Kate Gillespie isn’t exactly sure why she excels at her job as barn manager for Steffen and Shannon Peters’ Arroyo Del Mar, but she thinks it might have something to do with her upbringing.
“It comes pretty natural to me, most of it,” she said. “People are like, ‘How did you see that?’ or ‘How did you notice that?’ I don’t know if it’s from growing up in South Africa; I wanted to be a game ranger and live in the bush, and you become very aware of your surroundings out there.”
Whatever it is that makes Gillespie so diligent and uniquely suited to a life around horses, especially valuable ones like Akiko Yamazaki’s Ravel, is also what’s made her an invaluable team member for Steffen and Shannon. Gillespie started working for Shannon in 1999, making the move with her to Arroyo Del Mar in Del Mar, Calif., about five years ago.
“I don’t know that I’ve met another barn manager that can do everything she can do,” said Shannon. “You may find a ranch foreman who can operate the facility and also be a top-notch horseperson, but I’ve never met anyone else who could do both of those things really well. Either one, I think you could probably find someone who would be good at it, but finding the two together is really tough.
“She’s my best friend, first and foremost. But she’s a huge supporter of us, and she knows quite a bit about dressage, and she’s watched us for quite a long time. She is as good an eye on the ground as anyone,” Shannon added.
Cape Town to Colorado to California
Though Gillespie, 42, has spent the last 12 years working for some of the top dressage trainers in the country, she got her own equestrian start in the eventing world. After riding through the advanced level in South Africa and nearly qualifying for the World Equestrian Games with one horse before he was injured, Gillespie found herself in Colorado. It was there she made a fortuitous connection.
“I was running a barn in Cape Town with 60-odd horses, but it wasn’t anything special. In 1999, I just came to visit some friends and got offered a job, and it kind of went from there,” said Gillespie. “Shannon drove in one day and said, ‘I’m looking for someone to run my barn.’ It was good timing, just luck of the draw on my part. So I started working for her, and I’ve been with her ever since.”
Even with her background in eventing, when Gillespie started looking to work in a barn, she found dressage facilities a more natural fit.
“I just like the way they look after their horses,” she said. “Eventers have a bad name on how they look after their horses, and for the most part it’s sort of true. I have a higher standard for horse care. That’s the best part about working for Steffen and Shannon—just the way they treat the horses. They don’t take shortcuts on anything.”
But there was just one minor roadblock when Gillespie started working for Shannon.
“The first month she worked for me, I think I must have said, ‘What did you say?’ about a thousand times because I could not understand her accent,” Shannon said. “That’s been a running joke between us since then.”
On Call 24/7
Gillespie’s average day begins around 5:30 every morning. She’s responsible for care of all the arenas at Arroyo Del Mar—watering and dragging them at least once a day. But that’s the only part of Gillespie’s job that stays the same from day to day, and she may spend the rest of her morning caring for some of the 66 horses at the facility, or she may spend it trying to fix a malfunctioning lawnmower. She’s responsible for ordering hay and shavings, overseeing five employees and for making sure all five trainers at the facility are working well together. Keeping the facility looking impeccable is a top priority for Steffen, and Gillespie’s more than happy to follow through on that.
“Whatever the situation is, be it a sick horse or a broken machine, we always know she has it 100 percent handled,” said Shannon. “It gives us huge peace of mind. In 12 years she’s always been able to help or fix any situation, whether it’s with the horses or the equipment or the arena. She’s irreplaceable in that respect.”
For Gillespie, it’s partially the diversity of her work that keeps her interested.
“My job is the best,” she said. “Besides dragging the rings, you don’t do the same thing every day. There’s always something different. Generally everything breaks every day, so I make sure that all gets fixed. You’re always either fixing something or landscaping or building something. It’s great. You have to have first aid knowledge for if a horse gets hurt. You have to be pretty good on lameness. You need to have your eyes open. You need to keep up on your knowledge of supplements, because you can bet a client’s going to ask you about that.”
And Gillespie is careful to never demand anything of an employee that she wouldn’t do herself.
“I’m proud of how my barn looks, and it needs to run smoothly,” she said. “I’m a bit of a workaholic. I work like the other guys around here. I don’t stand around and give orders; I’m out there painting and weed whacking and all that stuff. If you want to sit in the barn and order people around, you’re not going to get much done that way.”
After doing her morning tasks, Gillespie fits in riding a few horses every day. Right now she has one of her own, a retired event horse now mainly doing dressage, and a client’s horse she’s converting from a dressage prospect to an eventer. Gillespie mostly chooses to ride with Shannon on the flat, and she works with Tami Smith and Hawley Bennett for the jumping.
“I don’t understand half the stuff Steffen says,” said Gillespie. “If you say, ‘My horse is heavy,’ he’s like, ‘OK, fix it.’ And Shannon will tell you how to fix it.”
The main workday is usually over around 3 p.m., and then Gillespie helps do night check for all the horses at 7 p.m.
Though she admits living on the property and being on call 24 hours a day can be taxing, Gillespie wouldn’t trade her job with the Peterses for any other.
“I would never want a 9-to-5 job,” Gillespie said. “They’re going to have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming. Steffen and Shannon rock. They really do. They’re really cool people to work for, and they’re always doing nice things for people. Whenever I’m in dire straights about something, they help me out. They paid the vet bill for my dog when he was really sick because they knew I couldn’t afford it. We really are a team around here. Steffen’s competing in Germany [with Ravel at the Aachen CDI] soon, and you can bet that at 3 in the morning, we’ll all be gathered around watching together.”
This is the second article in a weekly series about barn managers and grooms. Every Wednesday in July we'll publish a story about one of these invaluable behind-the-scenes employees. Learn more about what it takes to get top professionals into the show ring while everything runs smoothly at home.