By Britney Grover
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
In talking to siblings Keri and Kris Kampsen, the word “lucky” comes up often. They both feel lucky that their parents, who introduced them to horses at a young age, always supported their equestrian passions. They feel lucky that, despite years of living apart pursuing different goals, they’ve remained close as a family.
Keri and Kris feel lucky that they’ve reached career milestones and goals they’ve worked so hard for, whether it’s Kris playing high goal polo or Keri riding to national hunter championships.
Though they’ve pursued different equestrian sports, each one is passionate about what they’re doing and feel lucky to be able to do it every day — because each one has also survived injuries with career-ending prognoses. All the while, they’ve remained a tight-knit family, ready to rally around one another and help each other reach amazing goals.
The Kampsen family was submerged into the horse world by chance. On their honeymoon in Jamaica, Patricia Kampsen bought her husband, Edward, polo lessons at Chukka Cove Polo Club. “He just loved it, and that was it,” Kris related of his father. “He decided he wanted to pursue polo when he got back to America.”
Edward did continue playing polo, eventually helping to found the Tampa Bay Polo Club. When he gave Keri and Kris a much earlier introduction to ponies and the equestrian passion than he had, he probably didn’t realize just what they were getting into.
Kris and Keri received a pony for Christmas when they were little more than toddlers. “That was the beginning of it,” Keri said. “Sugar was very white and had a super long mane, and we would drag him all over the farm.”
“We used to just run around the family farm in Tampa like lunatics on our little pony,” Kris said. “Having fun doing that is one of my earliest memories of horses.”
Both kids took to the saddle and to horses right away. “As kids, especially when we both did the hunter-jumpers, we used to fight non-stop,” Keri said. “We were really competitive — oh, we would battle! But it was fun. I think that sense of competition and drive, even amongst ourselves, was what drove us to excel.”
When Kris was 8, he went on a summer polo vacation with his dad that changed the course of his life. “He took me to go stick-and-ball, and I got to play chukkas with Dad and some other polo guys as just a little kid,” Kris said. “That’s when I really wanted to change from jumping to doing polo. By the time I was 9, I was fully addicted.”
Both of their parents supported Kris and Keri in pursuing their passions, as long as they were willing to put in the time and effort. “Our family is very goal-oriented, and I think that kept us both on our path to achieving what we wanted to achieve,” Keri said. “My mom always sat us down and had us go over what our plan was and what our goals were.”
The family farm took on the name Two Goals Farm, one goal being hunter-jumpers and the other, polo. Pursuing separate sports within the equestrian realm proved more uniting than divisive for Keri and Kris — even when their individual passions literally took them in different directions.
When Keri was 13, she moved her horses from the family farm to Christina Schlusemeyer’s Quiet Hill Farm in Ocala, Florida. She went to school in Tampa on Mondays and Tuesdays, then spent the rest of the week in Ocala, where she lived at Christina’s house. “I rode nonstop all day, every day,” Keri said. “It was incredible.”
As a Junior in 1996, Keri was the national Overall Large Junior Hunter Champion. The following year, she etched her name into history as winner of the ASPCA Maclay Finals, then held at Madison Square Garden. Her final Junior year, Keri had started college and took fourth in the Hunter Seat Medal Finals.
Meanwhile, Kris was working toward his own goals. He began playing with his dad at Tampa Bay Polo Club. “They had a great group of guys,” Kris said. “A lot of the pros that I grew up learning from actually ended up in Palm Beach, and 10, 12, 15 years later, as a kid trying to make it in polo, I ended up getting to play against those guys that were my idols. Luckily, I had support from my family. I wanted to play polo, and they let me follow my passion to move to Palm Beach when I was 15.”
Kris was invited to work for the legendary Guillermo “Memo” Gracida, Jr., where he received a trial-by-fire education. “It was a quick learning process — it was sink or swim with Memo,” Kris laughed fondly. “He was awesome. I’m still friends with Memo to this day, and he’s still an idol for his accomplishments.”
