Tag Archives: horses

Christian Heineking

March 31, 2018 by
Photography by Jami Scull

As his last name implies, Christian Heineking is truly king of the horse jumping ring.

He’s won four out of five International Omaha Grand Prix jumping events, and he competed in the 2017 FEI World Cup (the world-class championship event held for the first time in Omaha).

Far from his birthplace in East Germany, Heineking says Omaha has played a unique and seemingly unlikely role in his life—both professionally and personally.

Heineking, 38, grew up around horses owned by his grandfather. As a teenager, he entered the Redefin Federal Stud of Mecklenburg as a riding school student and went on to earn a master certification at the German Riding Academy at Warendorf, completing years of course work in breeding, young horses, and operations, with extensively tested riding ability.

Graduating at the top of his class in 2008, he turned pro and headed to the United States on a two-year visa to experience American show jumping. He met Erin Davis, also an accomplished show jumper, and the two began dating.

That’s when Omaha entered their lives. Davis is friends with Karen Cudmore, an Omaha Equestrian Foundation board member, who eagerly touted the inaugural 2012 International Omaha to the pair.

They have returned each year since, with International Omaha competitions paralleling significant milestones in their lives: dating, engagement, marriage, pregnancy, and the birth of baby Ella.

Heineking’s fast-paced life includes many victories in national and international competitions, all while operating October Hill Farm and Heineking Show Stables near his family’s residence close to Fort Worth, Texas. Still, Omaha holds a special place in his heart.

“International Omaha is well managed and more compact—you have to be ready to compete,” Heineking says. “The people in Omaha are always friendly, and we really like it. It feels like home to me.”

Learn more about the 2018 International Omaha here: http://omahamagazine.com/articles/the-horses-are-back/

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Horses Are Back!

March 24, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

The International Omaha indoor jumping and dressage competition continues its ascent in the horse sports world, drawing the fastest horses and riders to Omaha from qualifying contests in Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Denver.

The InIt2WinIt Speed Jumping Series is the brainchild of Lisa Roskens, chairman of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation. Similar to speed competitions held in California during the early ’90s, she says, it features challenging turns and offers riders more options for successfully navigating the course in the fastest possible time.

Following recent qualifying rounds in the four major cities, the InIt2WinIt series culminates with 30 riders vying in a nationally televised, $100,000 championship at the 2018 International Omaha, April 12-15 at the CenturyLink Center.

The innovative event fits perfectly with the Omaha Equestrian Foundation’s mission to expand the sport-horse industry throughout the Midwest, with Omaha anchoring international-caliber equestrian competitions that provide educational and economic development opportunities.

“Omaha is a natural location to help grow the equestrian industry. It’s in the heart of the Midwest’s agricultural infrastructure, is easy to get to and is surrounded by pastureland,” Roskens says. “As traditional agriculture becomes more mechanized, expanding the equestrian industry and the jobs it provides can help augment it.” 

InIt2WinIt is joined by another first-time event: the Dressage Team Challenge. Dressage (rhymes with “massage”) is the ballet of equine competitions, with horse and rider moving as one through intricate movements and patterns.

The unique event brings a team approach to dressage. It features eight groups of three riders who qualified at high-level U.S. horse shows, primarily in the East, to win the chance to compete in the $45,000 final. Top-level, professional riders partner with junior, young amateurs and para riders across the age spectrum.

InIt2WinIt and the Dressage Team Challenge are innovative additions that will build International Omaha’s fan base in the Midwest and beyond, says Mike West, the Omaha Equestrian Foundation’s chief executive officer. They precede the regional competition’s mainstay and finale: the $130,000 Grand Prix, a breathtaking jumping event entering its sixth year.

“We thought of these concepts, then we went out and got the interest,” West says. “We are creating a fan experience you don’t get anywhere else in the Midwest.”

