As the early morning fog lifts over the rolling green meadows at Littlewood Farm, a buzz of activity fills the outdoor ring. Riders elegantly dressed in beige breeches and tall black riding boots, sitting astride immaculately groomed horses, canter around the riding ring’s perimeter. At one point, trainer Katie Kunk’s voice carries across the fields issuing directions to a rider who then pivots and begins to chart their path to the outside line of jumps—a bright, blue and white striped vertical to a dark green rolltop.
Raised in Vail, Colorado Kunk’s earliest experiences with horses were limited to trips to the Midwest visiting family. There, her Aunt Joanne Kurinsky (herself a professional equestrian trainer) would let Kunk ride ponies to her heart’s content. Back home in Colorado, it took years until Kunk picked up the sport in earnest and gave it a go. Once she did, it ignited a passion in her for the technical precision of show jumping that fueled her on to her career as a professional trainer.
During her senior year at the University of Findlay in Ohio, Kunk was a member of the Reserve National Championship Equestrian team and was Open Flat Division Champion. After graduating, Kunk set her sights on Europe and headed across the pond to the Holsteiner Verband facility in Elmshorn, Germany. Located outside of Hamburg, the Holsteiner Verband serves as headquarters of the esteemed Holsteiner equine breed. Known for originating in Germany, the athletic breed is thought to be the oldest of the much-loved warmblood breeds.
Living on the Holsteiner Verband property, Kunk’s days were meticulously planned out. “I was on my first horse at 7 a.m., rode till 9 a.m., had a breakfast break 9 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. and rode again till noon. After a two-hour lunch break, it was back riding from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.,” shares Kunk. The Holsteiner Verband serves as a one-stop shop sale barn in Europe where customers come and try various horses all in one location. Kunk’s role was to work with the green horses, usually 3 to 6-year olds, training them and preparing them for sale. At the end of their time at the Verband, the horses would be taken to an auction to be sold—a process unique to Europe in conducting high-end horse sales this way.
“At times, a horse’s sale price would skyrocket from $10,000 Euros to $100,000 within 30 seconds,” Kunk recalls. Once a week, Kunk and the other training riders would put on a presentation for the general public interested in purchasing a Holsteiner. “We would free jump the horses to show off their athletic abilities and skills,” says Kunk. Watching this presentation were potential buyers, who signed up for time slots to ride, in order to ascertain if the horse was a good match. “I still recall,” says Kunk, “how at times women wearing stilettos would show up to try out the horses. And remarkably, despite their footwear choice, they successfully navigated the horses over the jumps.”
Nearing the end of her visa in 2007, Kunk returned stateside and married her college sweetheart, Lucas. Returning to the Chicago area, the newlyweds settled in Lake Zurich. Years later in 2011, Kunk returned home so to speak teaming up with Joanne Kurinsky, her Aunt, and her original inspiration for her love of horses, at Littlewood Farm.
Based in Libertyville, Littlewood Farm is a premiere equestrian establishment with top-notch training and meticulously maintained facilities. Set upon 100 rolling acres on Independence Farm, the facility is truly a sight to behold, with young riders milling about, contributing to the positive and inclusive attitude that the lead trainers prioritize. A family run business, Littlewood is also home to Jessie Klein, who has been working with Kurinsky since age 10.
Today, Littlewood Farm is proud to have played a key role in starting some of the current elite Grand Prix riders. Of equal note is Littlewoods’ role in starting three of the top ten riders in the 2019 Maclay Finals, no small feat indeed. “We strive to create a warm and inviting barn family,” says Kunk.
Today, Kunk is settled with her two children, Henry, five, and Arthur, two, in what she calls “the perfect community” of Lake Zurich. “I’ve been lucky that my husband and I have been able to create a home life in Lake Zurich, within the horse world.” Mornings and afternoons can find Kunk at Littlewood starting young riders on their first ponies at weekly lessons, or schooling horses in preparation for a rider’s A-level show that weekend. Throughout it all, the atmosphere of the barn continues to create a wonderful experience for everyone who walks, or trots, through its doors.
For more information, visit littlewoodfarmil.com.