By Lauren R. Giannini
Kimberly Risser has a soft spot in her heart for horses, especially off-the-track Thoroughbreds, thanks to her junior show hunter and horse of a lifetime, Make My Day. So, when she rescued her first horse about seven years ago, it wasn’t a surprise that she chose an ex-racehorse with three bad races and the dam of nine unexceptional foals. Kimmy saw the mare in a photo posted on a Facebook page connected with Camelot, a horse auction. The very thin, chestnut mare was all by herself in pen #10, a polite way of saying kill pen.
Kimmy arranged payment and set off on the 14-hour round trip to bring the mare home. She called her rescue Cam, short for Camelot, and the mare would live the rest o her life in comfort and with love, just like Make My Day, enjoying his retirement at Hickory Manor, the breeding farm Kimmy shares with her mother, Patty Risser, in Chesapeake, Virginia.
When the Rissers turned out Cam, they were touched to watch her roll and roll, indulging happily in normal equine behavior after weeks of living in auction pens. The mare had gone through the sales at Sugar Creek (Ohio) and New Holland (Pennsylvania) before ending up in New Jersey at Camelot whose owner bought unsold horses from New Holland and put them up for auction. Years before, concerned horse people started a Facebook page, CHW Network with more than 89,000 followers.
Every week, local CHW volunteers go to Camelot after the auction to take photos and note descriptions of unsold horses, which they post on Facebook. People have four days to buy these “last chance” horses. Camelot’s owner retired in 2014 and sold the auction venue, which now operates as Cranbury Sale Stable. The new owner cooperates with the CHN Network volunteers who continue to make their weekly visits to give last chances to unsold horses in pen #10.
“Going to those auctions had to be the three worst weeks in that mare’s life,” said Kimmy. “We both benefitted, but I was the lucky one, because Cam taught me a lot, especially about how rewarding it is to rescue a horse from slaughter. She was a sweetheart — not a mean bone in her body. They told me she was 5 and great to ride, but she was 20 and clearly awful things had happened to her. Just the sight of a saddle made her tremble. She ended up being a wonderful baby sitter for my foals. Cam passed away a year ago. She’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, hands down. It was a big deal. Every day was rewarding.”
Kimmy rescued two more that are members of the equine team at Equi-Kids Therapeutic Riding Program in nearby Virginia Beach. Jack, a black Percheron, had been an Amish carthorse, then a beginner’s lesson horse until 2012 when Kimmy found him on Craigslist. At 14, Jack became Patty’s trail horse.
“When my mom wasn’t riding as much, Jack was sitting around doing next to nothing and we thought he had a better purpose than that,” said Kimmy. “We knew Equi-Kids needed a bigger horse for their bigger riders — he’s about 16 hands. He’s doing great in the program and is often used for the wounded veterans in Equi-Vets.”
Levi, a bay Quarter Horse/Standardbred cross, 14.3 hands, was the second rescue. Like Cam, he was the last one in Camelot’s #10 pen when Kimmy saw him on Facebook.
“We think he was a camp horse and when winter came along, they couldn’t take care of him,” said Kimmy. “Levi is really special. We had him at the farm for a year and thought he could be a good lesson pony. We knew Equikids needed horses, so Levi became our first donation to Equikids. He’s especially good with the very disabled and the kids love him. He just stands there while wheelchair-bound kids are hoisted up to the saddle by a crane. Levi was so good, he was named PATH International Therapy Horse of the Year for Region 3.”
Setting A Different Course
Kimmy grew up showing, coached as a junior by Pam Herman before riding as an adult with Louise Serio for about five years. In her last two years as a junior, Kimmy piloted Make My Day to the Children’s Hunter Grand Championship at the VHSA Associate Finals in 2004 and 2005 at the Virginia Horse Center. Kimmy’s junior career ended in 2005 with her earning Best Child Rider. In 2010, showing in Amateur Owner Hunter (3’3) in Wellington, she had a bad fall that resulted in a mild concussion and considerable damage to her right ankle.
