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Jan Lukens Dances To A Different Tune

By Ann Bullard

At first glance, the tall lady standing in front of the Lukens Stables tack room seems distant – what some might call ‘a bit off-putting.’ Beneath that quiet, very professional exterior, however, lays a warm, caring, somewhat shy and totally-dedicated woman who has helped pave the way for other women to make it on their own in the saddle horse world.

Simply put, Jan Lukens is a horsewoman, who doesn’t know the words can’t, slow-down or (heaven forbid) quit. She’s been enthralled with the animals since first climbing aboard draft horses at her grandfather’s farm.

"He had work horses," Lukens said, explaining her grandfather dealt in hay and cattle. "My cousin and I used to ride them. Someone told me I needed something smaller."

Smaller turned out to be Spearmint, a Palomino pony Lukens "showed western. At home, I rode her up and down the picket fence; I would tie her up and give her baths with my mother’s Yardley soap. My father [the late Maynard Casler] had western horses and stuff and raised Shetland ponies."

Casler's purchase of Misty Hills Farm in the 1950s opened a number of doors for his daughter. His full-time sales profession left him time to manage a horse farm and to help coach his daughter in her riding. They remodeled a dairy barn and later built an indoor ring.

However, Jan Lukens’ independent streak that we see today began in her childhood. She did have some lessons from a retired Cavalry officer, with whom they boarded Silver Dawn, the equitation horse her father purchased. A few formal lessons with the late Joe Vanorio, trainer/instructor for many outstanding equitation riders, added polish. But for the most part, Lukens was self-taught.

"I learned by playing with horses and ponies. I spent hours playing around and high-schooling them. For my 7th birthday I received a pretty Hackney pony, my first real show animal. We showed in Three-Gaited Pony classes … I think Auctioneer was the only one that we didn’t beat," she said, adding that they went as far away as Toronto to show against 20 or more ponies.

"I remember my first show in junior equitation. They called for a figure eight; I did about 10 of them before they told me to line up," she said, recalling those backyard-type shows where she and so many of her contemporaries started.

Lukens began teaching riding when she was 12 or 13-years-old. "I charged 50-cents a lesson, saved my money and bought a lesson horse."

School days started with her caring for nine or 10 horses, primarily alone. Classes followed – with the afternoons again dedicated to caring for horses and teaching lessons. She was one focused young lady.

When it was time to buy a horse for herself, Lukens’ paid $250 Crebilly’s Trailblazer. She showed him in three-gaited competition and he also was her equitation star.

Area exhibitors knew Lukens well … long before her name appeared with winners on the national level. In 1959, she, her father and the $250 equitation horse headed to Madison Square Garden for the NHS Good Hands Finals. The late Helen K. Crabtree and Joan Robinson Hill marked the cards. Simply put, Jan Casler won, and tied reserve in the AHSA Medal the same year.

Lukens is one who can trace her professional career back to her junior exhibitor years. She had a lot of experience with what she calls ‘rank, young horses.’ Her father’s employer owned top standardbreds; those that came off the track became her responsibility.

"I’d get to break them to saddle and find homes for them," she said. "The first horse I gaited was a standardbred. It was rather odd … he could go fast, rack well and trotted high. Cantering was another thing."

Lukens’ students also did well. One tied third in the Garden’s Good Hands Finals, while her instructor still showed equitation. Bill Beckley and John Whalen ‘graduated’ from the Lukens’ program. And Debbie Foley showed equitation with Lukens for one show, winning the championship at the Children’s Services Horse Show.

Whalen recalled those days. "When I first started riding [at Misty Hills] Jan was in college. She came back, and began a sensational career. She was very young and very enthusiastic. Of course. Maynard maybe was the manager, but Jan was in charge of everything," he said, adding he was undefeated in equitation other than in the Finals during his two years under Lukens’ direction.

Beckley, who later had his own Saddlebred operation, showed equitation and in junior exhibitor competition with Lukens 40 years ago. "I lived in Connecticut and they were in New York. I’d drive every Friday after school and get there at 6 or 7 p.m.

"She’s tough. She’ll put you on every type of horse imaginable to teach you to ride. It may be a half-broke colt or a stubborn old horse. After your two days of suffering, she’d reward you with something nice to ride – or the chance to ride your own mount. You learned to ride, to stay on and stick with it."

Beckley says Lukens is obsessed with perfection, always looking for that extra something out of her riders, horses and her help. "Her work ethic is so strong and long … she works unbelievably long hours. She still clips all her horses to make sure it’s done right. She’ll be at the barn the night before a show starts and is the last out at 9 p.m. and will still be clipping the next day.

