This is the first in a three part series that features the story of my riding instructor, Karin Schmidt. I think Karin’s story says a lot about why she was motivated to establish Legacy Stables and her vision for the future.
I started taking riding lessons from Karin in June of 2011. I shopped around a bit before picking Karin’s. The other barns seemed adequate for taking lessons, but I was looking for more than just instruction in proper riding technique. I wanted to learn at a place where there was a lot of positive energy, where I could explore the mysteries of this consuming passion that certain humans have for these magnificent animals. I was serious about learning how to ride, but I was also searching for inspiration.
When Jenny and I visited Karin’s Horse Connection, we knew we had found the right place. As we strolled around grounds, we saw a barn that was nicely maintained and horses that were well cared for. And we got to witness Karin and her daughter, Leoni, give a group vaulting lesson. There was something about the way the young students responded to their teachers and the confidence and poise these kids displayed around the horses that told us that this place was unique.
About a year after I began lessons, Karin bought some property on the other side of town and move her operation there. She named her new place Legacy Stables.
For Karin, Legacy Stables is a place to share her wealth of knowledge, her experience and her passion. It is her vocation, her avocation and her ministry. It is the culmination of a long and sometimes difficult journey – a journey that included not only four decades of globe trotting and adventure, but also personal struggle and spiritual awakening.
More Than a Passing Phase
Karin began her journey before she turned age 6. It was then that she first became aware of the stirring inside of her that would later bloom into a life-long passion for horses. At age 7, she began vaulting at a high-level dressage barn in Southern Germany. At 9, she decided that she wanted to make horses a life-long career.
Her parents were skeptical, of course. “Horses are a hobby, not a profession,” they told her. They dismissed Karin’s fascination as a youthful fancy, a temporary thing not to be taken seriously.
Karin on the first Habakuk.
Karin’s parents did not know what they were dealing with. The passion for horses in young people is easily mistaken as a frivolous thing, a phase that will surely pass when something more interesting comes along. In many cases, this is true. But for those with the real thing, “I want a pony” is not a simple request. It is an expression of something deeper. Something that is difficult – particularly for the young – to put into words. And it doesn’t just “go away.” As her parents would eventually discover, Karin had the real thing.
Karin’s adolescent years were not easy. As a young teenager, she was socially awkward and lacked confidence. Bullied at school and misunderstood at home, she often felt isolated from both her peers and family.
Horses offered Karin solace from the harsh world of people. With horses, she could give and receive the affection and approval she was unable to experience elsewhere. In the barn, she felt capable and valued. And it became a place where she could express her natural fearlessness. From her long hours with these marvelous creatures she developed the determination that would drive her for the next thirty years.
A Real Profession
In Germany, it is customary for older teens not going directly to college to select an apprenticeship in a practical profession. Naturally, Karin wanted to take her training at a horse barn. However, her parents pressed her to apply for something more practical. So, at 17, Karin began an apprenticeship in domestic services at a local boarding house owned and managed by a husband and wife team. It was hardly a coincidence that the boarding house was located at a state horse farm.
Karin lacked the aptitude or desire for domestic services. This became clear early in the process, much to the chagrin of the lady of the house. Karin disliked cooking and had no interest in cleaning or in organizing a household. Her most spectacular achievement was to explode a pressure cooker, presumably by accident. After a few weeks of tolerating Karin’s indifference to all things domestic, the woman threw up her hands and told Karin she could do her “apprenticing” out in the barn.
The barn work consisted mainly of mucking stalls and cleaning tack. But Karin felt comfortable around the horses and she thrived in the environment. A friend suggested that Karin break off her apprenticeship at the farm and apply for a new one at a horse racetrack. Within two weeks Karin quit the farm and despite having never been to a racetrack, began a new apprenticeship to become a professional jockey.
The next several months brought Karin more tack to clean, more horses to lead and countless stalls to muck. She also worked as an exercise rider and impressed the trainers at the track with her knack for handling difficult behaviors. It wasn’t long before they had her breaking yearlings, a demanding and hazardous procedure.
The track used an accelerated method of breaking yearlings. The process involved two people bridling and saddling a horse in a box stall, while a third mounted him. This was the horse’s bewildering introduction to bits, bridles, saddles and riders – all at once. Outside the box stalls an experienced horse and rider were positioned, waiting for the yearlings and their riders to be released as group. When the stall doors opened, the veteran horse would lead the yearlings around in circles at the trot. The idea was to keep the young horses moving forward so that they wouldn’t buck or rear. These horses were not gelded and the results were always unpredictable.
