2019 USDF Volunteer of the Year Kristi Wysocki works tirelessly to advance US sport-horse breeding
By Penny Hawes
Not so long ago, American sport-horse breeders had little access to education and few opportunities to earn recognition. Breeders advocated for a share of the dressage resources, and one of their fiercest supporters is USDF Sport Horse Committee co-chair Kristi Wysocki.
“She’s always willing to speak her mind,” says Wysocki’s co-chair, Natalie DiBerardinis, adding that she “really advocates for breeders and the development of young horses in this country. We need more strong voices like hers.”
For that strong voice and what it’s helped to produce, Wysocki was honored as the 2019 USDF Volunteer of the Year. USDF president Lisa Gorretta called her “a truly dedicated volunteer who has unselfishly given her time and expertise in so many areas for the betterment of the sport and our programs.”
Those areas include not only sport-horse programs but judging. Wysocki, 58, of Coupeville, Washington, is a top dressage and sport-horse judge who has also risen to the top of the ranks in the para-equestrian discipline, becoming the first US FEI 5* para-dressage judge.
It’s a remarkable career trajectory, made even more so by the fact that Wysocki started out with no interest in horses.
The Accidental Rider
Growing up in Colorado, Wysocki wasn’t a horse-crazy kid like her sister, Terryl, who had a horse. One day Terryl and a friend were trail-riding when the friend took a bad fall. Terryl had to get the friend and the two horses home, and after that experience Terryl never rode again. One day Wysocki climbed over the pasture fence and hopped on her sister’s idled mount, “and we rode off into the sunset,” she quips.
The horse bug had bitten.
As a teen, Wysocki focused on eventing, studying under instructor Bonnie (Sehlmeyer) Rose. The two are still close, says Wysocki, who calls Rose “a great horsewoman; she’s all about the love of the horse.”
At the time, Wysocki viewed the dressage phase as “a necessary evil,” she says with a laugh: “We just had to get through a dressage test back then; we didn’t have to do it well.”
A Mentor Emerges
After graduating from the Colorado School of Mines with a BS in metallurgical engineering, Wysocki moved to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the early 1980s to work in the oil fields. There she became better acquainted with colleague and fellow School of Mines alum Steve Wysocki. The couple married in 1989.
There isn’t much eventing in Alaska, so Wysocki decided to concentrate on her dressage.
When Colorado-based dressage judge and trainer Janet Foy came to Alaska to give a clinic, “a lightbulb went off,” she says: “‘OK, this is dressage!’”
Wysocki discovered that her professional training suited the dressage discipline well: “The biomechanics of it and the engineer in me really clicked quickly.” She began inviting Foy to teach regular clinics in Alaska.
After 14 years in Alaska, Wysocki decided to change careers to become a full-time dressage professional. Dressage opportunities in Alaska were limited, so she decided to establish a business back home in Colorado—but first, she wanted to steep herself in learning. Again Foy stepped in, facilitating a three-month stint for Wysocki as a working student at Keenridge, the Moorpark, California farm of 1976 US Olympic dressage team bronze medalist Hilda Gurney.
“I’ve been lucky to have numerous mentors,” Wysocki says. “Janet’s really the first one who took me seriously and got me on the right path. Without Janet, I never would have connected with Hilda, and Hilda’s the one that made me into an FEI rider.” Even after Wysocki established her own Somewhere Farms in Elbert, Colorado, for several years she spent three or four weeks a year at Keenridge, studying with Gurney.
Together, Gurney and Foy also served as Wysocki’s introduction to the world of sport-horse breeding. Her time at Keenridge coincided with foaling season, and “I lived on the farm and did a lot of the foal watches,” she recalls. “I got very excited about the whole baby thing when I was there.” Foy had a breeding program in Colorado, “so I kind of carried on working with her” at home, Wysocki says, learning how to handle horses in dressage sport-horse breeding (DSHB) classes.
Foy, a USDF L program faculty member, also nudged Wysocki toward a judging career by asking her to join a group of L candidates. Wysocki found the program fun and interesting, and she went on to earn her US Equestrian “r” judge’s license. After Foy invited Wisconsin-based “R” DSHB judge and FEI 3* dressage judge Jayne Ayers to conduct the first USDF Sport Horse Seminar ever held in Colorado, Wysocki decided to pursue her DSHB judge’s license. She is now an “R” DSHB judge and a US Equestrian and FEI Young Horse judge, in addition to her FEI 4* dressage and 5* para-dressage credentials.