"Jan can take a mediocre horse and make it nice … a nice horse and make it great." he said. "She will try all avenues and methods to help a horse or rider reach its potential, and is one of the best sports at shows that I’ve ever known."

Although Lukens focused on horses, her family made sure she had a good education. After graduating from the renowned Emma Willard School in Troy, NY, she attended Temple University, with an eye on possibly pursuing a career in veterinary medicine. However, she never gave up working with horses. When shows conflicted with college … Lukens elected to follow her lifelong passion.

Training horses, riding students and successful camps grew the Misty Hills program. Lukens explained, "Our business kept getting bigger and bigger. I married, moved to a farm north of Troy, NY and later to one just outside Albany. We had a half-mile track and remodeled one of the two barns to suit saddle horses."

Here she trained her first world’s champion: Lucky Discovery. According to Lukens, her being the first woman to win the Two-Year-Old Five-Gaited Stake "upset some of the old-timers. In 1976, they thought gaiting horses was a man’s work, that no woman should ride a two-year-old."

Gwen Schaefer showed from Misty Hills. She’s known Lukens since 1970.

"Jan always was a serious girl. She gives herself completely to any commitment she makes," Schaefer said. "I don’t know if she woke up one morning and said this is my thing – or if she were created an equestrienne. I think it’s what she knew; she lived – and learned it – her whole life. She’s never been a kid to my knowledge, but serious and committed.

"Jan is Maynard’s daughter and a hard taskmaster. She will find the very best that you have and bring it out. With her, horses do come first; she’ll never take a shortcut with one. And she’s loyal to the quick."

Although the Schaefers haven’t owned horses for 10 years, she and her family go to Ravena for play days. Schaefer spoke of her friend.

"Jan’s mind definitely is on the horses and being the best she can be. She’s had to mix it up in a man’s world," Schaefer said. "Jan is shy, but otherwise no different than you and me."

In 1976, Lukens realized she needed a new location. What had been a very prestigious rehabilitation clinic for ‘the rich and famous’ in the 1950s became the home for Lukens Stables. Horses trod the grounds and clients slept in rooms previously occupied by such luminaries as the late Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. Lukens sold two of the three houses on the property and built a show barn.

"Parts of the main house date back to the early 1900s," client Annika Bruggeworth said. "It had a pool, a huge fireplace where the owner gave talks every evening. The dining room table seats 35, there’s a double kitchen and tons of sleeping rooms."

In other words, it’s an ideal place to entertain clients for dinners, holidays or weekend visits. And that’s something else in which Lukens specializes.

"She’s a wonderful hostess who makes everything very pleasant for you when you stay at the house," added Jayne Romano, who often joins her daughter, Paula, and granddaughters, Allie and Nicki Percoco, for weekends or holidays at the farm. "Of course, you have to be flexible. Jan will say to be there at 7 for dinner, but it may be 8. There’s one more horse to work, one more stall to pick …"

And working, caring for the horses comes first with Lukens. It’s one reason for both her success … and the loyalty of her clients.

Margaret Elizabeth Biggs began riding with Lukens as a junior exhibitor. The 400-mile trip from Toronto, Canada to Ravena, NY didn’t deter the young lady or her parents.

"I rode with a trainer on the north side of Toronto," Biggs said. "The trainer thought Working Girl, a horse we had bought from the Tanners, was too game for me. We took her to the New York Breeders show but the trainer’s daughter rode her.

"I noticed this lady with dark-streaked, bright blond hair. I was fascinated by her and by the fact that her fat cocker spaniel came into the ring – and no one said anything about it," Biggs continued, smiling at the memory. "She had great equitation riders who were winning everything. Her girls looked beautiful, wore beautiful suits; their hair and makeup were perfect. And they rode perfectly on wonderful, high-stepping horses that I’d never seen before. I sneaked away from my crew at the veterinary barn in the back, went over and introduced myself to her. She gave me that kind of weird, blank stare, cocked her head, threw her lower lip out and said ‘very nice to meet you, Margaret.’ I’m sure many kids came up to her as I did."

But Biggs took it a step further. "When my parents and I went back to the hotel, I told my Dad I wanted to ride with Jan, to be like that. A year later, we were having problems with our trainer. After Ottowa, my parents arranged for us to move to Jan’s. The horse they thought too game for me in Toronto I rode my first trip to her barn. That horse became my first equitation horse."

