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Bartletts Continue Family’s Long History of Show Ring Success

Katie, Susan, Jeff, and T.J. Bartlett (from l. to r.)


by Ann Bullard

They’re a family of redheads who live up to the best that description implies. Creative, energetic, independent, adventurous, driven and passionate - about their business, hobbies and one another - are one way to describe the Bartletts of Owensboro, Ky. Simply put: Jeff, Susan, Katie and T.J. are very nice people.

Saddle Horse fans today recognize the current generations of Bartletts. Susan has starred with three fine harness horses. The most recognized: Harlem’s Santa Fe and the gelding whose coat matched her hair, CH Preferred American. Katie has aged out of equitation and the junior exhibitor division. T.J. is best known for his pleasure driving ponies, Governor Casey and, before him, K & J’s Wahl Street.

If you look at the Bartlett family today, you would think the passion for American Saddlebreds came from Susan’s side. Not so. Jeff’s parents, T.J. and Dorothy O’Bryan Bartlett were known in Kentucky for their fine harness horses as well as the stallions they owned. Starheart Victory, sire of such champions as CH Heart To Heart, Starheart Love, advertised as ‘the world’s most beautiful American Saddlebred’ and My Lovely, were the best-known of his stallions.

Jeff Bartlett is the youngest of three children. His older brother, Jan, died in 2005. A paraplegic, he was accidentally shot in the spine when playing cops and robbers at age 12. His sister, Mary Bartlett Broecker, rode equitation and three-gaited horses under her mother’s tutelage.

Broecker describes her father as “an entrepreneur whose main business was a Gulf Oil distributorship. He was ‘involved’ in Bartlett/O’Bryan Advertising, the local bank and Owensboro Grain as well as the family farm.” She recalled those early years.

“In those days, we had horses at home. My father worked during the day and we rode in our little paddock at night. We owned a stud but I don’t think we bred horses on the farm,” she said, pointing out that breeding was something not done around young ladies of that day.

“Jack Thompson, who owned Noble Kalarama, lived in Hodgenville with his sister, Ann, who was the ASHA Secretary. When he went into the service during World War II, Jack left the stallion with my parents.

“I showed mainly because Dad wanted me to be with Mother so she wouldn’t be alone,” Broecker said. “She was very much into fashion and always looked like a million dollars. I remember when the top hat went from being very tall. It was time for me to buy a new one. For some reason, I didn’t think we should spend the money. I took out my hat, cut and lowered it. It was very much against Mother’s principles to do that.”

Broecker recalls her mother’s only showing fine harness. Once she entered college, her father began to show harness horses himself.

“Father was a businessman who liked to win, to do well. He soon found out it was not wise to win in the show ring. He would often tell judges to tie Mrs. Bartlett first.

“They showed primarily in small town shows in Western Kentucky, going almost every weekend. Dad would go to the Homemakers’ Booth and buy a chocolate cake. Then he would find all the children at the fair, telling them, ‘Mrs. Bartlett and I will be showing in the fine harness class. I want you to cheer for me and boo Mrs. Bartlett.’ The judge would tie her first and they would boo; he was second and they would cheer. It was one of the most fun things,” she said, dating these shows to the mid 1960s.

“When we came to the State Fair, Dad arranged to have a luncheon at the Executive Inn and invited all the children. No one was invited but the children and him. He served hamburgers, French fries, chocolate sundaes … everything children love to have.”

Don Harris and the senior Bartlett were friends and colleagues.

“Mr. Bartlett was like Mr. Owensboro. He had his hand in everything,” the world’s champion trainer said. “I could not have had a better relationship with anyone. He would have me come look over his stock. If there were anything I wanted, we’d make a partnership deal. If one didn’t work out, we’d move on.”

While Jeff Bartlett wasn’t nearly as horse-minded as his parents and sister, he did enjoy riding and swimming his pleasure pony around the farm.

“My parents were going to shows every weekend. Most were during a county fair with a carnival. I took my pleasure pony and showed in that class. Every now and then, I would get very brave and show equitation. My plan was to show every time I could and I went in a lot of classes I had no business being in – but they never threw me out. I came in last in a lot of them, but a ribbon was a ribbon,” he said with a laugh in his voice. “Once I turned 16 [and was old enough to drive,] I decided I had better things to do with my weekends. I pretty much quit going.”

Despite his brother’s accident with a gun, marksmanship became one of Jeff’s primary interests.

“High school in the 1960s was kind of funny compared with today. Any school with and some without a Junior ROTC program had a rifle team. I would travel around the state, shooting against other high schools.”

Jeff modestly says, “There were lots of good shooters on our team.” That team won the state championship for three years; Jeff was the individual high-scoring champion in his last two.

