A lot has happened in soon-to-be 20 year old Reed Kessler's life since we last spoke with her in Paris back in 2012. She was the new kid on the block, a fresh breath of air on the international showjumping scene – stepping into the spotlight as the youngest rider ever to compete at the Olympic Games. Now, one and a half years later she is a familiar face – and has established herself among the best in the world, currently inhabiting rank 29 on the Longines Ranking. Reed's results and riding have hardly gone by unnoticed; in November last year she was honoured with the Longines Rising Star Award at the FEI Award Gala – another amazing achievements by the young American rider.
Still – in the middle of all her success, Reed surprisingly decided to change what many might have considered a winning recipe. In the autumn of 2013 she ended her collaboration with her long term trainer Katie Prudent – who is also Reed's godmother – and left the States to train with Marcus Ehning, basing herself in Borken, Germany to learn from the man many consider the best in the sport.
The question 'Why Marcus' is obviously a stupid one, because who wouldn't want to train with him? Still, we want to hear more about Reed's choice to change the path she was on. "When I was deciding what to do next I tried to think what kind of things I did well, and then which things that I didn't do well – and what I really wanted to learn. So, I thought about the weaknesses I have as a rider. And I have been learning from Katie Prudent and George Morris for most of my life, so I know the American system pretty well and I wanted something new. In the end I thought that Marcus would be the one that I could possibly learn the most from, so I spoke with him myself and was very lucky that he took me on," Reed explains as we sit in the kitchen at Ehning's yard in Borken.
Coming from America to Germany there must obviously be some big differences to adjust to, and Reed confirms that indeed it is something else. "For me the shows here in Germany are of a higher quality. In America there are several good riders, but in comparison when you go to a show here almost the entire class has a chance to win. I think that in general it is a bit more difficult in every way. The standard of competition is higher, the tracks are a bit more difficult and the field of riders is very strong," she says before adding quickly "That is also why I enjoy being here. I think it raises your game as a rider."
Even the best have to strive to become better, and Reed is no exception. Analysing what she has changed in her riding and with her horses, fine-tuning it all under Marcus' guidance – she comments; "I was always very American in my riding and was very forward, something you can still see of course. But I think that there is a bit more balance now between being forward and still in position at the jump. For sure all my horses have changed a lot too, I think Marcus's program is really strength-intensive and my horses are in the best shape of their life. I think if you took a before and after picture, they have changed a lot. It is a very different program and it is interesting to go somewhere new."
Learning from Marcus Ehning, Reed has the chance to get to know the secrets of one of the most – if not the most – admired riders in the world. Can she reveal some of them, we ask? "In my opinion the single most important thing when it comes to Marcus' philosophy is that he always tries to make things easy for the horses. Of course there is plenty of intensive flatwork, but overall in the jumping he tries to give the horses the chance to do their best – and he never builds something to trap them or to discourage them from giving their best effort. I think Marcus is really a top horseman," Reed says.
That there were no secrets, but more about 'Keep-it-simple-stupid', did come as a surprise for Kessler. "It was not at all what I expected it to be," she smiles. "Of course with someone like Marcus, you know that he is fantastic with the horses. For sure when you haven't been in his program, you think maybe it is a bit stricter – and then it is not. I have to say that when you train with him, you can definitely understand why his horses love him so much and why they jump so well for him!"
It sounds like there is no place Reed would rather be right now. But, despite her admiration for Marcus – she cannot, and will not, stay in Borken for ever as Marcus usually keeps his students only for a couple of years. "But I love living in Germany, so in the future I would like to be based here," she says. "It's a much easier lifestyle here when it comes to the sport. I love America, but it is almost impossible to stay at the top level basing in America. You end up living a little bit like a gipsy, you come over here for six weeks before you go back, and you are always in hotels. It is really lovely to have a place of my own – and a place for the horses to call home to spend half the week – and then to go to shows. And I really enjoy the shows in Germany, so whether I am at Marcus' or not I would love to have a place here for myself eventually."
