Susie Ouderkirk, owner of Red Sky Farm, fell in love with horses practically at birth and began riding as a 5-year-old when her aunt put her atop an old cutting horse named Mr.Lucky, whom she rode incessantly — bareback — for the next five years. As a 12-year-old, she convinced her parents to buy her a Welsh-Morgan pony and soon started lessons with a woman who became her lifelong riding mentor.
Flash forward a few decades and Susie has what would be any horse-loving girl’s dream job: being around horses all day helping others fall in love with riding. Although this is New Mexico and the home of working cowboys and rodeos, Susie doesn’t fit out her mounts with Western saddles. Her Thoroughbreds, American Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and other breeds are tacked up with English saddles because her students are learning to jump, not barrel race.
Hunter-jumpers are specially trained horses that can compete in the ring or be ridden at high speed in open country (think of a British fox hunt). Red Sky Farm in Las Cruces has 13 horses of various breeds and ages, including Simon, a miniature pony who serves as a friendly little mascot. Quarter Horses, often used in sports like barrel racing and famed for being the fastest horse in quarter-mile races (hence the name) make reliable horses to begin a rider’s training. High-spirited and energetic Thoroughbreds and other warmbloods are the horses that are most often used in hunter-jumper competitions, equitation classes, dressage, and in cross-country events.
“When you buy a Thoroughbred, you’re buying something you know has some juice,” Susie explains. “For the jumping and the speed and for the sport that we do, these horses have to have high energy. But here at Red Sky Farm we start on Quarter Horse types because they are safe.” Because horses outweigh riders many times over, it’s essential that the horses at the farm are dependable and well-trained. Safety procedures at the barn help ensure that the horses remain sound, and riders aren’t taking any unnecessary chances. While falling from a horse is not unexpected, Susie wants the experience to be as safe as possible for everyone.
Red Sky Farm
Red Sky Farm sits on 20 acres and abuts BLM land with plenty of space for trail rides to provide a different experience from working in the farm’s arenas. The Organ Mountains jut into the sky to the farm’s east, offering a dramatic backdrop. Susie laughs that when she sends a video of a horse for sale and the mountains are in the background, the potential buyer may first comment on the view before getting down to brass tacks discussing the horse.
One of the farm’s two arenas is covered for sun protection and is used for basic riding skills as well as a turn-out area for horses to get some extended fun time each day. The “big arena” features a full hunt course with jumps, complete with flower boxes and greens (not only for decoration but to create more width for the horse to jump). All the jumps break down if a horse hits them, which helps prevent injuries to the horse and rider.
Susie teaches hunt seat equitation, hunters, jumpers, basic dressage, eventing, trail riding, and field hunting. During a lesson, students start by tacking up their horses and finish by grooming them after the session, which is part of their education as riders. Lessons take place in one of the two large training arenas under the tutelage of Susie or her assistant, New Mexico State University student and equitation team member Lauren Meske. Susie and Lauren work with the students to build their confidence, teach proper riding posture and technique, and increase
their strength so they can make the hard work look effortless. At the same time, they are also teaching the horses the correct body position for this type of work and building their core muscles.
The way the rider sits the horse makes a big difference in the horse’s ability to be athletic. Susie explained while watching a student work with Lauren, “That’s why it’s so intense because just to hold herself up like that burns a lot of calories and takes a lot of energy, but it doesn’t look like it. It looks so simple and effortless and that’s what we love about it. There’s very little movement but she’s getting so much done. . . controlling the animal — he weighs 1,000 pounds! — with her calves!”
Susie is passionate about providing a safe and happy environment for both students and horses. She said, “This should be a place where you come and you feel safe and you’re loved, with no judgment and no yelling, where everything you do someone is saying, ‘You’re doing it! You’re doing it!’” Being positive and supportive of one another is crucial. Susie adds, “If you’re not a positive
person who genuinely supports other people, you’re not going to fit in here. I make it clear from the beginning that you’ve got to get along together or it’s not going to work out.”
While a few students own their own horses, most ride one of Red Sky Farm’s dependable mounts. Some horses are a better fit for beginning riders and others are for those who are ready for jumping, but they all have a job for which they are richly rewarded. “The schooling horses here have a very good life,” Susie explained. “I only allow my lesson horses to do two sessions a day. At some big barns, they do 10 lessons a day. Here they enjoy wonderful facilities and turnouts, lots of great food and supplements, and excellent vet care because the horses’ welfare is the most important thing.
