By Doris Degner-Foster
It seems like an impossible story: A young housewife in the 1970s with two small children had a dream of riding her horse over the highest cross-country jumps as a member of the U.S. team in the Eventing World Championships. However, her riding instruction was extremely limited, she lived at least a four-hour drive from any eventing competition and she had a horse that regularly dumped her in the dirt. As if that weren’t enough, she had a deep seated fear of jumping, and the cross-country jumps were a maximum height of 3 feet 11 inches, ridden at top speed, with a drop or landing point of up to 6 feet!
Kim Walnes turned the impossible into the possible and did ride as a member of the team, winning third place — two bronze medals, individually and as a member of the U.S. Eventing Team in the 1982 World Championships.
How did she do it?
“I had two mottos, Kim said: ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way!’ and ‘Why can’t you have your cake and eat it too?’”It was her way of reminding herself that she really could do all that and still have a family. She was absolutely determined and told herself, “OK, I may be a nobody from nowhere but I have an enormous desire and my horse has amazing talent, so we’re going to find a way to get there.”
Learning to Ride
Kim had a long way to go to fulfill her dream. Although ‘horse’ was the first word she spoke, riding lessons were not a high priority for her military family. The only lesson she’d had was at a riding stable near her family’s home in El Paso, Texas. After that one lesson, the cowboy teaching beginners said she rode well enough to be tuned loose out on the dessert with a horse, although she was only 10 years old. “I did scary things there, unsupervised. I went galloping around, jumping arroyos — water channels left from flash floods,” Kim confessed. “I scared myself really bad and it gave me a fear of jumping right at the beginning that I had to overcome later in life.”
After Kim’s father retired from the military, he made good on his promise to get her a horse, but there wasn’t money for lessons, and there wasn’t an organized Pony Club nearby. She made do with 4-H and reading everything she could about horses. Kim explains that she learned to ride simply by riding bareback with her friends. “We rode double a lot,” she said. “We did crazy things and stayed on.”
But the fear of jumping remained. “I had a friend in high school who had a mare that jumped and when I got my own horse, I asked to her to help me get over this fear of jumping because it was my greatest desire,” Kim explained. “All I wanted to do was jump, but I was just terrified of it. My friend started me over crossrails with her mare, very slowly, very patiently, just the way one teen would talk another through it.” From then on, Kim had a lot of fun jumping bareback. The fear was under control and an occasional fall didn’t matter.
Kim said that the fear didn’t return until she was pregnant with her first child. She remembered looking at a photograph of Princess Anne coming off at the Normandy Bank at Badminton, one of the few world class competitions. Kim said that it would normally make her think that she couldn’t wait to jump that, but then when she looked at the picture, she felt the fear again. Kim said, “I realized it was the hormones. Of course my body wouldn’t want me to do something like that while I’m carrying a child.”
Much to Kim’s disappointment, the fear didn’t subside after the birth of their daughter, Andrea. Because of her husband Jack’s job, they moved to Ireland when her daughter was 3 months old. Jack also rode and they arranged to ride together at a nearby stable. “Once they found out we could ride, the only horses they gave us were young horses that had issues,” Kim remembered. “We joined the hunt there and I was terrified, but once I’d get out there, it would be OK. It was just the first few fences because I was on young horses I didn’t really know. I was moving through the fear each ride but it was still coming up every single time.”
After a bad fall followed by an illness and her baby daughter’s bout with spinal meningitis, Kim went home to her parents. As she healed mentally and physically, she rode her mother’s gentle horse, determined to teach herself to jump again. After her return to Ireland, she started riding again slowly, first on large ponies before she began to ride the big gray gelding that she would later name The Gray Goose.
The Gray Goose
Kim’s driving passion was to get on the U.S. Eventing Team. Every horse she considered was with that goal in mind. In those days, the cross-country phase was the most determining factor so a very fast horse was necessary. Kim knew The Gray Goose was fast because he regularly bolted with her and she had wind tears from going so fast. The ability to jump great heights wasn’t a problem for Gray either because there was absolutely nothing that would hold him in when he wanted out. His dressage ability was evident as he moved elegantly out in the field. Kim felt that she could learn to ride him correctly, so she and Jack agreed that Gray was worth bringing back with them to the U.S. in 1976.
Kim started in the novice division at a competition in northern Virginia that fall, and Gray was his usual self, bolting with her on the cross-country. The smaller jumps weren’t enough to even slow him down. Kim laughed, “We ran a jump judge up a tree, as I recall. He was really out of control.” She still decided to move up to Training Level although his dressage left much to be desired. During the 1970s, dressage was considered by many event riders to be something to just get through in order to do the fun stuff, which was the cross-country.