Studying agricultural economics at the
University of Kentucky left him time to shoot for the university team. At the time, he shot in small-bore competition, using .22-caliber rim-fire ammunition indoors at 50 feet from standing, sitting and kneeling positions. He was nominated All American for his sophomore, junior and senior years at the university and was invited to try out for the United States Olympic Team.

“I went through four years of Senior ROTC training at UK,” he said, pointing out that this was during the Vietnam War. “It gives you a mindset – I couldn’t wait to graduate. I decided that when they sent me to ’Nam, it wasn’t going to take but seven or eight weeks and I would end the war.”

Instead, he failed his physical three times, an event he calls “one of the low points in my life. In retrospect, it’s probably a blessing to me now.”

A friend who did go to Vietnam introduced Jeff to high-powered shooting, using weapons such as the old M-1 Garrand, M14 and M16 outdoors at 200, 400 and 600 yards.

“Shooting a rifle accurately at 600 yards fascinated me,” he said. “I’m still doing it today.”

That hobby has morphed into a successful business: buying and selling surplus government munition components. In 1963, Jeff began buying military cartridge cases from gun ranges and selling them to reloaders.

While Susan doesn’t shoot today, Jeff did teach her to use a .45 when they were dating. “He told a friend that was the biggest mistake he ever made,” Susan said with a laugh.

Like her husband, Susan Bartlett grew up in Owensboro. Unlike Jeff’s, her family lived in town.

“My granddaddy was a tobacco farmer, auctioneer and horse trader. Our only horse experience was riding the one he used to plow tobacco. When he plowed with a half-draft horse, we had to climb into the back of the truck to put our foot in the stirrup,” she said. “He had a western saddle, but he taught us to post.”

Susan grew up as part of 4-H and Girl Scouts. She may have developed her love for harness horses when her grandfather took her to the Davis County Fair, about a half-mile from the farm.

“We always seemed to go the night they had the English horse show. I watched Jeff’s parents show against each other. I thought it was really neat to dress up and drive a horse.”

Susan majored in French at Bresbia College in Owensboro. After graduation, she went to work for a local insurance agency. Jeff was on the Board of Directors.

“We dated for six years. He was so slow; Jeff has always taken a long time to make up his mind,” Susan said fondly. “I thought six years was long enough. I told his sister I was going to date for six years, but not seven. She passed the information on to him, so he already knew he was on borrowed time. It was leap year and on February 29th, I proposed to him. He came to the house one Wednesday night in March and told me to hold out my hand. He set his mother’s engagement ring in it.

“Jeff said it wasn’t official because he hadn’t asked my daddy yet. Daddy said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference. She’s going to do what she damn well pleases anyway.’

“My old boss told me, ‘You really need to thank me. If I hadn’t hired you, you probably wouldn’t have met him,’ ” Susan said with a laugh.

Susan and Jeff were 26 years old when they started dating. They married on his mother’s birthday. She worked with the insurance agency until Katie was born and then remained home for a year before working for another firm until T.J. arrived. Three years ago, she began substitute teaching at Owensboro Catholic High. She went to fill in and has been there ever since.

Not surprisingly, Katie was the one who brought the family into the horse world.

“When she was six, out of the blue she decided she wanted riding lessons. It’s snowballed from there,” Jeff said. “With my parents’ background, it was almost like it had to be.”

Katie began riding with Jennifer Mishell (Smith), when she and Ellen Beard were at Equine Athletic in Owensboro.

“Before Katie started lessons, Susan took her to the State Fair. She wanted her little girl to ride. If it had been up to Jeff, I don’t think Katie would have ever gotten a horse,” Mishell-Smith said. “When Ellen left, I couldn’t afford to lease the barn. I moved to Chuck Herbert’s Cedarwood Farm [in Evansville, Ind.,] and Katie went with me.”

It wasn’t long before Herbert began teaching Susan to drive Linda Stone’s horse. It was (and is) a perfect place for her.

“Susan was beginning to think she wanted a harness horse,” Michelle-Smith said. “We started working on Jeff, telling him what a wonderful Christmas present that would be.”

“At the Christmas party in 1994, Chuck showed us the tape of a harness horse,” Susan recalled. “We thought we might be interested in it. For Christmas, Jeff found an ad and put a card on it, saying it might be this horse or it might be someone else. Chuck found out that horse had to be hooked on the run; it wasn’t the one he wanted. He then got a tape from [the late Paul] Priebe. I showed it to Jennifer and Jeff. In February’s minus 10 degree weather and snow, we went to Minnesota to look at a harness horse.”

That was CH Preferred American. Jeff Priebe had done well in three-gaited competition with the bright chestnut gelding.

