20 questions with Andee Djuric of Djuric Sporthorses in Blacksburg

Andee Djuric rides Katie Gehrt’s (OTTB) Thoroughbred Swinging Boot over an oxer at Djuric Sporthorses in Blacksburg.

If you are looking for a place near Virginia Tech to ride hunters/jumpers, Andee and Steva Djuric have made horses their full-time business at The Stable at Hoge Pasture on Graves Avenue in Blacksburg. The hunter/jumper facility sits next to the Blacksburg Municipal Golf Course in a beautiful setting of rolling green hills. Come take a closer look at their beautiful facility and talk with Andee and Steva on Saturday, April 29, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Djuric Sporthorsesopen house.

Q: Tell me about your stable. What kind of services do you offer?

A: We’re a small facility with a hunter/jumper focus. My husband, Steva, and I do most of the work.  We are lucky to have help from a couple of really good girls who pick up when we’re at horse shows.

18198638_1378866928862525_275190400529780607_nWe offer training, lessons, coaching at shows and we’re happy to help with sales horses. The horses that board on the farm are part of our program, in training or lessons, as well as a few retirees.

Our level of involvement in racing fluctuates, but we offer boutique-style services for Thoroughbreds still intended for racing. I’m optimistic that new financial incentives for horses training in Virginia will help us expand that part of the business.

Q: When did you get started in horses? What is your riding background?

I went into the horses a bit backward from how it probably ought to be done. My mother got me a little palomino 2-year-old when I was about 10, then decided lessons might be in order after the poor thing was living in her backyard and I was kicking it up and down the driveway. A friend of hers had been stationed in Germany, where his daughter took dressage lessons and then came back to the U.S. and took up eventing. She was getting ready to start college and was willing to come out to my parents’ farm and try to help me. I can’t imagine what she must have thought when she saw us.

She got us to our first little shows, way back when Flanagan Stables was the New River Valley Horse Center, doing mostly the itty bitty hunters and equitation. I was so sure our picture was going to be in The Chronicle of the Horse.

The next two decades in a few paragraphs? Working student jobs, riding whatever anyone would let me ride, lessons with the best person I could get to at any given time, dropping out of school at Virginia Tech to ride, going back to school at Hollins – again, to ride – getting really fortunate to sit on a couple of life-changing horses with game-changing teachers and stepping into the jumper ring, trying to be a working adult amateur and finding myself at the racetrack, then just all over from Florida to Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and the mid-Atlantic until we came back to Blacksburg.

I guess the take-away is that I believe good horsemanship transcends disciplines, even with different riding styles. I believe that correct hunter seat equitation is an outstanding foundation for any kind of riding.

Q: What makes your stable different than others in the area? What’s your specialty? What do you take the most pride in?

I’d hate to be wrong and step on anyone’s toes, but I think we’re the only full-time hunter/jumper barn in the New River Valley. This is what we do: It isn’t a hobby, it isn’t a sideline, it’s a passion that we’re fortunate enough to grow into a profession.

hoge pasture
The Stable at Hoge Pasture in Blacksburg is next to the Blacksburg Municipal Golf Course.

We’re still growing and developing as a business, but we’re serious about good management and care. We’re serious about educating riders about helping them set and work toward appropriate goals, and I think providing a professional, consistent environment helps the horses and riders move forward.

I’m reluctant to call it a specialty, but it’s not really a surprise that we have a lot of Thoroughbreds. I think with Steva’s decades of experience riding and working with racehorses on two continents and my experience working and riding at the track over the last several years, Thoroughbreds are a pretty natural fit for us. I feel like we kind of ‘get’ them on both sides of the divide: racetrack life and post racing. I love, love, love the TB divisions offered at mainstream shows now. Thoroughbreds not only get an extra opportunity to compete, I feel like it offers just a little bit of relief from the conversation going on at the upper levels of our sport right now about medication rules. And, frankly,  it gives riders trying to get into the sport at a slightly lower price point the opportunity to have some success – although there are some really nice Thoroughbreds going around now!

It’s more of an accident I think that we’re a barn with more adults than children. Again, I hate to call that a specialty because kids, when they’re into it, are just the best – simple and serious and open and just improve so fast. But for whatever reason we’re building this on an awesome group of adults who have invested their trust and dreams with us. It’s a little intense to think about how quickly and whole-heartedly these people have bought into what we’re doing here. So I hesitate to take credit for their openness, but I’d like to think that I’ve got a special connection to the adult amateur? I tried for years to balance my aspirations as a rider, first with my responsibilities as a student, then with work as a reporter and later desk work at a newspaper. I just couldn’t do it.  So I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the balance these (mostly) women are trying to achieve in their careers and riding and family lives all at once – I couldn’t do what they’re doing. I want to make this work for them. That’s why we’re here. So maybe that’s also a little bit one of the things I take a great deal of pride in?

