horse shows and FEI horses and grooming those horses. She would get to see a new program, but with not knowing her well and not knowing her work ethic or any of that, I told her there would be no opportunity for riding other than her own horse.”
Many a rider would bemoan the lack of saddle time their stable hours earned them, but not Marcussen. She saw an opportunity to become a part of a top show jumper barn, and she rolled up her sleeves to take it.
Now a year and half later, impressed by Marcussen’s work ethic in the barn, Vanderveen has rescinded her riding ban. Marcussen rides up to eight horses a day, travels to shows with Vanderveen, and most recently has gotten the ride on Bull Run’s Holy Smokes, Vanderveen’s former five-star grand prix horse turned Under-25 grand prix jumper for Marcussen. It’s a rare thing for a trainer to gift one of their former top horses to a working student, but a student like Marcussen is equally unique in Vanderveen’s eyes.
“Almost immediately when she started working for me I could see she had an amazing work ethic; she was like the Energizer bunny,” Vanderveen, 28, said. “She keeps going, she never slows down, but I think the best part that was evident even at the beginning was just her positive attitude. She comes to work happy, and she keeps a good attitude so people around her work well.”
Vanderveen was skeptical about taking on a working student at all when Marcussen first approached her about the possibility of joining her program.
“Before Kami I had never taken a working student before, and I honestly didn’t like the idea of taking a working student,” Vanderveen said. “To me the idea of that was somebody who’s basically going to be dead weight and want to ride extra horses, and that’s just not going to be OK.”
But Marcussen, 18 at the time, wasn’t scared off by Vanderveen’s hard sell.
“I said, ‘I am happy to clean stalls for you. I just really admire your riding and I’d really like your help with my riding,’ ” Marcussen said.
Marcussen grew up riding in Iowa City, Iowa, after convincing her non-horsey parents to let her take lessons at a local barn. She competed in the pony jumpers with a German Riding Pony she converted from the hunter ring, Autumn Rhythm, and competed at Pony Finals twice.
At 15 she switched to online high school to ride as a working student full-time, first for Katie Lange-Lima in Clermont, Fla., and then for Kim and Andy Barone in Watertown, Minn., and Wellington, Fla. She leased Kim’s former grand prix jumper, Kid Rock, to compete in the children’s jumpers, and when the jumper her parents purchased after Kid Rock wasn’t the right fit for Marcussen, the Barones arranged a trade with Vanderveen for Bull Run’s Guardian, which is how Marcussen first met Vanderveen.
Marcussen joined Vanderveen’s team at their winter base in Wellington in October of 2015 with the understanding that Vanderveen would train her on Bull Run’s Guardian in exchange for work in the barns. Very quickly Vanderveen found out Marcussen wasn’t your typical 18-year-old kid.
“It was very little details, things that I notice that maybe other people wouldn’t notice but they’re a really big deal,” Vanderveen said. “Like just the checking the wraps and if the wrap wasn’t put on just right having the wrap redone, and she was very good about being responsible if horses were supposed to get Adequan certain days she wasn’t reminded, she already had reminders set on phones and they were taken care of.
“It was just little details she was very responsible with, and watching that and seeing that it made it quite an easy decision to give her more responsibility,” Vanderveen continued. “And now she’s basically a full-time barn manager; she can do everything as well as I can.”
Practically speaking, Vanderveen also admits her “you shall not ride” pitch was more of a test of character than an actual rule.
“Even though I told her she wasn’t going to get to ride anything, that was just because I don’t want someone coming in that’s going to feel a little too entitled, and that is the opposite of Kami,” Vanderveen said. “You realize once you meet her, she’s a very humble person. The last thing she would be is entitled.”
Once Marcussen started riding more horses for her, Vanderveen realized the mare Marcussen had was not scopey enough for her to continue progressing. Marcussen’s parents were supporting her riding, but the only money they would have to put toward a new horse would be money from selling the mare. Vanderveen helped Marcussen sell her and they used the money to purchase two investment horses, a green young jumper and an older experienced horse that had some maintenance issues.
