Bryanna Kessler found a way to merge her two loves — horses and the military — and Cowlitz County fairgoers this year are getting to see the union of those interests.
The 2006 Kelso High School graduate rode Friday at the Thunder Mountain Rodeo and will ride again Saturday in the Cowlitz County Fair parade as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Mounted Color Guard. Kessler is one of only two women ever to have served in the unit, which performs precision drill movements while presenting the flags of both the United States and the Marines.
Viewed from the front of the four-horse lineup, Kessler will be the rider on the far right, flanking the member holding the Marine colors.
"I always wanted to be in the military," Kessler, 24, said in a phone interview Thursday while riding toward Longview. "My grandpa was in the Navy, and I always wanted to do something like that."
She enlisted in the Marines in 2009 after a stint as a longshore casual worker. She learned of the mounted color guard a year later, and it immediately drew her interest, said Kessler, who participated in many 4-H horse shoes while growing up here.
"I grew up with horses," she said. "My grandpa bought me my first horse when I was in second grade."
She applied last year and was placed into the unit in April. There are six members, though only four ride at a time.
"I always thought it would be cool to be part of that era when they rode horses into battle. This is as close to that as you can get at this time," Kessler said.
Members of the team care and train the horses and travel with them, not driving more than 500 miles a day. They're on the road 200 days a year, performing at parades, rodeos, changes of command and military retirements, she said. The unit is based at the Marine Corps logistics base in Barstow, Calif.
The military pays all costs for transporting, carrying for and training the horses, but local sponsoring organizations must accommodate the team and the horses. That's easy in Cowlitz County: Kessler's father is Phil Lovingfoss, the owner of the Monticello Hotel. Her mom is Linda Morgan of Kelso.
Kessler will be riding a horse named Norman in Cowlitz County, though she also rides a mount named Cho. The equine members of the color guard are palomino wild mustangs captured and placed for adoption by U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Kessler is assigned to the mounted unit for three years, but she intends to make the Marines a career. Her husband, a Minnesotan named Steven Kessler, also is in the Marines and is currently deployed in Afghanistan.
She's thrilled to be riding with the unit at the county fair.
"I think it is an honor to come to my home town," she said. "It is great to have both my lives intermingle for the weekend."