When most people attend a sporting event, he explains, it’s part of a larger happening that includes tailgating or other pre- and post-game activities. West says International Omaha mirrors how the sport is presented in larger European and U.S. coastal cities. Highlights include the Boutique Shopping Village with more than 100 vendors and the Tailgate Lounge, where fans can eat and drink—while watching horses and riders warm up—then party to live music after the event.

International Omaha also is offering free daytime competitions in the CenturyLink Center’s arena for up-and-coming amateur and junior riders; a free Horse Discovery Zone with interactive and educational displays; and clinics hosted by Olympic gold medalist Hubertus Schmidt (dressage) and legendary rider, trainer, and clinician George Morris (jumping).

“These equestrian events are exciting, fun, beautiful, and easily appreciated,” West says. “We’re building something really special.”

Visit internationalomaha.com for more information. Learn more about a top international competitor with long-term ties to Omaha equestrian competitions here: http://omahamagazine.com/articles/christian-heineking/.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Frequent Flyers

March 29, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

When the world’s elite horses (and riders) arrive in Omaha, an entourage of police and first responders—including mounted patrol—will escort them to the location of the Longines FEI World Cup. The international championship for show jumping and dressage begins March 29 and continues through April 2 at the CenturyLink Center.

European competitors depart from Amsterdam, Netherlands, aboard a chartered Boeing 777 cargo plane that takes more than nine hours to reach Omaha.

The flight requires horses to be loaded into specialized containers called “jet stalls,” which resemble an enclosed stable stall. Jet stalls can hold up to three horses. The charter flight includes a “pro groom,” nine shipper grooms, and a veterinarian—all provided by the company overseeing the transportation, the Dutta Corporation.

Horses at this elite level are well-seasoned air travelers, making the journey seem almost routine, says J. Tim Dutta, the founder and owner of the international horse logistics company.

“Horses are just like human beings,” Dutta says. “Some get jittery, some read the rosary, some like some gin and tonic, some go to sleep before the plane leaves the gate, and the rest are worried about life two days afterward. Everybody’s an individual, and we are ready for each and every situation.”

Any concerns or worries, he says, are the things that can’t be entirely controlled or predicted—such as poor weather conditions or a horse getting sick during transportation.

“You’ve got a couple hundred million dollars worth of horses on the plane, so that’s serious business,” he says. “You want everything to go smooth, and there’s always challenges. But for a guy like me who’s been at it for 28 years, and has done quite a few of them, it’s just another day at the office.”

Once the horses arrive in Omaha, they will be quarantined at the CenturyLink Center for up to three days while the USDA checks for diseases and other potential health concerns.

Veterinarian Mike Black—based out of his Nebraska Equine Veterinary Clinic just outside of Blair—says any adverse effects of a long journey would be the same for horses whether they traveled by trailer or airplane. It’s not unusual for humans and animals to struggle through temporarily weakened immune systems due to stress and long periods of confinement with other travelers.

“Whenever the animal is put under stress, it will compromise some of their ability to respond to infections,” Black says. “And a lot of horses are carriers of viruses and things. So, as they’re around other horses that they’re not normally around, then things can be spread.”

When the competition opens March 29, folks without a ticket will have an opportunity to get a closer look at all the horse-and-rider teams. The practice area will be free and open to all.

Mike West, CEO of Omaha Equestrian Foundation, hopes to create a fan-friendly and carnival-like atmosphere.

The World Cup is the first international championship of its kind to be hosted in Omaha, he says. Sure, there have been championship boxing bouts in the city. And the NCAA crowns the champions of college baseball in Omaha. But never before will so many world champions prove themselves on local grounds.

Back in 1950, when the College World Series first came to Omaha, nobody could have expected how the “Gateway to the West” would become a Midwestern sports mecca.

“They didn’t know about swim trials; they didn’t know about NCAA basketball or wrestling or volleyball and all the great events that we have now,” says West, a veteran Omaha sports-marketing professional. He previously held management positions with the Lancers, Cox Classic Golf Tournament, and Creighton’s athletics department.

