News: All in the Family

By Laura Scaletti
Southern States Website

Wife, trainer, mother, judge, TV star and Grand Prix winner. These are just some of the hats worn by Kim Rachuba Williams over the years. Today, if you happen to see her at a horse show she is most likely to be seen wearing her trusty Willow Wood visor. Based out of Woodbine, MD, Williams is a hunter/jumper/equitation trainer and judge who puts family first every step of the way.

For Williams, horses have always been part of the glue that has held her family together. Growing up Williams, her sister and two brothers all spent their fair share of time in the saddle. However, it was Williams who got bit by the riding bug. "I was the only one who stayed with it and continued to advance to the rated shows," shares Williams. It was Williams' mother, Diane Rachuba, who took on the responsibility of training and traveling with Williams as they competed on the 'A' circuit.

As a junior, Williams had the opportunity to train with Scot Evans and Randy Mullins, but it was Rachuba who really supported Williams during these formidable years. Williams spent her time at horse shows in the hunter, jumper and equitation rings. "As a junior I qualified for indoors in the junior hunters and competed in the equitation finals," says Williams. Looking back Williams reminisces that her junior hunter, which she did indoors on, wasn't the superstar of its time, just a nice quality horse. Williams had to wait a few years to have her superstar.

During her junior days, the Rachubas purchased 100 acres in Marriottsville, MD and built a barn and house on the property. The Rachuba's farm Willow Wood, would later serve as the inspiration for Williams' business name.

Prior to going on her own as a trainer, Williams took time to make a name for herself in the Amateur Owner ring. As an amateur owner, Williams had her superstar horse in an Argentinean Thoroughbred named Whadyasay!. Bred to be a racehorse, he sustained an injury on the track as a two year old. It just so happened that his owner, Suzie Harts, boarded with the Rachubas at Willow Wood. After seeing Williams "play around" the farm with him she suggested they buy him. "My mom had seen the potential in his jumps so she immediately said yes," explains Williams.

Whadyasay's show career started in 1984, two years after the Rachubas bought him. It was at this time that Williams teamed up with professional Katie Monahan Prudent, at the time Katie Monahan. Once Monahan took the reins Whadyasay was unstoppable in the green, regular and amateur owner hunter divisions. "We both won so much on him up and down the east coast," reflects Williams. "He was a phenomenal horse." In fact, Williams was champion on him for three consecutive years in the amateur owners at the Washington International, Pennsylvania National and National Horse Shows.

Whadyasay was one of the first "big money" horse sold in the hunter world. With his outstanding show record he made his way to Alison Firestone to be both her junior horse and her mother Diana's amateur mount. Whadyasay was Williams' horse of a lifetime. Williams proudly says, "People still talk about what a great horse he was."

In addition to her success in the hunter ring, Williams had her fair share of wins in the jumper ring. Williams didn't just keep her winning ways in the States, she also spent a summer showing in the Grand Prixs in Europe, including venues such as Hickstead and Switzerland. In 1987, Williams won the Grand Prix in Reins, France.

"I was so fortunate to have my parents' emotional and financial support throughout my amateur years," reflects Williams. She was able to spend seven years traveling the circuit with the who's who of the jumper world. "We could go to Florida from January to April, then travel north to Lake Placid and Southampton," says Williams.

After "living the dream" for seven years, Williams returned to her Howard County roots and married husband Dale in 1989. It was following the wedding that Williams decided to hang up her stirrups and become a professional trainer. "To be honest, I got married and had to earn a living," shares Williams. Luckily for her finding potential customers wasn't too difficult. "As a result of my amateur years, I had a good reputation in Maryland and people were constantly approaching me to help them out at shows," she says.

Going pro enabled Williams to finally help others in the show ring. "I have a true passion for training," admits Williams. This passion helps Williams stay positive in what can be a very demanding career.

One of the keys to Williams' success is her desire to put family first. This doesn't just stop at her immediate family consisting of husband, Dale, and daughters Emily, Hannah, and Ellie. Williams insists everyone at Willow Wood is part of the family.

Today the entire Willow Wood family rides out of the 50 acre farm she leases from Dr. and Mrs. Richard Nessif in Woodbine, MD. The farm consists of 23 stalls, all of which are currently full. The Willow Wood family consists of adults, juniors, pony and equitation riders. Williams' riders compete at both rated and local shows. "I always have a good mix of rated and local customers," explains Williams. Once her students have gained experience in the local arena, Williams moves them up to the rated ranks. She recognizes the importance of building a solid foundation at the local level. "The future riders of Willow Wood will most likely come from the local level," she says.

Williams believe that the success she has had over the past 20 plus years in the training business is due in part to her wonderful clients. "There truly is NO drama with our group," explains Williams. "I have such a great time with my customers; it really is a family oriented atmosphere."

One remarkable thing about the Willow Wood barn family is that everyone looks out for each other. "Especially when my kids were younger, mothers would watch my girls so I could go train theirs," explains Williams.

Keeping the group as a cohesive unit is especially important at horse shows. Willow Wood loves to wrap up each show day at a group dinner. "Some of the most fun times together are at dinner when we pretend it's someone's birthday," states Williams. "You never know whose it will be." The fun also continues at home as Williams welcomes the entire farm to her home to celebrate the accomplishments of the year at the annual barn Christmas party. "It's amazing to reflect about the previous year's successes and how much fun we have as a big barn family," notes Williams.

Those fun times and accomplishments are made possible by Williams' training program. Williams believes her most important job as a trainer is to give her students confidence and never degrade them. "I try to instill self confidence to my clients and let them know they can try something even if it challenges them," remarks Williams. "I may push them to challenge themselves, but at the same time I never put them in a situation where they can fail." This positive approach allows Williams' students to move from one level to the next with confidence.

