Morgan Hill trainer Rhonda Heiner, who recently nabbed top honors at one of the largest equine events in the country, is showing her clients and the world that the expensive hobby of horse showing can be done on a budget.
A Morgan Hill resident of 10 years, Heiner came to the area after Gilroy trainer Jan Larsen, of Jan Larsen Performance Horses in Gilroy, heard of Heiner’s success in the competitive showing circuit and asked her to join her staff. Originally a resident of Washington, Heiner adapted to her South County home quickly.
“It was perfect, a lot more horse friendly,” Heiner said.
When Larsen decided to consolidate her barn in hopes of retirement, Heiner struck out on her own, establishing a successful training business in Morgan Hill. With clients of all skill levels, Heiner began to make a name for herself in the California horse show circuits.
In 2005, Heiner attended the Pinto Horse World Championship Show in Tulsa, Okla. The event ultimately sparked a passion in Heiner for competing in the Pinto Horse Association circuit.
“I like it because it’s a more level playing field,” she added. “You don’t need a $50,000 horse.”
Heiner feels that judges in the Pinto Horse Association – a governing body that oversees pinto horse competitions – are generally unswayed by the political aspect of who owns the horse or what a rider is wearing; rather, horses are judged solely on their talent. The pinto circuit is also welcoming, offers a broad variety of classes and places less emphasis on the markings of the horse, Heiner said.
Modestly and without drawing much attention from the public, Heiner and her mounts have been taking the Pinto world by storm, ever since Heiner got hooked on the breed in 2005.
In the world of equine sportsmanship, the pinto horse show arena does not receive as much attention in comparison to its highly popular counterpart: The American Paint Horse.
But Heiner disagrees with that sentiment, asserting “it’s a good a place as any.”
Most recently, Heiner and her clients traveled 1,600 miles east to Tulsa, Okla. to compete in the Color Breed Congress.
The Color Breed Congress is a prestigious horse show spread across five days. It features horses from four separate breed associations, more than 600 exhibitors, 224 different events and a whopping $65,000 in awards up for grabs.
“The numerous high-quality awards make this show the fall destination,” said Darell Bilke, executive vice president and chief operating officer with the Pinto Horse Association.
Several months before the competition, Rhonda stumbled across a 2-year-old gelding, or castrated male horse, in a Morgan Hill pasture. Seeing his potential, Heiner purchased the horse (named Wyatt), and began preparing him for the Congress. Two weeks before the show, however, it was unclear if Wyatt would live up to his potential: A sudden growth spurt created a strain in his back legs. Heiner was forced to put Wyatt on total stall rest in order to prevent the horse from becoming crippled.
Calling Wyatt an “old soul” in a 2-year-old’s body, Heiner the horse pulled through his bout of illness and made the three day trek to Oklahoma, where Wyatt lived up to his show name, “Oh I Will Win It.”
The young pinto finished “Reserve Champion” in the Two Year Old Hunter Under Saddle category, which placed him second best based on the movement and “effortless” appearance of the ride.
Heiner was not the only winner in her team, as student Megan Rottenborn and her horse, “Good to Be Kool” came home with the All-Around Championship for their category.
Heiner humbly notes that it was a tough competition pool with a lot of talented horses, but “you just ride your horse and hope for the best,” she added.
The Congress proved to be a success for Heiner, who knows a good horse when she sees one.
That goes for a certain underdog – or horse – named “Good Ride Cowboy,” an equine purchased by one of Heiner’s clients for a mere $500 that went on to win Reserve Champion in 2011 at the Pinto World Championship. The landmark win resonates with Heiner’s mantra, which is “it’s important for me to earn what we win.”
Despite all of her success, Heiner has still managed to stay under the radar.
“Mostly I just keep to myself and do my business here,” she admits.
Not liking large amounts of attention, Heiner rarely pays for advertisements, instead relying on word-of-mouth and referrals to attract new clientele.
When clients do come to Heiner, they are usually novice horsemen and women who recently purchased their first-ever horse. Heiner reinforces that her purpose is to make riding horses enjoyable and affordable for her clients.
“They come out for a lesson, to try it. You make it fun for them and they get addicted,” she said.
Though she recognizes that not all who come to her have the financial means to compete, Heiner allows her clients to excel at their own pace, encouraging small failures to allow improvement and keep clients’ confidence high.
She also tries to keep clients involved without straining them financially.
For financial planner Marit MacDonald, who is also the mother of a horse-crazy teenager, getting more for your money is appreciated.
Three years ago, the MacDonald family came to Heiner, wanting to begin showing horses as a family.
“When you’re not familiar with it, you’re placing you’re trust in your trainer, and she has our best interests at heart,” MacDonald said.
Single mom Jennifer Hollister also can appreciate Heiner’s approach to horse training as a “refreshing change”.
“She tries to work with us as much as possible,” Hollister said.
When her daughter, Ashlynn Yapp showed an interest in horses six years ago, Hollister – who had taken a hiatus from riding – never dreamed she would be back in the ring.
“It’s been great for us, increasing our mother-daughter connection,” Hollister said. “I’m blessed that we found this place.”