When Kim Schisler was eighteen months old, she rode her first horse. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to her mother, Teresa, when at the age of five, Kim snuck out of the family’s Brooks farmhouse to ride their horse. “I looked out the window and saw Kim with her arms wrapped around that old mare’s neck. This was a horse who didn’t like many people! It scared me to death, but I was also amazed that Kim was able to ride her,” remembers Teresa (a self-described former “horse-crazy kid” herself).
Mike and Teresa Schisler bought Kim her first horse when she was six, started her on riding lessons at seven and soon after started her competing in three-day events. Likened to an equestrian triathlon, eventing includes rider and horse teams competing in cross country, jumping and dressage events. (See What is Dressage? below)
“I liked the jumping and cross country events best, because they were fun and we got to ride fast,” says Kim. “As I got older, I started to appreciate dressage. I figured that the training would be good for me, no matter what events I competed in. For me, it has always been about my passion for horses. As long as I got to ride, I was happy.”
Even at such a young age, Kim knew that horses would be more than just a hobby in her adult life. “When Kim was about ten, she came downstairs and handed me a letter and said ‘Mom, can you mail this?’” recalls Teresa. The letter was addressed to a woman in England who was one of the world’s top horse trainers. Kim had decided that if she was going to keep improving, she needed to train with the best teachers possible.
Fortunately, Kim soon found a lifelong mentor in Julie Burns Richards, an Olympic equestrian athlete who helped her find some incredible “working student” opportunities, which allowed her to work in the stables and board at top trainer’s homes in exchange for riding lessons and experience riding Olympic-caliber horses.
Around this time, Kim’s interest in horses changed slightly; when she was in middle school, a dressage trainer spoke to her Pony Club, a group for junior equestrians. By then, several friends and mentors had encouraged her to explore dressage because she seemed to have a natural talent for it.
Kim’s interest in dressage meant that she would have to work hard and sacrifice quite a bit in order to excel. And she did. While most of her friends spent their summers playing, taking vacations and sitting by the pool, Kim would leave her family and friends to be a working student—putting in long hours at the stable so that she could study with the top dressage trainers in the world.
Teresa Schisler recalls Kim’s first working-student experience was at age twelve. “After a week spent in Athens, Georgia, taking lessons and working in a barn with 100 plus temperatures, I wondered if she would still be as enthusiastic. But, at the end of the week, Kim climbed into the car and said, ‘I am going to be somebody. I want to ride at the Olympic level one day.” And now she is riding at that level. It required a great deal of dedication at such a young age, as Sheree Bailey, a family friend, attests. “I’ve known Kim since she was a little girl. As hard as it has been at times, she has kept focused on her goal. I always tell her she is my hero, because so many others would have given up years ago,” she says.
And while a strong work ethic and positive attitude have gotten Kim through many tough competitions and training sessions, what she seems to treasure most are the things she learns along the way.
“Horse competition and training is tough .You won’t find many people who aren’t working hard. I learn something from every trainer I work with,” says Kim.
During high school, Kim excelled both in the classroom and on the varsity basketball team. In the summers, when she did enjoy a trip to the beach, her friends weren’t surprised to find her sitting under a cabana reading a book about the digestive system of a horse.
“Kim will succeed because she has integrity and a compassion for horses; she is honest and full of energy,” says her friend Shereen Fuqua. “But you cannot teach someone about getting the feel of a horse and riding at the Grand Prix level, which Kim has a natural talent for.”
But in 1999, Kim faced a major setback when her horse, Greystone, suffered from a bowed tendon. Kim began to think that three-day eventing might not be the path that God had planned for her. “If you look at the top Olympic competitors in horse jumping, it’s not a matter of if you fall, but when an injury will happen. Horses aren’t predictable. Just because we train them and try to domesticate them, they are still animals,” says Kim.
So the next year, when Kim started at the University of Georgia, she focused on her academic pursuits and scaled down her competitive schedule. When Greystone recovered, he stayed with Kim at school and they participated in some lower level eventing. Shortly after graduating cum laude from college with a degree in business management, Kim traveled to Rahden, Germany to be a working student for Wolfram Wittig, who coached several world champions and Olympic athletes. Although the six-day-a-week schedule was rigorous, the experience was priceless.
“My parents have always supported me in whatever I wanted to do. As long as I was progressing toward my goals, they helped me in whatever way they could,” says Kim. “I have met wonderfully generous people within the dressage community, but nobody compares to my family. I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without them.”
Last summer, Kim achieved a longtime goal of competing in the United States Equestrian Foundation (USEF) National Brentina Cup Dressage Championships–but not without a little help. “I was working in Florida and heard that the Brentina Cup had extended its age limit (which would make it my first and last year to compete). I knew I couldn’t afford to buy a Grand Prix horse, but figured that if it was meant to be, someone might just have a horse for me to ride,” says Kim.
