Kelly Kocher: Horse professional from the age of 16

Published 10:33 am Friday, June 26, 2009

Kelly Kocher was born in 1959 in Bellefonte, Penn., near the Penn State University campus. Yes, he will turn 50 in August!

He took English riding lessons at a nearby farm called Jodon&squo;s Stables. Kocher&39;s family got into horses in an unusual way. Kelly was on a family vacation with his parents in Maine when he was seven years old and they saw a sign saying &dquo;Horses For Sale.&dquo; As it turned out, these horses were the last of the famous general Patton&squo;s Lippizzaners that had been given to him for saving the Spanish Riding School in Austria in World War II. The three mares and the stallion were quite old, but his parents bought them and had them shipped to Pennsylvania, where they paid board to keep them at a local stable. This purchase made his parents decide to purchase an old closed-down dairy farm where they started a breeding operation. Through a lot of hard work and refurbishing of the farm, research and luck, and meeting the right people, they imported two more mares from the Spanish Riding School. They opened a boarding business with 20 stalls that Kelly&squo;s father had built.

The winters are freezing cold near Penn State, so Kocher&squo;s parents decided they needed an indoor riding arena so the boarders could ride indoors in bad weather. To justify the cost of the ring, they initiated a lesson program with nearby Penn State. They ran an ad in the local paper for a riding instructor and the one who answered the ad was a hunt seat instructor. That was how Kocher&squo;s family became passionate about hunters and jumpers.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

&dquo;The story I want to tell from my childhood is important for riders and riding today,&uot; Kocher said. &uot;Once my mother had established the direction we would pursue with the horses, which was hunt seat, she would periodically go to the racetrack and buy young thoroughbreds and bring them home. Then all of us kids, ranging from ages 12-14 years old, would work them at home at a walk, trot, and canter and include some low fence and cavaletti jumping. All the kids at the barn, customers, too, would have the horses jumping small courses in a week&squo;s time. If the horses did not perform suitably, we assumed they were not appropriate or ready for jumping and equitation. We may have fallen off a lot, but we got right back on and didn&squo;t think a thing about it.

&uot;We learned that there is an element of deep sensitivity to riding by trial and error. It is not always mechanical and rigid as riding is sometimes taught today. What I mean is that many riders today do not know where they are on the horse. Mechanics cannot teach feel, rhythm, or the timing of the canter strides which determines how you get to the jump!

&uot;Unfortunately, I don&squo;t have answers here, due to insurance and liability issues that horse trainers are forced to deal with on a daily basis. People who know me well know that I teach my wife and children differently than customers, due to liability. My kids get on everything in the barn, just like I did. &dquo;

&dquo;As a child my biggest influence, as with everyone who had horses in Western, Penn., was Daniel Lenehan in Sewickley, Penn. He was the huntsman for the Franktown Hunt in Altoona, Penn., when Altoona was a wealthy town. Joe Darby molded me as a rider and a horseman, but the bottom line is that each horse teaches me the most and it&squo;s usually through trial and error,&dquo; said Kocher.

Kocher attended Penn State University and has been a professional since he was 16, giving group lessons at his parents&39; farm after school. Kocher taught all the way through college and then worked, rode and groomed for Joe Darby at Any Day Farm in Southern Pines, N.C. That&39;s where Kocher was molded as a rider and a trainer, he said. Darby had incredibly good horses and they always won. At horse shows on a national level it was between Rodney Jenkins and Darby. On a local level, North Carolina horse shows like the ones at Harmon Field, Kocher would be between Darby and Val Haynes, who was one of the greatest riders in the sport of show jumping in Tryon.

Kocher then went to the Four Seasons Farm in Ringoes, N.J., where he was barn manager and assistant trainer. Kocher said he thought his parents&39; farm had taught him the volume side of the business, but it was nothing compared to Four Seasons.

&dquo;There were 60 horses, two horse shows a month on the premises, usually an A rated show, also a riding school from beginners all the way to A showing clients, plus a big number of sales operations. It was like the 7/11 of the horse business,&dquo; said Kocher.

His next move was to become the riding director of the Grier School, a private boarding school for girls in Tyrone, Penn.

&dquo;This experience taught me how to deal with administrators and show accountability,&dquo; said Kocher. &dquo;When I left the Grier School I married and had two little boys named Andy and Matt. Andy is 26 years old and a great rider who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with his wife Ashley. They own and operate Westminster Stables and have a new baby, Austin. Yes, I am a grandfather! My son Matt is an all American wrestler from the University of Pittsburgh. He graduated last year and lives at State College, Penn., and coaches wrestling there.