It’s important that they’re comfortable and happy. If you’re forcing another living creature to do something, they’d better be having a good time.” Susie and her students carefully track all the
interactions each horse has daily, whether it’s being ridden or simply getting special attention and cuddles. Everyone who participates at Red Sky Farm fills out a form that notes what they did with a particular horse that day. Not only is it easy to tell which horse has already done two sessions that day, but it also helps keep track of any problems that are developing.
The more than 20 riders at Red Sky Farm are predominantly female, but Susie does have several male students. The youngest students are generally about 7, but Bethany Skattum rides her thoroughbred Finn at the farm every day and has brought her children Lily and Elliott, 3 and 5, with her for years. They are now taking lessons with Lauren. Joyce Ridenauer, 51, was riding Duncan, a 19-year-old Quarter Horse who was once a ranch horse. The lesson started with a warmup and exercises designed to help build her core strength and riding technique.
They then moved to stepping over poles spaced along the ground, so the horse learns where to place his feet on a jump. Joyce demonstrated walking Duncan over the poles, then a short jump that the horse steps over as horse and rider build confidence for higher jumps. Joyce has been taking lessons since she moved to Las Cruces from Alaska last August. “I called a couple of barns and I talked to Susie,” she said. “And she was just absolutely wonderful! She made me feel like I would be walking into a barn family and that I was OK being an older starter. I could just tell on the phone I would be home here.
Then I had my first lesson, and it was clear, good training, translating very easily with imagery I could understand. My confidence in just a few lessons grew so quickly. I learn something every time and I leave here thinking, ‘I want more!’” Katlin Ohle, 16, has been riding for almost 6 years and training with Susie for 3 of them. She’s competed in some local shows and already has some ribbons hanging on her wall. By the end of the year, she’d like to be able to comfortably clear jumps 30 or more inches high. “I just like the atmosphere around here,” Kaitlin said. “It’s really homey. You can have some fun. She’s taught me a lot and she’s the best in the area.”
Twelve-year-old Paulina Howard, who goes by Poppy, has been riding off and on since she was 6. She started at Red Sky Farm last summer and has started going over some small jumps. “Susie’s really easygoing,” Poppy said. “If you have any questions, she answers them. It’s really fun here and everybody is super nice and welcoming.” Poppy enjoys Red Sky Farm so much she comes out on weekends to clean stalls just to hang out with the horses and other riders. Once they have advanced, Red Sky Farm students often participate in rated horse shows, including a series in Carlsbad and the U.S. Equestrian-sanctioned shows in Tucson, Arizona, which can include more than 500 horses.
Visit the Farm
Interested in learning more about Red Sky Farm? Call to arrange a visit with Susie and meet some of her horses and students. For kids, Red Sky Farm offers quarterly pony parties so youngsters can spend some time learning about horses. During the two-and-a-half-hour event, kids ages 7 to 13 can groom and ride horses, play games and make crafts, and maybe even win a prize. Simon the miniature pony is a highlight of the party. The parties serve as an introduction to the farm and its training programs as well as providing a fun time with horses. For more information, call 575-496-1304 or
email sm[email protected]. You can also find Red Sky Farm on Facebook.
Equestrian Event Definitions
Equinavia.com explains, “The key difference between hunters and jumpers is best summarized as subjectivity vs. objectivity. Hunters are judged subjectively, by a human. Judges place horse and rider pairs based on rider ability, horse ability, and style. Jumpers, however, are judged objectively, by a combination of time clock and faults. Riders need to hit or exceed the optimum time, with faults added to the round’s time.” According to horsesport.com, “Equitation classes judge the rider on their form, their guidance of the horse, effectiveness of their aids, position of legs, hands and upper body, and the ability to perform certain tests with style and precision.”
The United States Dressage Federation describes the sport on its website: “The Olympic sport of dressage is derived from the French term meaning ‘training’ and its purpose is to strengthen and supple the horse while maintaining a calm and attentive demeanor . . . Currently, competitive dressage involves progressively difficult levels incorporating multiple tests within each level. Each test is a series of movements that must be performed by the horse and rider. Each movement is scored by a judge on a scale of 0 to 10. Special tests are also written for musical freestyle, sport horse breeding, and performances incorporating multiple horses and riders.”
Story and photography by Cheryl Fallstead | Additional photos courtesy Red Sky Farm
Originally published in Neighbors magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com