Fortunately, Kim had met Shereen and Jeff Fuqua last summer, the owners of Collecting Gait Farms and the Title Sponsor for the USEF Collecting Gaits Farm Dressage Championships. “We had decided to sell our grand prix horse, Duvallier, who we sent to train with Steffen Peters, a two-time US Olympian and World Cup Champion. In 2008, Kim had exercised some of our horses while were traveling. We invited her to go train for several days with Steffen on Duvi,” says Shereen Fuqua.
Unfortunately, Duvi was seriously injured when he fell on the plane’s landing from California. He arrived in Florida with injuries that could have potentially ended his career. With the care of a top veterinarian and Kim’s around-the-clock attention, Duvi made a full recovery within a month. Kim and Duvi only had a few weeks to train, but managed to qualify for the championship just days before the final cutoff date.
“Kim fell in love with Duvi—and knowing both their talents—I promised Kim that she would qualify,” says Shereen. The Fuquas worked out an agreement with Kim that allowed her to be the new owner of Duvi, helping her to own a Grand Prix horse, which she had dreamed about for years..
After competing in several qualifying competitions, they secured a spot in the 2009 Brentina Cup held in June. Amazingly, Kim and Duvi earned the third highest score in the overall championships.
This prestigious honor was quickly followed by another: a couple months later, they earned a United States Dressage Federation Gold Medal at Grand Prix. “Most rider and horse teams train for years at Grand Prix events to be competitive,” says Shereen.
“We only had a few months to prepare. To go to the Bretina Cup and finish third was a huge accomplishment. And then to come home and win a gold medal at Grand Prix was just amazing!” says Kim. “One door kept closing, but I kept pushing. That’s one of life’s lessons. You work hard and you pursue your goals.”
While Kim is still competing, she strives to create some balance in her life. “Horses are 24/7. You can get very one-dimensional if you don’t get out of the barn,” says Kim. “Last summer, I went to Africa on a mission with my church. Once a week, I volunteer with a therapeutic equine program called Bethany Equine Aquatics (BEATS) for kids with autism and Down syndrome. It helps me keep perspective,” she continues.
Additionally, Kim is sharing what she’s learned with her own students. Her business, Still Waters Dressage, LLC, specializes in the training and instruction of dressage horses and riders. “Kim has the biggest heart. She is such a positive person who finds good in everybody. This comes through in her training and teaching style. She really energizes students to do well so they can get better,” says longtime friend Lauren Weil.
“Right now, all my clients have their own horses and train three to five days a week. All are experienced and talented riders. Since they all have other responsibilities, I try to be flexible in how we approach their lessons,” says Kim. “A lot of my joy comes from my relationships with my clients. We are a team. But I don’t want them to think they have to stay with me forever. That’s something that all trainers face. So I have learned not to burn bridges. My dad has always told me to show up on time, be honest and you’ll be fine.’’
“Kim is very accomplished and a well-respected rider. She has been a working student, and can understand things from the student’s perspective. She helps me reach my goals and is flexible about how we approach them. She always gives 110 percent effort,” says Rebecca O’Connor, one of Kim’s clients.
Kim aspires to represent the United States in an international competition, but for now is putting down roots in Georgia and developing her business. “Being in the Olympics is a dream. That’s different than a goal. I don’t want to devote my life and soul into making the Olympic team. I’m in a reenergizing phase,” she says. “Dressage is an art form that is only beautiful when it is not forced. I have trust in my faith. If I am meant to compete internationally, it will happen.”
What is Dressage?
Dressage (pronounced dress-ahhzh) focuses on developing a horse’s natural athletic ability and is considered by many equestrian experts to be the basis of success for the entire three-day competition. A French term meaning “training of horses,” dressage involves guiding a horse through a series of complex maneuvers by slight movements of the rider’s hands, legs and weight. At the same time, dressage is about aesthetics, celebrating the beauty of a horse’s movements, the intelligence of the creature itself.
During dressage competitions, judges score the horse and rider on the accuracy of each movement as they complete numerous drills and exercises within a designated period of time. The most accomplished horse and rider teams compete at the Grand Prix levels and international competitions, such as the Olympic Games, which have included female competitors since 1952.
Despite its formal, dance-like appearance, dressage actually has its roots in military training. Dating as far back as ancient Greece, the lives of soldiers depended on how quickly and nimbly their horses reacted in battle, and it was vital that the animals be impeccably trained. Sometimes called horse ballet, musical freestyle dressage routines are gaining popularity in the United States.