Thus began a more than 20-year relationship between the Biggs family and Lukens. And what successes they’ve had. CH Kiss For Luck carried Biggs to her first world’s championship in the 1996 Three-Gaited Show Pleasure 16-17 competition. CH City Sights, Sultan’s Zorba. CH Desert’s Supreme Lady and Last Tango In Paris kept her name in headlines. But beyond that, Working Girl and Kiss For Luck are producing a new generation for the Biggs/Lukens team. Lukens showed Nutty By Nature (Undulata’s Nutcracker x Kiss For Luck) to a Reserve World’s Championship in Three-Gaited Two-Year-Old competition last year. Biggs says she "has the beauty of her Mom and the presence of her father and may become my replacement for Kiss."

Michael and Laurie Behr moved to Lukens after the Misty Hills program began a decline. Proximity proved to be another reason for the change.

"We wanted to see our horses a couple of times a week, if only to pet them," Mike Behr said. "We walked in one Saturday afternoon and said we had two horses at Maynard’s … that one (Rare Rascal) was really nice. Jan said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t know how to ride. I’ll take you on. I’ll have your horses shipped down and you get a free lesson a week for each of them.

"I went down the next week and said, ‘I’m here for my free lesson,’" he said, continuing the story. "I was on for six or seven minutes, got off and Jan said, ‘You don’t know how to ride.’ I went back the next week – and it was the same thing. I got on a lesson horse, six or seven minutes later, Jan put it away and said, ‘You don’t know how to ride.’"

Behr went home, and told his wife "I think something crazy is going on with her. I’ve heard a lot of stories about Jan. You need to go down with me and watch what happens."

Laurie Behr accompanied her husband, and brought a video camera. To cut the story short, the same thing happened.

"See what I’m telling you … it’s crazy," Behr told his wife. "I ride six or seven minutes and the woman doesn’t talk to me. Laurie said, ‘What are you talking about! You’ve been on the horse an hour and everything she says, you don’t do. She says go left and you turn right!’ Jan had been telling me to do this and I never even heard her. I was so petrified at being on the horse, I blocked everything out. Now hers is the only voice I hear."

The Behrs ride eight to nine horses of all kinds, all temperaments on their barn visits. Lukens has taught them more than riding or driving, but everything from grooming and feeding.

To say Jayne Romano and her family have been successful with Lukens would be a gross understatement. Romano’s success with World’s Champions CH Candle Dan and Free Willy has been well documented. Paula and later Alexandra Percoco picked up many three-gaited blues and tri-colors with CH Cagin Martini. Alexandra has had similar success with Perfectly Designed and even won ribbons at Connecticut in the Friesian Pleasure Saddle Open class. Nikki’s career has centered on equitation, along with good rides last year with her equitation horse, The Princess Dianna, in junior exhibitor three-gaited competition. At present, Nikki is the only equitation rider at Lukens’ amateur-focused barn.

Does the trainer’s often stand-offish appearance intimidate her young riders? Anything but! Both Allie and Nikki do nothing but sing her praises – as a friend and mentor as well as a trainer.

Allie concedes that, as a timid, eight-year-old rider coming from a small barn, "I was deathly afraid of Jan. She made me step up and pushed me as I’d never been pushed before. I was a bit of a slacker … the most timid rider. I’d be hunched over and looked like I should ride hunt seat. I was so scared and never a risk-taker," the now 16-year-old rider said.

Lukens had the perfect horse for her to learn on: Lucky Discovery. The former two-year-old five-gaited world’s champion still was a show horse.

"He’d take a step, and I’d wail," Allie said. "Jan’s determination rubbed off on me; she pretty much transformed me. I’m not sure anyone else could have done it. She occasionally called my sister and me ‘sissies’ … and does to this day, but now it’s a joke between us. She treated me like an eight-year-old adult. I’d scream that I wanted to get off; she’d never let me. When Mom tried to come to my rescue, Jan would shoo her away."

"Jan has taught me so much discipline … I’d never have discipline nor determination if I hadn’t gone there to start riding," Allie said. "Just being there, watching her ride two-year-olds and be at the barn every morning – she still practically does it alone."

Nikki, three years younger than her sister, doesn’t express herself in quite the same way, but the feelings are the same. She started with Jan at age three.

"Jan’s had such an impact on my life. She scared me a bit when I was little. I was timid; when I was six I thought about quitting to dance and to do other stuff," Nikki said, explaining that now her favorite weekends are those at the barn. "Jan is the nicest person you’ll ever meet. She comes off hard, but that’s because she wants us to do the best we can."

Oh, yes. When Allie (and Nikki) are asked to write about the person who inspires them, about their hero: it’s Jan Lukens.

"Customers with her stay with her because they love her," Romano said. "Jan is a different person than most people think; she’s warm and caring. She was so kind to me after my husband died. She kept putting me on horse after horse after horse."

