As the saying goes, when you fall off the horse get back on.
Jessica Kukanich did exactly that — broken leg and all.
While performing two years ago in Texas with The Great American Wild West Show, the Wisconsin teenager suffered a broken left leg when her horse, Rex, landed on her during a trick riding performance.
Not realizing her tibia was broken all the way through, Kukanich, 14, promptly climbed back atop her horse and continued riding before seeking treatment a short while later. She spent the next nine months in a cast and boot, but she was back riding again one month before they were removed.
“In trick riding it’s a not a matter of if you get hurt, it’s a matter of when and how bad,” said Kukanich, who has sprained both ankles and wrists and endured various bumps and bruises over the years. “There’s a little more of a fear factor now, but I try not to think about it and just go out there and have fun.”
Kukanich spent most of her youth in Eagle River in northern Wisconsin before recently moving with family members to Muscoda in the southern part of the state. But the change in scenery hasn’t altered her enthusiasm for trick riding.
After performing at five shows last summer, Kukanich saddled up for shows in Iowa and Kentucky this summer and is working to add more dates for the upcoming weeks and next summer. As one of only a handful of up-and-coming trick riders in the region, she’s fully sponsored by the Trixie Chicks Trick Riders professional performance team.
“I just love the adrenaline rush with trick riding,” Kukanich said. “I get butterflies in my stomach every time. Sitting there with a big smile on my face is one of the best feelings in the world.
“And seeing all the kids smile really makes it worthwhile. When you go to a show and see a kid in the crowd, you never know what little boy or girl is looking at you thinking, ‘I want to be like her someday!’ So you always want to do your best for them. It really makes my day when they want my autograph or smile at me.”
Kukanich began riding horses at the age of 4. She started with English and then switched to Western, before transitioning to trick riding at the age of 9.
Laura Hoffman, Kukanich’s mother, said she was “very nervous” seeing her daughter take up trick riding.
“She thought she could do it by herself by watching YouTube videos,” Hoffman said. “And I really didn’t take her seriously at first, because she was 5 or 6 years old when she first mentioned it after she saw a movie with trick riding.
“But after a while she started standing on her horse and getting more courageous, so that’s when we found (professional trick rider and trainer) Madison MacDonald and started working with her.”
Hoffman and Kukanich traveled to Texas that summer and spent a week training with MacDonald. Over the years Kukanich also trained with professional trick riders Tad Griffith, Kelsey Lauberth and Haley Ganzel.
“We’ve had to travel for her training, because there’s not much around here,” said Hoffman, noting week-long training sessions were held in Texas, Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin. “We’re very blessed to have worked with some awesome trick riding trainers.”
Added Kukanich: “I would train eight to 10 hours per day and then go home for a couple of months without seeing any of my trainers and work really hard by myself and keep practicing the tricks I learned from them. I like that the different trainers bring different perspectives.”
Kukanich has been riding her primary horse, Rex, a 10-year-old Gypsy Vanner, since she began trick riding about six years ago. She recently began working a second horse — Buck, a 5-year-old Gypsy Vanner — into the mix since Rex is getting older.
“I have to have a lot of trust in my horses,” Kukanich said. “I need to know they’ll take care of me at all times. For trick riding you’re hanging off your horse and trusting them to go in a specific pattern. You have to trust your horse that it’ll get you around the arena safely. That strong bond is important.”
Kukanich knows about 15 tricks, of which she typically demonstrates three or four solo maneuvers during a show.
Among her signature tricks are Running Girl (she hops off the horse and holds onto it while running alongside it); Hippodrome Stand (standing atop the horse while it’s in motion); and Vaulting (which incorporates an array of combinations involving hopping down and getting back on the moving horse).
“I get really nervous when I’m in the alley and waiting to go in the arena to perform,” said Kukanich, who has been entertaining audiences for 2½ years. “When I first enter the arena I go as fast as I can and raise my arms to get the crowd going, and that’s when I can hear them. But as soon as I go into a trick I dial in and can’t hear anything but my horse and me.”
Kukanich hopes to one day earn a Pro Rodeo card in order to perform at bigger events.
“Any good trick rider will tell you that you have to love it and go in there with a lot of passion,” Kukanich said. “You have to practice hard and have dedication. And you have to have a really great relationship and bond with your horse. I try hard to do all of those things as a trick rider.”