New hunter/jumper professor saddles up for William Woods University

Susie Ouderkirk, newly hired hunter/jumper professor at William Woods University, answers a student’s question Wednesday at the end of one of her hour-long classes inside Rowland Applied Riding Arena.

Susie Ouderkirk, newly hired hunter/jumper professor at William Woods University, answers a student’s question Wednesday at the end of one of her hour-long classes inside Rowland Applied Riding Arena. Photo by Brittany Ruess.

Susie Ouderkirk’s path to William Woods University started on her Aunt Janet’s Kansas farm.

Ouderkirk, William Woods’ new hunter/jumper professor, spent summers as a “little horse-crazy girl” at the age of five with her Aunt Janet whose farm came with an older male horse. Aunt Janet would hop Ouderkirk on the horse and told her to “go for it.”

This horse, she said, cared for her with each ride, never allowing her to be harmed.

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A William Woods University student guides her horse over a jump Wednesday during a hunter/jumper class with new professor Susie Ouderkirk.

“His name was Mr. Lucky, but I was the lucky one,” Ouderkirk said.

A passion for horses has guided Ouderkirk’s life and led her to William Woods.

Her first day was March 1 and she is replacing Michelle Smith as the school’s hunter/jumper professor.

Ouderkirk will teach about 75 students in the program. About 250 students are in the William Woods Equestrian program, according to Jennie Petterson.

Nearly seven years after her first ride at Aunt Janet’s, Ouderkirk bought her own horse, whom she named Hot Cocoa. She bought Hot Cocoa for $250 with money she saved over the course of four summers.

With Hot Cocoa, Ouderkirk — then 12 — entered her first show and won a first-place ribbon in Pony English Pleasure at the McLean County Fair in central Illinois. Looking back on her life, Ouderkirk said that was the moment she realized horses were going to forever be a part of her life.

“At that point I think I was totally hooked…I knew I wanted to do that forever,” Ouderkirk said.

Ouderkirk continued to ride and eventually discovered her trainer — Peggy Lenz of El Paso, Ill. — whom she still trains with today.

While her high school peers were worrying about what to wear to prom or who was hosting the weekend party, Ouderkirk said she was at the barn, working toward being a better rider and caretaker for seven days a week.

Ouderkirk’s dedication led to a professional career at 16, a couple years younger than when most riders turn pro.

She said early on she learned that horse riding and caretaking is not a hobby, but a lifestyle.

“Horses don’t need to be fed just on the weekends,” Ouderkirk said. “So you learn pretty early it’s a 24-hour thing.”

That lesson helped lead her into her business at Red Sky Farm, a equestrian training and instructional space, in Las Cruces, N.M., where she cared for many horses as its owner. Ouderkirk said she shares stories about operating Red Sky with her students, giving them first-hand knowledge of what it takes to run a barn.

Equestrian business practices is an aspect of William Woods’ program, she said, that is going to benefit students long term and seperates William Woods students from others.

In the past 30 years of being a rider, trainer and coach, Ouderkirk said she’s been on four vacations, but it’s all worth it.

“You sacrifice a lot but it’s the best job in the world,” she said.

But with daily grind of maintaining her own barn starting to wear on her, William Woods was an opportunity for change. Lenz, Ouderkirk’s trainer, informed her of the opening.

Ouderkirk said she feels that her mother, who has passed and was a higher education administrator, helped guide her to William Woods.

Originally from Chicago, the move to William Woods — which she visited as a high school junior — and to the Midwest allowed Ouderkirk, as she said, to come full circle.

“I haven’t had one second of regret,” Ouderkirk said. “I think my mother is smiling down on me…”

Ouderkirk said she’s also enjoying the perks of not having to clean stalls or feed the horses on a regular basis.

“I feel a little bit like a princess,” she said with a laugh. “I like it.”

Only a couple months into the job, Equestrian Studies Division Chair Jennie Petterson said students have been responsive to Ouderkirk’s “positive and outgoing attitude.”

Maria Vasilyeva, William Woods hunter/jumper student, said she’s enjoyed learning from Ouderkirk because of her individualized attention to her students.

“She’s really looking at you and trying to make you better,” Vasilyeva said.

Ouderkirk has also passed down her passion to her daughter who is now a high school junior and is one of her proudest accomplishments.

In addition to placing at shows and competitions, Ouderkirk said her daughter’s ability to “shake it off” when a horse misbehaves has proven she has a great heart and attitude.

“That’s better than any ribbon,” Ouderkirk said.

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