From Australia's Sunshine Coast to the Great Wall of China, Hungary's Lipizzaner Trail to Colorado's Rocky Mountains, Karen Lancaster finds the world's best equestrian-vacation spots, then wraps them in packages for riders to enjoy. If she weren't doing this, she says, she'd be a detective - although as owner of Cross Country International, her natural sleuthing skills come in handy. She travels down many trails and over countless miles, making sure the exotic locations, comfy accommodations, and trail-savvy mounts are up to her high standards.
"Tough job, but someone's got to do it!" Lancaster says with a smile.
It all started nearly 20 years ago, when Lancaster, hoping to take her riding skills to the next level, traveled to Yorkshire, England, to train with British National Dressage Champion Christopher Bartle. Happy with the results, she referred friends to him, and a snowball started rolling.
Lancaster started her business modestly, working out of her New York City apartment with just a phone and a fax. Today, Cross Country International, located in the picturesque Hudson Valley north of New York City, employs 18 people and represents 35 facilities in 14 countries. Several adventurous new rides are set to debut in 2007.
When Lancaster is auditioning equestrian facilities to add to her list of vacation sites, what does she look for in their horses? "Heart, heart, and more heart," she says. She's found that around the world, from Italy to China, horse lovers develop an immediate connection that requires no translator. Read on to meet globe-trotting trailblazer Karen Lancaster.
TTR: How did you first become involved with horses?
Lancaster: My four sisters and I grew up in the middle of Maryland hunt country, but not in a horsey family. My father was concerned that the racing community was not something desirable for his daughters. However, my Uncle Henry in California was a real horseman. During a summer visit, I rode one of his Quarter Horses, and that was it. It was just something in my blood. At age seven, I started riding through 4-H, and I joined the Girl Scouts and earned my horsemanship badge.
Today, I proudly support the Girl Scouts of America's nationwide horsemanship program. If they call us, we set them up with local stables that offer lessons at group rates, and we make sure troop leaders have all the necessary printed materials.
TTR: Tell us about your first horse.
Lancaster: I leased horses, but didn't own one until I was 30-something. At the time, I was taking lessons, and a local horse buyer drove in with a van filled with show jumpers from Canada. Rocket, then 7 years old, was one-quarter Quarter Horse and three-quarters Percheron. He was 16.2 hands high, chestnut, with a white blaze and four white socks. I took one look and fell in love. My instructor wasn't impressed: Rocket wasn't fancy enough. She called him a Kroll, which in Dutch means anything but graceful. But it was too late. I'd bought him.
Today, he's 24 years old, and I still have him. He can be a bully and a loner, but he's also reliable, true, brave, and fierce. He's George C. Scott playing General Patton. I feel that he loves me with all his being. When I look at him, my heart hurts.
TTR: Do you have horses today?
Lancaster: I have three. Rocket is essentially retired now, and enjoys a two-acre pasture with Swan. Swan, 18, is a Trakehner gelding, and the charming, equine version of Cary Grant. He's very sweet and gentlemanly, with an engaging sense of humor. And I have Sweeney, 8, an Irish Hunter straight from the Emerald Isle. He's reliable, with no ego, just a huge desire to please. He's the nicest looking horse I've ever owned - a beautiful guy - the Jude Law of my pasture. He, too, is very brave.
TTR: Who's your all-time favorite trail horse?
Lancaster: Rocket. He is my rock. Here's an example: One day, some friends and I were hacking down a landing strip at a small, usually deserted local airport. Suddenly, a jet landed. We hadn't even heard it approach. But Rocket just stood his ground and looked at it.
His enormous confidence has given me confidence on many occasions. If a tree falls across a trail we're riding, he just jumps it. He has a huge barrel and I have long legs, so it looks like I'm riding a living room sofa. He eats everything; his food disappears as if sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. Today, Rocket has Cushing's Disease, which we treat with both veterinary care and herbally, and he enjoys life. I simply love him.
TTR: How did you become involved with the equestrian-vacation industry?
Lancaster: Gradually, and almost by accident. In the mid-1980s, my husband and I were living in New York City, both working Monday to Friday for large corporations. On Friday nights, we'd scramble to drive back to Millbrook, a horsey town in the Hudson Valley, about an hour and a half away. I took riding lessons and was competing at low-level one-day events in Millbrook and in Connecticut.
When I heard about a great trainer in the United Kingdom, Christopher Bartle, I flew over to spend a week with him and came home vastly improved. Of course, I immediately told all my friends about him. Over the next year, I referred 30 people to him. Eventually, he called to say I'd sent him more clients than his agent in the States and asked if I'd be interested in representing him. So, in 1989, I started - gradually. It was a great opportunity to do something with horses. I worked out of my apartment in the city, armed only with fax machines and phones.
Soon, other trainers and equestrian-holiday sites in England, then in Ireland and France, found me. I sought out only the very best. Then, the year before the Barcelona Olympics, I got a call from the Mexican Army Cavalry Team. They needed help securing facilities in England for 60 people and 17 horses to use as a training base for four months before Barcelona. I quit my city job to handle that - and I was on my way!
Today, I continue to work with the United States Equestrian Team, and we're handling tickets to the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany. We also plan to work on tickets and accommodations for the Pan Am Games and the Olympics in Hong Kong. Our company has grown to 18 people, handling 35 facilities in 14 countries. Next year, we plan to add three more.