Williams' knack with her customers has enabled them all to succeed at the division of their choice. This also holds true for Williams daughters; Emily, age 19; Hannah, age 17; and Ellie, age 13. Today Emily is a member of the Texas A&M Equestrian Team. Hannah is currently applying to colleges and looking to make it on a riding team. Ellie is just getting her toes wet in the world of equitation.

Although Williams says all three of her daughters have different personalities, she doesn't really feel it was more challenging to train her own children. However, there was one occasion where Williams had to prove herself to Emily. "When Emily was either 12 or 13 she was going through a time when mother didn't know best," recalls Williams. "I literally had to bring her into the office and show her videos of me on Whadyasay and in the Grand Prixs to prove her that mom knew what she was talking about." For Emily it was the turning point to see that Williams had customers because she knew what to do.

Other than that one sit down moment, Williams said the training of her daughters has been no different than that of her other customers. Except for one of the golden rules of Willow Wood, practice makes perfect. "If you don't ride at home, you don't get to show," explains Williams. "There have been a couple times my girls have attended horse shows only to watch ringside."

Williams and her Willow Wood crew typically split their time pretty evenly between local and rated shows. "When possible I will try to make all my customers happy and do both a rated show and a local show on the same weekend," remarks Williams.

Around Zone 3, Williams is known for her students' success in the equitation ring. However, Williams insists equitation isn't her main focus. Starting in the 1990s, it became more and more popular for kids to want to do the equitation. "It wasn't my intention to focus on equitation, I have a lot of other customers that do ponies and jumpers, but I have been very lucky to have great horses and riders that can compete at the top levels of equitation," explains Williams.

"As my own kids got older they wanted to try their hand at equitation as well," notes Williams. Today if a rider wants to get a spot on a collegiate riding team it's important for her to have a strong equitation foundation. Both Emily and Hannah specifically did equitation to achieve the goal of getting on a riding team. As the older girls started looking at colleges Williams sought outside training help for each girl.

"It wasn't that I could only get my girls to a certain level of showing, but I wanted to give them more exposure than just training with mom," suggests Williams. Emily spent the latter part of her junior days working with Kim Prince of Snowbrook. Currently Hannah is working with Andre Dignelli of Heritage Farm. "I thought it would be good for colleges and universities to see my girls out of my shadow," she says.

In addition to giving her girls an opportunity to learn from someone else, Williams says she didn't want to be on the road every weekend. Though her career isn't a normal 9 to 5 job, Williams tries to maintain as normal a family lifestyle as possible. This is made easier by her daughters' interest in horse showing. "I'm so lucky that my girls want to ride and we are together so much," insists Williams. Although she can't guarantee they sit down at the dinner table for dinner every night, they maintain a normal family life whether on the road or off. When on the road, Dale will come visit Kim and the girls on the road, starting the day off with a round of golf and ending it with a family dinner after the show.

This down to earth personality was captured on Animal Planet's hit series Horse Power, which followed seven riders as they traveled the road to the Maclay finals. As part of the show, Williams trained student Lindsay Smith, deemed the underdog of the group. Williams says the opportunity to be a TV star was an amazing experience. "It was such an honor to be recognized and affiliated with the show," remarks Williams. Although, Williams and Smith were portrayed as the long shots to win the Maclay, their skill and work ethic came through in each episode. The sudden celebrity was a change of pace for this mother of three. "Lindsay and I would get stopped in tack stores for our autographs by kids who were star struck by us," remembers Williams. "It was a wild experience."

Not only does Williams have the role of TV star in her repertoire, but she also is an active member of the horse show community as a judge and board member. Williams is on the board for both the Howard County Horse Shows Association and the Maryland Horse Shows Association. As part of her duties on the Howard County board, Williams is responsible for the association's season opener and finale shows. "Running these two shows is truly a family effort, with my family running both the ingate and working as jump crew," notes Williams.

When not at shows with her daughters or customers, Williams attends shows as a judge. She typically fits her judging in during the fall and winter when Willow Wood isn't traveling to as many shows. "I've had my 'R' card for 18 years and I generally judge two rated shows a year," explains Williams. She has judged at the winter shows in Gulfport, Ocala and Jacksonville.

Williams is modest when it comes to what impact she wants to make in the horse industry. "I don't know how big of an impact one person can have," she says. Ask her customers though and they will have a different point of view. However at the end of the day, Williams wants to be known for how cohesive her barn family is. "People really do admire how we interact as a group," observes Williams. "I just want to be known as always having nice customers who ride well and have great horses."

To keep her horses performing well for her customers, Williams feeds Legends Show & Pleasure and Triple Crown Senior. Williams buys her feed from Farm and Home Service in Sykesville, MD. A customer since the 1970s, Williams says her horses look great on Southern States feed. "They go well, look great and you can't argue with that," points out Williams.

Not only does Williams buy Southern States feed for her barn, but she takes advantage of the S.H.O.W. program for the Howard County Horse Shows Association. "We collect the proofs of purchase from our feed bags and send them into Southern States," explains Williams. The money received from the S.H.O.W. program has been used to give scholarships to members of Association that are juniors and seniors in high school and have excelled in academics. "The S.H.O.W. Program has been a huge help in allowing us to give scholarships to deserving young riders," notes Williams.

Williams explains that the job of equestrian trainer is half trainer and half therapist. Her ability to read the personalities of both her customers and horses has served her well in the past and will continue to make her successful. Most importantly she, her family and her customers will have a great time as they train and travel the circuit.