This article on Hollywood horse champion Kaia Thomson is the third in our series, The Saints of Todos Santos, which profiles some of the people who help put that spark of magic into our pueblo magico.
Queens may come and go, but queen-makers are a special force to be reckoned with, and Kaia Thomson has made 14 queens…so far. In 2005 Kaia was running a 55-acre ranch with 60 horses where she had trained 12 Gymkhana champions and 14 rodeo queens, including Brandy De Jongh, Miss Rodeo America 2000. She was at the top of her game in the horse world with students, horses in training and competing. Then she decided to move to Todos Santos. “It was my 50th birthday and I decided that I just had to move to Mexico with my horses. All my friends thought I was crazy, but I wanted to do something radical. I just had to do it.” So she did. She finished out the year on her ranch and arrived in Todos Santos in December 2005 with 3 horses and the remains of her worldly possessions. It’s now hard to imagine what the town would be like without Kaia and her incredible skills as a teacher, rider, trainer, naturalist and photographer.
Kaia is one of the most down-to-earth people you’re likely to meet in this life. A characteristic that is not explained by the fact that Kaia is a true Hollywood gal who grew up under the Hollywood sign, spent a lot of time on Hollywood Boulevard and had her first horseback riding lesson at the age of 4 at Sunset Ranch Hollywood Stables. She went to Hollywood High School with many (now famous) stars and worked at a tack shop where she regularly rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Sam Shephard, Richard Farnsworth, and Juice Newton. She worked for Glen Randall who trained Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger (“he said Trigger was the smartest horse he ever met – he could recognize over 100 words and cues”) as well as with Glen’s protégés Rex Peterson and Bobby Lovegren who trained horses for movies such as Black Beauty, Hidalgo, Zorro, and The Horse Whisperer. She ponied horses for Laz Barrera, renowned trainer of Affirmed (the last horse to win the Triple Crown) and worked alongside many champions on race days at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar racetracks. She rode a horse named Madrid, a grandson of Bold Ruler – Secretariat’s sire – and trained, competed and won in dressage, jumping and showmanship. She traded a saddle for a mule in the Sierra Nevada’s and competed on mules for over 16 years. She saw a Reined Cowhorse Show in Las Vegas in 1989, and soon became a regular on the National Reined Cow Horse Association circuit. She trained with Teddy Robinson, the world’s greatest Reined Cow Horse champion, and acquired the exceptional horse skills required to rein, cut and work cattle in competition. Kaia thrived on the perfect complement of sportsmanship, connection and discipline that horse competition in all its variety demanded. Then she fell in love.
Silver Drift, a dorsal-striped dun charmer affectionately known as Fourteen, was Kaia’s equine soul mate, the greatest horse she ever owned. She got him in 1996, and loved to gather cattle and team rope with him. “Roping on 14 was like riding on mashed potatoes with extra butter…everyone wanted me to head for them!” They had a great partnership and he helped her train some of those rodeo queens on her ranch. “Then on a Friday the 13th in 1999, he was just playing in his paddock and broke his leg. We had to put him down. I was devastated. It almost made me quit horses altogether. To distract me, some friends took me to Catalina Island to go scuba diving, and I was completely hooked. I went all the way through instructor and about 20 specialty courses, mainly because I loved being able to engage in one of my great passions – photography – under water. This is what led me to Baja because in 2000 I came to La Paz for my birthday to go scuba diving in the Sea of Cortez – which I even did once in my birthday suit! I absolutely loved it and started coming back 2 to 3 times every year to dive. On one of these trips it was too windy to dive so a friend suggested that we check out this little town called Todos Santos. When I got here I realized that I’d seen all this lush greenness in the desert several times from the air. I loved it.”
While it seemed like a wild decision to walk away from the incredible life that she’d built in the horse world in the U.S., Mexico was a natural fit. “Mexico is founded on ranchero culture – horses, mules, burros – all used for transport and working the ranch. Mexicans are very proud of their horse heritage. The Criollos, the local horses, can all trace their lineage back to the horses that Hernán Cortés brought to Mexico over 500 years ago and turned loose before heading back to Spain. Mexico now even has its own official breed of horse, the Española, a cross between Andalusians and quarter horses. This mixture is meant to create the ultimate caballo de charro or rodeo horses, and they’ve been pretty successful with this.”
“The horse community here has been so welcoming to me. My horse buddies and I are always invited to ride in the cabalgatas (horse parades or trail rides) and these are an enormous amount of fun. These are often 2 days and 1 night, and will have over 200 riders on horses, burros and mules. There are around 30 cabalgatas a year in the little towns around southern Baja, and the one we participate in the most ends in an extravaganza at the stadium in Todos Santos where the Escaramuza ladies put on a great show. These are young women who ride in a drill team style formation at a full gallop to emulate the women of the revolution who would put on their colorful adelitas – pretty dresses with full flowing skirts – and head out on horseback to attract the men of the enemy. When the men got into firing range the escaramuzas would sling the hidden rifles off their shoulders and aid the rest of the army with the task at hand. Lots of the local cowboys also do horse dancing and trick riding. We also get invited to a lot of the horse races on straight tracks that are held in all the different towns. After the “fancy” horses run, sometimes my students will ride one of my horses in the races – we’ve actually won 6 out of 7!”
One of the reasons the local horse community is so fond of Kaia is because of her work with the Internado, the boarding house for ranch kids who come to Todos Santos to go to school. Each year the Internado has an Annual Open House to raise funds, and Kaia trains the Internado students for 2 months to prepare them for the competition that they put on as part of the fundraiser. Past events have included simulating ranch tasks like catching a chicken, roping a cow, and “killing” a bandito with a machete, all from the back of a galloping horse (chicken/cow/bandito dummies used), as well as barrel racing and cavalry-style carousels. Throughout the rest of the year Kaia sponsors the Internado kids to come to her place once a week to go riding and work the horses with her.
The Internado students are not the only ones who benefit from Kaia’s generosity with her talents. For each edition of the town’s local magazine, El Calendario, Kaia – a “self-appointed naturalist” – donates two pages of her amazing photographs which document the wild beauty of the flora and fauna of Baja. She also usually contributes an article or two on local businesses, people of note, or natural history. “I always completely embrace wherever I am. I’ve been fewer places than some people, but I know a great deal about many aspects of those few places and I love sharing that knowledge.”
Luckily for the people of Todos Santos, residents and visitors alike, Todos Santos is one of those few places where Kaia has chosen to shine her light and share her knowledge. She has a really fun place where you can train in dressage, jumping and gymkhana. Or you can just go on a Todos Santos Eco Adventures sunset ride with Kaia, and ask her about endemic bird species…or the life spans of local cactus… or Mexican charro rodeo regulations…or whale shark feeding habits in the Sea of Cortez….or the beauty secrets of rodeo queens…or what it really feels like to be an American cowgirl living in a magic Mexican village.
© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2011