Katie Gardner of Bedford, Virginia, is a third-generation Virginia horsewoman.
“My grandmother was the lone ‘horse girl’ in her family, wrangled the purchase of a naughty Shetland pony, and taught herself to ride from watching silent Western movies during her 1920s childhood. The horse bug stuck, and someone let her ride their hunter at a local show when she was a teenager – and a legend was born,” Katie said.
Her grandmother, Eileen Beckman, showed her conformation hunter, Ramos, to considerable success and fame before she went overseas to serve in the Red Cross during WWII. After the war, and around having her family, she began teaching riding lessons and breeding hunter ponies.
Both of her daughters were riders. Katie’s aunt, Laura, did a lot of the pony starting and early showing, and her mom, Randee, was the equitation star of the family. Their ponies, Chantilly and Slipcover, are to this day remembered as two of the greats in the history of pony hunters.
“Nanny taught lessons and had camps and took children to shows for many decades, and to this day so, so many people in our area had some sort of childhood connection to her. She taught everybody! She also bred, among many others, Otteridge Black Hawk, who was the first, and to date, only, pinto pony to be Pony Breeding Champion at Devon,” Katie said. “Black Hawk had an incredible performance career and is retired with us at Otteridge Farm. Among Nanny’s many accolades are her inductions into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame (Chantilly is also in it, the first pony to be inducted), the Virginia Horse Shows Association Hall of Fame and the Wall of Honor at Upperville, among others.
“My mom has come into her own as a fantastic pony breeder, has bred her own Devon Grand Champion, and carries on the farm prefix mightily. She and I own and run the farm together, after Nanny’s death in 2010. I know that’s a long answer, but that’s the background on the world into which I was born. Hunters are in my blood,” she said.
Tell me about your business. What kind of services do you offer?
Mom and I own the farm together – she does the breeding and sales end, and I do the lessons, training and showing end. Her prowess in finding nice horses and ponies has benefitted my riders tremendously, and people often send us youngsters for myself and my riders to train and for Mom to sell. I start beginning riders and produce them up the levels through our local association into rated shows.
What would you like people to know about you and your work with horses and riders?
Firstly that I’m well aware of the legacy I inherited, that I take it seriously and wear it with pride. My grandmother was known for being tough, but always a lady. She demanded that her riders have nice manners and good horsemanship in addition to riding skills. She gave me the framework for my program: I have modernized it, but the basics of good correct riding are ever the same.
I’m a traditionalist, I’m a complete turnout nutcase, and I’m pretty old school in that it’s very important to me to turn out horsemen, not “clients.” I absolutely despise the “client” mentality that so permeates our sport. I’m going to teach you to ride, but you’re also going to learn to bathe, blanket, wrap legs, clean stalls, get a bad loader on the trailer, braid, lunge and break babies. And that, in my view, is how it should be. I think you get comparatively little out of the sport when you pay someone else to do all your chores, and I think there’s no possible way to have a close relationship with a horse that you have no idea how to care for and no context to know if that horse is “off” or having some sort of problem.
What makes your stable/business different than others?
I sort of started to answer this one above, but I would say that my specialty is producing well-rounded, knowledgeable and self-sufficient horsemen in an increasingly full-service world.
We recently attended the Lexington Spring Premiere and Spring Encore at the Virginia Horse Center, and one of my riders split the braiding duties with me. All the girls did their own bathing, care, stalls, feeding, and I never sat on a single horse either weekend. THAT fact is my pride and joy.
I really, really love that I have riders who can ride their own horses. It’s not my goal to show all my clients’ horses and rack up humongous bills for them; it’s my goal to mount these kids suitably and teach them to ride their own horses. Of course I do training rides; of course I’m ready to help if I’m needed, but my goal is for the kids to be able to do their own horses successfully.
What do you look for when choosing a young prospect? Do you have favorite breeds or bloodlines?
Anyone who has been around me for 30 seconds knows I’m a diehard, absolute Thoroughbred fanatic. In 2021, the time felt right for me to add a young horse to my family, and I went to New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, gained adoption approval, and waited until I saw something. I trust my gut and had zero concern obtaining a horse that way.