“Everyone thought we were crazy when we bought him,” Herbert said. “He had such a reputation as an under-saddle horse. The first few shows, people went to the ring to see if he would come undone.”

It was an ideal match. The new team’s first show was the 1995 Kentucky Spring Premier.

“I think Jennifer and Chuck were more nervous than I was. Before I got in the buggy, Jennifer handed me a wine cooler,” Susan said, pointing out this was the only time that has happened. “We won our first class and ended up in the open championship. Jim Stephens had Holy Fruit Salad before [the late] Mrs. [Alan R.] Robson bought him. He was fourth. Things went up from there.”

Many wins followed. Only a few weeks after their debut, Susan drove the gelding to the Ladies Fine Harness blue and reserve grand championship at UPHA Chapter 5 and followed that by winning the ladies stake at Rock Creek.

Then came Louisville and the Kentucky County Fair Fine Harness Championship. Herbert was on the lines.

“My biggest thrill still is when ‘Mike’ won his first year at Louisville,” Susan said, explaining that the nickname came with the horse. “I was a nervous wreck. When you’re not driving you can see everyone else and what they’re doing. You see every mistake your horse makes and wonder if the judges see it too.”

Susan and ‘Mikey’ finished their first season in good form, posting several more wins and remaining in top ribbons. They started the following year with wins at Rock Creek and Chapter 5 and at numerous Kentucky County Fair shows. Then it was on to Louisville. Again, Herbert and CH Preferred American won the County Fair World’s Championship.

Preferred American and his popular owner remained in the fine harness division through the 1998 season, accumulating more silk and silver for the Bartlett trophy case. In 1999, when he was 14, ‘Mikey’ moved into pleasure driving competition, where he continued to excel.

“Chuck knew I wasn’t as crazy about pleasure driving as fine harness,” Susan said. “He found Callaway’s After The Storm for my fine harness horse.”

Shortly before the 2002 American Royal, the Bartletts purchased Harlem’s Santa Fe. In her first show under their ownership, ‘Ellie’ won the UPHA Fine Harness National Championship with Herbert on the lines. The lovely black mare and her elegantly-dressed driver remain a force-to-be-reckoned with in amateur and ladies competition.

While Susan starred with her fine harness horses, Katie and T.J. earned places for themselves in the show horse world. When her instructor moved back to an Owensboro barn, Katie went with her, spending most of her junior exhibitor career with Mishell-Smith. T.J. drove ponies under Herbert’s direction.

“Katie was a funny little kid. She likes to win, but for her it’s just the fun of riding. It didn’t always come easy for her. She took on some challenges with horses that weren’t always the top ones,” Mishell-Smith said.

She laughed as she spoke about one of Katie’s early lessons. “I had an old lesson horse named Banner. Katie was about seven, and being a little redhead could have the corresponding temper to go with it. I was trying to teach her the differences in using a crop, just to urge one on. She got mad and whacked the heck out of this horse. He was 20-something years old and had never taken off with anyone before. She learned the difference between a love pat and the other.”

Not only did Katie ride pleasure and pleasure equitation on Saddlebreds with Michelle-Smith, she rode equitation with National Show Horses as well. For all but one Finals competition, she rode a borrowed horse.

“She basically was catch-riding, and earned a lot of Top 10s,” Mishell-Smith said. “The last year, she went on the ’Net and researched National Show Horses before buying one.”

She looked back at how far Katie had come. “When she was little, Chuck and I despaired over her learning to use her hands. When she was riding this tough mare, I told Katie, ‘It’s like stroking a butterfly.’ The mare settled right down. They were first on one card, third on another and further down on the last. That was one of the moments when I was so proud I choked up.”

In 2004, Katie got a call asking her to go to South Africa with the Invitational World Cup Team. When she asked her mother, Susan replied, “You can’t go that far without your mother.” Both the three- and five-gaited teams won the gold medal.

Although Katie showed adult equitation for a few years, she is far from the Saddlebred scene today. After graduating from Transylvania College in Lexington, Ky., with a major in secondary education, she taught briefly in Owensboro. Now she is pursuing a Master’s Degree at the University of Swansea, in Swansea, Wales.

Katie shares a co-ed house with six other international students. Her closest friend, Michelle, from Columbus, Ohio, is one of eight at her house. All speak English.

“Their English is funny, all different accents,” Katie said, explaining her immediate friends come from such diverse places as Pakistan, India, Nigeria, China, Germany, Canada and France. “It’s interesting to see everybody’s culture, what they and we are used to and how we accommodate each other. Our Chinese friend had never had a birthday cake; Mom is sending her one.”

There’s been another big change in Katie’s life: Saddlebreds are practically non-existent in Wales. She began taking hunt seat lessons early in the fall.

