Monday, July 9, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Goes To College

It is really easy to look back on one's life experiences and think, "I wish that I had had this opportunity" or "I wish that I had learned that when I had the chance" or "I wish that my parents had won the lottery and bought me a horse farm and schoolmasters and enlightened trainers" (okay, that last one sounds pretty good), but the truth is, when I look back, I was pretty lucky.  Actually, maybe luck isn't the right word.  I was reasonably opportunistic.  I grew up very close to Centenary College, home of one of the few colleges in the country to offer several majors in equine studies.  Founded in 1867 as a preparatory school, Centenary College was well-known (at least locally in New Jersey) as a four-year college offering a Bachelor's degree in horses.  Of course, I professed to go there for college one day, but my parents thought better of it.  They were not about to fund a trip to college to earn a degree in horses even if it was their daughter's passion.  My parents knew that passion rarely pays the bills, so, although I was disappointed at the time, I am glad that they steered me elsewhere for my undergraduate studies.  However, that does not mean that I missed the opportunity to learn at Centenary College.

The entrance to the main indoor arena and classrooms.  This huge arena and the building did not exist while I was taking lessons at Centenary College.

In 2009, I revisited Centenary College for a NARHA (now PATH International) Regional Conference for therapeutic horseback riding instructors.  The buckskin pictured is not Harley, but looks like it could be his cousin!

Blurry, but at least you get a feel for the Olympic-sized indoor arena.  Centenary hosts Intercollegiate Horse Shows in dressage and the hunter/jumper disciplines as well as the annual AA-rated Garden State Horse Show.

I started taking lessons at Centenary in middle school with one of my best friends.  It was actually her Mom who got us the "in", because she was an adjunct professor at the college.  We started taking lessons with one of the college students, Barbie, who was very unlike the famous doll.  Barbie was tall with a strong frame and a down-to-Earth smile, long, dark, wavy hair, and glasses.  She preemptively joked that her fiance was not named "Ken" whenever she met people, as that was usually one of their first questions.  Barbie was a hard-working college student.  She worked in the barn to help pay for her horse's board and she gave lessons to a few community riders, yours truly included.  She was prepared for the long-hours required by the horse business and had already been assigned numerous responsibilities at the stables as well as landed a few exercise gigs at local professional facilites.  She was kind and personable and exceedingly competent.  I was one lucky young rider to find myself under her watchful eye.

The outdoor arena where I had many, many fun lessons and rides.

Barbie taught us how to safely wrap a horse's legs, give a proper shower to a hot horse, and how to clean stalls to conserve bedding.  She let us ride extra horses during the summer in exchange for helping her clean stalls.  My friend and I would ride three horses a day, cleaning their stalls before we rode.  This was mutually beneficial, as Barbie had tons on her plate, the lesson horses needed to remain fit over the summer, and we were horse-crazy kids who needed to ride.

Even on a cloudy day, the cross-country fields are beautiful.  I remember being in awe of a daunting jump called "The Bear Trap".

I used to hack around this field and enjoyed cantering along the treeline.  I had a few jumping lessons out here, but they were over standards.  I was not experienced enough for the large jumps shown here.

Occasionally, Barbie saved enough money to have a lesson herself.  She bathed and primped her horse before the trainer arrived, explaining to us that you must never enter a lesson with anything but a spotless horse to show respect for your trainer.  I watched her ride her huge Cleveland Bay in a lesson one time.  Her horse's name was Pirate.  He had a black tail with waves just like Barbie's hair.  His tail was so long that it brushed the ground when he was standing still.  He is the only Cleveland Bay that I have ever seen in person.  He was stunning.

Pirate was a project horse, if my memory serves me.  He was big, strong and talented, but nervous for reasons that I did not know.  Barbie told us that some one experienced had told her that she would have her hands full retraining him with the insinuation that she should consider passing him up.  However, that was not Barbie's style.  I remember watching her canter Pirate around the indoor arena.  His hooves sounded like thunder and the wake of his movement through the air made me gasp in genuine awe.  They were so gorgeous together.  Despite whatever haunted him, Pirate had learned to trust Barbie to ride him, just as I had learned to trust her in my horse education.  That was my first glimpse of a horse and rider team that was so much more than a rider on a lesson horse.  I knew that I wanted that some day.