The Omaha Equestrian Foundation is not only dedicated to putting on a good show. West and his colleagues are committed to continuing the city’s relationship with the FEI, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (aka, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports), the governing body for the sports of show jumping and dressage.

“We have an opportunity, but we also have an obligation as an organizer to do a good job. Because if we do a good job, we don’t know what it will lead to, but we know it will lead to something [positive],” he says.

A successful 2017 World Cup in Omaha could improve chances of the World Cup returning, along with its estimated economic impact of $50 million.

“We have to be better than anybody—by far—at listening and delivering on our promise to the fans of this sport,” West says. “And if we do, I think we’ll develop a reputation that if you want to be treated like a fan [of sports], go to Omaha, Nebraska.”

Visit omahaworldcup2017.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Horses Pave the Way in Nebraska Territory

March 2, 2017 by
Photography by Nebraska State Historical Society (provided)

There are not as many horses around the city of Omaha as there used to be. You still see a few now and then, mostly downtown, generally being ridden by police officers as bars close, shooing people out of the streets.

Nebraska was declared a territory of the United States on May 30, 1854, by the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854. This act, drafted by Democratic Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and President Franklin Pierce, was partially created to open up thousands of new farms and make feasible a Midwestern Transcontinental Railroad.

It was the height of the Old West. Four years earlier, Horace Greely, editor of the New York Tribune, popularized the saying “Go West, young man,” and many did. Essential to this movement was the horse.

While horses were ridden as transportation, they could very literally be the difference between life and death for territorial settlers. A team of horses was used to break the prairie land into workable crop land. Horses were also used to haul goods to and from towns.

As a result, horse thievery was treated very seriously. In fact, the same year Nebraska was declared a territory,  the Anti Horse Thief Association was organized in Clark County, Missouri.

One story regarding this subject in Nebraska involves a pair of unnamed vagabonds, who, in the summer of 1856, stole two horses from settlers and sold them to Pawnee Indians near Elkhorn. The horses freed themselves and wandered back to their homes in Omaha.

The Indians followed the horses’ trail and claimed them as theirs, but the original owners queried them about who they had bought the animals from. The settlers were promised that the next time the vagabonds showed up with horses, the Pawnee would alert them. Not long after the first incident, the same pair showed up with mules for sale, and the Pawnee held them while the authorities were notified.

There was no jail in Omaha at the time, so the citizens came up with a suitable punishment: First they shaved half of each of their heads. The locals then tied the men to a pole in the center of town (at that time 12th and 13th Streets between Harney and Farnam streets) where they were whipped by the Indians and the settlers from whom they stole the horses. The men were then free to leave, with the condition they never return to Nebraska.

They got off easy: In March 1858, two horse thieves from Iowa, Harvey Braden and John Daley, were caught near Florence (now northeast Omaha) with stolen horses in their possession. Following a few days in a jail at 16th and Farnam Streets, a group of Omahans took justice into their own hands. They took Braden and Daley out of their jail cell and moved north toward Florence, specifically to a stout oak tree, where they hanged the thieves.

Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the third of those articles. The other articles in this series are:

The Omaha Tribe and Horses

Into the Wild

Horses Run Early Statehood

Horses in Nebraska Today

Belgian Horses Pat & Ted in a pulling contest.

Horses Run Early Statehood

March 1, 2017 by
Photography by Nebraska State Historical Society (provided)

After Omaha’s territorial years, its favorite animal became both a local resource and a local problem. The early years of Omaha were a golden age for the horse, but Omaha was a rough and tumble frontier town, and the horses followed suit.

More horses equaled more horse-and-buggy and riding accidents. Runaway horses were a chronic problem, so much so that one local, James Findley, developed an unusual sobriquet: “The Horse Catcher,” celebrated in an Omaha Herald article from 1879.

