If Esme Gregory is uncertain of the emotions she felt when she first sat upon a horse, she can unequivocally say which emotion was not present.
“It was never fear. I was pretty fearless when it came to the horses,” she said. “I loved them. I’d crawl all over their legs, I’d want to sit on them as much as possible. I’d climb the fence and feed them apples from the orchard.
“I’ve never feared them, I love them.”
She loved them so much that raising and showing them has become a lifelong pursuit and passion that she shares with her longtime boyfriend.
Gregory, human resources assistant at the Institute for Social Research, was first introduced to horses by her grandfather, who operated a farm in Lansing. She believes she was around 4 years old when her grandfather propped her up on his horse named Lizzy and carefully guided the pair around the farm.
By the time she turned 6, Gregory’s mother enrolled her in horseback riding lessons at a Bay City farm near the family’s home, and Gregory rode horses there until she turned 19 and went off to Central Michigan University.
In between, Gregory devoted her summers to showing horses around the Midwest but primarily in Michigan through the Michigan Hunter-Jumper Association.
“It was always fun, but it filled my summers for sure,” she said. “It was a full-time sport. We traveled all over, showed all year round. There was never a time where you could put the horse away and be done with it for a period of time. It was a five-day-a-week job, basically.”
The job paid in ribbons and medals, and Gregory guesses she has amassed hundreds of them over the course of 25 years competing.
She started out showing ponies before working her way up to full-fledged horses, and primarily competed in show jumping, similar to the style of competition in the Olympics — but with lower fences for the horses to navigate.
She said at the height of her competitiveness, she would travel to as many as 15 events per summer. With some circuits lasting two weeks, she’d be on the road for two to three weeks at a time.
Looking back, she says she can’t thank her parents enough for their support.
“I look back, having my own farm and my own horses and not doing nearly the caliber of what I was doing back then, and just say thank you,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without my parents. They were incredibly supportive and wonderful throughout the whole thing.”
She no longer competes in show jumping, instead focusing her efforts and building Twin Creek Stables in northern Jackson County around Friesians, the same breed of horse as the iconic “Black Beauty.”
She and her boyfriend, Kyle Love, purchased several Friesian mares a few years ago and also a stud named King. They have eight mares on the farm now and expect to have nearly 20 horses on the property by around this time next year, after mating the eligible mares with King.
Rather than show jumping, Gregory and Love show the horses in cart and in hand. Showing in cart involves driving a two-wheeled cart behind the horse as it elegantly prances in front of a panel of judges. In hand is similar but without the cart, and the handler walks and runs the horse up and down the arena while guiding it with a lead chain and halter.
Gregory and Love will show all eight mares and King once show season begins June 1, with a goal of taking as many as possible to the Haflinger and Hitch Pony Championship Series finals in Massachusetts.
Gregory is the defending ladies cart champion for the series after winning the title last year with King.
“He is a true stallion,” she said of King, who turns 5 this year. “He breeds 40 to 50 mares a year. He’s absolutely beautiful. I feel lucky every day to have him.”
It’s a true labor of love for both Gregory and Love, who met through horse people. Love won the HHPCS six-horse hitch championships in 2015 and 2016.
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“We’re terrible for each other,” Gregory joked about her boyfriend of six years. “He’ll come home with a new horse, and most women would be like, ‘What are you doing?’ But I’m just excited. He’s amazing, he’s a very good horseman. He’s done wonderful with these mares and the stud.”
The couple do all of their own breaking of their horses. Each fall after show season is over, they will look for horses to purchase to show the following year or so. They have both developed an eye for finding horses that will adapt to the rigorous training schedule needed to both break the horse and prepare it for competition.
“There’s raw talent that you can’t force,” she said. “There’s horses where you say, ‘That probably won’t work,’ and there’s the ones where you say, ‘I need that horse.’”
They form deep bonds with the animals who reap the rewards of life on the show circuit.
“They’re my kids. I don’t have kids, but they’re my kids,” Gregory said. “If one gets injured, you treat it like it’s your child. You try everything you can do to get it better. They’re family for us, for sure.”
Gregory first showed horses through the HHPCS in 2019, competing in 12 shows. The pandemic paused all shows in 2020 before they slowly came back last year. Gregory said the couple plan to compete in about eight shows this year with the top six in points throughout the summer earning spots in the finals in Massachusetts.
“We’re looking at eight shows, and if we have to go to more, we will, and if we can go to less, we will,” she said. “It all depends on how the season goes and how cooperative the horses are.”