Minnesota trainer turns unbroken horse into champ
At best, she hoped to break the top 10. And to show the world what a Nokota horse could do.
But Jerusha Steinert, a St. Paul horse trainer, and her 4-year-old Nokota, Mesabi Warrior, did one better. They took grand champion honors in the American Horsewoman’s Challenge, launching themselves onto the national stage.
“She went up against some of the top horsewomen in the United States and she showed them how it was done,” said Jim Hutchins, the competition’s organizer and producer. “People should be incredibly proud of her accomplishment. The entire (horse) community should be proud of what she’s done.”
Steinert and Mesabi bested about 30 other competitors to walk away with the title.
Steinert, 34, has been a trainer since 2006 and a horsewoman most of her life. She had taken a break from training after having daughter Roslyn when she first heard about the challenge. And although she knew it would be a major undertaking, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“I saw that a friend of mine posted a link to the challenge website,” Steinert recalled. “My heart was thudding. ‘This is it. I have to do this.’ “
The competition focused on what Steinert loves: a training challenge, natural horsemanship and a range of skills.
And she knew from the start: “I needed a Nokota.”
The Nokota breed is descended from wild horses that once roamed the badlands in western North Dakota, according to the Nokota Horse Conservancy.
Steinert said she hopes her win at the challenge, a three-day competition held in October in Oklahoma, will bring some much-needed attention to the breed.
The Nokotas are known to be “small, hardy and quick,” she said. “They have sensitivities and intuition and a social structure so much different than domestic horses.”
Steinert met Mesabi Warrior in Texas during a clinic and knew he would be a good partner. He’s gentle, playful, not particularly dominant and solid, she said. She had trained one Nokota before him.
The breed maintains a cultish status — likely due to still-low numbers — and hasn’t reached mainstream popularity.
There are only about 1,000 of the horses registered with the conservancy.
“They’re not horses for everybody,” Steinert said. “They don’t suffer fools. But they’re very compassionate, and they tend to be one-person horses. They bond.”
Mesabi arrived in early spring to Lakeview Farm in Hugo, where Steinert is a trainer, and the gentling process began immediately.
Also an artist, she likened the training process to creating art.
“You let the piece guide you, show you where to go,” she said. “It’s the same with a horse.”
Steinert said she had never had such a tight timeline for such a “grandiose” event, but her work paid off. The duo placed in the top 10 in each of the competition’s categories.
While skill and speed were factors in scoring, it was the solid relationship between them that pushed Steinert and Mesabi to the top spot.
“People not only recognized her skills — she’s a very skilled trainer — but the competition was really based on that relationship,” Hutchins said. “And Mesabi Warrior is a really special horse. He really went further and gave her more than she ever expected. And you just saw it in the competition. He’s a very light horse. It’s about quiet asks and lightness, and not forcing a horse to do anything.”
This was the inaugural run for the competition, which Hutchins created. The event was open to women trainers from the U.S. and Canada. Contestants were given eight months to turn an untrained, unbroken horse into a show-ready equine.
“It just made obvious sense to me that this needs to be a competition for women. They’re not really recognized like they should be,” Hutchins said. “When you’ve got most of the horses in the U.S. and Canada being trained by women and there’s no competition for that?”
The women competed in three categories: liberty, western dressage and ranch/trail versatility.
Liberty, Steinert’s favorite challenge, showcases a trainer’s ability to communicate with the horse from the ground, with no leads. “When you take the lead off and say, ‘Come with me, do this with me,’ you have to have it there. Liberty shows the truth,” she said.
The final piece of the competition was the freestyle ride. “It was more about showmanship than horsemanship,” Steinert said.
For their final ride, Steinert dressed in her best Renaissance Festival gear and Mesabi donned blue paint. The pair galloped bareback to tunes from Led Zepplin and the movie “Brave,” showcasing the fun side of their partnership. At the end, Steinert slipped Mesabi’s bridle off and they bowed for the judges.
“I was so floored that I won because usually, when I do whatever I want to do, people think it’s weird,” Steinert said with a laugh.
She’s already looking forward to the 2015 challenge — for which she’ll enter another Nokota, sponsored by a spectator who was taken with Mesabi this year — and is hoping to inspire other women to take the leap.
“Whatever gets women excited and confident that they can do it, that’s great,” Steinert said. “I’ve talked to some of my friends about it, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I can’t do liberty,’ or ‘I can’t go fast enough,’ but nobody’s perfect.”
Hutchins — who has four sisters and whose mother was a horsewoman — said the aim of the challenge wasn’t necessarily to pit women against one another, but to showcase their natural talents.
“Because I have seen what women can do with horses and the wonderful bond that can happen, especially with liberty,” he said. “I’ve had people who were at the event, who were longtime people in the horse industry or judges, saying to me, ‘I have never seen a competition like this in my life.’
“One thing that was a kind of surprise was the camaraderie of the women,” Hutchins added. “These women were working together and helping each other, before they even arrived in Oklahoma. So it’s just a very, very different kind of horse competition. And that’s what we were going for.”