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Ceil Wheeler - People’s Choice Amateur of the Year


by Ann Bullard


Amateurs often move into the professional ranks. Professionals transition into amateurs less frequently. Few have done it with more grace and poise than Horse World’s Amateur of the Year, Ceil Callahan Wheeler. Her mount, Walterway’s Remember Me, the two-times Ladies Five-Gaited Gelding World’s Champion and Ladies Five-Gaited World’s Champion of Champions topped the voting for Ladies Five-Gaited Gelding of the Year. The UPHA recently honored Remember Me as their Ladies Five-Gaited Horse of the Year.


Anyone who saw Wheeler and her mother at the Farm Best pony rides in Bristol, Tenn., could have guessed Wheeler would grow up to be a horse-crazy young lady.


“Mom said I never threw a temper tantrum in my life, but I did that day. I didn’t want to get off,” she said, smiling at the recollection.


Although Wheeler lived in the middle of hunter country, Virginia Intermont College, a few minutes from her home, offered Saddle Seat instruction. When her older sister, Cyndi, began taking lessons on Saturday mornings, Wheeler went along.


“I was four or four and-a-half years old,” she said. “The school normally didn’t take students before six. They let me ride a bit, saw my enthusiasm and that I could take directions at that age. They decided to let me start, but I couldn’t tell anyone how old I was.”


On Saturdays, Wheeler was the first in her family out of bed. Even in 10-degree weather, she headed to the barn.


Her parents divorced when Wheeler was in the second grade. Her mother remarried a man who shared Wheeler’s passion. Pete Nininger and his father had Saddlebreds, including the stallion Wing Shot. Needless to say, Wheeler was in her element, with Cyndi not far behind. Nininger added eight stalls to his four-stall barn. The sisters showed in Knoxville, Roanoke and at a few Kentucky events.


“In high school, I took a jumping course at nearby Sullins College with Kim Burnett. Since I could ride, they put me in the advanced class. I was trying to live up to her words and never showed any fear,” she said, indicating this was a bit of an act.


For college, Wheeler chose the University of Kentucky and later transferred to East Tennessee State University so she could be closer to home and horses. After graduating with a major in physical education and health, she opened her own barn in Bristol.


“No one was teaching Saddle Seat in that area. Many parents didn’t want their children to jump. I ended up with 60 students before I knew it. They were young and old, but mostly kids,” she said.


Jeoff and Mary Alice Bodenhorst and their family live in Abington, Va., about 30 minutes from Bristol. Mary Alice had ridden as a child. She brought seven-year-old Brooke (VanderSpuy), her sister, Lisa, and brother Jeoff, to Wheeler for lessons.


“Mom had horses when she was little. When she took me to Ceil’s for the first time, I fell in love with Ceil; the horses came after that. Ceil went over and beyond what was expected of her as a horse trainer. That’s why I love it so much,” said the young woman who now teaches riding herself.


“I rode three times a week and spent the day on Saturday. Ceil became a second mother to me. She helped me want to be a riding instructor so that I could do for other children what she did for me.”


VanderSpuy explained, “Ceil worked hard. It was just her most of the time, although occasionally she had college girls to help. Chestnut Hill was a small operation with a few lesson horses. She started me on a fat little pony that taught me how to ride.”


Wheeler selected VanderSpuy’s first horse, Fairfax, from Anne and Sam Stafford. He carried the nine-year-old to her first Louisville ribbon; a reserve in the Saddle Seat equitation 10 and under walk and trot division.


As small as the Saddlebred community is, it’s not surprising Ceil and Kenny Wheeler met. Wheeler spoke of her future husband’s persistence.


“When I was at Chestnut Hill, I saw Kenny at Virginia horse shows. He asked me out; I’d decline. I finally agreed to go out with him at ASHAV. There was supposed to be a big Kalarama group, including his best friend, David Rudder, meeting us for a bite to eat.


“No one came but Kenny; I’d been set up,” she said with a laugh. “He swears to this day that they all fizzled out. We talked until the wee hours of the morning.”


Numerous random phone calls followed. Wheeler was busy working; they continued dating at exhibitors’ parties. She soon learned “he was a pretty likeable guy.” At Christmas, Kenny asked her to marry him.


Marrying into Kenneth and the late Sallie Wheeler’s family might have been daunting. As one might expect from the always-gracious Sallie Wheeler, she made Ceil feel right at home.


“Sallie and I hit it off immediately,” Wheeler said. “Of course, she knew who I was. However, I had never met her until Kenny and I went to Arizona for Easter. The first thing we did the morning after we got to Scottsdale was go trail riding. It was something she loved and knew I would as well.”


Wheeler remained in Bristol until she and Kenny married in September 1994. In typical horse person fashion, they postponed their honeymoon because ASHAV was the following weekend. Wheeler had one more show with her customers.


The senior Wheelers’ Cismont Manor Farm was [and is] home to Kenneth Wheeler’s successful hunter and jumper business. Sallie Wheeler’s ‘pony barn,’ where Randy Harper had trained, remained empty.


“Sallie was nice enough to let me use this barn,” Wheeler said. “It’s a beautiful facility, with an indoor arena and everything one could want. She was tickled it was being used.”


While Kenny worked for the local Budweiser distributorship, Wheeler operated a very successful Saddlebred training facility. J.C. Pierce, who has such horses as Pascale with Bret Day, and Helen Curtin, owner of Dear Sir James, returned to the business. Jacqueline and Nicki Leon, Jacqueline Shupe, Liz and Randy Thomas as well as Wheeler's sister, Cyndi Thomas, and stepfather Pete Nininger made up part of the customer base. Such horses as C.F. Prowler’s Time, Harlem’s Lucky Buck, Snap Shot, Topstitch and Vanessa Williams came through her hands. She maintained her Keswick training barn until the family moved to Memphis, Tenn., in 1999. There, Wheeler divided her time between their daughters, Catherine and Sallie-Mason, helping Kenny at their Budweiser Distributorship in West Memphis, Ark., and making trips back to Virginia.