&uot;I divorced after leaving Grier School and went back to my parents&squo; farm. There I met Susie, my wife of 20 years, as she was taking group riding lessons.&dquo;

Susie and Kocher moved to Philadelphia. They took everything Kocher had learned and added a group of Grand Prix horses. Kocher competed strongly for 10 years and long-listed twice for the Olympics.

The Kochers moved to Tryon in 1977 to try to slow down and enjoy life more, Kocher said. They really wanted to watch Mike and Emily grow up, he said. Kocher had missed a lot of his older son&squo;s wrestling matches and other activities because he was on the road with shows, and he didn&squo;t want that to happen again.

Susie, Kocher&squo;s wife, enjoys foxhunting and hunts with the Tryon Hounds and Green Creek Hounds when her busy schedule permits. She may also return to the Foxhunters Cup at the Blockhouse races. Susie rides as much as she can and she is involved in the kids&39; riding and showing.

Kocher&squo;s son Andy shows at the Grand Prix level and is taking four clients to Devon. After that he will show in the Grand Prix and Music City and Germantown Charity Grand Prix. Another son, Matt, manages a gym and coaches wrestling in State College, Penn.

Kocher&squo;s son Mike is a straight A sophomore at Polk County High School and plays soccer for Polk. Mike has had a very successful riding career with riding for the Towell family and Finally Farm in Camden, S.C., as well as for riding for SBS Farms with Jennifer Alfano and Susie Schoellkopf of Buffalo, N.Y. In Tryon, Mike rides with his dad. He has qualified for medal finals (Penn. National Horse Show) and Maclay Regionals in Jacksonville, Florida. He has also qualified for the very difficult USEF talent search finals in Goldstone, N.J. He has two very good hunters ‐ Hunting Country, who will help Mike compete in his first USHJA Hunter&squo;s Derby in Pennsylvania in June. Berlin is a competitive large junior hunter. Mike has had two new hunters compete in the Junior Jumper and local Grand Prix. These include Ashley Morrison Kocher&squo;s Paramore 6 and Cedar Hill Farm&squo;s Redding. Mike is waiting to see if he made the cut for the emerging athlete&squo;s program from zone to regional.

Kocher&squo;s daughter Emily qualified Honeytree&squo;s Lily Bud for the 2009 small pony USEF Finals in Lexington, Ken. in August. She was Zone three champion for USEF small pony in 2008. She had to say goodbye to Kocher Farm&squo;s Tack Shop&squo;s Dazzle and is ready to start work on three large ponies that will be ready for 2010. Emily will also be showing the horse Hunting Country with Mike as he will be teaching her to jump 3 foot fences. Emily loves performing with the Tryon Little Theater, and she also plays piano at the Fine Arts Festival in Greenville, S.C. She is a straight A student at Grace Christian School and is looking forward to Polk County Middle School, where she would like to play soccer and basketball.

Kocher says the greatest mistake he has made in riding and training was when he was younger and tried to achieve too much. He would set the bar too high for himself and his clients. Age has been the cure for that, he said. Now, if a horse peaks at jumping 3&squo;6&dquo; as a career, Kocher plans to show the horse at 3&squo;, which will offer a comfort zone if the horse gets into a tough spot. As for riders, if clients set their goals too high for their ability he would try to get them there ‐ but now Kocher tells them truthfully they are unrealistic and is honest about obstacles such as money, time, and a horse&squo;s ability. Kocher works together with what is given to him with a horse and rider and makes the best plan for each one.

Family and community is what Kocher values most in life, he said. &dquo;I feel blessed to get to do what I love most in life and in my work.&dquo;

As for the horse industry in Tryon, Kocher feels that financially he would have been better off in Philadelphia but he taught lessons until 10 p.m. three nights a week, all day Saturday and Sunday, and showed 45 weeks a year. He said Tryon has given him and his family the opportunity to enjoy a beautiful town, cut his overhead, and still do what he loves and enjoys in the community. His children are involved in activities outside of horses and Kocher loves the lack of traffic in Hunting Country and Tryon.

Kocher said his immediate goals are to do whatever it takes to help his children have as much success in whatever they choose to do and get them the best education he can give them so they have a really good jump start in their adult life.