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It's What You Dream Of All Your Life

by Leeann Mione

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Ceil Wheeler began riding when she was five years old. “I was in a riding program at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Va., which was a girls school at the time,” said Wheeler. “My parents divorced and my mom met and married Pete Nininger. He was in the radio business and raised Saddlebreds and I had been introduced to Saddlebreds in the riding program. What are the odds that your step dad would turn out to be someone who loved horses - let alone the same breed that you loved.”

We had a family farm in Bristol with some broodmares and we raised Saddlebreds. Pete would take us to horse shows with a two-horse trailer and my sister Cyndy [Thomas] and I would literally have to get dressed for our class in the trailer on the way. Our mom Pinky [Nininger] always helped and supported us.” Ceil and Cyndy both showed at Louisville and were thrilled to come home with any ribbon at all.

Wheeler honed her skills on the local circuit for years and then graduated from East Tennessee State University with a teaching degree. She began a training operation at the family farm, named Chestnut Hill, and taught private lessons for 10 years. “Brooke Bodenhorst, who still rides today, was one of my students. She was a reserve world's champion in the walk and trot equitation division with a horse named Fairfax. Another one of my students, Jenny Rainero, placed fourth at Louisville and won in her equitation class at Lexington Junior League two weeks before. I was really proud of their accomplishments in Freedom Hall," said Wheeler.

She met Kenny Wheeler and the pair married in 1994. Ceil was able to continue training and teaching at Sallie and Kenneth Wheeler’s Cismont Manor Farm. Then two daughters, Catherine and Sallie-Mason, arrived and both pregnancies proved to be difficult for Wheeler. She stopped training horses and in fact was barely able to ride.

The Wheeler name was known for success at Louisville. Sallie Wheeler won countless titles with her string of champion horses and ponies. The family was a huge presence in the industry and Ceil became part of that group. It was easy for people to assume that she had won world’s championships because the Wheeler’s had so many titles to their credit.

Not until this year, the 100th anniversary of the World’s Championship Horse Show and a year where tribute was paid to past champions, including Sallie Wheeler, did Ceil earn her first performance blue ribbon on the green shavings.

Wheeler showed Summer Sweet to the Amateur Ladies Five-Gaited Mare World's Championship title on Monday night. In more than 30 years of riding and showing horses, it was her first personal blue ribbon in the performance division.

"Technically, I had a world's championship to my credit. I showed Fianna for Dr. Randy and Liz Thomas in the two-year-old in-hand class. We were awarded the 2000 reserve world's championship when they tied the class but after Louisville were named the winners. The Thomas' did eventually receive the blue ribbon and the prize money, but I didn't get to go to the winner's circle on that night," said Wheeler.

This year, when her name was called out, Catherine, Sallie-Mason, Kenny, Kenneth Wheeler, Sr. and Cyndy Thomas were all on hand to witness the event which brought tears of joy and bittersweet. Sadly, Sallie Wheeler, one of Ceils' biggest supporters and closest friends wasn't there to see it. "I know Sallie was with me," said Wheeler. "She was smiling down on me and very happy for me."

Wheeler's incredible week continued with her second world's championship win on Tuesday evening with Strapless, winner of the Amateur Three-Gaited 15.2 and Under class.

Wheeler paid tribute to those who helped and supported her throughout the years. "Kenny has always been so supportive of me and so has his dad. Kenneth, Sr., found Strapless for me. Susan Phillips owned her and he saw her work last year during Lexington Junior League with Nelson [Green]. He called Kenny and said 'I found Ceil's next walk-trot horse.' I was still recovering from the birth of Sallie-Mason so I didn't get to try her out before we bought her. She's really special to me."

Five-year-old Summer Sweet was found at Virgil Helm's by Nelson Green in May of this year. "Danette Musselman had her and showed her a few times as a four-year-old, but this is really her first full year of showing. We had only been together a short time when she won at Asheville. She also won at Devon, Shelby County and Lexington before we came to Louisville," added Wheeler.

She added that her stepfather, Pete Nininger, late legendary horseman Don Stafford and Anne and Sam Stafford, of Blythewood Farm, have all had a big influence on her. "I couldn't have done this without a lot of help from my friends and family. My mom helped Cyndy and I show on the local level when we had our family farm and she and Cyndy have always supported me. I also have to thank Nelson Green and Steve Wheeler. They are a wonderful team together and I admire and appreciate their hard work and dedication," she said.

Cyndy Thomas added "When Ceil won it was a dream come true. It's what you dream of your whole life and you never know whether it will ever really happen. We remember what it took just to be able to go to a small horse show. Nothing was ever handed to us, we did it because we loved the horses and we just wanted to go to horse shows. Her win meant everything to me."

Ceil closed by saying, "I've been really blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunities I've had. From being able to show Saddlebreds with my family when I was growing up to being able to use the Wheeler's gorgeous Cismont Manor facility, I've been really fortunate. I just love these horses and I believe my daughters have inherited that love. I believe they will carry on the family tradition."

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