“We were both very fortunate that our parents were able to support us pursuing different goals as teenagers,” Keri said. “I lived in Ocala basically, and he lived in Wellington. We were lucky to have that support behind us — I don’t know many parents that would send their kids off in different directions.”
The family’s goal-setting worked for both paths. Though Keri calls him one of the smartest people she’s ever met, Kris never wanted to go to college, so he didn’t. Instead, he graduated from high school with the help of a tutor in Wellington and delved immediately — and successfully — into playing polo. “I was able to accomplish most of my goals along the path, and keep going,” Kris said. “I’ve had a great life in polo. I’ve been lucky enough to play with most of my idols, and it’s been pretty epic.”
Keri always wanted to go to New York University, so that’s what she did. “I love the hunter ring. I really do,” she said. “It’s definitely my passion. I always knew I would ride; I didn’t know if I would do it for a living. I went to NYU and I have my degree in economics. When I was at school, it became really clear to me that I didn’t want to work in an office. I wanted to work with horses and give it a try. So that’s what I did, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
By the way they talk about their careers, it would be easy to assume that Keri and Kris have always had a smooth ride. But each one savors what they do so much because of, and not in spite of, having to overcome career-threatening setbacks.
Immediately after college, Keri took a riding job in California. While competing in the Menlo Charity Horse Show a few years later, the horse she was riding stumbled and fell on her. Keri broke her back, scapula and nose, and tore all the soft tissue in her left shoulder. The recovery process included thoracic outlet surgery to reroute her brachial plexus and years of getting “put back together.”
Sports psychologist Margie Sugarman has worked with Keri over the years, as far back as the Maclay Finals Keri won as a teenager. Now, Margie also rides with Keri. “One of the things I found very impressive,” Margie said, “was that when Keri has gone through things, including the accident, she’s used a lot of the coping skills and techniques in her personal life which we’d spoken about only in relation to riding, and vice versa. It just shows how riding teaches about life, and what you know about life can impact riding. It goes both ways.”
Nevertheless, Keri’s life both riding and personal was completely upended. After the injury, she stayed involved with the horse world by judging — but it wasn’t enough. “When I got hurt, I was talking to Margie and feeling very lost about what I was going to do, because my prognosis was not full recovery,” Keri said. “Again, I’m very determined and goal-oriented, and I wanted to ride again. So there was really no option in my mind.”
Margie presented an option. With so much crossover between life and riding, as well as Keri’s experience with all different personalities of riders in her barn, Margie suggested Keri explore psychology. After listening to a few of Margie’s calls to get a feel for the work, Keri went back to New York to pursue a master’s degree in social work as a fallback in case she never rode again. “I made physical therapy and going to school my job,” she said.
Three years after her accident, Keri missed riding so much that she called Val Renihan to see if there was a horse she could try riding. Val did let Keri ride — and asked if Keri could help teach on the weekends. That invitation heralded Keri’s reentry into the horse world, and she soon returned to Florida to open her own business — adopting the family farm’s name.
She was there in 2015 to rally with her parents and Kris’ wife when Kris broke his neck in a mountain biking accident in Colorado. He was flown to Miami, where his family waited through his surgery. “When I broke my neck, I didn’t know if I would be able to play again, if I was going to ride again, I didn’t know any of that,” Kris said. “But a lot of people really stood behind me and supported me and really pushed me to keep going.”
During the six months he couldn’t ride and had to wear a neck brace, Kris got his insurance license and started a business. As he recovered, members of the polo community earned Kris’ undying gratitude by giving him opportunities to play and make his way back into high goal polo — with greater appreciation and a business that will support him and his polo passion. “Thinking 10 or 15 years down the road, I want to be able to play polo because I love it and not because I have nothing else,” he said.
