At Caldwell County ranch, horses audition for international stage

May. 14, 2013 @ 07:56 AM

It wasn’t long after she took responsibility for a group of horses a couple of years ago that the reputation of Karen Guerra and her Oak Hill ranch, Blue Honey Friesians, started spreading across the country and overseas.

The rising stature of some of the show horses trained for equestrian competitions by Guerra already has captured the attention of breeders, mainly from Holland, Greece and other parts of Europe. And in emails and phone calls in the past year, they have expressed interest in what has emerged as the largest ranch of Friesian horses, a breed traced to the Netherlands, in western North Carolina.

“They’re watching us really close,” Guerra, 57, said of the breeders in a recent interview at her barn, nodding at the row of stables containing the 13 show horses, most of whose manes glisten with a lustrous black. “These horses are going somewhere.”

The work with horses is somewhat of a departure for Guerra, who works part time as a physician at a private practice in Lenoir run by her husband, Marc Guerra. And it requires a level of persistence. She comes to the ranch before dawn most mornings, when she sets out on a training routine, including walking and muscle exercises involving a range of balance and strength maneuvers, that typically lasts until dusk.

“If we had 36 hours in a day,” she explained, “we’d probably have more horses over here.”

The ranch is emerging as an audition stage for a small group of horses Guerra is training for to compete in dressage, characterized by the International Equestrian Federation as the “highest expression of horse training.” Known by some as horse ballet, it is a contest of precision, in which judges assess the vigor of competing horses, from the tempo of their canter -- a controlled movement between a trot and a gallop -- to their mannerisms.

The competition likely will come naturally to one show horse, named Wietske, which drew international attention in September after earning the highest ranking in history in another equestrian competition in North America.

“When I train him, he’s gonna look the best he can look,” she said of the horse, which was ranked in the top five in the nation.

Wietske’s breeders, Cor and Nel Bentjes, learned about the ranch while scouring Facebook for trainers, and they shipped the horse and three others across the Atlantic to the ranch a year and a half ago.

“I only want the best horse,” Cor Bentjes said by phone from Holland.  And “they get everything out of the horse that they can get.”

On a visit to the ranch in January, they were comforted by the living conditions of the horses at the more than 200-acre ranch.

“It gave me a very good feeling,” he said.

The Guerras started training horses a couple of years ago, when their daughter, Melissa, took a job in Tennessee after spending a couple years caring for the growing number of horses at the ranch.

They are helped by two ranch hands, including Shannon Icenhour, 24, who learned to ride and care for horses at a West Virginia equestrian college after graduating with a degree in animal science from N.C. State in 2011.

“You get kind of attached,” she said of her relationship with the horses, some of which she is preparing to saddle to begin training routines.

The two share aspirations about one day entering what Guerra said is “probably everybody’s dream” in the world of horse breeding: the Olympic Games.

In the meantime, though, they travel once a week to Statesville, where they receive advice from a horse expert who trained with an Olympic medalist in equestrian competition.

“When we go back,” Karen Guerra said, and Icenhour finished the sentence: “She’s gonna’ ask, ‘Did you do your homework?’”