His technique was to run alongside a rampaging horse, throw his arms around the animal’s neck, and pull it to a stop, which he did with surprising frequency and effectiveness.

Horses were also beloved by gamblers. A gang of them, called The Big Four—Charles Bibbins, H.B. Kennedy, Charles White, and Jack Morrison—ran a two-story building on Douglas Street called The Diamond. This included a horse-betting parlor.

Horse races at that time were not especially honest. Newspapers tell of a gang of bunco men led by a man named Canada Bill who, alongside their usual tricks of cheating at cards, stealing from drunks, and scheming to rob places, also fixed horse races. They seem to have run out of steam around 1876.

This may have been in part because horse racing started to become professional. The Omaha Driving Park had opened a year earlier, in 1875, between Laird and Boyd streets, and between 16th and 20th streets.

The Driving Park was also the origin of one of Omaha’s most enduring horse legacies.  In 1880 the grounds were sold to a group of businessmen that included John Creighton, James E. Boyd, and William A. Paxton. The new owners spent $15,000 to improve the grounds. It was the occasional site of the Nebraska State Fair. As befits a frontier town, the Omaha state fairs were notoriously raucous, and in 1895 the State Board gave the city an ultimatum: Provide something “other than saloons, gambling houses, and honky tonks” or lose the fair.

A group of local businessmen headed down to New Orleans for inspiration, and, borrowing from the Mardi Gras tradition of parading secret societies (called “krewes”), created their own organization, the Knights of the Ak-Sar-Ben.

This group produced parades and live shows for decades. In 1920, they built their own racetrack, also called Ak-Sar-Ben, and, in 1927, started their own stock show and rodeo. This group would dominate Omaha horse racing for most of the 20th century, closing the track in 1995.

Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the fourth of those articles.The other articles in this series are:

The Omaha Tribe and Horses

Into the Wild

Horses Pave the Way in Nebraska Territory

Horses in Nebraska Today

Miss Jean Cudahy atop her horse before or after the Omaha Horse Show circa 1910.

Do You Remember?

December 30, 2015 by
Photography by Contributed by Douglas County Historical Society

It’s hard to believe the Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track and Coliseum has been closed for 20 years (the coliseum closed later, in 2002), as it was long one of Omaha’s iconic locations. Here is a brief look back on its long history.

The track was built in 1919 to underwrite the various activities of Omaha’s famous Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, a civic and philanthropic group dating back to 1895 inspired by the various “krewes” of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parades. Initially created to provide an alternative to the rougher entertainment then popular at the state fair held in Omaha, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben quickly expanded to supporting civic improvement projects, funding local charities, and overseeing various social events.
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The first race at the Ak-Sar-Ben track was an informal harness race on July 6, 1919. The track itself was not officially dedicated for nearly another year. That ceremony was held on September 14, 1920, with Nebraska governor Samuel Roy McKelvie officiating. At that time, admission cost 85 cents, and the track featured four harness and two running races every day.

In 1921, the racetrack expanded, adding a new grandstand at the cost of $400,000; that same year Nebraska created a racing commission and made pari-mutuel betting legal—the style of gambling favored by horse races, in which odds are not fixed until the pool is closed, allowing for a great variety of bets. You can bet that a horse will win, place, or show, or place even more complex bets, such as sweep six, in which the bettor must correctly pick the winner of six races. The more challenging the bet, the more the bettor stands to win.

The track built an adjoining coliseum in 1929, which quickly became Omaha’s premiere events center, serving as both an ice rink and a concert stage. Over its long life, the coliseum hosted many of the country’s most popular musical acts, acting as virtually a who’s who of changing tastes in music: The venue offered performances by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Nirvana.

The track shut down from 1943 to 1945 during World War II. When the track opened again, on May 13, 1945, a crowd of 6,500 attended.