Today Steve and Kristi Wysocki call Washington state home, and for the first time the couple is freed from the stresses of managing their own farm and horses. They live within easy driving distance of Whidbey Equestrian Center on Whidbey Island, where Kristi Wysocki teaches. As her judging and clinic engagements increased, she got out of the breeding business, as well, noting that “breeding and traveling do not go hand in hand.”
Once Wysocki got involved in the organizational and administrative side of sport-horse breeding, she had the proverbial bit between her teeth.
“She’s full of great ideas,” says North Carolina-based breeder and dressage/DSHB judge Janine Malone, who as former USDF secretary and USDF Sport Horse Committee member has worked closely with Wysocki over the years. “She’s been instrumental in the USDF Breeders Championship Series and all of the sport-horse programs. She’s heavily involved in the USDF Breeder of Distinction awards [which debuted in 2019] and the Four-Year-Old Prospect division, which will be debuting in 2021. She really promotes programs that showcase American breeders.”
According to Malone, Wysocki recognizes the importance of educating future sport-horse breeders, judges, and handlers. She helped to establish the USDF Youth/Young Adult Dressage Sport Horse Breeding Seminar and the USDF Youth Sport Horse Ambassador program.
“She’s worked hard to make it more accessible and easier for people who wouldn’t’t otherwise be involved in USDF,” Malone says of Wysocki. “She brings them into the USDF fold.”
Wysocki’s USDF Sport Horse Committee co-chair since 2018, Hilltop Farm (Maryland) managing director Natalie DiBerardinis, says that although the committee is an “active and dedicated” group with “great energy and willingness to dig in to many big projects…Kristi is really the driving force behind all that…. The educational programs she has developed have done so much for breeders, trainers, and owners of young horses [as well as for] judges and handlers.”
DiBerardinis praises Wysocki’s ability “to see a ‘big picture’ view of the industry” and says she “looks to fill the gaps. She’s not afraid to try something new or to think outside the box in finding that solution. ‘We could try a pilot program’ has become somewhat of a favorite phrase in discussions,” she says.
(Wysocki agrees, saying with a laugh: “I’m sure we drive the USDF Executive Board a bit crazy. We kind of flog them with ideas.”)
“Kristi has an incredible passion and drive for the programs that I have been involved with,” says professional sport-horse handler and Hilltop Farm head trainer Michael Bragdell, who has taught portions of USDF sport-horse educational programs. “I really feel that commitment has helped these newer programs to get a good running start. Being around her, you can feel the energy and enthusiasm she has to educate and share her knowledge and experience to others, especially the younger people that hopefully will carry our sport on.”
Wysocki won’t rest until American-bred sport horses are regarded as equal to their European counterparts. “The trick,” she says, “is to get people over the assumption that they can’t find as good a horse in the US as in Europe.”
Currently, Wysocki says, the Europeans have the advantage in terms of numbers. “It’s challenging for American breeders to compete with the Europeans in sheer number of foals produced per year. In Germany, you can see 50 young horses in one or two days. You can’t do that in the US simply because of the size of the country,” she explains.
But the Americans, she says, are catching up rapidly.
“We’re getting more stallions in the country that are really super horses. We’ve gotten so much education accomplished in this country in the last ten years that we’re still behind, but not very far behind.”
And the breeders themselves are producing top-quality horses, according to Wysocki.
“We have these little boutique breeders who are very educated and who are doing a super job,” she says. “They’re breeding one or two mares a year—maybe three or four at the most—but they’re breeding top youngsters. And in three to five years, those youngsters are going to be under saddle and it’s going to be like, ‘Hello!’
“We’re not producing as many super horses as they’re producing in Europe, but we are producing as good a horse. I think ten years from now, that issue will be entirely gone. There are too many really sharp breeders involved now.”
Penny Hawes is a writer, horse owner, volunteer, and coach from Virginia. Her website is thehorseylife.com/USDF.