Barbie contributed to my early horse education in many positive ways.  She allowed me and my friend time to practice outside of a lesson by working for riding time.  This also taught us the importance of work ethic and that horses are not just about time in the saddle.  She chose horses for us to ride that were safe, but also challenged our abilities.  I remember riding a mare named Lena in one of my first lessons.  She was a tough ride for me, but a year later I was allowed to hack her on my own.  That was measurable progress to me.

Barbie arranged an opportunity for my friend and me to audit a Centered Riding clinic with a woman named Sandra, a high level Centered Riding Instructor.  I vividly remember some of the ground exercises that we did.  I also remember watching a women sit the trot as she had never done before and Sandra commenting that a very nice "shoulder-in" could be accomplished by rotating the torso.  I did not know what a shoulder-in was at the time, but the image of Sandra demonstrating it on her own two feet has stayed with me.  I also borrowed Barbie's copy of Centered Riding by Sally Swift and read it cover to cover.  I have since purchased my own copy, which rests on my coffee table.

The "small" indoor was the only indoor when I was riding there.  This is where I had my lunge lessons and watched Barbie ride Pirate.  What a beautiful facility and a true luxury.  I would not have an indoor at my next barn of ten years.

Of all these things and the countless wonderful lessons that Barbie gave to me, the absolute best was the series of lunge lessons.  This was her equine studies research project.  Barbie assessed our riding positions and balance before lunge work and then again after several weeks of only lunge line lessons.  I remember learning to post and sit the trot without stirrups and with my hands doing all sorts of exercises as we trotted in a circle around Barbie.  I was nervous at first, but Barbie had good control of the lesson horse and she knew when to push and when to encourage.  I loved her so much that I tried even though I was afraid.  I learned to initiate transitions from my seat and achieve balance in the canter.  The culminating exercise was cantering without stirrups, my arms stretched out like wings, and my eyes closed.  That was a remarkable improvement, as I used to fall off during every stirrup-less lesson at the hunter/jumper barn where I initially learned to ride.  The instructor just told me to hold on tighter with my legs.  Was she ever wrong!  Thank goodness Barbie showed me the light and took the time to teach me true balance and independence in the saddle.  She told us that she got an A from her professor for the research project.  To me, the experience was priceless.

By the time I reached high school, Barbie had graduated and (I believe) moved to Florida to become a big-time horse professional.  My friend and I were transferred to another willing college student for lessons, but it was never the same without Barbie.  She was one of those special teachers whose lessons stay with you forever.  I moved on to a private dressage barn by the beginning of ninth grade and in true dressage-instruction form, I had to relearn everything and discovered that I was doing almost everything wrong.  This included more lunge lessons, but I was very good at those!

Barbie's lessons of balance and confidence have endured keeping me firmly glued in the saddle over the years.  I have borrowed some of her exercises with my own students, sharing the story and how much lunge lessons helped my balance and confidence.  Thank you for taking the time with me, Barbie!  I am forever grateful.

Related links:
"Centenary College's Equestrian Program Teaches More Than Good Riding", The Chronicle of the Horse (2010)


  1. Barbie sounds like one of those rare trainers who take the time to do it right. You were lucky to have her as a young beginning rider. It sounds like the lessons have stayed with you over the years. The college looks like a beautiful place.

    1. Barbie was a diamond for sure. I was very proud to ride at the college as a kid. :)

  2. Thank you for sharing the story of Barbie. Exceptional instructors like her are hard to come by. You were fortunate to have the time with her and to have retained so much.

    1. I was initially going to write about one of my favorite horses, and then I remembered Barbie and realized that I owed her a tribute first. I am glad that you enjoyed the story!

  3. What an interesting post, Val, and a lovely tribute to Barbie.

  4. Good trainers are worth their weight in gold and as rare as diamonds- you got very lucky! Maybe you'll meet her again someday...

    1. That would be cool. I wonder if I would recognize her or her me. I feel like I can only picture her wavy hair!

  5. You are so fortunate to have had a trainer like Barbie. A foundation like the one you got from her is irreplaceable, and shows in the harmonious relationship you have with Harley.

    Thanks for sharing a great story. :)

    1. Thank you for appreciating Barbie's story. I had not thought about her in a long time, so it was fun to revisit the positive experiences she gave me.


Leave a comment or add to my memoirs with some of your own.