Lukens also is very good about clients moving into and out of her barn. Romano was one such … Bruggeworth has horses both at her and husband Scott’s Siren Song Stable and with Lukens.

"I just imported a Friesian that I sent Jan. She has the patience to break one. Jan takes pride in being very good with a tricky horse. She revels in a horse that no one else can get. She loves to bring one out and make a big point," Bruggeworth said.

Although she spends most of her time at her own farm, Bruggeworth and Lukens remain good friends, who hold lengthy telephone conversations. Bruggeworth looks forward to Lukens’ debut on her newest Friesian, and another the trainer will show in open competition.

One of Lukens’ most recent clients has helped make a big change in her life. Some wondered when Charlie Jones brought a roadster to Lukens. Few knew of her early Standardbred experience and thought it might be a reach. Little did they imagine the friendship that would develop and how his enthusiasm and unfailing humor might affect his trainer.

"I hadn’t shown a road horse since 1959," Jones said. "I bought one on a whim. I wanted to go to shows and have some fun. Jan put me in pleasure driving, but I didn’t like the idea of sitting there saying ‘whoa, walk!’ She sent me through that first which made me appreciate harness and road horses."

Jones drove Hawkwing in pleasure driving and in fine harness at two shows in the fall of 2007. However, he was determined to move into the more-challenging, roadster division.

Mr.’s Bones was the first road horse Lukens trained. "Everyone in the country had turned him down," Jones said. "I sent him to Jan. She called me one day and said ‘this horse isn’t too bad.’ He’d never been in the show ring when we took him to Florida. He took off like a rocket. I got beat a couple of times," Jones said, emphasizing he was the one beaten, not the gelding he was driving.

Mr.’s Bones and Charles T. Jones burst onto the show scene in 2008 at Tampa Charity. That year, they won their first world’s championships, in the Amateur and Amateur Roadster To Bike Championships. They placed third against the professionals in the USTA Roadster Classic. Since then they have been two-time Triple Crown Champions and this past year Bones was the UPHA Overall Road Horse Of The Year.

Jones calls Lukens "a great lady and probably one of the top horse persons I’ve ever been around and I’ve been around a lot. She’s very thorough and easy with a horse. And she’s good with giving instructions in the ring. She doesn’t give you a lot of information you don’t need but it’s short and sweet. A nod, a movement of the hand and you know where you are with her.

"She’s not a screamer, but will explain things to you," Jones continued. "I think she’s more tough at home … she’s a taskmaster and expects you to do it right. Jan gets you going one way or the other.

"Jan didn’t have the best demeanor with folks [who didn’t know her.] She can come across as pretty hard. Here I came, bouncing around. No one knew me and wondered what the story was. We talked but never fought. She was saying something to me one day ... I said, ‘OK, Sweetie, let me do what I have to do and I’ll do what you want done.’ I could have used the strongest swear word … she said no one had ever called her sweetie. She said, ‘Honey, would you get this done for me.’ Others said it was sickening … they had to leave," Jones said, smiling at the memory.

Jones may be one reason the trainer called ‘the dragon lady’ has continued to soften. According to Beckley, an old groom, known as Seaweed, who worked shows for Lukens for almost 50 years, gave her that name … and named her Lincoln Town Car the Dragon Wagon. The reason: Lukens was so hard to work for.

Lukens takes it all in good fun. At Octoberfest, 2010, the grooms found a life-sized, rubber dragon and put it above her tack room. No one had any questions.

Lukens has brought along many young trainers. One of the more recent: David Cater, who with his wife, Kristen, operates Cater Stables in Dunbarton, N.H.

"I worked for Jan for about six years, through high school and college," Cater said. "Some days she is a ‘dragon lady,’ but if you worked as hard as she did, you got along with her. Jan is an amazing horsewoman; she loves her horses and is the hardest-working woman you’ve ever met. She’ll work right alongside you and not ask you to do something she wouldn’t do. She gave me a lot of opportunities with good horses and bad ones and I learned a lot.

"I know a lot of people who worked for her. Some came in and lasted five minutes; others stayed. You just do things like clean stalls her way and you’ll be set. It took me about two years to figure that out," he added.

What lies ahead for the Lukens team? Hopefully more of the same. Paula Percoco will be back with her American Royal Junior Park Pleasure Champion and Reserve Grand Champion, Tchaikovsky. Nikki will be on something new … and others are on the horizon. This season, they will field a lot of young horses as well as other experienced teams. Some of the youngsters belong to clients; others to Lukens.

"We have a varied mess of horses: road horses and ponies, Friesians and Saddlebreds and a lot of young ones," she said. And she’s always on the lookout for something new and special.

They start showing in March and end in November. It should be an interesting and entertaining nine months.

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