“I honestly feel like our injuries have made us better in a lot of ways,” Keri said. “Obviously no one ever wants to be hurt, but I truly can’t remember fighting so hard to get better just so I could ride again. And at that point in my career when I got hurt, I was very burned out and exhausted. I don’t know if that was just the hard reset my life needed in order to know that that’s what I wanted to do again. But it’s all I wanted to do.”
Beyond returning to the saddle and to international hunter derbies, Keri’s sales business is thriving. She partnered with Lexy Reed to import and develop young horses, which the COVID-19 pandemic helped Keri realize she truly enjoys. Having time to really train the young horses, without the pressure of shows, so that they were ready for the 2021 season has resulted in Two Goals Farm’s best year yet.
Keri is also excited about returning to the judge’s booth. This year she will be judging the same event she won at Madison Square Garden in 1996: the Maclay Finals. “Judging has made me a better rider and exhibitor, for sure,” she said. “I get more nervous going to judge a big competition than I do riding in one! I always want to do my best; I want to be as fair as I possibly can be. And these are the people I’ll be standing at the in-gate with next week. I feel more pressure judging than I do riding, but I really love it.”
Like Keri, Kris has enjoyed downtime from the pandemic. He’s been growing his insurance agency, EMAR Associates, Inc., helping clients with all of their insurance needs from personal home and auto to businesses and farms. Kris benefits from the support of his in-laws’ national agency, and has enjoyed breaking into small groups to continue playing polo. Even more, he enjoyed simply being home. “It was an incredible time for us in that we got to spend so much more time with our family,” he said. “Having two young kids, it was amazing to have them experience everything every day with me and not have to worry about anything else. It was awesome.”
Kris and his wife, Ali, live down the street from Keri with their two boys: Rowan, 4, and Hayes, 2. Keri savors being the doting aunt. “I get them all sugared up, and then I head home,” she joked. “I’m over there all the time; I absolutely adore those kids, and spend as much time as I can with them.”
Both boys adore horses, although Kris intends to support them in following their own passions, whatever they may be, just as his parents did for him — and continue to do. They watch Kris play and Keri ride often, traveling down from Tampa where Edward continues to practice medicine. In fact, there’s a full surgery kit in Keri’s spare bedroom closet; Edward has been known to perform “kitchen operations” and stitch up injured riders. “Especially the polo guys,” Keri said. “Our parents are amazing support, and our mom is definitely our biggest cheerleader.”
Despite being totally enamored with their own disciplines, Kris and Keri also love watching each other play and ride. “Jumping’s incredibly hard,” Kris said. “It’s such an amazing sport, just incredible. I love to go watch and cheer people on.”
“I love watching polo, and supporting my brother and my family,” Keri echoed. “I’m really good at the tailgating part. I can’t believe what Kris does — it’s terrifying to go that fast.”
Keri says she hasn’t even stick-and-balled in 10 years, but last summer, Kris had a “jumping day” at Ansgar and Ellen Holtgers’ farm. It may not have been exactly fair, as Kris and fellow polo player Nic Roldan jumped off with one of Kris’ many show-jumping friends: Canadian Olympian Yann Candele. “It was the best thing you could have seen,” Kris laughed. “Yann kept going, ‘Higher! Higher!’ We had a blast.”
“That was amazing to watch,” Keri added. “Kris can ride — he’s very capable, and quite accurate with his distances.”
The supportive family on the sidelines also extends to Ali’s parents and siblings; even Keri often spends time with the entire group, such as on Super Bowl Sunday. Their closeness is hard to come by, and they don’t take that for granted. “I think it’s pretty amazing; I don’t have many friends that are close with their siblings as we are,” Keri said. “We all get along great. I’m over at his house all the time. Our family holidays are always hilarious. It’s good — it’s really good. I feel lucky in that department.”
“It’s so lucky,” Kris affirmed. “I look at all these families that have strife and conflict and no one gets along. All of us, as a weird, collective group, respect that we each have other passions, other differences, other things that are important to us, and we go from there.”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com