Free steed feeds need for speed at Berrien fairPublished 8:26am Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Union High School sophomore McKenzie Kuseske turned the adage of you get what you pay for on its head last week at the Berrien County Youth Fair.
Though the 15-year-old daughter of Gary and Amy Kuseske lives in Cass County’s Silver Creek Township, she trains with Ed Cottrell of Downey Street, who grew up in Buchanan, so she belongs to the Happy Landings 4-H club in Berrien County and competes with her two horses in Berrien Springs and races and practices in the Redbud City.
In fact, she had just returned with a reserve championship from the state horse show held during the week of the Cass County Fair.
McKenzie turned Jet, her free half-quarterhorse, half-Arabian mount loose in gymkhana and came away with the traveling grand champion’s trophy sponsored since 1996 by the Dave Tellman family, plus a slew of blue ribbons which go well with the specially-made barrel saddle with blue suede from her uncle, Jim Conrad, and her blue eyes.
Amy’s brother Jim, who grew up in Dowagiac, works as a security guard in a mental hospital in Oklahoma and is married to Pauline. Their two sisters live in Texas.
The horse more than lives up to its name, but maybe it should be rechristened Jet Blue.
Gymkhana consists of a series of five timed race maneuvers – barrels, keyhole, speed and action, poles and flags.
“The time doesn’t lie,” says McKenzie, a young woman of few words, such as her reaction to getting Jet for free: “Wow!”
Her name appears on the back of the trophy and on the back of her saddle.
Her parents “nearly had a heart attack” Thursday night when soggy conditions caused a spill.
“She fell off, the horse fell on her and the horse went rolling. Oh my gosh! I turned my head. I couldn’t watch.”
Amy shivers despite Tuesday afternoon’s heat outside their vine-covered stone house on Priest Street which has been their home for 11 years while Jet tries to munch his way around the picnic table.
“I had a small stroke,” Gary agrees. “His legs slid out from underneath him as they turned a big corner at full speed. He went down sideways and she just kept going straight. He hopped right back up and finished running the pattern, just like he was supposed to, turned around and started whinnying, like ‘Where’s McKenzie?’ And she hopped up and said, ‘I’m okay, is my horse okay?’ ”
“She had already won first place in three of the five classes where you have to run down and back as fast as you can go,” Amy said. “It was so scary for us.”
Though “terrifying” for her folks, McKenzie escaped with bruised legs.
Jet joined their family in February 2008.
“She was on dreamhorse.com,” Amy said.
Understandably, Jet’s owners wanted to sell the horse, but McKenzie “kept negotiating with them. Gary said, ‘If you find a horse, it better be free’ ” because they are also taking care of Amy’s mom, who lives with them.
“We didn’t have a hayfield back then,” adds Gary, who has worked for K&M Machine-Fabricating in Cassopolis for 24 years and wanted a little farm almost as bad as his wife wanted a horse as a little girl.
“It was always my dream to have a horse, but we lived in town,” Amy said, “and we couldn’t afford it.”
McKenzie “tried to trade my tractor” for Jet, but her bargaining paid big dividends. “The lady she got him from” in Mishawaka, Ind., “came to the fair last year to see him and again this year. She was so proud and just knew it was fate that McKenzie was supposed to have this horse because it was too much for them. It was 3 and hardly broke,” Amy recalled.
McKenzie has been riding since she was 2, but has really blossomed with Jet in her life.
In fact, this was just her second year of fair competition.
“I started showing last year,” McKenzie said. “At state I had second in barrels and reserve champion in barrels. Our 4-H leaders go to a board meeting and you have to have some people nominate you. They look at what you did last year at the fair. I got third with him last year. I knew I was going to do pretty well this year because he’s going a lot faster than last year, when he was a baby. I race a lot over at Buchanan Westerners. That’s where I get most of my ribbons,” which now number in the 50s. “I show two to three times a month.”
McKenzie, who would like to try her hand at rodeo, said she has also raced at Victory Ranch in Marcellus.
Her mom figures her need for speed might be genetic since Gary hung on to the Nova he had as a teen-ager.
Nothing seemed to make sense to McKenzie until she started racing her horse.
“Nothing fit,” Amy said. “She tried so many things. Gymnastics, softball, volleyball and dance. It’s her love, and I’ve never seen a bond like that with a horse. He loves her so much it’s unbelievable.”
It’s a rapport she fortifies with a daily routine.
“It takes a lot of practice time in the summer,” McKenzie said.
In pleasure classes, McKenzie competes with Dance, a registered quarterhorse mare she obtained in trade for 50 hay bales.
“People are giving horses away because of the economy,” Gary said. “They can’t afford to keep them and board them. We’re lucky we’ve got a hayfield.”
“(Judges) look at how the horse collects itself and moves,” McKenzie explains. “They have to have good confirmation, which is the way the horse is built. (Jet) is one of the ugliest horses ever built, with horrible confirmation, but I don’t see any of that in him. He’s racing because of that. I could never take him in a pleasure class. Dance has great confirmation.”
After high school, “I’d like to be a vet” or “go to rodeos and show bigger.”
“It’s unbelievable what she’s done,” Amy says. “And the Cottrells have done so much for us, so much for McKenzie, this past year.”
Amy’s knowledgeable friend Pam was apprehensive about Jet, but accompanying them, pronounced him fit based on “his gentle eyes. He’s got the brain of a quarterhorse and the speed of an Arab, but he’s not flighty.”
“She went from beginner to champion in such a short time,” Gary agrees. “Her horse is only 4, so he’s got a lot of time.”