By Jaine Treadwell
||Travelers along U.S. Highway 231 south of Brundidge are often amazed to catch a glimpse of the Kentucky Bluegrass State. The big red ‘horse’ barn is an eye catcher. Lisa Wheeler, right, and her husband, Gary, opened the stables almost three years ago. At Saddle Creek Ranch, they raise, train and show Quarter Horses. Kristi Norris, left, is the farm manager and trainer.
Lisa Wheeler cannot remember a day in her life when she didn’t want a horse. But it was not until she was in third grade her dream came true…sort of.
The horse, her horse — was not the Black Beauty her child’s mind imagined. In fact, there was not much of a horse between the mane and tail and ‘to boot’ it was mean.
"That was the meanest horse that has ever been," Wheeler said, laughing. "It would bite me and actually take plugs out of me, but it was my horse and I loved it."
The horse got stuck in a bog deep in the woods and died.
"I remember sitting on the fence and crying my heart out because I knew that was the end of me having a horse," Wheeler said.
When she was 14 years old, Wheeler’s dad gave in once more. If she would feed and care for the horse, she could have one.
Wheeler cared for that horse and secretly vowed there would always be a horse in her life.
"There was a while after I got married and began a family that I didn’t have horses," Wheeler said. "But the interest was there."
When Gary and Lisa Wheeler bought land in the Montgomery area in 1987, she seized the opportunity to revisit her childhood dream of owning horses. The couple bought several Quarter Horses and she became interested in showing her horses.
|Lisa Wheeler, owner of Saddle Creek Ranch, can boast of a great stallion, He’s Only Trouble. The sorrel Quarter Horse comes from a world-renown bloodline and will be the foundation of the Ranch’s stable of championship horses.
"The first time I showed a horse I was scared to death," she said. "I embarrassed myself and finished at the very bottom. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to show again."
When the Wheelers sold their ‘pasture land’ in Montgomery, they moved their horses to their home near Brundidge. And, they shared a dream of how things could be.
Today, the Wheelers own Saddle Creek Ranch in Brundidge. She eats, sleeps and breathes horses and he understands, supports and encourages her ‘love affair.’
"This was Gary’s gift to me," Wheeler said as she walked through the corridor of the huge barn stabling their horses and those of their clients. "We talked about the barn and decided what we wanted and Gary had it built. He said horses are my thing but he enjoys them, too."
The big red barn, the centerpiece of Saddle Creek Ranch, is only three years old but it turns the heads of unsuspecting motorists who travel along U.S. Highway 231 between Brundidge and Ozark.
"I’ve always loved a red barn," Wheeler said with a smile.
A red barn and a stable of horses is a little girl’s dream come true in the biggest kind of way. And none of the insecurities of showing horses that haunted Wheeler years ago are still around, thanks to Kristi Norris, ranch farm manager and trainer.
||Kristi Norris is the farm manager and trainer at Saddle Creek Ranch in Brundidge. She trains the ranch horses and also the horses of clients stabled there.
"Bo Beavers, who was a trainer for us for 17 years, recommended Kristi when he retired," Wheeler said. "She and I hit it off from the very first day. We work so well together and are good friends. We have a great time. Kristi is a wonderful trainer and we depend on her for so much."
Norris is from Auburn and has a degree in accounting. But it was her love of horses and her ability to work with them that brought her to Saddle Creek Ranch.
"I didn’t choose horse training as a career," she said. "It chose me. I grew up with a pony in my backyard. So horses are an addiction for me. I can’t help it. I love horses."
Norris does everything from worming the horses to teaching the clients to ride their own horses.
"We have the ranch horses and we also train horses for clients," she said.
Ranch trainer is a favorite part of Norris’ job and she attributes her success as a trainer to being able to establish rapport with the rider.
"Riders must be able to gain the respect of their horses if they hope to make the horses do what they want them to do," she said. "The riders have to have confidence in what they can do. A horse knows immediately when a rider is nervous or angry and it shows in its performance."
Norris works with the clients at the ranch but she also works with Wheeler to prepare for shows.
"We have Quarter Horses and I especially like Palominos," Wheeler said. "And, I really enjoy showing our horses and I’m getting better at it, thanks to Kristi."
Saddle Creek Ranch is a member of the American Quarter Horse Association and the Palomino Horse Breeders Association.
"We show in three classes: halter, Western pleasure and hunt seat," Wheeler said. "I really prefer Western pleasure."
So much goes into showing horses. Although it might look easy, it’s very difficult. Just watching, you can’t see the cues a rider is giving the horse with the hands, feet, legs and knees. The clothing is important when you show a horse because you are judged on the whole package. Wheeler said there is no score card in judging a horse show. It’s strictly a judge’s opinion.
"Of course, there are rules for horse movement but the rider that creates the best picture will be the winner," she said.
Norris said a rider wants his or her horse to be able to change gaits smoothly and willingly and the ride must be made with elegance.
"The rider and the horse must convey a feeling of ‘pleasure’ with the ride," she said. "And, the easier the ride looks, the better the horse and rider are doing. Lisa is a very good rider and she shows good because she rides behind the trainer very well."
Wheeler and Norris recently competed at the Dixie Nationals in Jackson, MS, and both took first place with Wheeler riding behind Norris.
"That was very good because a horse usually responds better to the trainer," Norris said. "And he responded well to both of us."
Saddle Creek Ranch has mares with babies coming and plans are to diversify by adding Paints in an effort to build for bigger and better shows.
The two horse lovers have set the bar at the Saddle Creek Ranch higher with plans to become a stud farm.
"We have a great stallion, He’s Only Trouble," Wheeler said. "He was sired from Invitation Only and comes from a world renown bloodline."
Norris called the stallion’s qualities ‘impeccable’ and his movements ‘surreal.’
"If you want to start breeding and raising champion horses, the stud has to have those qualities," she said. "He’s Only Trouble has those qualities and more and he will be the foundation of our program."
Wheeler and Norris are excited about the future of Saddle Creek Ranch and are optimistic it will flourish, not only as a training place for show horses, but as a stud farm known for a breeding program producing champions.
Both laugh that two little girls with pony dreams are now big girls whose pony dreams know no limits.
Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.