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The first time I met Katja Elk was at a Christmas party at Monty and Pat Roberts’ home. The Agin Brothers’ Territory Law band was holding forth with some of their great Western tunes.

Out on the dance floor among all the cowboys and cowgirls, a beautiful young woman was dancing all by herself. It was so mesmerizing that dancers began to clear the floor just to watch her. I guess it is not surprising that she is now dancing with horses.

Katja is one of the Valley’s most talented dressage trainers. She has recently returned from Germany, where she travels each year to visit her family and polish her riding skills. We asked her to share some of her thoughts and recent adventures.

“As a Dressage rider and trainer, I’m always inspired by the horses and people I work with,” she said. “I make good use of the valuable books, clinics and other educational media sources, but some of my greatest inspirations have come from my trips to Germany. There I am very fortunate to be coached by dear friends and mentors and am allowed to ride their exceptional horses. It is there that I become inspired to find the finer details of dressage.

“One of my mentors is Michael Buenger Reitiehrer, who is a highest level professional rider/instructor and a member of the Certifying Committee for Professional Riders in Warendorf. He is a virtual professor of dressage. Another is Olaf Moeller, who is an exceptionally gifted professional rider and instructor. Pummel Schroeder, owner and sponsor of highest level dressage horses in Germany, is another of my coaches and supporters. It is so exciting to return to the Valley and share this wealth of new insights with my clients.”

Katja is aglow as she relates her new knowledge and inspirations from Germany.

Then I asked her a difficult question: “Were some of these taskmasters difficult to understand and please?” She responded with a smile and a nod. “I’ll have to say my dear friend and mentor Michael Buenger could definitely fall into that category. He would say things like: ‘Move your left hip bone one centimeter … not two, to the left.’ or ‘Feel your horse’s hind legs underneath each of seat bones while keeping the positive tension throughout your core muscles.’ or ‘Feel your inside calf muscles like the keys of a piano!’”

Where in the Valley is she now located? “For about a year now, I have enjoyed being the resident dressage trainer at Valley View Farm in Santa Ynez. It is owned by Richard Wideman and Christina Novak and is a beautiful facility. We are gearing up for winter by offering some special training and boarding packages. Interested riders can also take advantage of a free trial lesson and training session starting in December. We are also planning an open house. In addition, I travel to various farms for private lessons or they can trailer in to Valley View Farm.”

I know that you are best friends with your horses and understand them well. But are there sometimes complete surprises? “Absolutely, sometimes they will have an amazing breakthrough of performance that really amazes me. For example my 8-year-old Rhinelander gelding, Wunderkind (aka Tux), is 18 hands tall and has gone through some growth period lay-ups and an injury. I thought he had forgotten everything, but when we got out there in the dressage ring, he completely surprised me with some piaffe-like steps. He just acted like it was no big deal. It shows you what a smart and talented horse can do when they feel good and are having fun.”

Dressage seems like such an intricate discipline, do you ever wonder if you can accomplish some of the movements? “Of course, but I simply ask myself HOW I can do it, not IF. I just love working with all breeds of horses and riders at all levels and backgrounds. It’s very important to find the right approach for each horse and rider! I grew up riding warmbloods, especially Trakehners and one of my instructors was Guenther Goerke, an ex-Prussian cavalry man. Another wonderful mentor was Annelie von Lewinski, who courageously fled from East Germany after WWII with her three small children and a band of horses tied to her wagon!

“It was these two strong and disciplined people that taught me about horses and about life; and that sustains me to this day. There are inherent truths in treating horses kindly, guiding them firmly yet with compassion while respecting their individual personalities. To me, one of the biggest tasks for us humans is to make sure that each horse feels that his world is OK. He must have the basics like sufficient nutritious feed, water, grooming, fitting tack, exercise and interaction with other horses. He should have a sense of accomplishment in his daily work. When this is done right, it can lead to a truly amazing bond between horse and rider. You will have moments of pleasure with your horse that are unlike anything else you have experienced. Just remember that dressage is a wonderful journey, not a race!”