Five Horse Lovers Who Followed Their Dreams and Changed Their Lives
These five people left successful careers to follow their dreams, change their lives, and carve out a place for themselves in the horse industry.
By: Nicole Kitchener |
The American author and academic Joseph Campbell famously said, “Follow your bliss,” meaning if you do things you’re passionate about, doors will open and you will find satisfaction and fulfillment. Here are the stories of five Canadians who have done just that and turned their passion – their “bliss” – into a career revolving around horses.
Find a Niche and Fill it
Alberta’s Patty Kramps, 60, and her husband Kelly Miller, 58, owned and operated a successful flooring company for 15 years. With Patty’s woodworking acumen and Kelly’s ingenuity, they came to specialize in curved stair noses, serving the Edmonton-area million-dollar home market.
That was until a neglected miniature horse came into their lives, setting them on an unexpected course to become industry leaders in made-to-order carts and harnesses for small-statured horses. Patty vividly remembers the day everything changed – June 15, 2009. “My niece was coming from Quebec for a visit with her two kids and Kelly said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a little horse here for the kids to ride?’ We had horses all along and still had two at the time, but hadn’t touched a little horse in 30 years. So off we went to a horse sale.”
The couple sat for seven hours waiting for a particular silver-grey mini to enter the ring. Yet, when it came time to bid, neither one made a move. They weren’t exactly sure why this was the case, so decided to go home. On their way out, Patty asked one of the sales personnel if more minis were going through. Sure enough, a 38-inch-high bay was just then up for sale. “The halter was embedded into the bridge of his nose and he could hardly walk. I looked at that little horse and got goosebumps. He had the brightest eye I’d ever seen. I threw my hand in the air and kaboom.”
Once Gimli, as they named him, was nursed to health at their farm an hour north of Edmonton, Kelly and Patty couldn’t find a harness to fit his small frame. In late 2010 and 2011, they worked harder than ever in the flooring business to finance the importation of harnesses from India and carts from China. It was the beginning of a new venture: Patty’s Pony Place.
The entire stock of carts and harnesses sold within a year. With too little money in their bank account to bring in more product and booked into the 2012 Mane Event tradeshow in Red Deer, Kelly decided to build two carts on his own instead. And he hasn’t stopped since. Patty’s Pony Place has customers across North America lining up for their wide range of custom two- and four-wheeled carts, harnesses and related equipment for those who enjoy pleasure or competitive driving, skijoring, sledding and pulling logs.
“Our business is like no other cart manufacturer. Nobody does what we do or comes from the position that we come from, and that’s about love, fun and enjoying a horse as a horse. And to make sure these little horses can do their job without getting hurt. That’s the basis of everything we design.”
In the years since Gimli arrived, the herd has swelled to 22. One of those fellows is farm celebrity Tonka, a favourite of Patty’s mother Irene, who died in 2017. To honour Irene, Patty created and manages a “Supertonk” Facebook page and website featuring the mini adorned in a huge array of homemade outfits (many of which are also for sale). “It’s basically carrying out what mom and I used to do as a pair. Over the years, we made tons of costumes and outfits even for my big horses.”
Supertonk has become somewhat of a superstar. His Facebook videos have garnered more than five million total views, resulting in media attention from several TV, online and print outlets.
A Passion for Ponies
For half a century, the Morton Stables name has been synonymous with importing and breeding high-quality Welsh Section B and sport ponies. Farm matriarch and former nurse, Darlene Morton, says her days as a nurse, although long past, still come in handy, especially during breeding and foaling seasons at their property in Sharon, Ontario.
Whether it’s resuscitating foals, straightening out crooked legs, inseminating mares or knowing which drugs to use, Darlene, 67, attributes her skills and practical sensibility not only to her nursing career, but also being around ponies and horses “from age 0.”
Her earliest recollection is sitting aboard one of her grandpa’s Clydesdale crosses. “I must only have been three years old and I didn’t want to get off.” Growing up on a farm in Streetsville, she and her brother Raymond showed the family’s Welsh ponies and dabbled in the hunters.
In 1971, she married husband Russel, whom she met when they were both competing in the Royal Winter Fair’s Welsh Pony division. The couple had three children and Darlene became a nurse. “It was something I’d always wanted to do. I loved the idea of taking care of people.”