In October of that year, a 3-year-old with the Jockey Club name Ready to Show, by the great More Than Ready, was posted on their social media. With his stunning topline, big beautiful shoulder, correct legs, short little back and pretty face, I was sold instantly. There was no way a horse put together like he is would not be a beautiful mover and a talented jumper – and he is beautifully bred. I love Thoroughbred bloodlines.
I literally chose him from a photo, which is why it’s important to have a good understanding of conformation – and by that I don’t even mean looks, which are great, but functionality for the desired job. The brief video I saw later was an afterthought – I had already emailed my desire to adopt him. That horse shows as Sunset Boulevard and goes by “Max” – and has exceeded every expectation thus far. He was Champion or Reserve Champion at every show he attended his 4-year-old year, and his winnings at the Thoroughbred Incentive Program Championships in 2022 paid for most of our trip to Aiken for that show. He got to go to WEC Ocala this winter, and he’s continuing his development into what I hope will be a top Thoroughbred Hunter.
Can you describe your training/teaching philosophy?
I’ve talked a lot about my girls, so I’m going to shift to the horses for this question. We do a lot of young and green horses at Otteridge Farm, and I would say the most important thing I’ve learned is to meet the horse where they are.
We do an awful lot of “talking” and not nearly enough “listening” – and it’s much easier to meet the horse where the horse is than to demand that the horse come to where you are. They don’t all learn the same way, or at the same speed, and they don’t all fit in the same box. Sure, I have the same basic format I use when backing the babies, but once that very early learning has taken place, you really have to listen to the horse.
Of the four youngsters in my program currently, one is a super sweet but extremely cautious soul that has to be reassured and handled with a lot of calm patience, one is a very smart and athletic young mare with some previous baggage that left her reactive and a little anxious, one is a sassy little know-it-all coming to grips with the reality that she doesn’t in fact know it all, and one is a gregarious man of the people who has similar properties to the average mouthy wrecking ball. While some tools are universal, you just cannot approach all of those the same way. Every single horse you’ll ever work with in your life has something to teach you.
Who are your riding mentors? How have they influenced your riding?
Outside of my family, I have always loved Ellie Wood Keith Baxter and Betty Oare. Ms. Betty and I have been buddies since I was a little girl, and she is set apart as an example to me (and everyone else, let’s be real) of everything a living legend should be: She is the kindest, most gracious and charming lady, she has a moment and a genuine exchange for everyone and she’s a true sportsman, in addition to being one hell of a rider (and a GREAT judge!). She still works at her riding, rides multiple horses a day multiple days a week, and still really loves the sport.
Another rider I adore watching is Sandy Ferrell. Oh, if only I could borrow her quiet, waiting upper body and hands for just one afternoon!
Closer to home, it would be our neighbor Anneliesa King. She’s known me since I was a walk-trot baby, accepted me as a professional the minute I aged out, and is always so encouraging and positive. I’ve loved being at shows with her as an adult and fellow trainer, and spending time together at the rail watching our students. I love watching her ride her wonderful (Thoroughbred!) mare RF Piper and am always happy to cheer for her even when she beats me!
Tell us about your first horse/pony.
She was a Shetland/something-or-other cross, buckskin, 11.3 hands, and went by the auspicious name of Candy. She had been a barrel pony, but she also jumped, and if you jumped an outside line away from home you were good, but as soon as she rounded the turn she knew she was supposed to sprint back to the gate! Maybe not ideal as a hunter pony, but she was safe and so much fun and I loved her dearly. Home movies reveal a lot of galloping, grinning, chaotic fun, so I think she filled her role beautifully.
If you could ride any famous horse from history, who would you choose?
Gonna have to go with Secretariat, but only because Aspercel and The Pie are not real.
What is the best piece of riding advice you were ever given?
“Don’t ride the head down, ride the back up.”
What is your proudest horse-related moment?
There are so many special wins, special trips, and rewarding experiences so far in my life with horses that I’m going to take the risk of sounding cheesy and answer more generally that it’s the fact that my horses love me and are always, always, always glad to see me. They know exactly how valued and appreciated they are.
Do you have a favorite horse movie or book?
I loved “The Saddle Club” and “Thoroughbred” series as a youngster; I think the “Thoroughbred” series was especially formative for me. As far as movies, “The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit” or “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.”
