March 2017
Farm & Field

A Labor of Love

Kenneth and Donna Weeks parlay a lifelong fervor for horses into a successful family business.

 

Kenneth, Donna and Kenzie Weeks live on their farm in Citronelle where Kenneth has built Kenzie her own barn for her five ponies and four horses. He has also built  her an arena to exercise and train her horses.

In the January issue of AFC Cooperative Farming News, one article pointed out that the horse industry impact in Alabama now exceeds $2 billion. This comes as no surprise to Donna and Kenneth Weeks, as both have built successful careers in the equine arena. The Weeks have been able to parlay their lifelong fervor for horses into a comfortable living, making every day a labor of love.

The common bond between the couple has been their passion for American Quarter Horses. Donna Dickinson Weeks grew up training and showing her horses, while Kenneth Weeks trained his to race. Long before they met, both were buying and selling Quarter Horses. As fate would have it, Kenneth placed an ad to sell two horses and Donna responded. The rest is history.

By combining their strengths, as well as their passions for horses, the twosome has built a successful business called Wide Open Race Horses. They raise, train, race and market American Quarter Horses. Kenneth has trained racehorses for over 14 years. However, if a horse does not work out on the track, Donna markets that horse to customers all over the world as either a barrel or roping prospect.

Kenneth keeps 75-80 horses, with 40 in training at all times. With help from his five grooms, he follows the schedules of four Louisiana meets that run for three months at a time: Louisiana Downs, in Shreveport; Delta Downs, in Vinton; Evangeline Downs, in Lafayette; and the Fair Grounds, in New Orleans.

Most people are familiar with the excitement of horse racing, but few are aware of the hard work behind that one winning movement. There is never a typical day in the life of a trainer. On Sunday, Kenneth hands out training schedules for each horse; however, he makes daily adjustments, as needed. Keeping the horses in top shape is grueling, and work begins at 4:30 each morning. Each groom is responsible for 10 horses. The horses are put on the hot walker six days a week, unless they are scheduled to be galloped or ponied. Those heading to the track with jockeys or exercise riders must be saddled and ready early. After returning, these horses are mudded, meaning a medicated poultice is applied from above the knees downward to treat joints, swelling or soreness. The grooms also clean stalls, replace bedding, clean hooves, bathe and wipe down the horses, and hay and feed them. Some days include a check-up by the vet, a visit from a farrier or anything else the horse might need. Because each track has a different race time, work schedules vary with the times the horses are on the track.

Kenneth oversees every aspect of the training and upkeep of his horses. He believes that great horses are like people.

"If the horses like their jobs, they’ll be successful," he explained. "We have to keep them happy, and they’ll be successful."

Certainly, his record of wins shows he knows what he’s doing.

Until the younger yearlings are old enough for track life, they are kept at the Weeks’s farm at Sims Chapel, in Washington County. Donna manages this operation with help from three other employees.

"Everything is on a schedule here, too," she stated. "Our feeding times don’t vary by more than five minutes on any given day. Our horses are out six days a week. We have learned that consistency is the best program."

Younger horses usually begin their track training in Shreveport. Donna compared this to kindergarten because it sets the stage for future success. Kenneth and his team usually work with 14 horses a day. He takes them to the track often to familiarize them with other horses, unpredictable noises and busy track life. There is never a shortage of people wanting to ride every day because jockeys are quite competitive, always looking for horses that will become potential winners. Here, the riders work intensely on out-of-gate activities. Even though the younger horses must learn quite a bit, it is during this time that Kenneth gets a real sense of the ones that will make it and those that are not quite suited to become racehorses.

Jockey David Alvarez rides in heavy traffic at the Louisiana Downs track. (Credit: Donna Weeks)  

Donna highly praised their grooms and riders.

"Our workers are invaluable," she stated. "They work seven days a week, 10 hours a day, with no holidays. They really do a good job. My husband is very compassionate, and he truly cares about his horses, so his workers have to really love what they do to work for him."

Owners of racehorses expect to win; therefore, they invest their money in the trainer who will get the best results. Trainers not only have to keep the animals in top shape but also have to pick the right race for each horse to run. Kenneth is a respected trainer, who gets results. In five years, he has won the Alabama Futurity at Delta Downs three different times. He was also named the leading trainer at Louisiana Downs in 2016.

Obviously proud of her husband’s accomplishments, Donna added, "Kenneth just has a way with animals, and he really loves working with them. He is one of the hardest-working people I have ever met."

  Kenzie Weeks holds Mini Little Lena, a gelding by Smart Little Lena. This horse will be trained as a cutting horse. She loves his gypsy tail hair extensions.

In 2011, life changed for the Weeks family when their daughter Kenzie was born. Kenzie spent her formative years at the tracks, following in her parents’ footsteps. She, too, has developed a deep love for horses, learning to ride and work her own horses at a very young age. Kenzie keeps her five ponies and four horses in her own barn, and she works and trains them in her own arena, both built especially for her by Kenneth. Kenzie is also an avid animal lover, keeping a menagerie of pets, including chickens, rabbits, cats, dogs, goats and five pot-bellied pigs.

In 2015, life changed again for the Weeks family, as Kenzie started to school. Donna now stays home to manage their two farms. Kenneth returns each weekend to be with his family and help with farm needs. During summer months or holidays, Donna and Kenzie still visit the tracks to work with Kenneth.

Outside the tracks, the Weeks family has still another enterprise. They run 70 head of Angus and Brahmin cattle on their 27-acre farm outside Citronelle, in Mobile County, and on an additional 50-acre pasture nearby. Donna manages this operation while Kenneth is at the track. She is as comfortable on a tractor as her husband, ferrying round alfalfa or grass bales as well as pallets of feed. She also manages to find time to raise mini Corgi/Aussie puppies that are usually sold before they are born, as these pups are much in demand around both horses and cows.

Donna and Kenneth lead very busy lives, but both see every day as a labor of love. They are especially thankful their daughter can grow up around horses, because they know horses teach life lessons that can’t be learned anywhere else.

Contact Donna and Kenneth Weeks at Wide Open Race Horses on Facebook  at facebook.com/WideOpenRaceHorses/.

 

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..