It could be said that Anna Marie Knipp is a horse-tradin’, horse-ridin’, cart-pullin’ pony driver. But among the upper echelons of American Saddlebred enthusiasts, Knipp is better known as a sophisticated equine breeder, businesswoman and competitor. As owner of High Spirits Farm, just south of Columbia, she continues a longtime Boone County tradition of breeding and showing American Saddlebred horses.
At an average weight of 1,000 or more pounds, American Saddlebreds are formidable animals known for their competitive spirit and natural ability to learn various gaits. “They have a great attitude, and they’re bred to show,” Knipp says. The professional staff at High Spirits Farm also train equally competitive Morgans and Hackney ponies.
Most mid-Missourians know High Spirits Farm by sight. It’s that hilly pasture on the east side of Highway 63 (just past the Columbia airport exit). A steep driveway, lined with white fencing, leads to an immense metal barn at the top of the hill. Inside that barn are stalls for about 40 horses, a training arena and a lounge. The dark paneled walls of the lounge display photos of winning horses and riders as well as arrangements of championship blue ribbons. Another barn, not visible from the road, is home to the organization’s breeding program.
High Spirits Farm has a reputation as a first-class training facility. That reputation draws horse enthusiasts to Boone County from as far away as California and North Carolina. As a breeding farm, it has a goal of producing some of the world’s most perfect horses; as a business venture, Knipp expects the operation to pull its own weight. At any given time, there are usually 55 horses at the farm in training, another 50 mares and colts in the breeding facility, and 10 retired horses, including one Clydesdale. “In addition to the riding lessons and breeding, there’s my own horse business,” Knipp explains, “buying, selling and showing my horses.”
Although Knipp lives on the 548 acres that constitute the farm, she spends most of her time working on her other business – investing in and managing commercial real estate. Owning High Spirits Farm is partly a business decision, partly a lifestyle choice. “It’s a commercial business, but it’s also a personal passion, a way of life,” she says.
Knipp is one of a handful of mid-Missourians whose national profiles and impacts are as large as, or even larger than, their local ones. She is known throughout the United States for her leadership in the show horse industry and for the quality of her horses and the way they ride.
Karen Cunningham, a client who lives in Oklahoma City, keeps one of her brood mares at High Spirits Farm, and her daughter, Katie, has a couple of show horses there in training. Katie makes the trip to Columbia at least once a month to train with her world champion horse, Are You Joeking. Asked why she chose High Spirits Farm to work with her horses and her daughter, Cunningham says, “Anna Marie is very well known and respected nationally, and she loves her clients and her barn.”
Attorney Steve Gaw has known Knipp for years; as an American Saddlebred enthusiast, he appreciates what she’s done on a national and local scale. “Each year, I raise a colt or two, and I usually put them in training at High Spirits Farm,” he says. “It’s been really good to have access to great trainers and a facility like that.” In addition, Gaw has seen her impact on national show horse organizations. “Not only has she been extremely successful in the show circuit, but she’s been very involved in decisions and policies affecting the show horse industry at national organizations.”
The breeding program combines state-of-the-art veterinary science with a good bit of luck and perseverance. “Breeding is a heartbreaking task,” Knipp says. “You kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, but it’s a big thrill to raise a horse that’s from your own family,” she says.
The horses and riders at High Spirits Farm train at all levels – from the beginner who wants to trail-ride, to the professional headed to show ring competitions at the American Royal in Kansas City or the Kentucky State Fair World’s Championship Horse Show. And the riders come in all ages – from young children just overcoming their fear of horses to seasoned exhibitors striving to improve their performance in the ring.
“A lot of new customers have been attracted by the lessons,” Knipp says. “We recently had two sisters in their 70s. Riding lessons was on their bucket list. We have so many different levels – even a local academy show at Stephens College where lesson riders compete in a tournament.”
Knipp mentions competition a lot, stressing that the horses and riders are athletes who train to build their strength and endurance. Competitions can last anywhere from a day or two to as long as a week. And the competition can be intense with 300 to 1,800 horses and their riders vying for blue ribbons in a variety of categories. Last year, horses from High Spirits Farm trotted and pranced their way to the top of the nation’s show horse competition. “It was a dream year,” Knipp says. “Two of our horses – Katharine the Great and Madeira’s Code Red – won world grand championships. They were rock stars.”
Knipp competes as a Hackney pony driver in competitions, but a leg injury ended her days of competing as a rider. She still enjoys riding horses, but strictly for sport. Even from the arena sidelines, she’s an important team member, rooting along with the riders, other owners, trainers, families and friends. “What people don’t realize is that it’s a team sport,” she says. “It’s like car collecting or NASCAR racing. When we roll, we roll pretty big – it’s nothing to have 20 or 30 people when we go to a show.”
When her entourage returns from competition, Knipp’s attention turns back to her real estate business. Approaching High Spirits Farm, she takes S. Hardwicke Lane, a road named after the woman who taught her to ride. Shirley Drew Hardwicke served as director of horsemanship for Stephens College, and she owned the house and 240 acres that are now home to Knipp. It’s the same farm where Tom Bass, Missouri’s most famous horse trainer, was born as a slave in 1859. Growing up, Knipp admired the property, and when it went on the real estate market, she jumped at the chance to own it. Now she has come full circle, carrying on Boone County’s centuries-old tradition of training and raising American Saddlebreds.
A comment Knipp made while describing her search for the right horses for her breeding program could just as well describe her life as owner of High Spirits Farm: “It’s like a big puzzle, and when it all comes together, it’s great,” she says.