By Amber Heintzberger
November 11, 2020
As a professional upper-level three-day event rider, Megan Kepferle, known more commonly as Meg Kep, strives to pay her experience and opportunities forward to the next generation. To that end, she started the Junior Event Team (JET) program a couple of years ago, inviting a group of her students to come to her farm for regular sessions, mounted and unmounted, and to help them set and work toward their riding goals.
She sees herself as not only an instructor but a mentor, and wants to be someone that the kids look up to and come to for guidance. “Life is so busy for everyone now. Riding and teaching is my full-time job, so it’s hard for me to wrap my head around them having all these other things, like other sports, piano lessons, and so on, going on in their lives. But I hope this helps me stand out from other professionals, and it gives me kind of a pipeline; a few years ago my students were learning how to get to their first Beginner Novice, and now maybe they’re moving up to Training level. Also, sometimes the parents start riding with me and bring their friends. It’s kind of a slow-growing grassroots thing.”
Meg Kep started the Junior Event Team (JET) program where a group of her students come to her farm for regular sessions, mounted and unmounted, and to help them set and work toward their riding goals. Photo courtesy of Meg Kep.
Building Opportunities Through Hard Work
Growing up in Maryland in a non-horsey family, Meg took group lessons at a local barn and gained enough experience grooming and rider to start teaching at a lesson barn in New Jersey. When the opportunity to groom for upper level eventer Doug Payne, she jumped at it, and spent the next year and a half learning the ropes and making connections.
“We worked all day, then went out and had fun every evening. That’s when I met Sinead Halpin and Holly, Doug’s sister, who became one of my best friends. We all lived together and it was like this little community. It was a lot of fun. Now I’m so tired at the end of the day—I never go out! But that was a lot of fun! All these people were just starting their careers, and I was a part of it. I’m prideful in that. I like to do a good job, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
Now a successful international competitor, Doug’s career was on the rise at the time: he had one horse going Advanced and one going toIntermediate. When he made the US Nations Cup Team competing at Boekelo in the Netherlands, Meg had the opportunity to groom at her first major competition.
“I was really fortunate to be a part of that, and I think that’s really what cemented what a groom’s job was. You could be really proud of how you took care of the horses. We all learned from each other and made friends internationally. There’s like a secret network of grooms behind the scenes that most people aren’t even aware of. I still wanted to ride, but I felt like I could really be important and useful and helpful as a groom, and I wanted to learn what I was doing and how to be better at it.”
Meg groomed for Jenny Autry at the World Equestrian Games. Photo courtesy of Meg Kep.
A Winning Partnership
About the same time the following year, Meg left Doug’s barn because his business was taking a new direction. She and Sinead Halpin had become good friends, and Sinead needed a groom for Kentucky. What started out as a temporary situation became a long-term arrangement, with Meg eventually managing Sinead’s barn.
“We had a lot of trust already because we were friends. I really wanted things to go well for her,” said Meg. “We were so broke, for so long! At the time, her horse was owned by her stepfather and he paid his expenses to a degree, but we were definitely struggling. She kind of put all her eggs in one basket and, for the love of God, it worked! I felt very much apart of their success in Kentucky, and Sinead was good about making me feel part of it.”
Meg won a groom’s award for the groom of the best-conditioned horse that year, and after a successful event, doors started opening for both her and Sinead. “I was able to take that role and make it a lasting thing for me—we took the opportunity and capitalized on the moment.Sometimes you have to ride the wave. We developed more of a program, developed some sustainability in the facilities, she was getting more attention nationally, and through that I started seeing the challenges financially and from a goal-setting perspective. We learned where the line is, where you have enough horses to compete, and enough money to sustain that while growing a client base and making the money to sustain it.”
With what a started as a friendship also turned into a great business opportunity for Kep. She ended up managing Sinead Halpin's barn and partnering with her to support the US Eventing Association Area II Young Rider Team. Photo courtesy of Meg Kep.
Young Riders: A Path to Success
With the struggles they had to endure and the luck on her part to be part of Sinead’s success, Meg said she had all the pieces for becoming a professional herself and just had to put it together. Their next big opportunity arrived in 2011 or 2012 when the US Eventing Association Area II Young Rider Team needed a new coach and team coordinator: Sinead applied as coach and Meg as coordinator, and they both got the jobs. While Sinead received a small salary, Meg’s position was a time-consuming volunteer effort, but the benefits to her career were worth it.
“Sinead was coach for three years, before she moved to Florida. It was tough; it was so much fun but without sounding like the program sucked before me, it needed a little life. We had to raise a big budget. Everyone at that time was like, ‘Only the rich kids go to Young Riders’ and I was like, ‘Well, let’s see about that!’ We raised $40,000-$50,000 a year, and by the third year the kids hardly paid anything to go to the Championships. Obviously, we had some kids who were very fortunate too, but they all worked really hard to get there.”
Meg stepped down after several years and took a break. She then spent another two years accompanying the team to the North American Young Rider Championships at Rebecca Farm in Montana, but by that time she had a business of her own to run.
“I don’t like doing things half-a—ed, so I stepped down. Seeing the kids competing at these levels at that age is just unbelievable to me. For the most part, they’ve been in professional programs since they were young, whether their parents set them up for it or they were fortunate geographically. I didn’t have those opportunities, and I saw this gap in programming, which is how the Junior Eventing Team (JET) program was born.”
Sinead and Meg joined the US Eventing Association Area II Young Rider Team as the new coach and team coordinator respectively back in 2011/2012. Photo courtesy of Meg Kep.
