A few weeks ago, a friend posted a news article on Facebook about the barn where we had all ridden as teenagers. After a long period decline and then of being closed, it is now under new ownership and management, and will soon be the home to new horses and new trainers. The article brought back memories of summers in the sun, winters spent freezing in the indoor, and how lucky I was to find a life with horses when I was a kid, while growing up in suburban New Jersey.
Like a lot of adult amateurs, I didn’t grow up in a horsey family. My mom (a teacher) and my dad (an architect) probably had no idea what they were getting into when they gave me riding lessons for my 10th birthday. I remember opening that gift of my first riding helmet (safety first!) and being just so excited that I was going to be able to get on a horse and really learn what to do while I was up there. Their willingness to cart me to and from the barn for years, and pay for this ridiculously expensive hobby is something I’m thankful for to this day. My parents let me find my passion, and indulged me in pursuing it to the very best of their ability.
God only knows where my love of horses came from. I just remember always having a decided preference for stuffed animals over dolls as a young child, and that obviously carried over to the real thing. I’ve never had any use for babies, while I now, at 40, have two horses, three dogs, a cat and six chickens. If I had unlimited money and time, there would be more of all of them, but still no plans for babies in our life!
From my first school pony (Barney Rubble) to my Big Eq horse (Murphy’s Journey), horses were a major part of growing up for me. After my parents took the leap and bought me my first (and only) horse as a kid, we eventually landed at Snowbird Acres Farm.
My mom was a good sport about holding one horse for me while I hopped on another horse for a different division. She looks pretty relaxed here, so I’m guessing I wasn’t riding off on Double A, who she blames for an awful lot of her gray hair. I think this was also about the time she started asking why I couldn’t take up dressage.
At the time, Snowbird was something of a local legend, at least it was to me! Run by the Siegel family, the place was huge by New Jersey standards. It had an indoor arena, four barns, an outside course for hunters, and four other outdoor rings. They also had a big lesson program with a ton of school horses, and ran three A-rated shows in the winter and at least two 5-ring C-rated shows a month from May through October.
Riding at Snowbird was an experience. I was fortunate to be of an age with a few other girls there at the time – Cathy, Erika, Marni, Jen, Tammy and Kelly – and we formed the core of a group that helped run shows, coach the younger kids, and fill classes so the points would count for year-end awards and regional qualifications. I was fortunate to often be working at the barn on Sundays, when things were a little quieter, and my trainer would sometimes throw me up on the newest horses in the barn to see if they might make good school horses.
Snowbird gave me opportunities. Opportunities to meet people I wouldn’t have known otherwise because they went to different schools. Opportunities to spend long days outside, being silly (Like the summer when half my friends, after finishing clipping horses went to town on the Siegel’s collies. And then their own hair). Opportunities to ride different horses in different divisions. Opportunities to work hard with a horse for months, and see success with that horse in the show ring.
Some of those trial horses became my competition horses. I remember the first time Torri asked me to hop on Corona, and then she jacked the fence up to 4′ to “see what he’d do”. Happily, he cracked his back clearing that fence, and I stayed on, and he became my 3′ equitation horse for a while. Then there was Almost Always – a little mare we called Double A – who would almost always jump anything you pointed her at. The only time she wouldn’t was when you didn’t trust her to get you to the fence. Corona taught me to stay on, and A taught me to trust a good horse.
Double A in the jumper ring, circa 1990. One of the times I didn’t trust her was at exactly this fence. She had a spot all picked out, and it was different than mine. All I really remember is parting ways with her, and ending up on the far side of the triple bar, sitting on the ground, holding the whole bridle in my hands. I tried to let her pick the spots after that.
Trusting Double A like I did let us jump some fences that you never would have thought a little 14.3h, part-Arabian hony could clear. One show, we finished our go at the Pre-preliminary jumpers (about 2’6″) and got the call to head up to the Equitation ring because they needed one more person to get around the 3’9″ Medal course so the qualifications would count. As I went into the ring, I felt the weight of the real Big Eq riders on my shoulders, as their placings wouldn’t count unless I could get my little hony around the course. So we went in and rode for all we were worth. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty (thank god there is no video or photographic evidence), but I do remember that we left all the fences up, except the back rail of the last over. Maxine Best, mother of Olympian Greg Best – equestrian hero of the day, shouted, as I cleared that last fence, “Four faults!” and started a huge round of applause. I was both inordinately proud, and mortified, but I trusted that little mare to get us around that day, and get us around she did.
After a few years, Snowbird brought me Murphy – a gigantic, chromey chestnut 17.3h Irish warmblood with a huge jump. Thanks to another client of the Siegel’s, I now had a quality Big Eq horse and the opportunity to really compete in the Medal, Maclay and USET. To this day, I still have my number from my first “real” Big Eq on Murphy. We had our ups and downs. Riding a one stride in-and-out as a bounce in the USET class was not rewarded, but there were other highlights as we figured out how to control his stride and stay with him over the fences. Murphy and I had just one season of competition, but riding at the next level gave me a glimpse of what I might do in the future.
I took some time off from riding at the end of my senior year of high school and through college, but always knew I’d go back to riding at some point. I’m still grateful for the opportunity to ride as a kid – thanks to both the sacrifice of my parents to make it happen financially and to the community at Snowbird that made horses a social and fun experience.
Kids today find themselves in such structured programs for so many of their activities. I hope that some kids out there in the horse world have the kind of opportunities I did, and that the new management at Snowbird lets kids run a little wild and find the kind of life with horses that I’ve found.