The Louvre has the “Mona Lisa” the Da Vinci portrait famous for that enigmatic smile. Many of you have asked about the smiling woman featured on WARHorse’s website and social media platforms. Today our mystery is no more. The WARHorse photo is my friend (and trainer) Kathy Duke.

I took this photo last summer at a local show. Kathy was showing one of her horse students, and several of us went to cheer. Kathy’s ride at this show was Pawnee Nation, aka Dozie. Dozie is a 10-year-old registered paint owned by Neil and Gene Rowsey. Gene enjoys riding Dozie just for fun, and teaches her tricks like “smile” and playing toss with a ball. Dozie came to the Rowseys with a western background, but Kathy has been retraining her for dressage. This was their first show at Training Level and they did great, scoring in the 60’s AND winning their first blue ribbon!

I chose this photo of Kathy and Dozie because it so accurately represents my vision for WARHorses. The image represents our passion for horses and riding and the sense of accomplishment and empowerment we feel when we follow our dreams.

Now that you know who is in the photo, I thought you’d enjoy getting to know more about Kathy, our WARHorse Cover Girl. I recently interviewed Kathy on a hot Georgia afternoon, 95 degrees and no breeze. We found an old southern magnolia tree and sat underneath on a worn red bench and started talking.


Kathy and Dozie competing for their first blue ribbon Training Level

Kathy, most horse people have a strong opinion on how to train a horse, what is your training philosophy?

Training begins with the horse and rider learning to communicate.  All horses speak the same language – horse. The rider’s job is to learn that language. My job is to be the interpreter. To help the rider learn to better understand how the horse thinks and why he does what he does. I use classical horsemanship as my training foundation. These principles have been around for hundreds of years and form the building blocks for all types of riding. I also incorporate elements of natural horsemanship and believe in the benefits of ground work and in-hand training. Mix up the good elements, pop it in the oven and bake a cake! I help put my clients and horses together, to mold their skills in whatever discipline they want to pursue. It doesn’t matter what kind of saddle you ride your horse in, or what kind of horse you ride. English or Western, dressage, hunter, or saddle seat, they are all done on the back of a horse.

Which riding discipline you prefer?

Dressage is my favorite, but I also own a western saddle and like to trail ride. When I was younger, I evented, but as I’ve gotten older, I prefer to keep my feet, and my horse’s feet, on the ground. Jumping doesn’t thrill me like it used to. I think it has to do with realizing that if I fall, I don’t bounce like I used to either!


Kathy rides OTTB, Maverick, at his first schooling show

How do you start working with a new rider and horse?

I talk with the rider, find out her “horsey history”, and learn what her skill level is. It’s important for me to know what the rider’s goals are too. Is she hoping to show one day, or just have fun and feel safe on her horse? Then I work with the horse to learn his temperament and see how much training he’s had. Once we figure that out, then we know what ingredients to use to start baking that cake. Some people would rather that I work with just the horse. That’s fine, I can do that too. I believe the best thing for the horse and rider partnership though, to is train them both.

Who are your clients, what type of riders?

Adult re-riders are my favorite. These are people who rode earlier in life, but had to put away their riding boots away for a while. Life just gets in the way sometimes. Re-riders have a passion for horses. They dust off their boots and get back in the saddle, even though it’s been awhile. They want to ride, learn and have fun. They’re excited to finally be able to get back to their dream. I love helping them do that. I also work with first time horse owners. It can be a little scary to suddenly have a thousand pound animal in your life. I help those clients figure out what the next step is.


Kathy and Dozie working at home. Every ride begins with ground work and lunging

What does it take to become and accomplished rider?

It depends on what your definition of an accomplished rider is. One person’s version may be to win ribbons and trophies, another’s may be to enjoy riding and feel a partnership with their horse. Not everyone does things at the same speed, or learns in the same way. I believe a rider should go at the pace they’re comfortable with when they’re training. If you are new to horses and spend an entire lesson just learning to lead your horse, and by the end you’re more comfortable or confident than when you started, that was a good lesson! I find that when people are in a hurry, things tend to go poorly. Take your time and do your best. Learn A before moving on to B, and don’t skip C to get to D faster. Step by step, you’ll become what I would call an accomplished rider.

Do you have a preference for a particular breed?

I enjoy working with OTTBs (Off the Track Thoroughbreds). They are smart, sensitive, athletic, and want to please. Coming from the race track, they’ve had to deal with all kinds of experiences. They’ve “been there and done that” in many situations. OTTB’s have already had their basic training and are ready to learn a new job. Don’t believe the myth that all Thoroughbreds are “hot and crazy”. The ones from good breeders and trainers make excellent horses. I enjoy all kinds of horses though. There is a horse breed and type out there for every horse lover. People should explore all the wonderful options that are available. Who knows, you may end up with a new favorite, or at least learn something new.

How did you learn to ride?

I learned from plenty of reading and studying, hands on experience, and lots of riding lessons from some great mentors in my life. When I was younger, I was the kid that got stuck riding the horse that no one else wanted to. Those horses are good teachers. You can definitely learn a lot from an experienced school master. It’s the tough ones that make you think and figure out how to do things though. They don’t just hand you an easy, fun ride for free.


Kathy and her OTTB Atticus

Who is your current ride?

Atticus is my horse. He’s an OTTB gelding who didn’t quite make it as a race horse and was retired sound. He’s 8 years old now and ready for a new job. “Atti” has a big personality and is very affectionate. He’s curious and sensible, but a bit of a goof too. I love that in a horse. My dream has always been to bring a horse up through the levels in dressage. Not in a strict show horse only sort of way though. My goal is to have a well-rounded, versatile horse that can do a little bit of everything. I want a partner that is willing to go on adventures and have fun. Atticus might just be that horse. I tell my friends that meeting Atti was like finding Cinderella’s slipper. He just fit. He was the right size, shape, movement, and personality. The first time I sat on him something clicked into place. I’m not in a hurry with his training. I enjoy every little step. We’ll go as far as we can go and be happy with it. No pressure.

What’s the favorite item in your tack box?

My Solo Comb. I spent years working as a groom and have pulled a lot of manes. Most horses don’t like it, it hurts your fingers, and it takes forever. This tool allows you to get a look of a pulled mane without actually pulling hair out of your horse’s neck. It’s a more pleasant experience for the horse and the groom. The Solo Comb makes the job quick and easy and looks great when you’re finished.

What is the most useful and under-rated piece of tack?

A grab strap. When the ride gets bumpy, or you need a little extra courage in the saddle, a grab strap is right within reach. It gives the rider a handle to hold onto on if she needs it. It’s not just for kids, everyone should have one. It just buckles to the D rings on the front an English saddle. They’re inexpensive too, about $20 or so at any tack store. Even if you don’t ever use it, there’s a sense of security just knowing its there.

I hope you enjoyed meeting our WARHorses Cover Girl – Kathy Duke. You’ll see much more of Kathy on WARHorses in the future. Kathy is a talented artist and will be illustrating for upcoming articles.

Kathy and Atticus Photo Courtesy Elizabeth Wood, Bits & Bytes Farm