By Tafra Donberger
Sisters are often at odds: hair, clothes, parents, possessions—sisters can find anything to quarrel over, or they can find something to bond over. Eventer Kelly Prather had the kind of sister who sparked an all-consuming love of horses that evolved into a wonderful career, and it came without the usual sister drama. Her sister, Colette, was 19 years old when Kelly was born.
Having that kind of space in between siblings gave Kelly the kind of relationship with her sister that a mother might have with a daughter. And, lucky for Kelly, Colette had been riding long before she was born and had Kelly on a horse before she could sit up by herself.
“I worked in a saddle shop and brought her to work,” Colette said. “I’d dress her up, I bought her a tiny saddle and took her to those little shows.” Growing up in California, Colette would haul Kelly everywhere they needed to go, along with their mother, Nancy, who was supportive of their endeavors. From leadline to short stirrup, Kelly began her riding career in the hunter-jumper rings.
Colette and Nancy knew from the time Kelly sat on their Appaloosa/Morgan pony that she had what it took to be a horsewoman. “We once told her, ‘No matter what Thunder does, smile,’” Colette said. “My mom took her into the class, and he reared up and Kelly just sat there smiling like nothing was wrong!
Colette had dabbled in eventing with Thunder herself, but it was Kelly who took him, at the ripe age of 24, onto an eventing course and sealed her own fate. “The first time I did it, I loved it,” Kelly said. “I got dumped in the bushes halfway around the course when I was 8, but I loved everything about cross-country.”
The Horse Life
For a kid who loved the speed and adrenaline that came with flying across the cross-country courses, Kelly knew that she wanted to pursue it further, and by the time she was 12 was training with Andrea Pfeifer at Chocolate Horse Farm. She rode anything, brave enough to take on the challenging horses that other kids couldn’t ride.
Kelly’s family enrolled her in a private school in Northern California, which allowed her to continue to pursue riding and enabled Kelly to graduate early and attend classes at the local junior college. That’s when her parents told her, “You need to do something!” Rather than attend college, her trainer suggested she pursue her British Horse Society Qualifications (BHSQ) and put her in touch with Lizzel Winter and Eric Winter at their yard in Chepstow, England. With that introduction, Kelly headed across the pond where she trained through level three of the BHSQ. When Kelly started searching for a horse in Ireland, she was offered a job with Carol Gee at what eventually became Fernhill Sport Horses in Kilkenny City.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Kelly helped Carol build the business, starting with only five horses and growing it into a sport horse enterprise. Kelly was riding and producing the horses and helping Carol search for potential talent, and remembers the first time she convinced Carol to take a chance on something she normally wouldn’t have. “There was a big, beautiful bay horse getting sold because he looked like a U.S. show jumper,” Kelly said. “He was maybe one that Carol wouldn’t have bought, but I was like, ‘He has America all over him!’ He was the first I got to pick out, and he meant so much to me!”
The big bay horse went on to success in the United States, and Kelly, while still searching for talent with Carol, began to look for something for herself. She came across Ballinkill Glory, called Pippa. She saw the mare when she was barely saddle broke. “You had to kick like a Pony Club rider to get around the arena,” Kelly said, but she brought her to Fernhill anyway.
Kelly had found her potential eventer, and California was calling her home. Luckily, Andrea purchased Pippa for Kelly to develop and both headed back over the Atlantic.
Back in the U.S.
In California, Kelly was juggling quite a few balls—she worked at Plaid Ranch with young horses up to 6 years old; continued to ride Pippa, who was living at Chocolate Horse Farm with Andrea; and imported horses in partnership with her friend Edward Widger, whom she met while living in Ireland.
Kelly’s journey with Pippa was educational for both horse and rider. The pair was quite successful, wining at the CCI4* level at Rebecca Farm, then dropped down to compete at lower levels and iron out some bumps in their training. Kelly, always willing to learn and always humbled by the sport of eventing, realized that producing five-star horses wasn’t a simple task. “I was riding a lot of horses through Preliminary Level, but just because you’re successful once or twice doesn’t mean you have all the tools in the bag,” she said.