When a tornado struck Omaha in 1975, the race track was so close to its path that the twister was visible to people attending the races. The tornado carved a 10-mile path, killing three people, injuring 133, and scattering the debris of destroyed homes and businesses for miles. The total damage from the tornado, adjusted for inflation, was $1.1 billion, but the race track was mostly spared significant damage.

The track is often associated with a horse named Omaha, who won the Triple Crown in 1935. The horse had no relationship with Ak-Sar-Ben until retiring to Nebraska City, when he was sometimes paraded around the track. When he died in 1959, Omaha was buried at Ak-Sar-Ben, but in the intervening years, the exact site of the grave was lost to time and remains a mystery to this day.

Visit douglascohistory.org to learn more.

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Life in the Nebraska Sandhills

July 8, 2015 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

This article appears in Omaha Magazine July/August 2015.

Nebraska’s pioneering spirit shines brightly along the I-80 corridor, which follows the vast open spaces of the Great Plains. If travelers hurriedly passing through the state thinking, “Yep, this is Nebraska,” took the time to veer off the well-beaten path and steer the car northwest, they would discover a landscape unlike any other and a lifestyle steeped in the tradition of the frontier.

Heading up Nebraska Highway 97 just above North Platte, the topography changes dramatically. The flat farmland graduates into clusters of enormous sand dunes—miles of them. Anchored by a variety of prairie grasses and etched by relentless winds over thousands of years, the all but treeless Sandhills rise up like waves of an ocean—a phenomenon not seen anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

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Blue sky, dotted with puffy cotton balls of clouds, stretches as far as the eye can see before dipping down and hugging hills on the distant horizon. Under this protective dome lies nature at its purest, virtually untouched by civilization. This, too, is Nebraska—western Nebraska, where life mirrors the land: simple, unaffected, and humble.

The bloodlines of the Sandhills run deep in Joel Jacobs, going back five generations. The 34-year old Omaha investment manager grew up where Route 97 meets Highway 2 in Mullen, the only town in Hooker County (named after a Civil War general), and, by default, the county seat. It also serves as a center of commerce.

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The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, known as “Mr. Buffett’s train” by the locals, roars past the house Joel grew up in every 10 minutes or so, 24 hours a day, carrying car after car of coal eastward from Wyoming. In a town of less than 500 people in a county with a population density of one person per square mile, the sharp blast of a train whistle represents employment, not a nuisance.

But small town doesn’t mean small time. Like many young people in Mullen, Jacobs excelled in sports, quarterbacking his high school’s eight-man football team (the salvation of deep rural areas) to a state championship in 1998. He continued to make a name for himself as a tight end at the University of Nebraska-Kearney—a Division II school—resulting in a free agent contract with the NFL. He spent the bulk of his pro career with the New England Patriots and NFL Europe.

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When injuries cut his football dreams short, he and his wife, Megan, moved to Omaha, a city big enough to launch a successful financial career, yet only five hours, 334 miles, and one time zone away from the land he loves—and a town that still thinks of him primarily as
Jodi and Kirk Jacobs’s son.

“I grew up with the feeling that no matter how bad things can get, everything’s going to be okay,” says Joel, finishing the thought with the flip side, “But no matter how good things are, you’re no better than anyone else.” Humility ranks high on a wish list for his three young children. “That’s why I like to bring them here as often as I can. I want them to know this kind of stability.”

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For Jacobs, stability includes spending time with his grandparents, Jake and Bunny Jacobs. The couple, celebrating 70 years of marriage in August, still live independently on the 3,000-acre ranch just south of town where Bunny, born Berneice (e before i) Taylor, grew up.

“My father bought this land in the early 1930s during the Sand Bowl,” says Bunny, sharp as a tack at 91 and, with a rollicking sense of humor, referring to the Sandhills’ version of the Dust Bowl. Like most settlers in the valley, her father quickly realized crops don’t grow in sand. Raising her index finger a couple of inches above her thumb, Bunny says, “The corn only grew this high.”