“I took my first lesson on the flat and my butt hurt. I hadn’t ridden since April. They put me in an intermediate group,” she said, explaining she had told the instructors she’d ridden for 18 years. “They don’t know what Saddle Seat is here. I have a very upright posture; it’s been ingrained in me since I was six. And I have to learn to lower my hands …”

As for the future, Katie would like to return to Owensboro and teach at the high school she graduated from. However, she says she might pursue a PhD, depending on “how much I like the dissertation thing. But I think in the end a horse might be cheaper than graduate school.”

Like his father, T.J. ‘gave up’ showing about the time he learned to drive. The young man Herbert who remembers playing multiplication games using Roman numerals is a National Merit Commended Scholar. He is majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Louisville’s Speed School of Engineering.

Speaking to T.J. today, you might conclude that horses simply are too tame for him.

“I’m into aerial sports like skydiving, paragliding and BASE jumping,” he said. “I spent about a year-and-a-half doing research to figure out how to do the sport safely.

“My main focus is BASE jumping, specifically wingsuit flying and acrobatics,” he explains on his Web site. “Wingsuits are suits with inflatable wings between the flyer's torso and arms and between both legs. When jumping from a plane, I have flown for over three minutes from 13,000-feet, deploying at 3,000-feet with an average fallrate of about 45mph vertical, and a horizontal speed of over 100mph. In BASE jumping, this allows for longer delays (two to four times as long as jumping without one) and more separation from the object you jumped from, which actually makes the jump marginally safer.”

He has jumped from an 850-foot bridge in the dead of winter after a snowstorm, a 1,600-foot tower and the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia. As for his fears, “if you’re not scared, you shouldn’t be in the sport. You’ll get killed. Fear keeps you cautious; it keeps you safe.”

Herbert took a quick look at his customers and friends. “They have been such great people for me. Someone said I was known for having harness horses. I replied, ‘No, I’m just known for having a good family that likes nice harness horses.’

“Jeff just loved Preferred American. He was the first one and a lot of fun. Susan’s hair and his coat matched,” Herbert said, adding with a laugh, “Jeff probably had red hair before it turned gray. Susan’s probably the reason why.

“Katie has been relentless about showing. There always was a class she wanted to be in. One time, when she wanted to show back, she grabbed my leg and sat on my foot until I gave her an answer, yes or no. I told her no and she finally got off my foot. But I think I dragged her around the barn [at Indianapolis] for a while. That’s typical Katie.

“T.J. did ponies because his mom wanted him to do ponies. It never was his passion. It took more time to get him put together than it did the pony. He would drive his pony at the show wearing sandals and no socks. He was a good trooper about it. I think he was thrilled when I told Jeff I didn’t think we should have to make him show anymore.”

“Actually, it became more T.J’s passion when he found he could win money – and Katie couldn’t. He’d rub it in saying, ‘I won this, what did you win,’ ” Susan said with a smile.

“Jeff’s so level-headed about stuff. He has no misconceptions about the horse industry and what it’s all about,” Herbert added. “He knows it takes a nice horse and that it costs just as much to care for a nice one as the other. He learned that lesson early. When we buy something, he tries to make sure it’s a nice horse. He’s always believed in that and has a good background for it, too.”

Jeff smiled when talking about his family. “What’s it like being married to Susan? She definitely puts up with a lot. Sometimes I think she kind of patronizes me more than anything. It’s fun. She is into her horses and it keeps her busy. When I have time, I do try to go to as many shows as I can. Susan is a great mother and she’s raised two pretty good kiddos. I couldn’t have done it by myself; she’s had more influence on the way they turned out than I did.”

T.J.’s hobby is a concern – but his son’s pursuing a daredevil sport doesn’t surprise Jeff. “When I was growing up, I was kind of a daredevil. When he wanted to try bungee jumping in New Zealand, I felt if T.J. were crazy to do it. It was pretty safe, so let him do it. If that had been me, my parents would not have said no. I think that kind of set the hook and he’s gone on from there. When boys are 18 or 20 years old, they think they are superman and can do anything in the world. That’s part of growing up. I was the same way.”

As for Katie … “She’s a daddy’s girl and a long way from home. Katie can take care of herself. I wouldn’t be worried about her going anywhere in the world. She can about do anything she wants to and does. She’s my one and only. If the truth be known, she probably has me wrapped around her little finger. But she does it in such a way that I don’t feel I am being manipulated.”

“Dad is like a mischievous little boy. When I was little, I learned from the best,” Katie said, speaking of her mother and father’s relationship. “I know how to get what I want. Mom has him on one hand; I have him on the other. Dad is sweet as he can be and in the end he always comes through for you.”

There’s one thing about the Bartletts on which everyone agreed. Their unfailing loyalty and sportsmanship triumph over their red hair every time.

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