Since transitioning from her job as a registered nurse to operating her Organized Chaos Farm two years ago, Catie Cejka has become a resource for others in her area of Western Washington, including Jeanne Sreenan. Last winter Sreenan asked Cejka to give her daughter’s novice-level event horse, Zena, a ride.
“They wanted a training ride because her daughter [Hanni Sreenan] does ski racing, so she can’t get on the horse as much,” Cejka said. “They were like, ‘Yeah, if you notice any holes, just let us know what they are, OK?’ ”
Cejka, 39, knew she was looking for a chestnut mare when she showed up at the barn, but it was winter, and the horses were furry and blanketed. The mare was a bit odd when she tacked her up, but Cejka chalked it up to being out of work for a bit. But when she got on, things really didn’t make sense.
“I was like, I guess she’s just fresh. You know, you put your leg on, and she wasn’t sure about going forward, and she didn’t do any antics but there was a lot of head flinging and not a lot of steering,” she said. “And, you know, I was like, I don’t know what I’m sitting on right now, but I’ll keep up with it. And then I asked her to trot, and she flung her head and stomped her feet, and I was like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll longe you first.’ ”
When Jeanne got home from work and saw the mare in a stall, she asked Cejka if she’d ridden her. When Cejka said yes, Jeanne started laughing.
Cejka, it turned out, had tacked up the wrong chestnut mare, and there was a very good explanation for the way she’d been under saddle. The Canadian Warmblood named Valiane, owned by Barb Hanel and bred by Shannon Carr, had been lightly backed about six months prior and done nothing since.
“And now it’s become a constant joke,” said Cejka, Washougal, Washington.
But from there, they asked if Cejka wanted to keep working with the mare, and on Oct. 29 “Val” (Valentino—Joey) won the USEA 4-Year-Old Future Event Horse West Coast Championship at Twin Rivers in Paso Robles, California.
The FEH 4-year-olds were judged under saddle and for conformation on the first day and then in the jump chute on the second. Val was fourth heading into the jump chute, and her score of 86.5 there propelled her to the win with a final score of 82.6.
Cejka credited Hanel with her ability to find talented young prospects.
“Barb looks for really good bloodlines and looks around everywhere,” she said. “She has a really good eye, and she has her own breeding program. So, it’s really neat to see somebody’s hard work and dedication come to fruition.”
For Cejka, who was an LPN medic in the U.S. Army Reserves from 2003 to 2012, training horses has become a form of therapy. When she came home from Afghanistan in 2008, she struggled with PTSD after she saw people she knew killed when a guard tower was hit. Horses helped her go forward.
“When I was first struggling, they helped me with getting up in the morning and making sure that I went out there and fed,” she said. “They were the motivation for getting up in the morning.”
As she continued, Cejka found that she had a deeper awareness about how horses ticked.
“I got more intuitive, like I can feel when I start to get anxious, and here are my signs, and I can see it in them. And so, what are we going to do? We’re going to take a breath and talk to them, or sometimes I sing to them,” she said. “Different horses require different boundaries, and some of them really require no boundaries, and other others require a soft hand and a light touch. I like to really dive in and find out which horse needs what.”
This skill was helpful as Cejka started training Val, who is 16.3 and growing.
“She was a chestnut mare through and through, extremely quirky and very unsure of herself and her body,” she said. “And so, I just patiently worked with her very, very slowly to help bring her along. She’s just so big and trying to figure out where her feet are and how to put her brain in.”
Cejka recognized signs of anxiety in Val and used her own experience with PTSD to give her confidence.
“And that didn’t happen until kind of until I got settled with my therapy and being comfortable with everything that happened,” she said. “Now I can actually help other young horses find their way, and I find it extremely rewarding.”
The winters in the Pacific Northwest are a challenge for year-round training, and Cejka was able to take Val to California for about a month and a half for consistent work.
“We went on a trail rides and just spent time working on standing in the crossties—you know, all the basics part of training. But it was in a day-to-day basis, which is extremely helpful because in the winter if you have a horse that needs to go out and move and be thinking, it’s extremely hard to keep them busy,” she said.
She exposed the mare to as much as possible and took her off farm with other horses. They went to some competitions as a non-compete entry to gain exposure. Sometimes she just longed her in a new place, while other times she longed her over fences. “And she’s extremely brave and bold,” Cejka said.
With Val progressing, they entered her in the FEH division at the Spokane Sport Horse Farm Horse Trials, Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in Spokane, Washington. The FEH classes were small, and Cejka felt it would be less stressful for the anxious mare.
“She was very worried about the other horses all the time, so we have to do this in a very small way. Otherwise, big horse show experiences just going to overload her, which is totally unfair because I think this horse is going to be something cool,” she said.
The only 4-year-old entered in Spokane, Val earned a score of 88 and a chance to compete in the West Coast FEH Championship. There was discussion about what to do next, as the competition was in California, a 16-hour drive away, so they considered the time, money and distance involved. Cejka decided to also bring her other mount, MRF Nonchalant, an Irish Sport Horse (Metropole—Cavalier Carnival Rose) she owns with a friend, Tammy Karplus. That mare placed seventh in the Dutta Corp. USEA 4-Year-Old Young Event Horse Championship.
“She was actually super amazing but not as impressive,” Cejka said. “Because she’s a little nonchalant and cantered over some of the training fences, like, ‘Whatever.’ ”
Training and preparing for an event in her area of Washington state requires creativity and can be a challenge. Cejka uses her neighbor’s cow field to replicate the size of a large dressage arena and has made some practice cross-country jumps out of telephone poles. She previously trained with Karen O’Neill and now works with five-star eventer Jennifer Wooten, who is about an hour away in Beavercreek, Oregon.
Cejka started her riding career in Pony Club and competed in the FEI North American Young Rider Championships as an 18-year-old. After college, she galloped race horses for two years before joining the Army Reserve. Her riding was put on hold while she was deployed to Afghanistan, but she got back into eventing when she returned. In the fall of 2014, she won the Adult Team Championships division at the preliminary level at the Nutrena USEA American Eventing Championships (Texas) with her horse Light In The Dark. She bought the mare after she got back from her deployment and brought her along herself.
“I love working with young horses,” she said.
Val will do some light hacking this fall in Washington before getting the winter off.
“There’s not a lot of for-sure plans, but if she keeps progressing this way, then Hanni will probably be on her by summer at the latest,” she said.
As for the other chestnut mare Cejka was supposed to ride last winter, Zena?
“She was starting out at novice at the beginning of the year, and she ended up doing a modified with Hanni, and it was both her and Hanni’s first big move up,” said Cejka. “Hanni’s 16, and they made it around, which is a big deal, your first big move up. She’s a really good little rider.”