It is not always easy though. Reed might be mature for her age, but she has still not reached 20 – and with her dad Murray and her mother Teri in the States there are moments that are difficult. "I have always been very close with my mom and dad, so of course I miss them and sometimes it is very hard – but we stay in close contact and speak every day. They also come to see me as much as they can, and I try to go home for the holidays. They are very supportive of what I do though, which is important for me," Reed says. "I have been really lucky with where I am though, there are some great people here – and I have been so well received. I feel really lucky in that way!"
Reed has also been very lucky with her most recent addition to her string of horses, as the nine year old Stakki is turning out to be something of a potential super star. "I think Stakki is something really special. Stakki came from Jan Sprehe, and I got her in February. Jan had her almost her whole life, and had a lot of success with her at youngster level. We are all crazy about Stakki; in Antwerp I jumped my first 1.55 on her and it felt no different than jumping a small meter. She just has so much quality, so much scope – and she is naturally careful. Stakki is also really clever and has a good brain," Reed says praising the lovely dark bay mare. "I cannot say enough good things about her! For how sensitive and how careful she is, it is incredible how brave and forward she also is! I just feel really lucky to have her and I am excited to see what she does in the future," Kessler adds.
Stakki was also the first horse found by Marcus for Reed, and she finds the mare to fit very well in Marcus' system and program. "Compared to my other horses I would say that Stakki is a little bit more Marcus' type of horse in the way that she takes you to the fence and across it. So I have had to change my riding a bit on Stakki. On my horses that I had before I came here, and that were a part of my old program, I rode in a very American way so to speak – very forward to the jump. It is a different feeling compared to the way I have learned it here, where I ride quieter and the horse takes you to the jump and across it. So at times where I want to take Stakki to the jump to 'help' her out, I have to remind myself that she is already taking me and that if I help her even more she will be flying," Reed laughs. "And now that I have a horse that is a little bit more of Marcus' type, I can also understand a bit more when it comes to the way he rides and what he wants me to do – that's actually been one of the really cool things to see! Well, I think this is also the whole reason that I came here and to learn all these things I did not know!"
Reed's group of horses is undoubtedly a great one, and she loves each and every one of them for their characters and quirkiness. "I could not pick a favourite out of them," she says quickly when asked. "Of course Cylana is my right hand, and she is my best friend – that is for sure. If you know Cylana's personality the two of us are very alike. She is the type of girl that can be a bit stubborn; she can get something in her head and she will not let it go. Cylana loves to jump and loves to show – and I think without her I would never have made it to where I am today, and have done the things I have done. I love her!" The super versatile Ligist – aka Goose – who does everything from speed classes, Grand Prix classes to Six Bar competitions, is characterised by Reed as "goofy, playful and happy – but quite stupid sometimes in a cute way". Cos I Can – who came to Reed at the end of last summer after showing successfully under Shane Breen – is according to his rider "so sweet in the barn, you can tell that he has been somewhere where he has been loved his whole life". Then there is Reed's long term partner Mika who she is very close with "he alternates between being very scared and very cheeky," she laughs – while Soraya is described as "really lovely, cuddly and sweet" and very different from Cylana who she is related to.
With the World Equestrian Games coming up, Reed has a variety of choice as to who to bring to Normandy – but most likely it will be her Olympic partner Cylana who will do the job should she make it from the US shortlist to the Championship team. "Most realistically it would be Cylana that I could do the World Equestrian Games on. I also have my championship experience with her. Now we will compete on the team in Aachen and at Hickstead, do our best there – and then we will see how far that brings us," Reeds says.
Despite having accomplished so much already, Kessler still have dreams. "To have a career like Marcus," she laughs when asked. "I think everybody really admires Marcus' career, he is a great horseman and I think besides all of the success he has had in all aspects of the sport he is somebody who leads a balanced life. He has a beautiful family here, he is located somewhere central so he can spend half of the week with them and half of the week at the shows. I think all around he is someone who has really mastered the sport."
And how does Reed master it then? "You have to always really push yourself – also to where you are out of your own comfort zone. There are times where everything comes easily to you, and then there are times where you feel like you cannot do anything right and then there are times where everyone is supporting you and stick behind you and then there are times where no one is. You have to be able to handle all these circumstances, and still stay focused on your goals."
"In my opinion you have to be willing to take chances to reach the top of the sport. And you have to be willing to fail in order to succeed!"
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