While some of Wheeler and Kenny’s young horses remained in Virginia, John T. Jones trained several youngsters. The most notable of these was CH Walterway’s Remember Me.


“My step-dad first saw him at Larry Hartsock’s farm in Castlewood, Va. He told us about him,” Wheeler said. “Johnny gave the final OK.”


The six-time world’s champion was four-months old when Jones took over his training. In August, Kenny’s best friend, David Rudder, led the Star Material son to his first world’s title, the Kentucky Futurity Amateur Weanling Championship.


As Jones catered to young horses rather than amateurs and because Wheeler wanted to show in her ‘home’ area of Virginia and the Carolinas, they joined Peter and Kim Cowart’s Westwind Stables. The Wheeler family’s long-time relationship with Nelson Green brought them back to Kentucky where all the family horses would be under one roof.


In 2002, the Wheelers purchased the three-gaited mare Strapless. That year they began what only could be called a ‘great run’ with the trainer through whom Sallie Wheeler won so many world’s championships.


The Wheeler horses added eight blues and tricolors to Green’s tack room that year. Remember Me and Green followed a reserve in the Junior Five-Gaited Stallion and Gelding class with the Junior Five-Gaited World’s Champion of Championship. Simbara’s Sweet Lorraine added the Junior Fine Harness Mares and Champion of Championship to the ribbons.


Wheeler and Kenny were equally successful. Teamed with Strapless, Wheeler topped the three-gaited 15.2 and under competition; she and Summer Sweet added the Amateur Five-Gaited Mare title. The Cismont Manor breeding program held its share of the glory. Kenny led Castledream to win the ASHA Futurity of Kentucky Amateur Yearlings title. His dam, A Daydream Believer, was the last horse Sallie Wheeler showed under saddle.


Wheeler had two new mounts in 2004: Memories’ Paragon, winner of the 2003 Junior Five-Gaited Stallion and Geldings World’s Championship, and Victoria Lynn. Green started the season on Victoria Lynn, winning Asheville’s Junior Three-Gaited Stake. After that, Wheeler took over, posting wins at Lexington, Louisville and in ASHAV’s Junior Three-Gaited Stake. Green was in the saddle when the mare won ASHAV’s Three-Gaited Championship. Wheeler and Memories Paragon received a standing ovation at Louisville after tying reserve in the Amateur Five-Gaited Stallion and Gelding class.


The next two years were fantastic. At Lexington 2005, Wheeler won the Ladies Five-Gaited Stake aboard Remember Me, tied reserve in the adult amateur class with Memories’ Paragon and came back with him on Saturday night to win the amateur championship. At Louisville, Remember Me topped the ladies gelding and ladies championship classes. The teams headed to ASHAV with Remember Me and Memories’ Paragon winning the qualifying and championships in the ladies and amateur five-gaited divisions respectively.


Wheeler and Remember Me had the crowd with them as they racked and trotted away with a pair of 2006 world’s championship titles. That same week, the Wheelers introduced a new star to the discriminating crowd.


“We went to look at Joe Friday during Junior League,” Wheeler said of the colt whose Louisville performance virtually brought down the house. “We actually bought him the first of August, but left him with John [Conatser] through Louisville.”


The colt won the Three-year-Old Stallion and Gelding World’s Championship in his first trip to the show ring. At ASHAV, Green qualified the colt for the Royal, winning the UPHA Three-Year-Old Fine Harness title there. He and Green finished the season as the UPHA Fine Harness Classic Grand Champions.


Wheeler credits Green and Josie Forbes for much of their success. “We couldn’t have had a better relationship than we have with them. Josie has a great eye for a horse and helps Nelson and his customers find young stock. She told us about Victoria Lynn after she saw her at a show she was stewarding.”


The feeling is mutual. “Ceil has been on both sides [amateur and professional.] She is very aware of what’s involved in running a training stable, in training horses. It makes it very easy to work with her,” Green said. “She is a good friend, a good customer and an accomplished horse person.”


Kenny added to the story, “Ceil is very dedicated to everything she does. If she’s your friend, she is 100 percent your friend. She is truly a horse lover and dedicated to animals in general. We have four mules, donkeys, ponies, dogs and cats between Dad’s farm and where we’re moving.


“Ceil didn’t start winning world’s championships out of nowhere. She paid her dues and worked a long time to get there.”


Wheeler and Kenny’s lives took another turn in May 2006. They purchased East Belmont, a farm with a Federal-style home built in 1812 in Keswick, about a mile from Cismont Manor. Wheeler spends much of her time planning and supervising its restoration. Kenny divides his between home and his Budweiser distributorships in West Memphis and Virginia.


“The house had not been updated in about 30 years,” Wheeler said. “I’m trying to put it back more in the tradition and keeping of its original time period.”


The family spends as much time as possible at the farm. On weekends, they saddle up trail horses and ride much of the 1,200 acres. They do hope to build a barn there during the summer.


Wheeler says she and Kenny are not pushing the girls to ride, but take them when they ask. Catherine took saddle seat lessons from Cryst-A-Kel while the family lived in Memphis. Sallie-Mason rides the pony her sister has outgrown.


“Moving back to Virginia has been emotional,” Wheeler said. “Everything has changed, is different. We are trying to maintain horses at the level Sallie did. We strive to do good things for people as she always did and to be kind and generous to others.”


She added wistfully, “We would love for Sallie to be here to see Joe Friday.”

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