She spent 14 years – the bulk of her career – at Southlake Regional Health Centre. As much as she loved her job, the pony passion held firm. “While on breaks, the other girls would be reading Cosmopolitan and Woman’s Day. I was reading my Welsh journals and Welsh studbooks. They always used to tease me because I was very horsey.”
By this time, the Mortons were travelling regularly to Great Britain to import ponies for themselves and clients. At home, Darlene fielded calls after tiring nursing shifts, and, often having to work weekends, felt she was missing out on family fun as her kids had begun showing too. “I had to
find out where my heart lay.”
The ponies prevailed and in the 30 years since, Darlene and family continued to build the Morton reputation
with their Welsh Ponies and eventually British Riding
The focus on quality bloodlines has held them in good stead. Notably, three years ago their imported British Riding Pony Rosedale Top Cat, was named the first foundation sire for the North American Sport Pony Registry. Thirteen years ago, Darlene also launched and (all by herself) runs the Sport Pony Starsearch Challenge Cup. Qualifiers at 20 shows across Canada and the eastern U.S. offer part-bred breeders a place to showcase their ponies and compete at the year-end championship at the Royal Winter Fair.
Darlene doesn’t regret her decision to leave nursing 30 years ago, in part because, “Importing and breeding became very profitable for us. It wasn’t a hobby.”
And, with her now-grown family still very much involved, it’s doubly worth it. Eldest son Jason manages a barn and occasionally competes in combined driving events. Son Ray and wife Alison Plumbtree-Morton actively train and compete in combined driving with Morton ponies, while Darlene’s daughter Angela shows her own and clients’ ponies on the line. The next generation, Angela’s son Hunter, 11, has shown too, but thinks riding is “kind of boring,” laughed Darlene.
The Science of Happiness
For Eloise Szmatula money truly isn’t everything.
The 30-year-old from France decided three years ago to veer from her originally intended profession in science and engineering to become a riding instructor.
After following her boyfriend Adrien to Canada in summer 2016, Eloise is now happily working at Dominique Maida’s Rock Forest Stables in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where she teaches and does general barn work.
“A lot of people are surprised because I had a nice career ahead of me and the money would be better, of course, but the quality of life I have now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, especially not money.”
In 2014, Eloise graduated from renowned university and research centre ESPCI ParisTech with a master’s degree in bio-engineering and innovation in neurosciences. From a low-income farming family in southern France, the opportunity to pursue higher studies was “a big thing,” she said. The plan was to pursue a Ph.D., but she and a friend instead launched SoScience, a company that helps social and environmental organizations navigate the science world.
The work was fun, acknowledges Eloise, but not lucrative enough to fund what was revealing itself to be her true passion – horses. She had started riding at age six, owned her own horses growing up, and continued to ride while at university. While living in Grenoble and working on her new business, she half-leased a horse at a local stable. That’s when she started to become serious about riding and competing. She left SoScience to seek a consulting job in her field that would offer more money so she could ride more. Then, an interviewer set Eloise on her heels. “The guy told me, ‘You’re very good. We’d love to have you, but I’m not sure it’s what you want to do.’” Angry at the man at first, Eloise eventually admitted to herself he was right. “Maybe I’m going to spend a lot of time doing a job I don’t really like to bring in money to ride. So, I could just skip the middle part and spend my time riding.”
She joined her trainer Sylvain Coeur’s team and began an intensive two-year coaching certification process. “He was very surprised,” said Eloise. “He told everyone, ‘I don’t know why she’s doing this. She has such a big brain and now she wants to work for me.’”
She doesn’t consider her time spent on education and in the sciences a waste. “I didn’t just learn mathematics and physics and everything, I learned how to learn, how to think, how to fix problems and that’s something very handy. Most people tell me I’m good at organizing things and planning.” These skills come into play as a riding instructor, especially since most of her students are those just beginning to show. Eloise competes, too, and this year will campaign the nine-year-old Oldenburg Carando for the first time in the jumper ring.
Ultimately, she wants to return to France and have her own stable. “That’s the dream, not the plan yet. I’m not worried. I can find horses anywhere.”
Do All the Things
Martha Worts laughs that by the time she hit her mid-20s she’d already held a couple of careers. The now 35-year-old is happily ensconced in the horse industry in a number of capacities, but it took a couple of false starts before she found where she truly belongs.