“I really wanted to start a business mindset for her—buy some cheaper horses, put the time in, learn how to ride the tougher horses, make it happen and then resell,” Vanderveen said. “Start to kind of build our way up. The idea was the older horse was going to teach her and she was going to develop and bring along and resell the other horse.”
Vanderveen’s plan worked—Marcussen was able to jump up to the 1.30-meter level with the older horse before reselling him as an adult jumper, and she brought along the young jumper to the 1.20-meter classes before reselling it for a profit.
Marcussen had also started flatting some of Vanderveen’s horses for her, and that’s when Vanderveen first got the idea that Bull Run’s Holy Smoke, or “Evy,” and Marcussen might get along well enough to show together.
“She would actually ride that mare for me on some of the off days and was always patient with her. She’s very patient with the horses and very kind to them; she never loses her temper, so she kind of had a feel for the horse a little bit,” Vanderveen said.
“That horse is super special to ride; most riders I would not ever feel comfortable letting them ride her,” Vanderveen said. “We never ever jump the horse at home, you only trot it in the warm-up ring. It only trots a placement rail to a vertical in the warm-up, she never gets to canter a jump before she goes in the ring to show.”
Vanderveen had added other top horses to her string that pushed Evy onto the back burner a bit.
“That mare is just special enough that she’s not going to be a resale horse, and she’s not going to be a top, top level horse,” Vanderveen said. “She’s a little too difficult to ride, but Kami wanted it—she wanted to make it work.
So Vanderveen decided to give the mare to Marcussen, and in January of this year Marcussen slowly started showing the mare, first in a small 1.15-meter class.
“The first time I showed her Kristen’s exact words were, ‘If you make it past jump 4, I’ll be proud of you,’” Marcussen recalled with a laugh. “We did, and we finished! I thought it was a miracle.”
From there Evy and Marcussen moved up to the 1.30-meter classes. Then this spring, Vanderveen deemed Marcussen ready to contest her first Under-25 grand prix division at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (N.C.) in May, where they placed fifth in the $20,000 class at Tryon Summer 3.
Marcussen could care less about the ribbon—she’s too busy pinching herself that Vanderveen trusted her with Evy to make Marcussen’s grand prix debut.
“Oh my gosh, it’s insane, I still can’t process it really,” Marcussen said. “I’m like, ‘you’re amazing.’ That’s more or less what I tell Evy every day—‘you’re amazing and I’m not worthy.’
“But I think Evy is really enjoying getting to teach me. I think she enjoys rubbing it in when I do it wrong,” Marcussen continued with a laugh. “Because she’ll look at Kristen and Kirsten looks at Evy and I’m like yeah guys, I know, I’m trying here!”
Evy won’t be in the show ring with Marcussen for too much longer—vets recently confirmed that Evy is in foal to Vanderveen’s grand prix stallion, Bull Run’s Faustino De Tili, so Marcussen is giving her back to Vanderveen to be a broodmare for the Bull Run program.
Marcussen won’t be horseless though—from the sales of her young jumper and older horse, Marcussen was able to put the funds together to buy an 8-year-old jumper Vanderveen found for her in Europe. They won’t be jumping in the grand prix classes just yet, but Marcussen hopes to bring the horse along to that level with Vanderveen’s help.
“As she’s improving she’s a great teammate for me to have, because I can only do so many horses,” Vanderveen said. “It’s just hard to find somebody who believes in your program, so with just how well she believes in the program it gives me a lot of trust in her to give her horses to ride. She’s still developing, she’s going in the right direction, and I’m happy to keep supporting her with my extra horses.”
Marcussen is plenty aware of the pocketbooks of the riders she shows against and how much easier it would have been to move up the levels with those resources—Marcussen only has what she gets from selling the last horse to put into the next, and she’s also still paying for her first pony, “Sunny,” to live out his golden years retired in a field in Florida. But she’s able to see a brighter side to her situation.
“It’s encouraging and discouraging a little bit, because it’s like, ‘if only,’ but on the other hand you work so much harder for it that it feels that much better when it pays off,” Marcussen said. “It’s that much more special and you feel like you really earned it. It wasn’t just handed to you, so that’s a really nice feeling when it goes well.”
Do you know a young rider who is One To Watch? Email us and let us know about them!