While many junior riders can claim riding is in their blood, Kels Bonham, a fifth-generation horsewoman, was born into an equestrian gene pool as rich and varied as any ocean.
Kels, 16, of Claremore, Okla., is the daughter of Michael and Heather Bonham, who own a hunter/jumper training business outside of Tulsa. Her great-uncle, Max Bonham, was a successful and highly regarded trainer, and his wife Nancy Bonham is still involved with horses in Camden, S.C. Her grandmother, Caroline Bonham, is a horse trainer in California.
“I’ve always had to hear about how my dad is a fourth-generation horse trainer,” Kels said. “I’m very proud of our family. I’ve grown up with that, and it’s cool because a lot of people have known them.”
On her mother’s side, the Herring family has also dabbled in equestrian sport. “My grandmother rode in the circus some, and my grandfather rode horses bareback when he was young,” Kels recalled.
Michael and Heather Bonham have been in the professional horse training and teaching business since 1988. They moved to Tulsa from St. Louis, Mo., seven years ago when Kels was 9 and her younger brother, Chester, was 7. There they found a supportive school district for Kels, who travels to shows often during the school year.
The right environment for Kels turned out to be a boon for her burgeoning riding career. At their farm in St. Louis, Kels had shown in leadline classes and started jumping by the age of 4. “She wasn’t like some kids where they come along to horse shows but don’t really want to ride. That was never her; she wanted to ride all the time,” Michael remembered.
Kels’ short stirrup days included a pony named Chiquita Banana, a 16-year-old schoolmaster from her grandmother Caroline. After the Bonhams relocated to Oklahoma, Kels moved up to the pony division.
“My first pony that I did in the regular divisions was sent to us from Blair Cudmore in Nebraska. His name was Blue Eyed Special, and he had been doing pony rides at K-Mart!” she said with a laugh. “I did him in the smalls all over the country, I evented him some, I foxhunted; I did everything on him.”
Michael added, “She started off on some pretty tough little ponies. We didn’t have a lot of money, and she rode whatever we could find.”
Kels’ biggest win in her pony career came on a medium pony named Frankly My Dear, who won an over fences class at the 2002 USEF Pony Finals (Ky.). Their win gave them the reserve championship.
“It was a pony she brought up through the green ranks and started its career,” Michael noted. “That was really the only way that we could get her quality rides because we couldn’t go out and buy her ponies that could compete at the level she was capable of competing at. We allowed her to catch-ride anything that was from a reputable trainer.”
On To Grand Prix
As she grew older, Kels turned to horses, and her precociousness did not fade. At age 13, Kels won her first grand prix, a $10,000 class in Mason City, Iowa.
“I had a horse named Maestro that my grandfather got for me. He was supposed to only be a children’s/adult jumper, but he ended up being my first grand prix and junior jumper horse,” Kels explained. “I remember when I won the grand prix on him it didn’t feel real at all. I don’t remember much [about the class], but I think I was probably a little crazy. He had a large pony step, but I wasn’t scared when I rode him because I don’t think I really knew any better. I had never ridden any other horses, so he was all I had to go off of.”
Kels kept on winning when she moved to the junior jumpers and grand prix classes on a horse named Orley, who they received as a 4-year-old from an investor. Kels and Orley started off in the hunters and even showed in the USEF Medal Finals together.
With Orley, Kels has had her greatest jumper success, including a win in the 2006 $30,000 Roy A. Edwards Jr. Memorial Grand Prix at the American Royal Horse Show in Kansas City, Mo., and the individual bronze medal at the 2005 Prix de States at the Pennsylvania National. She believes her biggest accomplishments are her bronze medal and fifth-placed finish (in 2006) at the Prix de States against the best junior riders in the country.
“Orley wasn’t actually supposed to be for me,” Kels said of her top jumper partner. “He had a couple of little injuries when he was younger, so I ended up with him. It was really lucky. He is very laid-back and always tries really hard. He doesn’t like to hit the jumps. He’s extremely lazy at home! He’s levelheaded but is still challenging to ride so it makes him fun too.”
Trainer David Q. Wright of Tennessee has taught Kels and is friends with Michael and Heather Bonham.
“Kels is very gutsy but very accurate. She’s fairly dominant as a junior rider in the Midwest. She’s pretty far along for her years in terms of communicating with her horse. She’s beaten me in a couple grand prix classes, actually!” said Wright with a laugh. “I think she’s one of the best up-and-coming young riders in the country.”
The Value Of Time And Patience
Michael noted that climbing to the top of the junior divisions has been a tough road for Kels because of her geographic location and her limited funds.
“She had to bring the [horses] up or use other people’s horses,” Michael said. “She’s handled it extremely well. We go where we can afford to go and do what we can do. She’s always risen to the competition.”
Catch riding turned out to be Kels’ strong point, along with training green horses. On the 2007 HITS Thermal (Calif.) circuit, Kels was circuit champion in the small junior, 16-17, division on Urlala, a 6-year-old, Dutch Warmblood mare owned by Tri-Mare LLC. She also shows a 6-year-old, Irish Sporthorse gelding, Rebel’s Run, (who is owned by Gayle Sheahen) and 7-year-old Aramillis von de Kaai, another Tri-Mare LLC-owned entry, in the young jumpers.
Kels said that she enjoys the different aspects of showing and training green horses. “I’ve always had green horses. I think you get a really good bond [with them]. Some days, it’s really frustrating because you know how well they can go and they don’t. Some days it’s really satisfying because you make a breakthrough.”
Riding green horses and catch riding has helped Kels improve as a rider, but she also credited her horse-centric family.
“It’s been a tremendous help,” she acknowledged. “They don’t push me so hard that I can’t take it, but they’re always pushing me to be better. I have a huge advantage in that I always have horses to ride. Even if we don’t have any, there are people who will send us horses. I think if you’re a trainer’s kid, you also get more catch-rides because people know you more.”
Michael said that he and Heather have tried to raise Kels as a thinking, sympathetic horsewoman.
“Because we’re blue-collar horse trainers, and we bring horses up from the bottom or we inherit consignment horses that usually have complications, it takes a lot of work. We’re very good at work ethic as far as getting there early and doing our homework,” he said. “We wanted her to understand winning and losing and the value of time and patience, the value of appreciating when the horse does well for where he’s at in his training and education. That’s a hard lesson to learn because the kids really want to win on everything. They’ve got to understand that it takes time to produce a winner.”
While Kels does spend a lot of time at horse shows and at the barn riding, she participates in extracurricular activities at school and has ideas for her future. She’ll take three weeks off this summer to participate in “People To People,” an ambassadorship set up through her school, where she’ll visit Western European cities.
“She’s an honor student, even missing a ton of school. We try to encourage her to have a life without horses too,” Michael said.
Of her short-term goals, Kels said the jumper ring is where she wants to be. “In the next year or so, I’m hoping to get on the Prix de States team again. I’d also like to do well in the equitation finals this year,” she noted.
Kels has one more junior year of competition before she’ll take time off from intensive showing to attend college. Although she doesn’t know which school yet, she does know that she’d like to ride in the NCAA equestrian program.
“I want to have a back up in case I get hurt or something. I’ll probably get a business degree,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what route I want to take after I’m out of college.”
Her tentative ideas include a working student position in Europe. “I’d like to go to Europe and ride and eventually ride [for] the USET,” she added.
Kels has shown that it doesn’t take millions of dollars and the best horses in the country to compete at the highest levels in the hunters and jumpers, but it does take maturity, dedication and the willingness to work.
“She’s very bright and serious when it comes time to do her thing,” Michael said with a twinkle of pride. “She is a force to be reckoned with.”