Martha’s initial plan was to become a teacher or professor. While taking a master’s degree in history at McMaster University in Hamilton, she enjoyed the program’s teaching component but admitted, “I couldn’t deal with university politics.” This ended any thoughts of pursuing a Ph.D.
Soon after, a full-time position arose at a retirement home in her hometown of London, Ontario where she’d been working part-time. The job in the facility’s recreation department also included volunteer management and administration. After three years, and at about 25 years old, Martha still felt something was missing in her life, so she quit.
“With the baby boomers coming through, it was a pretty secure industry as far as benefits, growth and long-term opportunities. It was perhaps silly to leave the job at that point. But I just kept coming back to the horses,” said Martha, who, as a “horse-crazy kid” rode hunters mainly on the Trillium Circuit, worked riding camps and with lessons and volunteered at local equine goings-on. She continued riding until about a year after grad school, when, “as a young adult, you have other things to do,” she said.
After leaving the retirement home position in 2010, she moved to the Toronto area to shadow show stewards, judges and course designers, thinking, with the pool of equestrian industry officials aging fairly rapidly, it might be “a good life choice.”
After five months of shadowing and industry networking, Martha landed her steward’s card and was getting regular gigs. She had also started doing part-time office work and bookkeeping for Dave Dawson, an Uxbridge-based farrier and commercial horse transporter, who had just launched an equine-industry employment search website and opened a boarding barn with quarantine facilities. In a turn of events that proved she was, indeed, on the right path, Martha had “one of those random conversations that pivot your life.”
A man called the transport company requesting a run to Pearson International Airport to pick up horses for quarantine. “I happened to mention, ‘Just so you know, we opened this facility. We have a quarantine barn if there’s ever any interest in that.’ He asked, ‘What’s the address? Can you be available in an hour?’” The man was Kenneth Serrien, one of the owners of Calgary-based international equine air transporter, Overseas Horse Services. Today, Martha serves as the company’s Toronto operations coordinator.
She also manages the Trillium Hunter Jumper Association and still stewards during show season. Martha’s work falls under the umbrella of Equine Business Solutions, a company she and Dave formed in 2013, which offers various administrative, marketing and event planning services to the horse industry. On top of everything, Martha finds time for her 14-year-old Thoroughbred Leroy.
“I’ve stayed in this career, we’re coming up on 10 or 11 years now, so it’s the only thing that’s really stuck. I love it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Spreading Good Feelings
Mark Fletcher, 61, fought wildfires for 42 years. Now “retired,” he helps people connect with horses through equine bodywork – a somewhat more sedate occupation, but, for Mark, no less fulfilling.
Starting at age 17, Mark was a firefighter with provincial/territorial forest services, primarily in British Columbia and the Yukon. According to Mark, he “did it all” including parachuting into forests as a smokejumper, bombing flames by air from above and command and control. The work took him all over North America. “It was a great career and I feel so blessed and grateful for it because I met a lot of people, saw a lot of great places and had a lot of adventure.”
Mark lived transiently for a couple of decades, going wherever fires were blazing. While in his late 30s, he landed a more stationary job in Pemberton, B.C. Up to that point, he’d enjoyed some horse connections, but never owned his own. “One day I woke up and said, ‘I think it’s time. I’m going to go buy a horse.’”
Downtime from work then became mainly devoted to equine pursuits. In 2000, he began studying and training under a number of different equine massage and bodywork practitioners throughout North America. About eight years ago, Mark realized this was what he wanted to do when he eventually retired.
In 2015, he met Jim Masterson, founder of the Masterson Method. Described as an “integrated, multi-modality method of equine massage,” the techniques and principles revolutionized Mark’s understanding of horses and bodywork. He became a certified practitioner, coach and advanced instructor, travelling North America delivering courses and seminars. Today, while continuing to represent the Masterson Method, Mark is branching out under his own banner, Fletcher Equine Bodywork. He also recently settled on a 20-acre property in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, just north of the Montana border, and is excited to “cowboy a little bit” alongside local ranchers.
Mark admits he likely wouldn’t have retired in 2017 if he didn’t know his second career would be a go. He said he had “a vision and a goal” and took a generous amount of time before leaving his job to network within the industry and get a sense of whether his plan would succeed. “It’s’ been a real fun transition,” said Mark, who calls teaching bodywork impactful and humbling. “It’s so gratifying, especially in the horse world, where I can bring so much joy to people and the horses. It’s pretty neat.”