With Pippa, Kelly gracefully navigated the levels, learned a lot and was thrilled to take Pippa to Kentucky for the Kentucky Three-Day Event for the first time in 2010; that year, Pippa was fit and ready but a sore shoulder meant they didn’t pass the jog and Kelly didn’t get to compete. “That was devastating in its own right,” Kelly said. “But we came back the next year. She has heart, she’s a phenomenal show jumper, lovely on the flat. She’s a really special horse.”
Pippa also went to Poland with Kelly for the World Cup Eventing Finals to represent the United States. They were fresh off a four-star win at Rebecca Farm in Montana, and Kelly was awarded a grant that gave her the ability to go to Europe. It was a quick turnaround: Kelly had only two weeks to figure out the nitty gritty of quarantine and paperwork; with her mom in tow, they made it first to Germany then on to Poland.
Her experiences at the World Cup were enlightening, and she returned home, retired Pippa in 2012, and continued working for Andrea. She attended a clinic with Eric Smiley, who told her she was good, but she needed to go ride for a five-star rider and suggested William Fox Pitt. “I was like, ‘OK, am I supposed to just call William Fox Pitt?’” Kelly said. “Eric called, and I went over, rode alongside of him and his team, and he offered me the job as a rider for 2012.
“At that point, I’d been at the five-star level, traveled to the World Cup and I thought I knew a lot, but I didn’t,” Kelly recalled. “So going to William’s I was ready to absorb everything. It really took my horsemanship and my riding education to a whole new level and it was a wonderful experience!”
Kelly returned to California in 2012, where she got a nudge from Bruce Davidson. “He said, ‘It’s hard to produce horses in California, California is always on fire!’” So in February 2013, Kelly headed east with her two young horses and one client horse. She rented stalls from Bruce in Ocala, Florida, and Unionville, Pennsylvania, for the respective seasons. It was the same work: days starting well before sunrise and ending well after it.
One of those young horses was Blackfoot Mystery, nicknamed Red, that Kelly had ridden while in California, but thought about while she was working in England. “I did everything I could to scrounge up money for him,” she said. “My dad had inherited a little bit of money they were going to use to pay off their mortgage, but he gave it to me.”
She began to produce Red and take him further up through the levels. “He was a fun horse to work with every day,” Kelly said. She competed at Jersey Fresh with him, where he qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She had put him on break, barefoot in the pasture, when Boyd Martin, whom she’d been taking lessons with, called her.
Though she had no intention to sell, Kelly was also building her program and knew she was unlikely to be selected for Rio, so she parted with him, and Boyd subsequently took Red to Fairhill, then the Kentucky Three-Day Event and ultimately, the Olympics. “That was pretty cool, to see the horse I produced go and represent the United States,” Kelly said. “Boyd is a phenomenal rider, and it was a proud moment to see Blackfoot Mystery go and do so well.”
Settling at Longwood
Kelly’s business continued to grow, but she had been living in a trailer, traveling between Pennsylvania and Florida as the seasons changed until finally she had another nudge. Her boyfriend, Joe Watkins, whom she had been dating since 2015, asked her to stay in Florida.
“I said yes, I’d like to not be a traveling gypsy,” Kelly laughed. Renting stalls from Joe’s family brought her program to their storied Longwood Farm South, which boasts of hosting the United States eventing team to train out of Ocala and helping to spark the huge eventing community that surrounds Ocala.
Now, Kelly operates her business, Kelly Prather Eventing, from Longwood, while continuing to juggle her many responsibilities. She develops horses and never fails to stop learning herself. She schools with Dennis Mitchell, who always keeps at least two young horses in her barn.
“Kelly is without a doubt one of the most dedicated horsewomen I’ve met,” Dennis said. “She’s going to produce the horse and do the right thing by the people. Integrity is a tough thing to find and she has it. She’s a great person as well as a great rider.”
Helping Joe run the farm has been an education in new and different ways: “I never knew I’d be an irrigation specialist, that I could pick out different pipes and sprinkler heads and learn how to run a crew of guys for mowing!” Kelly said. “It’s a heavenly place to live and seeing it from a different side gives me a lot of respect for those who run a farm.”
And even though Kelly now lives on the opposite side of the country, she and her big sister maintain that special bond that started so many years ago. “I’m always calling her for advice,” Colette said fondly. “Her dedication is 110%. She’s got a natural gift with horses!”
For more information, visit facebook.com/KellyPratherEventing
Photos by Aubray Vande Corput, Copper Arrow Photography, www.copperarrowphotography.com