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But cattle could thrive on the prairie grasses, providing Bunny, who inherited the ranch, and Jake a means to support a family. Until the family grew.

“By the time they had four kids, my dad went to work for Consolidated Telephone to bring in some more money,” explains Kirk Jacobs, referring to another big employer in Mullen. Kirk also holds a customer service job with Consolidated while maintaining the day-to-day operations on the ranch. Work never ends in the Sandhills.

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On a wickedly gusty Friday, two cattle haulers drive onto the ranch, each carrying 50 head of Angus cows and their new calves. “They’ll graze here for the next five months before going back to a feed lot in Kearney,” says Kirk in his understated way.

With the bovine visitors safely grazing in their new digs, Kirk and Joel head out to the east pasture, checking miles and miles of barbed wire for gaps. Stopping at a well on the property, Kirk fills a water bottle. “Freshest water you’ll ever taste,” he says. “We’re right on top of the Ogallala Aquifer.”

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For people who exhibit no pretensions, life flows in a natural rhythm, like the waters of the Middle Loup River where the Jacobs family gathers for a twilight “tanking” adventure. Floating down the river in a large, round, metal water tank normally found in pastures to water the livestock provides family fun at a reasonable cost—nothing. Joel’s wife, two older children, mother, sister, brother-in-law, and their two kids sit side-by-side in the tank as he and his father navigate the swift current with oars, dodging tree limbs and driftwood obstructing their path.

Amid the gales of laughter as the tank bounces off canyons of sand that form the riverbank, Joel’s mother and sister, Kelly Marsh, pass around homemade, individually-wrapped ham and chicken paninis, miniature quiches, and pickle bites wrapped in salami and cheese. Taking care of her family brings Jodi Jacobs joy.

“I always wanted a big family and Kirk and I have four of our own,” she says softly, cradling a grandchild in her arms. “I love to cook. I love to entertain. And I love it when the kids come home.”

RanchPhoto10That passion recently led to the fulfillment of a dream: Jodi opened a restaurant, The Nebraska Pantry, conveniently located next to the town’s only grocery store along Mullen’s main street. She rises at 4:30 every morning to make bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and daily lunch specials for her many regulars, adding credence to the belief that hard work and low stress can trump cholesterol any time.

Jodi’s culinary talents extend beyond Mullen. She makes a line of Nebraska Pantry gourmet dip mixes, sold in Omaha at Scheel’s Sporting Goods and Sugar Bakers gourmet store. In addition, Jodi somehow finds the time to work in the pro shop of the Sand Hills Golf Club, one of two top-rated, private golf courses located in Mullen (the second being Dismal River).

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“I’d say about 75 percent of the current PGA has played here at Sand Hills,” says Joel, as he surveys the wind-swept, Ben Crenshaw-designed course nestled deep in the sand dunes. “It’s ranked number one in the country and number 11 in the world. Players come here to enjoy their game in privacy.”

Standing on the portico of the starter’s cabin nicknamed Ben’s Porch, Joel takes in the magnificent scenery so familiar to him. “Life here? It’s a beautiful gift,” he says, almost to himself, as he anticipates the return trip to Omaha.

The land and the serenity it brings will lure Joel back again and again. And his children will someday discover what their dad already knows: some of the richest lives on earth are lived in tiny Mullen, Nebraska.

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Of Omaha, Oats, And Ovations

September 11, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Three years from now, a very special group of athletes will board a chartered flight in Belgium bound for Eppley Airfield. And when the cadre of world-class competitors strap on the proverbial feedbag for an in-flight meal somewhere over the Atlantic, they’ll be strapping on…well, actual feedbags.

Belgium will be the embarkation point for the European contingent of horses that will vie for the 2017 FEI World Cup Jumping and Dressage Finals at the CenturyLink Center Omaha.

