Sunday, Apr. 14, 2024

Barn Manager Faith McKee Brings Last Frontier Experience To The Sunshine State

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When Faith McKee takes stock of her life, she finds it hard to believe she’s a barn manager for Hesslink Williams LLC, traveling up and down the East Coast, attending some of the most prestigious shows on the calendar. It’s a far cry from her early horse experience in her hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, where she dreamed of the show world she read about in the pages of the Chronicle.

“I ended up riding with an instructor who got the Chronicle, and that was the highlight—to sit down and look through the Chronicle and read the results and see the pictures,” she said. “It was the connection to the outside world. The Lower 48 was so far away, and so that was really cool, a little link to the outside.”

McKee’s introduction to riding nearly didn’t happen. While her desire to be around horses was strong, she admits to being terrified on the way to her first lesson when she was 11, and she begged her mom to cancel.

“My mom was like, ‘No, you have to go. We made an appointment. You have to keep your appointments,’ like teaching me responsibility,” she said. “And I went, and then the instructor was lovely. And she was like, just no pressure; we just groomed and chatted and sat with the horse. And then I got on, and I was hooked from there on. My mom said, ‘If I knew then what I know now, I would have turned that car around!’ ”

Faith McKee with Illustrious, one of the horses under her supervision at Hesslink Williams Inc. Kimberly Loushin Photo

McKee’s early riding days involved showing on the Alaska circuit and participating in clinics with the likes of Greg Best and Hap Hansen. But she had big aspirations, and to pursue them, she needed to be in the contiguous 48. From ages 14-17, McKee and her mom moved to California so she could train with Susie Hutchison.

McKee, who was homeschooled, would arrive at the barn with instructions to “be useful,” and spent her days helping around the barn and riding everything available. Once she had her own horse, she dabbled in the children’s jumpers and equitation. While it was an experience she wouldn’t trade, it eventually wore on her.

“It was a lot, and eventually I kind of did get a little burnt out towards the end,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. Dreams kind of change, you know?”

McKee returned to Alaska, where she earned a degree in psychology. Still unsure of what she wanted to do after graduation, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and began substitute teaching. While doing that she fell in love with working at a community transition program that catered to young adults with disabilities. The program gave people ages 18-21 vocational training and featured community-based activities.

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“We are not in the classroom hardly any hours of the day,” she said. “So it’s really fun, really quick—go, go, go, just fast-paced. Being out in the community, working [as a] recreation leader, taking those kids to go skiing and all sorts of different activities, it was so much fun. To be surrounded by really incredible individuals and mentors in that program was fantastic.”

Graduate school followed so McKee could get a master’s in teaching before she returned to the program for several more years. But over time, the long Alaska winters, where she left home in the morning in the dark and returned well after the sun had set, drained her. Her parents were spending less time in the state and more time in Missouri with her brother, so when a friend approached her about an open position at a therapeutic riding program in Sun Valley, Idaho, she jumped at the chance to make a change.

“I went down and visited, and it’s so beautiful,” she said. “And I was like, ‘OK, this could be the change. This could be the new thing.’ I moved in November 2011. My dad came up, and we drove down. It was so snowy and so cold, and I had three dogs and a U-Haul trailer, and we kept getting flat tires the whole way there … in the middle of nowhere Canada. Somehow we made it there.”

While there, McKee, who had continued riding casually while working as a teacher, got back into jumping. Another break from the horses came in 2012 after her mother died, as she decided to spend some time with her dad. When she returned to Idaho and walked into the barn, it was like coming home. Over the years she was in a few other programs, eventually landing in Utah. And while she loved the farm in Utah, warmer climates eventually called to her.

“We’d done a trip out to look at horses in California in December, and I was like, ‘Oh, oh, sunshine and palm trees! I love sunshine and palm trees!’ and I went back, and it was like -6. I was like, ‘Oh I don’t love this.’ But I was also feeling kind of like, ‘Where do I grow from here?’ ”

Faith McKee riding as part of her job in Utah. Photo Courtesy Of Faith McKee

She found her next step in an Instagram story from Bethany Lee of My Equestrian Style, who was advertising an open position at Hesslink Williams, a top show barn based in Wellington, Florida. While McKee hemmed and hawed about whether to send her resume, a brutally cold day convinced her to take the shot.

“I always kind of had trepidation: The East Coast is fancy; Wellington’s so fancy, but I also had wonderful friends encourage me. Like, you can do that; you’re good enough. I was really, really lucky, throughout my life to have people support me, just, you know, always giving me encouragement, always giving me support,” she said. “Those moments where you’re doubting yourself, it’s so nice to have that encouragement.”

Geoffrey Hesslink, who runs Hesslink Williams alongside his partner Brendan Williams, said it was an easy decision to hire McKee.

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“We fell in love with her instantly,” he said. “Her attitude and overall outlook on life is just so inspirational for me and very good to have around me, because I can be a very anxious kind of nervous person. Her whole energy—from the minute she walked into our barn—fit perfectly. Her managerial skills as well as organization and her overall vibe has been incredible to have, and we’re so lucky.”

McKee started at Hesslink Williams in February 2021. While her duties vary depending on whether the group is at their base in Wellington or on the road in the summer, she is in charge of much of the organizational aspects of the farm, ordering supplies, coordinating with the staff each horse’s schedule for rides or to see veterinarians, farriers, body workers, braiders and more. She also fits in a few easy rides—mostly stretching legs and getting them out and about around the showgrounds.

“Being organized is, I think, a great skill to have because you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “You can think your day is going to go one way, and at any barn, anywhere, you could come in, and a horse could be sick. That’s going to change our day drastically, and I think knowing your plan—having things organized ahead of time as much as possible—helps you, when those situations arise, deal with it in a manner that doesn’t throw your whole day. Like, ‘OK, I can shuffle these things, and we’re still good.’ ”

“She is quite literally the happiest person on earth,” Geoffrey Hesslink said of his barn manager Faith McKee. Kimberly Loushin Photo

Her varied experiences have taught her keep a cool head no matter what is happening around her, a quality that Hesslink said is essential in her current role.

“She is quite literally the happiest person on earth,” he said. “No situation is too stressful. No situation upsets her, no matter how everyone else is behaving or acting. She is beyond kind, professional and outgoing to everyone that she comes in contact with, so it is just such a treat to have her.”

Experiencing the East Coast shows she’d only seen in the pages of magazines, on livestreams or through social media has been a thrill.

“To see the Dixon Oval and stand in it? Terrifying because there are so many horses flying around in there—but also wow, this is so cool,” she said. “This is so far removed from where I grew up; it is an incredibly amazing feeling.”

While McKee made a few pitstops on her way to working in the top-level barns she dreamed about as a child, she’s come to appreciate the route that brought her there.

“As I look back on it there, sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, man, what if I’d gone to a horse college? What if I’d done this? What if I’d done that?’ ” she says. “I think now I’m really at a place where I’m at peace [with] the path I took. It took me in a different direction, but all those skills I learned along the road make me successful at what I do today, like working with people and building connections and building teamwork—all those things help me be more well-rounded as an individual, and you never know what skills you’re going to [need]. Those skills are so transferable when you work in other situations.”

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