“We had to travel at least 4 hours everywhere we went, if not more,” Kim said. “As Gray came up the ranks, we’d go to Georgia and Maryland, and sometimes even further north than Maryland to compete.” Kim’s son Brian was born as Gray moved up between Training and Preliminary levels. “Brian came early so I didn’t miss any of the fall season,” Kim said. “I just brought myself back again with the jumping.”
She worked out a plan that continued even after she and Gray were on the team. “Every spring I’d go to the Morven Park competition [at the start of the spring season] and we’d ride Hors Concourse” — not competing, only to be judged — “in Preliminary and that would get rid of our fear, and we’d be fine for that year. Jack understood that the expense was very important to get us both set up for the season.”
At home, Kim got creative in order to ride with a toddler. She set up a playpen under a tree and placed netting over the top to keep out the flies, and rode nearby. They took a pram on cross-country walks at competitions, and Kim nursed the baby between phases of the event. She explains, “I was driven, this came from the inside. I just had to do this. It was tough, but we all made it work!
“I’ll always be grateful for Jack’s encouragement. If he hadn’t supported me financially and emotionally, I wouldn’t have made it,” Kim said, explaining the overwhelming support she received, even from Jack’s employer. “When I was competing at Blue Ridge in Virginia, his company paid for him to be on the Concorde so that he could be there in time for my cross-country. His company would plan their meetings around my competition schedule.” She added that even the little Connecticut town where they lived had fundraisers for times when the team didn’t pay for their trips out of the country.
The World Championships
While juggling the responsibilities of a young family with her husband often traveling, her strong will to succeed was challenged in different ways. Kim recalled a time during the Rolex selection trial for the World Championships. “When I was in the vet box during the 10-minute compulsory stop, my team didn’t keep track of time accurately so I was late getting to the start box [of the cross-country]. The clock had started before I left! I had to leave the box 100 percent on speed right from the get-go to make up for lost time. Gray flew around that course so gracefully and never broke his rhythm, he was full-on speed the whole way around and we made the time. It was an amazing feeling, that total unity of purpose and will. He really rose to the occasion and he did well in the show jumping, too.”
That year, the show jumping phase was a strange mix of show jumping and cross-country fences, more like a hunter derby of today. It required competitors to canter through water and out over a vertical, and other unique cross-country-type combinations. “It was a really tough course and Gray tended to get flatter, and the last fence was going toward the out gate. He ticked the last fence but he won it.” With that win, she had reached her goal of being selected for the World Championships.
During the 1982 World Three-Day Event Championships in Luhmuhlen, France, a partially healed injury of broken transverse processes in her back gave Kim serious trouble on the cross-country, and she lost strength in the whole left side of her body. “The bones in my back came loose and Gray carried me through the whole second half of the course,” Kim recalled. “The next day during show jumping, that pain was extraordinary. I couldn’t help him in any way. I couldn’t support him, I could just point him and hang onto the mane.” The Gray Goose again rose to the occasion and they placed third, both individually and with the team.
Kim and The Gray Goose went on to place second at the Boekelo CCI***, compete at the World Championships in Australia and were named as one of the alternates for the 1984 Olympics.
Challenges to Come
More challenges were yet to come. A year after Kim and Jack divorced following 20 years of marriage, her 18-year-old daughter, Andrea, was abducted and missing for four months before a hunter found her bones in the woods of West Virginia. Not long after that, Kim had a bad car accident that resulted in a near death experience, and she struggled to recover from deep depression.
Through those extremely difficult times, Kim turned to her horses for support, remembering that The Gray Goose had carried her safely over the solid cross-country fences at the World Championships, clinging to his mane for balance when she was in extreme pain and had lost the strength of her left side. Following her car accident, Gray was again patient with her unsteady balance and gave her the encouragement to make her way back to physical and mental normalcy.
Gray has passed on and his ashes are buried at the Head of the Lake in the Kentucky Horse Park. Kim now rides Gideon Goodheart, who is related to Gray. “Gray taught Gideon everything he knew about me — how to carry me safely, and how to be steady when I wasn’t,” Kim said. “When I was at the lowest point of my life, Gideon found the way to kick me out of the deep emotional hole where I was self-destructing.”
Inspired after putting her life back on track, Kim completed a two-year Spiritual Life Coaching course. Gideon helps her in sessions to support others in their efforts to reclaim their lives. Kim now actively teaches and conducts clinics around the country, combining the heart and science of riding where she focuses on communication between horse and rider. Kim says her skills are “gleaned from a lifetime of studying learning styles, biomechanics, alternative techniques, successful competition, confidence coaching, and — always — listening to the horses.”
Kim says, “At 66, I no longer fly over fences. Instead, my stallion Gideon Goodheart and I dance in the art of dressage and together our hearts fly with joy as we support others in emotional healing.”
To learn more, visit Kim at thewayofthehorse.com.