Local legends are riding off into the sunrise
By KATHY KORENGEL
LAKE STEVENS — After more than 20 years of training horses, a decade of training top-placing competitors, and a world championship of their own, Mark and Nikki DeForest are hanging up their spurs.
The Lake Stevens couple, which until days ago ran DeForest Quarter Horses, have loaded up their saddlebags and their 9-year-old daughter and headed to Eastern Washington, partly for family health reasons and partly for what Nikki calls "a slower pace of life."
And, although locals note how good the couple is at what they do, what they say they’ll miss most is the DeForests’ "kinder, gentler" way of training.
"We’re heartbroken," said Amy Kjellesvik of Arlington, who’s trained with Mark for more than a year.
Kjellesvik said it’s been three weeks since clients found out about the couple’s retirement.
"We’re not crying any more," she added, although tears welled in her eyes occasionally as she spoke about their departure.
Mark, 38, wearing a baseball cap and with a wide, easy grin, hardly fit the rugged image of a horseman as he stood outside a horse ring at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe on Tuesday.
And if it weren’t for a recurring bout with a mysterious illness, eventually diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, he’d probably be working up to 80 hours a week, six or seven days a week, indefinitely, he said.
It was that kind of determination that Mark said helped him get through his mother-in-law’s battle with cancer eight years ago and his brother’s cancer treatments five years ago.
"You go hard and keep going," Mark said.
His brother, who also is a horse trainer, is in remission from his cancer. But his mother-in-law’s cancer returned recently and was the reason Nikki traveled to Winthrop in north-central Washington recently, where her mother lives and where the DeForests are moving.
When Mark started getting sick again several months ago, that was the final incentive for the couple to retire, a decision they had been contemplating for two years, since Mark’s first sickness, said Nikki, 40.
"I thought, ‘Boom. We’re out of here,’ " Nikki said. "I’m not losing my husband over this," she said, saying that she partly credits his long working hours for his sickness.
The couple say their daughter, Kyla, was a big part of the decision. Nikki, too, worked long hours, she said, and had to fly around the country to horse shows, often not seeing Kyla for months at a time.
"We’re going to raise our daughter instead of being on the road eight months a year," Nikki said.
Kjellesvik said the are DeForests are special.
"He’s (Mark’s) like Prozac to the horses," Kjellesvik said. "He’s patient, and he gets them to listen and learn."
Tony Puzio of Snohomish, who’s trained with Mark since March, said Mark has a knack for training difficult horses.
Puzio recalled how Mark helped with his horse, which had refused to come into the door of an indoor arena.
"He taught him it’s OK to come in and nothing bad’s going to happen. Even if it takes him two hours to get a horse to understand, he’ll stick with it," Puzio said.
Roger Wigen, who has shoed the DeForests’ horses for four years, praised Mark’s ability to bring out the best in people and horses.
"Someone may not have the best horse, maybe they can’t afford the best horse, but Mark always has something positive to say, something positive for them to work toward," Wigen said.
The couple is not retiring entirely. Both have found jobs at the Sun Mountain Lodge. They also will keep a few horses of their own and board a few for clients near their new home.
Their presence will be missed here, said Gina Wigen, Roger’s wife.
"It’s hard to find a good trainer you feel comfortable with and have a good rapport with. You put a lot of trust in them.
"This is like losing a friend, a best friend, someone you trust," she said.