Omaha beat out London, Hong Kong, and the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenboscht to land the event—the grandest stage in the world of equestrian jumping and dressage (pronounced dress-AHGE). The World Cup will be hosted by The International Omaha, which has held equestrian jumping events of the same name in each of the last three years at the CenturyLink Center Omaha.

“I care about horses and I care about Omaha,” says Lisa Roskens, “and I wanted to bring the two of them together.” Roskens is the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Burlington Capital Group. “These are two things that I’ve worked really hard to develop—my sport and my city—and now people all over the world are excited about Omaha. To host the sport’s premier event in our own little town is a feeling that is…indescribable.”

The World Cup will feature four days of competition surrounded by a weeklong celebration of Omaha as individual champions are crowned in both jumping and dressage.

In preparation for the World Cup, The International Omaha 2015 will introduce dressage for the first time. Dressage is the sport where horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of intricate, predetermined movements—think something akin to ballet, but for horses.

The 2015 FEI World Cup will be held in Las Vegas the week before The International Omaha, and Roskens expects a strong presence of international competitors anxious to check out the facilities, city, and vibe of the site of the next American-hosted World Cup.

“Every year of the International Omaha has been better than the last,” Roskens says, “Next year’s event will be huge for us, and 2017 will be off the charts.”

Roskens’ passion for horses perhaps explains how a fledging group could launch an event like The International Omaha and—a mere three short years later—find themselves being awarded the bid for the most luminous spotlight in the world of equestrian sports.

“Every instinct of a horse is to shed anything that attempts to climb up on its back,” Roskens says. “But they allow us to do just that. We climb on their backs to do all the crazy things we ask them to do. It goes against the very essence of their being, but the result—that harmony when horse and rider are one—is absolutely magnificent.”

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Young Heroes

July 23, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s good exercise. You get to help people. You get to wear cool boots. And maybe best of all: You get to hang out with horses all day.

But there’s one other advantage to volunteering at the Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy: Even teen volunteers are critical to the operation.

“At some volunteer jobs we didn’t always feel useful or needed,” says Sarah Kopsa, 18, the eldest of three teens in the Kopsa family who volunteer at HETRA. However, she says, when the three arrive at the stables, there’s always something for them to do. “We know that if we are on the schedule we better show up because they really will have a problem providing the therapy without us,” Sarah adds.

And so it is, every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. that the Kopsas participate in a variety of activities including mucking stalls, sweeping, grooming, setting up the ring for students, laying out toys, and more. “During the lesson I’m really busy resetting the rings and toys for the next student. It’s good for me to wear boots because it gets dusty in there,” Maria shares.

HETRA’s mission is to improve the quality of life—both physically and emotionally —for adults and children with disabilities using equine-assisted activities. Those with special needs go the HETRA facilities in either Valley or Omaha each week for lessons to help them improve their core strength and balance.

Arriving just after school on Wednesdays, the Kopsa children immediately set out to groom and care for the horses. As kids begin arriving for their sessions, the Kopsas are there to not only welcome them, but also to help get everyone ready to ride, working with anywhere from three to five children each session. “The horses are mild-mannered, but we still have to be at their side at all times, holding the reins and spotting the rider” Sarah says. “The activities, like throwing balls through a hoop or reaching out to take a stuffed toy off a post, may seem simple to us, but to our riders it is challenging.”

While volunteering at the facility may not be forever, it has done plenty to inspire plans for the future among all three Kopsa children. Sarah, who has worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant in an assisted living facility, plans on studying nursing and credits her experiences at HETRA and in assisted living for showing her how to support and interact with others. Maria is considering teaching as a career path “so I’ll be able to better help kids with special needs.”

And James? He hopes to go into accounting and eventually, law. “HETRA is strengthening my desire to serve others in need,” he says. “I think I will always be more sensitive people who are disabled, to the parents of disabled kids and to organizations like HETRA. I don’t know how accounting and law will play into that, but it seems like there could be a good fit someday.”

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