Karin not only rode five or six horses like this every day, but she was also assigned the wildest horses, the ones no one else would dare ride. Because of their value to the track, the horses were well taken care of. However, exercise riders were regarded as expendable. Karin fell off countless times, but never backed down and would simply remount and try again.
After a year at the track, Karin was allowed to race. She responded by winning the first race she entered. It was on a horse named Avenir (the namesake of Karin’s current vaulting horse), a five year-old Thoroughbred that had never won before and was never expected to win.
Karin and Avenir win their first race.
Karin was more amazed than anyone. “We passed three horses on the finishing stretch. Then I realized – ‘hey there’s no one in front of us’ – it took me a moment to comprehend what that meant.”
They finished the race with “no one in front of them.” The whole experience was a huge adrenaline rush for Karin.
“It’s hard for people who have never raced to understand what it does to you. Having all that power beneath you, the pure speed and the rush of the wind in your face. The noise and incredible energy of the herd overcomes you – it’s intoxicating. It works like drug on your brain and people get addicted.”
At age 18, Karin was hooked. She was going to be a jockey. Finally, here was a real horse profession her parents could accept. For Karin, racing validated her self worth.
For the next three years, Karin worked at the barn of the great German jockey, Fritz Drechsler. During this time, she was able to race at every track in Germany.
Karin with her father (center) and Fritz Drechsler.
While at Dreschsler’s, Karin benefited from the influence of a minor trainer she calls “Eddie.” Karin describes Eddie as a “broken man,” a reference to his chronic problem with alcohol. However, Eddie had a wealth of practical racing knowledge and was eager to share it with Karin.
“He was useless after noon, of course,” Karin says. “But he had a few good hours in the morning before he started his daily binging.”
During these “good hours”, Eddie took Karin step by step through the real nuts and bolts of horse racing. He instructed her on the value of physically surveying a track before each race, even if she had been on it before. He taught her how to prepare for a race by running it in her head over and over again, what sports psychologists today refer to as “mental imagery” or “mental rehearsal.” Karin attributes much of her success later in her racing career to Eddie’s influence.
At 21, Karin received her Certified Bachelor’s in Horse Racing. With this, she was able to race professionally. Still, Karin sensed there was something missing in her life. She attributed this feeling to kind of restlessness that the Germans refer to as “Fernweh”, a longing to leave home and experience foreign places.
“I just knew the world didn’t stop at Munich,” Karin says.
She sent letters to horse trainers in several foreign countries enquiring about employment opportunities. A trainer from Canada responded and invited her to visit. She booked a three-way flight, with Lima, Peru as the third destination. Her plan was to visit her aunt in Lima for six weeks before going on to Toronto.
The Limelight in Lima
Six weeks in Lima turned into six months. Not long after arriving, Karin asked her aunt if there was any horse racing in town. Her aunt informed that there was indeed a track. Lima was home to the Hipodrome de Monerrico, the largest horse racetrack in Peru. With a seating capacity of over 40,000 it dwarfed the tracks Karin had raced at in Germany.
The Hipodrome de Monerrico
Karin marched down to the track the next day, armed with photos of her racing exploits in Germany. She found her way to the backside, where she was met at the gate by a security guard.
The guard attempted to wave her away: “No turistas! No turistas!”
Karin pulled out her photos and handed them to the guard. He looked at the photos and then he looked at her. He gestured for her to stay put and then disappeared. A few minutes later he returned with another man, whom Karin assumed was a trainer. The two men began asking her questions, all in Spanish.
Karin responded with the only Spanish word she knew: “Si”.
It was enough. She was escorted backside and introduced to Jose Meza, one of the major trainers at the track. Meza took her under his wing the same day.
Despite the language barrier, Meza quickly guided Karin through her training. A few weeks later, Karin won her first race at the Hipodrome.
Karin became an instant celebrity in Lima. The local racing scene was male dominated and this young, blonde German girl couldn’t help but stand out. The track made the most of their new sensation with extensive media coverage.
“They promoted me like a blue dog,” Karin says.
Of course that didn’t keep them from repeatedly misspelling her name.
Karinsita (“Little Karin”) was recognized everywhere she went. Autograph seekers began approaching her on the streets. Bus drivers allowed her to ride for free. In restaurants, drinks appeared out of nowhere.
Karin exploits were even covered back home in the German press.
But Karin knew it couldn’t last. After 6 months, her tourist visa expired and she had to return to Germany.
Not long after she got home, Karin became restless again. The South American adventure just wasn’t enough to satisfy the Fernweh and she was anxious to resume her headlong flight.
But to where?
Look for Part Two of Karin’s story next week.