By Linda White
Whether the classroom is real or metaphorical, the best teachers always seem to have both an educated and an intuitive understanding of how to impart lasting information to their students. The finest Arabian horse trainers too are imbued with those gifts, one acquired, the other God-given. Joel and Ashton Kiesner are perfect examples. Together, they have guided hundreds of pupils, both horse and human, to undreamed-of heights. Their success reflects their combined knowledge and experience, fueled by an abiding love for, and commitment to, the Arabian horse. Ashton is quick to own her lifelong obsession with them. Her husband grew up in the Arabian business, as did she, but Joel was in his early 20s before he settled on training Arabians as his life’s work. Still, at one point, wearying of the job’s undeniably mundane elements, Kiesner began to question the significance of what he was doing.
“I told myself that there are people out there doing important, life-changing things that actually help people in real ways,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Training horses just isn’t very important.’” Finding himself at an impasse, he considered pursuing art, his other lifelong passion.
Kiesner changed his focus to drawing and sculpting for a time, yet he continued to be drawn to the horses. “I researched the history of horse training, and learned that it was once considered high art. Kings and queens spent fortunes on their equine pursuits, just as they did on their patronage of other arts. I began to see that of course training horses is worthwhile, when it’s done well. Training people’s horses and winning with them helps those people to realize their dreams, and can help them reach their life’s goals. I tried doing both horses and art, but the horse business started paying my bills … and my art didn’t.” Both gifts had appeared early.
“Joel started drawing when he was a young child, and he’s loved horses and art his whole life,” his father, Dick Kiesner, told us. The elder Kiesner is a semi-retired Arabian trainer who began his professional career with several highly regarded American Saddlebred trainers. “My dad trained horses, mostly jumpers,” he offers, “and my granddaddy kept 208 head of rental horses. He would lease them to Minneapolis city businesses, and to people in the logging business in northern Minnesota.
“Joel grew up on horseback. His first shows were little ones, held in a field across from our house in Eden Prairie, Minn. The first Arabians he worked with were those he and his brothers and sister would find, train and then sell. I was the ‘banker’ who lent them the money to buy them.”
Ashton, Joel’s wife and life partner, is the Kiesner team’s other guiding light. She became enthralled with Arabians when she was a tiny child. “My family moved to Miami when I was four,” she remembers. “I would spend summers at Rohara Arabians, staying with Roxanne and Karl Hart, watching (and trying to imitate) how Rick Moser showed halter horses. I took riding lessons from Doree Lamb at Liz Langford Stables, and showed with them and Rohara, with John Rannenberg.” Her parents became Ivanhoe Tsultan Syndicate members. They purchased the national champion producer LZ Renee, and Ashton showed and won with her progeny. She met her future husband at the 1994 U.S. Nationals. The friendship blossomed, and the two were married in 1997.
“When Ashton came into my life, she brought out the best in me,” Joel says. “She helps me hone my focus. I knew I was going to train horses, but her presence in my life has made me think less about the immediate, and more about the future. Our life together has unfolded in so many positive ways.” He pauses, reflecting on life with Ashton and their daughters, Alexis and Ellawynn.
“When two people walk down the same road together, with confidence in each other, they go places they wouldn’t reach if they were alone,” he says. “Ashton is cautious, and doesn’t make hasty decisions, but she speaks right up for what she believes in; she’s very brave in that way. We make all our decisions together – we always have. In our eyes, ‘Team Kiesner’ means our family: Ashton and me and the girls. It includes all the people who support us, from veterinarians to stall cleaners; and our clients, who put their trust in us. They make the effort to work with us, often coming long distances. They pay for our counsel and what we do, and they believe in what we tell them.
“All of us try to put our best foot forward, and that’s not just about winning ribbons. Our goal is to be prepared: that means the horses, the riders, our staff and ourselves. We want everything to flow seamlessly, smoothly, and to be prepared for any eventuality. We are serious competitors. We don’t always win, but we always try to display good sportsmanship, to create a welcoming atmosphere, and have a positive influence on everything we do.”
It’s working. They, their clients, and their clients’ horses have earned hundreds of national honors in the last 20 years. Joel has been awarded the Arabian Amateur and Professional Horsemen’s Association’s Trainer of the Year awards multiple times. Ashton’s considerable knowledge and years of hands-on experience really came into focus when she realized that she, too could establish an intuitive connection with each horse. She has won two U.S. national championships, two reserve national championships, numerous national Top 10 titles and countless Regional and Class “A” championships in various disciplines.
Recent show ring thrills came about in 2013, when Joel and Ashton repeated their previous wins of U.S. national and reserve national championship honors in purebred Arabian Country English Pleasure, Jr. Horse-he with Afires Style for Alexa Cohn and she, aboard Heir Force One for her father-in-law. Also in 2013, Joel won the AEPA $100,000 championship on Heirs Noble Love for owner/breeder Karlton Jackson, while Ashton garnered $10,000 in that class with JK Heiristocracy, a horse she and Joel had bred.
While the approach varies with each horse, is there a certain standard every animal must meet, if the partnership is to work? “Every horse must go forward, self-motivated or not; every horse must accept the bridle, come up into the bit, and soften in the bridle,” Joel states. “The horse needs to be able to stay loose in the body and free in the shoulder; after that, we need to rate the gaits.
“I evaluate every prospect by looking at what is possible for this horse,” he continues. “I ask myself, ‘What can we reasonably expect this horse to achieve?’ Horses will do-or try to do- whatever we ask of them, but like human beings, each horse has its own ultimate potential. Just as every person is unique, each horse is different from every other individual. Some are timid and fearful, and require a soft approach; some are fearless and bold, and will respond to a firmer approach. Some are eager and quick to learn, while some horses resist direction, or are slow learners. There’s no specific, inflexible formula that will work for every horse.
“And the horse has to understand what we’re asking of it. If I were to yell, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater in China, where no one spoke English, people would look at me like I was crazy, because they wouldn’t understand what I was saying. But if I yelled “Fire!” in a crowded theater here in the United States, everybody would jump up and rush out of the building. We have to speak the horse’s language if we’re going to communicate with him.
“What's that old saying? ‘Technique, technique, technique--and then you throw it all out.’ Any horse trainer is part construction worker, part craftsman, because he needs to pay attention to the smallest details. A horse trainer is part artist, with an artist’s finesse and creative flair; and a horse trainer is part diplomat because, as my dad reminds me, the horses are only about 27 per cent of this business. He tells me, ‘You’re not just in the horse business, son. You’re in the people business.’”
“The hardest thing is when a horse gets hurt or sick, because we love them so much,” Ashton says. “Caring for them is our first priority. We work tirelessly, caring for them to the very best of our ability. We have a wonderful staff we can rely on to keep everything rolling smoothly; this facility was designed with the horses’ safety our first priority.” Kiesner Training is in Louisville, Tenn., a 30-minute drive from downtown Knoxville.
What brings them the greatest joy? “Watching Alexis ride is one of my greatest joys,” Ashton replies. “She is beautiful and talented, and so passionate about the horses! Ellawynn, who will be nine in December, doesn’t ride or show; she plays volleyball, and basketball, and swims. It’s not always easy, juggling family and customers and working 20 horses a day,” she concedes, “but our dream has come true. We have been married 17 years, and we’ve been doing this together since Day One.”
“Horses and art are my passion,” says Joel, “but my family is the most important thing. My greatest joy is that we get to do so much together, every day. We know how lucky and blessed we are, and we take nothing for granted. This is a wonderful journey, and we’re not done yet!”