Today, Meg’s business is based near Long Valley, New Jersey.“ In this area a lot of people have their own little farms. It’s an expensive area, so not everyone can have their kids in a program all the time. I always took group lessons when I was a kid and made some of the best friends of my life through this. I love the lifestyle and the challenges of it. I see kids who have more resources than I did—the accessibility to good trainers and people with the key to the door. I didn’t know how easy it would be, when I was a kid, to call up someone like Boyd Martin and ask for a riding lesson!”
JET offers group lessons, which gives kids a similar upbringing that Meg experienced where she was able to learn a ton on and off the horse, as well as meet some of her best friends and have fun. Photo courtesy of Meg Kep.
In October 2019, Meg made her debut at the four-star level when she competed in the Fair Hill International CCI4*-L, riding Anakin, a horse that she started riding three years earlier when the horse’s owner, Daphne Soares, needed time off from riding after back surgery. Meg and Anakin clicked, so she put together the Rogue Won syndicate a few years ago to purchase the horse from Soares and continue competing him herself. They rose quickly up the levels and were on track to compete at their first CCI5*-L next spring at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event until Meg dislocated her shoulder in a fall at Morven Park in October. She remains optimistic that they’ll make it to Kentucky eventually, and is taking the opportunity to focus on her students.
In October 2019, Meg made her debut at the four-star level when she competed in the Fair Hill International CCI4*-L, riding a client's horse named Anakin. Their partnership began three years earlier and they just seemed to click. Photo courtesy of Shannon Brinkman.
Meg wants to help her young students define their goals so that they can progress to the next level with their riding, no matter their budget or experience. “There’s a lot to bridge the gap between Pony Club or 4-Hand the Young Riders,” she said. So she created a program to bring the kids together at the barn, and help them lay out the groundwork for their futures.
Daphne Soares, who lives in Long Valley, NJ started Anakin, the horse that Meg currently competes at the upper levels. She said, “Ever since Meg took over Anakin’s ride, she has become a daily part of our lives. Not only she is my instructor, helping me with my next superstar, but she also is my son’s instructor. Tzur joined her JET program when he was just 10 years old and had a pony that was a handful (Loveee). Megan taught him not just how to ride but also how to become a horseman. She has helped him not just how to recover his confidence after fall, but how to give his pony courage. Now he rides my old prelim horse, Ronin, and Megan has much more room to show Tzur how to refine his craft.”
The group includes middle through high schoolers. “Some of them won’t go to Young Riders or be a pro someday, but some of them could and will,” said Meg. “My parents were awesome, but they weren’t involved in what I was doing. I see parents who bring their kids to multiple lessons each week and go to every competition.”
Meg said she hopes that these parents see their kids progressing in a positive way, so they understand the need for a better quality horse as their child improves, or recognize the limitations that their horse has. “Overall, I want to see them improving the quality of riding and horsemanship,” she said. “Over time the program has grown; I can give these kids opportunities and they can be as involved as they want to. Some of the mare here all the time. Some are in high school now and have more physical ability in their riding, and I hope they are on the Young Rider track.”
Jen Garutti’s daughter Devon, 15, has been riding with Meg for a few years. Jen, who competes in eventing with her Connemara pony, also trains with Meg when she has the time. The family lives on a small farm in Readington, NJ and Devon is a C-1 member of the Amwell Valley Hounds Pony Club.
“I think the biggest change is Devon’s confidence,” she said. “She’s gone from a polite, ‘no thank you’ when asked if she wants to do more or jump bigger jumps, to confidently jumping around some solid courses at Beginner Novice/Novice height, with even more advanced riding questions. She also really enjoys the support and camaraderie of the kids on the team.”
Jen Garutti and her daughter Devon at the 2017 American Eventing Championships in Tryon, NC. Devon has been riding with Kep for a few years now and has seen her confidence soar. Photo courtesy of Amber Heintzberger.
With her grooming background, Meg recognizes the need for riders to be well rounded, and she is incorporating more horsemanship in her program.
“I always kind of assume people will take care of their horses the way I do, but they don’t always know how to do that. I started a lecture series this year with talks on show prep, grooming, and I had the vet come out and talk about lameness. People spend so much time and money on these horses, but some of them don’t know how to tell if their horse is lame; I want to make them aware and accountable, and to know when they need to ask for help, so the kids and parents have a well-rounded appreciation for everything.”
JET includes training off the horse to help make Kep's students better horsemen and horsewomen. Horse care is just as important as what they learn in the ring. Photo courtesy of Meg Kep.
Soares said, “Through JET, Tzur has experienced how to be part of a team, how to be supportive of others, and how to play the game of eventing. His horse is at home and he takes responsibility of caring for him every day. Even though he is 15 years old now and hates grooming, I am able to use Meg’s name as leverage to get him to brush his horse. Part psychologist (for me), part advisor, always a cheerleader for Tzur, she has shown him how not to take things no too seriously and that bumps on the road are part of the story. I look forward to many more years riding under her tutelage and being part of this great Meg Kep horse family.”
The USEA recently started an Interscholastic riding program, and Meg is excited to have the Kepferle Equestrian JET competing. “I think that’s what’s been missing for eventing,” she said. “Getting kids out of backyard barns and teaching them proper horsemanship, and so you’re not watching kids going 800 meters per minute around a Beginner Novice course.Honestly, that was me! Racing around like, ‘Eventing is fun!’ But I think most people do want to be better and that’s what I’m trying to provide and create.”
She continued, “It’s easy to lose support from parents if there’s not a program that they can trust and believe in. I’m trying to build abetter foundation for people if they want it. If they want to event they need to define their goals, including financially. I would love to make this a legit program for people to develop in their own way. In my career, I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a mostly positive experience. It’s really important to have good people skills, and at the end of the day you have to remember that it’s for the kids.”