By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Hannah Waroway
If Kirsten Hannah isn’t riding in the show ring, you can find her on the sidelines behind a camera. Kirsten is a junior at North Carolina State, an accomplished equestrian and the owner of a successful photography business—something she started at just 14 years old. Her life is a balancing act, but she wouldn’t want it any other way. Now that graduation is on the horizon, Kirsten can’t wait to scale up her business and accomplish her show-ring goals.
Kirsten grew up surrounded by horses in her mother’s barn, Trademark Stables, in Sanford, North Carolina. “My mom, Jennifer Bryant, and my stepdad, Jeff, have been 100% supportive of my riding dreams,” Kirsten said. “I’ve ridden horses since I could walk, so I cannot remember my first ride. I’ve grown up at the barn riding, mucking stalls, feeding horses and going to horse shows with our barn even if I didn’t show.”
Even as a toddler, Kirsten would find ways to entertain herself at the show grounds. “I would run around the horse shows at Triangle Farms in my pull-ups, making new friends, playing with Breyers and going to the tack shops,” Kirsten said. Eventually, she started showing on her own, and soon dominated the circuit with her pony, Mr. Razzle Dazzle, better known to Kirsten as Rascall.
“Rascall packed me around many different shows and truly started my love for the sport,” Kirsten said. Together, they showed in crossrails and short stirrup. “Rascall and I had something special, and he left the biggest hoof print on my life. We stopped counting his age as he got older because if you said it out loud, it was almost guaranteed that he’d buck you off the next day!”
As Kirsten progressed, Jennifer allowed her more opportunities to ride different horses, something Kirsten says was integral in her riding development. “I have been provided with opportunities that I would never have had if it weren’t for my mom being a trainer,” Kirsten said. “Before my stepdad was involved, my mom was a single mom trying to provide me with the horse show life that every kid dreamed of. She never said no to a horse show even if she had to eat Spaghetti-os for the next week. I will never be able to repay her for giving me that desired childhood that many kids don’t get.”
Pony Finals and a Real-Life Unicorn
In 2016, Kirsten was matched with Falling Moon Martini, a shy, feisty and anxious pony that was initially meant for another rider in the barn. “I fell in love with him,” Kirsten said. “We were very successful together in the ponies at the ‘C’ shows so we decided to try out an ‘A’ show at the beginning of the show season. Martini qualified for Pony Finals the first time out and I was over the moon.”
Despite the commotion of the show grounds and large, intimidating arena at Pony Finals, Kirsten’s trust in Martini never faltered. “I knew Martini was going to be amazing. Martini had never stopped with me and would jump fire if I’d asked him to,” Kirsten said.
“I told my mom that I had 100% trust in him. I was definitely scaring her a little bit at the time since she just wanted me to get around the course, but I had no doubts,” she said. “At the end of my course, all of my emotions poured out and I was crying alongside my mom and Jeff walking out the gate.” When it was all said and done, Kirsten’s belief in Martini paid off, together placing fifth Welsh Pony Cob, 14th Over Fences, and 18th Overall in the Medium Green Pony division.
Soon after her Pony Finals success, Kirsten was ready to move up from the pony division. “We purchased Mer Soleil, or Baxter, about seven years ago while I was riding Martini,” Kirsten said. “We leased him out for two years and then I started showing him in the Children’s five years ago. Baxter was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m so thankful that we bought him. He is a real-life unicorn. He’s the most gentle giant you will ever meet. He’s not only great with me but great with the little kids at our barn. He is one of the nicest horses that I’ve ever had the opportunity to ride, and I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Kirsten has competed in the North Carolina Hunter Jumper Association Medal Finals horse show since her days on Rascall, but her first win at the show came in 2020 aboard Baxter. “This medal final was specifically special because of Baxter’s injury. On the week of Christmas in 2018, Baxter had to go in for a splint bone surgery,” Kirsten said. Unfortunately, the simple surgery took a turn or the worse when Baxter developed colic after the anesthesia.
“He had to go in for colic surgery just a couple of hours after. Once Baxter woke up from the colic surgery, he began colicking again and we were running out of options. We decided to give him a motility drug that would either fix everything going on or cause him to rupture and die,” Kirsten said. “Thankfully, the motility drug was successful and Baxter recovered from both surgeries. Through the whole process of surgeries and rehab, Baxter and I grew a bond that can never be broken. He is truly my one and only unicorn, so winning that Children’s Medal Final was not just any win for me, it proved that Baxter and I together could come back better than ever.”
Kirsten Hannah Photography LLC
Kirsten discovered her love for photography at age 12. “I would use some of my friends’ cameras and take pictures at every horse show we went to. I would even take shots on my phone during lessons and get the timing perfectly,” Kirsten said. “People started to notice my talent, so my mom and I went in on a beginner camera together.”
Eventually, Joan Petty from Triangle Horse Shows took notice of Kirsten’s photos on Facebook and asked her to start photographing the show. “I was just 14 then, and I started my business called Kirsten Hannah Photography LLC,” she said. “I’ve now been shooting for Joan for six years and my business has grown exponentially. I’ve grown to love photography and expanded to different types of photography other than equine.”
At shows, she has a booth with computers so riders can view their images, and her goal is to keep her prices affordable. “I love doing show photography because it’s all of my favorite things put into one,” Kirsten said. “I get to hang out with all of the people I love while I’m working and making money! I get to watch some of the best riders and horses and capture images for them that they love as well.”
College Life and Future Plans
Despite running an already successful business, Kirsten always knew she wanted to go to college, and she chose close-to-home North Carolina State so she could balance all three. “I study ag business, and I’ve met some of the best people at my school. My lifelong friends have been made through NC State. I also love the football games and tailgates. NC State has allowed me to do most of my classes online so that I can continue to work, ride and travel,” she said.
Now a junior, Kirsten has managed her busy life by taking one step at a time. “I’m a big ‘list girl’ and check things off my list as I complete them. Since my school work is online, I try to complete school work at the beginning of the week so I don’t have to worry about it. I go to the barn two or three times a week to ride and I consider that my ‘getaway’ or ‘free time,’” Kirsten explained. “As for working, I try not to overbook myself when I have a lot going on. I do turn away photoshoot opportunities even if I would love to do it because I know I’ll be mentally and physically exhausted. I think that balancing it all for me is really just making sure I have a good amount of work time to afford what I need and a good amount of time for my personal life so that I’m not mentally exhausted.”
With Baxter, Kirsten plans to retire him down to teach other riders. “He’s brought me some of my greatest accomplishments. He’s been champion multiple times in Raleigh, Tryon, WEC Ocala—he owes me nothing and I owe him the whole entire world,” Kirsten said. Her plan is to find a young horse to bring along, preferably a “Baxter in baby horse form,” she laughed.
After graduation, Kirsten hopes to grow her photography business and build the life of her dreams. “Kirsten has grown up at the show, in the barn, looking up to the older girls and being a role model for the younger girls,” said Kirsten’s mom, Jennifer. “I couldn’t be more proud of the well-rounded young adult she has developed into because of this amazing sport.”
“Where I am today and all I’ve accomplished would not be possible without my parents and my barn family,” Kirsten said. “My barn family is one of the best support systems I could ever imagine. Some of the girls have known me since I was 4, and have helped me grow up into the person that I am today. I cannot thank them enough for all of their love and support throughout my life.”
Photos by Hannah Waroway, hpwaroway.myportfolio.com