A few months later, she was riding again but with one stirrup because her ankle wasn’t functional, getting on and off her horse with a mounting block. When she returned to the show ring for the first time, excruciating pain prevented her from finishing her second course. She leased her mare, Popularity, and took a few months break from horses.
“I never went back to riding like I did before the accident and have shown only a few times since then,” said Kimmy. “As bad as the physical pain was, the mental aspect has been far worse. I slowly lost my confidence, I imagine because of my shortcomings. For years, my whole life was riding, showing and traveling. I had to face reality, which was extremely hard. It’s still tough to accept. I would give anything to get back in the show ring and enjoy it, but I don’t think that will happen.”
It would be years before Kimmy learned the full extent of injuries. Total disruption of the ankle (talis, tibia, fibula) is serious, because the joint’s mobility and stability depend on ligaments that connect bone to bone. More damage occurs because a disrupted ankle can’t bear any weight whatsoever. Attempts to get help met with being told nothing was wrong with her ankle.
“I knew my ankle injuries were bad, because I was in almost constant pain for years and I still have bouts of pain,” said Kimmy. “I’m incredibly lucky to have found an amazing surgeon, who’s also a horse person. He told me straight off that I needed surgery, but I put it off until I could hardly walk, because the pain was so bad. He operated in February 2015, and the surgery confirmed bone spurs, bone chips, strained and torn ligaments that had never healed properly, along with an incredible amount of scar tissue. I have limited mobility in my ankle, which is important to riding.”
Not riding meant reinventing herself and finding a new focus for her ambitions and energy. With horses as essential as air to breathe, Kimmy’s new life had to be similar to the old one — full of horses, shows and goals.
“Hickory Manor is a family business that my mom and I run,” said Kimmy. “We’ve been here for 15 years and about five years ago I started breeding. We’re looking forward to our fourth foal crop. We have four mares, three Warmbloods and one Thoroughbred, and one recipient mare, in foal here to Banderas, Cabalito, Chacco’s Rubin, Lestat and Viscount.”
Kimmy purchased her stallion as a foal and raised him: Bandelero JSF, approved in December at the Stallion Test, will be 4 in April. “Everyone knows him as Nugget,” said Kimmy, who turned professional in 2015. “He’s very sweet. We’re going to do a little of everything — dressage, young jumpers, and hope to make it to the Derby ring. I’m big on matching horses with trainers, but haven’t really made any plans where he’s going yet.”
No worries. One of Kimmy’s best friends is Bill Rube. She credits him with getting her involved in the horse industry, specifically in the Hunter Breeding Sallie B. Wheeler Sub Committee Task Force he chairs for the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association. Starting her third year on the committee, Kimmy loves the idea of working to bring hunter breeding to greater importance in the industry.
“Kimmy isn’t afraid to ask for help or ask questions,” said Bill. “She’s thirsty for knowledge and talks to everybody from trainers and horse whisperers to breeders and pleasure riders. She had a really great Thoroughbred she showed as a junior, and I met her when she submitted some material when I was working on a Wheeler Museum exhibit. I think she’s great for the industry and I wish we had more people like her.”
Kimmy is a trainer, teaching lessons and assisting with the Interscholastic Equestrian Association riding team at nearby Bridlewood Farm. She also assists with Old Dominion University’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association equestrian team.
Kimmy’s goal is to establish herself as a breeder and to be involved in growing a pipeline for young horses in North America. She thinks this is best accomplished through education, affordable and appropriate show opportunities for young horses, and helping breeders to bridge the gap between their young prospects and big professionals.
“As a breeder, it’s also important for me to stay involved with equine rescue to help horses that end up in bad situations,” said Kimmy. “Every horse I breed or sell has a clause written into the contract that the horse can be returned to me at any time, for any reason. My accident led me to breeding — for that I’m grateful — and I feel a greater responsibility than ever to the horses and to look out for their best interests. We all need to pay it forward. Horses deserve to be appreciated for their abilities, athleticism and heart, not just valued as the means to a blue ribbon.”