Starting her own barn had never been on Keen Behringer’s to-do list. It was simply too risky when there were more dependable options.
“I would’ve been more comfortable just getting a job and collecting a paycheck,” Keen said.
But then the barn she was training for closed in early 2013, and everything changed. She soon found herself navigating the uncertain landscape of starting a business, battling countless obstacles along the way. Now, four years later and against all odds, she has Sublime Saddlebreds to show for it. It stands as a testament to not only her own dedication, but the dedication of countless friends and family members – a place where integrity and personalized care unite to bring out the best in both horses and riders alike.
Before opening Sublime, Keen was happily training for Royal Crest Farms in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, owned by Bruce and Rusty Rademann.
“I started on with them sort of at the beginning of the end,” Keen said. “I spent two years under Pat Wessel and then two to three years as head trainer.”
It was during this time period that she met and befriended Nick Behringer, who worked as a truck driver for the Rademann’s stone quarry. After her first marriage ended in 2011, she and Nick began dating.
“Very early in our relationship I had an unplanned pregnancy, which was one of the best mistakes I ever made,” Keen said.
But the same year their daughter Kennedy arrived, it was announced that Royal Crest would be closing and the stone quarry would be downsizing, which would leave both Keen and Nick without jobs.
“He was very supportive and always wanted kids, but we were both flat out of a job,” Keen said. “There was no income between us with a brand new 3-6-month-old baby.”
Though Keen was from the east coast, Nick had family in the Wisconsin area. They wanted to raise their own family in Wisconsin, near that support system, but there was the looming issue of employment.
“There’s kind of a shelf life with most training jobs, so we figured the only way to give her stability being raised in one area was to try to start our own farm,” Keen said. “My husband was very supportive in that decision; that was his idea not mine.”
With their lives already up in the air, they decided there was no time like the present to make such a big gamble.
“The idea of working 60 hour weeks for somebody else and living the life of a nomad wasn’t going to be conducive to having kids, so instead of doing it for somebody else, I just wanted her to give it a try,” Nick said. “I knew what her work ethic was and I knew she was talented with the animals. I knew there was no quit in her, so given an opportunity I knew she could succeed.”
When it came time to choose a name for the new operation, they settled on Sublime Saddlebreds. Because the band Sublime had been one of Keen’s favorites, she and Nick both knew the meaning of the adjective – “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.” It seemed like the perfect way to describe a Saddlebred.
“We went around and around about it, and must have considered thirty different names, but that one kept coming up in conversation,” Keen said. “It suited us well. Now all the horses we breed on the property are named with Sublime songs as names.”
But for a while, Sublime was an operation without a home. Before they could do anything else, Keen and Nick had to combat the most immediate problem: after Royal Crest closed its doors in February of 2013, they had six horses in their care, and nowhere to keep them. Luckily Ginger Schinktgen, the trainer at Forward Farm, stepped in to help.
“I called her and told her I had two client horses and four of my own on the trailer and no place to go, and she said, ‘I don’t have room but by the time you get here I’ll have room,’” Keen said.
With the horses safely at Ginger’s in Manitowoc, Keen and Nick began searching for a property of their own. Within a month, they had found and purchased a property in nearby Brandon.
“We found a very inappropriate run down old cow farm that didn’t work for any of our needs, and started to gut it one stall at a time,” Keen said.
The property had been built in the 1840s, and while the house – the oldest octagon house in the state of Wisconsin – was in good shape, the barn was fairly dilapidated.
“A lot had been done to restore the house to its former glory, but the barn itself had been kind of pieced together for what all the owners over hundreds of years needed,” Keen said.
The block walls were bowed from frost and neglect, the concrete floor of the barn would need to be broken out to allow for an additional two to three feet of head room for the horses, and the interior walls of the arena were lined with unsafe pallets covered in sheet metal. And besides the required architectural work, there was a large amount of debris that needed to be sorted and disposed of, former residences to sell, and a new baby to care for. Luckily, friends and family were there to help.
Keen’s father, a mason, flew out from upstate New York to help with the massive project. Nick’s mother watched Kennedy while they worked. Some of their close friends offered Nick a job at their heating and cooling company.
“They gave him a job specifically so one of us could have an employment record so we could get a loan for the barn,” Keen said. “He would work there and then come home and work on the barn.”
All of this was being done on what Keen described as “a shoestring budget” with no client base, during a time when Keen herself was still getting back on her feet following her divorce. But the project gave her real purpose.
“I’ve always had a real love and passion for young horses, and I was hoping to keep turning out young stock,” she said.
She and Nick, who were married in 2014, worked hard to bring the business to that point. But Sublime seems to have fit another niche as well, welcoming former Saddlebred owners back into the industry.
“It seems as though we have had many people approach us saying … ‘I wanted to get a show horse again but didn’t know where to begin,’” Keen said. “I have several clients that are reappearing in the horse industry after a ten or twenty year hiatus, and I have many clients who have gone into buying young prospects to watch develop. I like that I have some people interested in doing that – people who really understand the time commitment it takes to stand behind a young horse.”
Jim and Heather Bednarek are some of those clients. Both had grown up around horses, and gotten involved with Saddlebreds later in life, showing under the direction of trainer Monty Wallen, but they had been out of the business since he passed away in November 2008. Then they visited Sublime in October of 2015.