You’re headed to a horse show. What’s one item would you never leave home without?
Clean tack. I have never one time in my entire life left for any kind of away from home riding without cleaning my tack first, and I plan to keep it that way. I detest seeing grubby tack at a horse show.
What advice would you give new/young riders?
For new riders, but most especially their parents: Even if you don’t know anything about horses, if you get the feeling that the situation is unsafe, it probably is.
Thoroughly vet the trainer you allow to be responsible for your formative riding education, as that person will play the most important role in your development in the sport, and few things are more damning for the rider than having to be re-taught with years of riding experience because they started out with an incompetent instructor.
Do a trial lesson before you commit to anything. Look at the condition of the horses and the facility. Skinny horses, dirty stalls and the like do not bode well for what’s going on at that barn. Remember that absolutely anyone with access to a horse can call themselves a trainer and take your money, so be vigilant in your homework and invest in someone with the skills and the background to benefit your child. To me, it is equally important that the trainer present themselves in a manner that you feel comfortable with as a role model for your rider, because this person can and will have a great deal of influence. You need to be comfortable that they will use their powers for good, in and out of the saddle.
Secondly, do not, and I mean do NOT, even consider buying a horse if you aren’t working with a professional. Horses are expensive, require a lot of knowledgeable care, can be dangerous, and no beginner needs to own their own horse – and no average parent can competently buy a horse for their child. Invest in riding lessons, and lots of them, with a good barn, for a long time, before taking the plunge into ownership.
If you could try any other riding discipline, what would it be?
I have literally always wanted to ride a really good, really fancy, really spicy five-gaited Saddlebred.
What is your favorite local horse show or event? What makes it special?
It’s not local local, but the Deep Run Hunt Club’s Field Hunter Trials is probably my all-time favorite. Hunter Trials are the perfect combination of the competition of a horse show and the tradition of foxhunting, and the “outside course” element of jumping solid obstacles in a rolling field is something that has disappeared from horse shows. It’s so much fun, and you have to be a little gutsy to do it well, which I personally enjoy quite a lot.
What one thing would make the Roanoke region a better place for equestrians?
Major upgrades of footing, jumps and facility at Green Hill Park. It could be a better and more versatile horse show venue than it is, but it desperately needs modernizing in management and equipment. I believe that the cross country course is a total hidden gem, however – it’s absolutely breathtaking up there.
Tell us about the best horse you’ve ever ridden.
That’s the easiest question so far. Frankly My Dear is my bay Thoroughbred partner of the past 15 years, a giveaway after a modestly successful racing career, whom I didn’t vet, didn’t try and never met until he was in the farm driveway. He turned 22 a couple weeks ago. You name it; we’ve done it, and he’s won it. He’s been a racehorse, a show hunter (primarily), a jumper and a field hunter. He’s great side saddle, Western and bareback. I can jump a course on him bridle-less. He’s beautiful, and in fact has won many in-hand classes and championships.
We share a brain, we read each other perfectly, and he is the greatest thing on four feet. He once won a Handy Hunter class out of 54 entries, and the Handy is always our favorite thing to do together. None of the work I do with Thoroughbreds would have happened if Frank hadn’t paved the way. He’s the OG, the GOAT, and the absolute joy of my life. I don’t expect to ever meet his equal.
What is your favorite characteristic in a client/student?
I’m going to assume this is not limited to riding, so my answer is: being a team player. That sounds so generic, but as a tie-in to my earlier answers about horsemanship and self-sufficiency, we do not have barn staff. That means that every day, regardless of if we’re at a show, or if I have five horses to ride, or seven lessons to teach, or whatever the case is, we are still responsible for the twice a day care of the barn. My girls are very, very good about helping when they’re done riding — and if everyone does one chore it doesn’t take any of us very long! Not paying barn help keeps our costs way down, and I’m able to pass those savings on to my families, but the tradeoff is that there’s a general expectation that everyone helps. The best fit for my program is someone who feels like they’re ALL all our horses, and I’m so grateful to say that that’s exactly what I have.
If you weren’t in the horse business, what do you think you would be doing right now?
Sitting in a nice, quiet, indoor, climate-controlled, clean, wonderful-smelling library, coffee at hand, working on writing projects related to my other love: Old Hollywood.