“When we first went there we just watched her work a young horse in long lines, and the horse was pretty wild but she stayed really calm, and we liked that,” Jim said.
Heather began taking saddle seat lessons with Keen, and felt at home there immediately.
“The first afternoon we went to visit her, it was just such a nice, welcoming family atmosphere,” Heather said. “Her barn is just very homey and warm and welcoming, and you could just see being a part of that group.”
Jim and Heather currently have two horses at Sublime: Reedann’s Mas! Mas!, a four-year-old park or park pleasure prospect, who will hopefully make her debut at this year’s Oshkosh Charity with Keen, and Juliet’s Belva Jean, or “Billie,” a seven-year-old five-gaited country pleasure horse. Heather said the two horses are very different, and Keen respects that in her training.
“She’s very willing to try different approaches to find what makes training them the easiest on both the horse and the rider, and we’ve just been so pleased with how she brings horses along,” Heather said.
Billie was an older horse when she started her show career, but when she hit the ring she acted as if she’d been doing it forever. Mas Mas was a different story.
“With Mas Mas she’s taking a little extra time, and she’s taking a little different approach,” Heather said. “Whether it’s our two horses or every other horse in the barn, she fits the training method to what they need for success.”
She does the same thing with her human clients.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting and watching Keen give a lesson to one of her little academy students, I’m just so in awe of how she just fits her teaching to each individual person,” Heather said. “She really knows how to build confidence and build skills and make you want to come back for more. She just really is a terrific motivator.”
And she finds the time to do this no matter how busy she might be.
“You go there and she’s got how many other things going on, but you always feel that you’re the one that’s most important to her,” Jim said.
Heather believes Sublime is a hidden gem for people of all backgrounds.
“For people that maybe have been into horses and have stepped away for a while it would be a great place to come back and find their passion again,” she said. “For those thinking they might want to get involved it’s the perfect place to come start their journey with Saddlebreds.”
Fran Streeter feels similarly. She has been involved in horses her entire life, and Saddlebreds since the early 90s. After seeing Sublime at a horse show, she visited the barn in 2014.
“When I interviewed Keen, I found that she was hardworking and honest, and those seemed to be the traits I was looking for in a trainer,” Fran said.
Though the barn was still under construction at the time, she was able to see past that to Keen’s future plans.
“She only had a couple stalls done, but I could see that what she was doing was quality work,” Fran said. “I’ve seen enough in my life to know what direction people were headed, and I could see she was headed in the right direction. She had a goal, and her goals were not lofty; they were realistic.”
She now has her fourth horse in training at Sublime – the six-year-old five-gaited horse Worth Being Happy – and her grandson, Jimmy, has begun taking lessons with Keen as well.
“She’s wonderful with the children,” Fran said. “She’s very patient and explains things to them.”
Fran admires Keen’s commitment to education, whether she’s teaching her students or furthering her own education, as she did when studying for her judge’s card.
“I judge for hackney, roadster, Saddlebred and equitation,” Keen said. “I’ve been trying to hustle to get some judging jobs, partly because for a business to be successful you have to diversify, partly because you can’t complain about a judge unless you stand there and do it yourself, and partly because I think it’s important for our industry to have a decent pool of judges to choose from.”
She has diversified in a number of ways, hosting events like clinics and youth camps, but has never lost sight of her primary goal.
“We’ve done a lot of things that maybe weren’t exactly toward our original business model, but we breed one of our own a year so we can keep our hand in what we’re really passionate about with the young horses,” Keen said.
Balancing all of this isn’t easy, but Keen has help. Though Nick still works a day job, he and Keen discuss all the big farm decisions, from horse prices to horse breeding, and he serves as the farm’s maintenance man.
“Day-to-day, I probably spend an hour or so on different things if you want to average it out,” he said of the maintenance work. “Sometimes I’ll do a lot more, sometimes I’ll do a lot less. It depends what the horses wreck that week.”
He continues to make improvements to the farm as well; his latest project is building a customer lounge.
Keen has also found great help in Amber Taylor. Though she was not familiar with Saddlebreds when she first arrived at Sublime, she has become an invaluable asset to the barn, helping Keen break colts, groom and head horses, clean stalls and whatever else needs to be done.
“She’s been pivotal to our growth,” Keen said. “Without her I couldn’t do a lot of the things I do.”
Even the customers pitch in and help when needed, something that Keen appreciates even more following the addition of their second daughter, Niamh.
“I can’t say enough good about our client base as far as them really being a team and a family,” Keen said. “Everyone is willing to jump in there and help clean tack, help hold the baby or whatever task needs to be done. Everyone is one unit instead of individual clients with individual goals and agendas. Everyone is backing the same team.”
It is exactly the kind of place Keen wanted to build all along, and she and Nick are proud to have made it happen.
“I guess my life beforehand was just kind of a 9-5 type thing, and now I have something to really be involved in and immersed in, and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Nick said. “My wife is getting to live her passion, and I’m incredibly proud to be part of that.”
But no matter how much time goes by, Keen and Nick will never forget the many people who helped get them to this point.
“When I look back at all the adversity we were up against and everything we overcame, as much as I think I’m a self-made individual, there were a thousand people that helped us along the way,” Keen said. “And as much as I’ve done and accomplished and overcame, it’s largely because there were people there every step of the way believing that I could.”