(But, honestly, bring on the kids. How else am I going to get all the cute ponies in here?!)

Q: Can you describe your training/teaching philosophy?

A: I wish I had something as simple as a philosophy. I believe in setting horses in particular and riders in general up for success? I think horses tend to be most successful and learn best when they’re relaxed and quiet. So not a big revelation that people want their hunters to be quiet, I know, but it’s something I believe in even with the racehorses – where it’s not so much a thing, right? Some trainers want the horses jumping out of their skin on race day and have a lot of success with that. I don’t know how to manage that and it isn’t my style. I think a good jumper should be relatively quiet and rideable. A horse that quietly jumps very small fences or even flats or trail rides has a marketable skill. It’s harder to find riders for anxious, difficult to ride horses at any level.

KuskaPart of that probably means I make haste slowly. I like to do a lot of flat work and small jumps, lots of repetition of basic skills like gymnastics, try to get the horses out of the arena and hacking out.

It also means I spend a lot of time worrying about the horses feeling good and getting appropriate turnout. It’s hard to make a horse show up ready to work when he’s in pain, or get him to focus when he’s just too fresh.

I’d say my teaching style is similar. The beginning and end of this riding thing is that it’s supposed to be fun. I’ve ridden with people who berate and scream and even humiliate. Then I rode with one person who was having fun – while being demanding — and it changed my whole outlook. I’ve never made more progress. I aim to be persistent and demanding, but supportive and positive. If you’re not having fun, what are you doing?

Q: What are your favorite breeds/bloodlines? What do you look for when choosing a young prospect?

A: I try to take on projects that have some appeal to the market so I’m looking for the same thing the rest of the world wants. Young horses really need to be good-minded and sound. I like to start with something at least 16 hands and with some visual appeal.

Half the hunter world seems to be riding these gorgeous C-line Holsteiners now, so that’s always interesting.

I really love to see Thoroughbreds competing under their race names because I think it helps the breed in the sporthorse world. I love to know what Thoroughbred lines are producing for sport. In general, I think turf-type runners are more likely to have the look and movement for the hunter world. There’s this popular conception in the sporthorse world that Storm Cats are tough to live with; I think that’s a little silly. Storm Cat was so popular and has become so pervasive that it’s just like saying chestnuts are tough – with so many in the world, some will be and some won’t.

I guess I just try to be open-minded and look at the individual horse. I think older TBs are underrated. Stock breeds, particularly crosses, can be really kind.

Q: Who are your riding mentors? How have they influenced your riding?

Kim Sobeck was really a game changer for me. I’d like to think I’ve taken bits and pieces of really everyone I’ve worked with and for – I’m a pilferer of words and ideas and exercises. But Kim’s emphasis on rhythm and track, her classical emphasis on equitation, the simplicity of her training style and her business acumen, she opened a door for me into the sport. It’s more than the riding. I try to think I’m grounded in her voice and her energy, but sometimes it’s as specific as starting lessons with very basic exercises we did 15 years ago or as seemingly unrelated as just being willing to put myself out there and take a chance in the world. She was the first one to really tell me I could do this for a living. She was very transparent with what she did and that’s not always a given.

She’s moved on – really when I need her more than ever! But I’m grateful for Ragan Roberts who literally walked in off the street to help. How someone at his level ended up in my barn aisle unannounced is a bit of a miracle. But I think the universe really does provide and he’s just an unusually talented individual; not many people have a system that they can articulate and apply the way he does.

Dove Houghton took me in when I needed a job in Maryland and she gave me an amazing opportunity in the racehorses. Her willingness to let me learn is unparalleled and any time I hear people without first-hand experience at the track criticize racing, it’s her barn I really think of as a model for basic good horsemanship.

About ten years ago I was blessed to spend a few months with Sulu Rose-Reed and Derek Reed. They gave me a place to go when I was struggling to find the right fit. A lot of things about how they organize their business – and keep so many balls in the air at one time –gave me a vision for things I’d like to do here.

Last summer I was with Ann Skogerboe in Texas. Months later I’m still unpacking information she gave me about riding, as well as about management and business and teaching.

Years ago I rode with longtime local trainer Ann Wallace Martin and I think a lot of my openness to non-traditional breeds and my enthusiasm for green horses begins with her. Most of what I believe about starting babies comes from her. She introduced me to the horse shows in southwest Virginia. She introduced me to the people and horses that would give me an opportunity to do more in the industry. I don’t have a start in the business without her.

Q: If you could spend the day riding with any horseman, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

That’s insanely hard! I’ve always been a huge fan of Joe Fargis and the way he appears to direct and allow the horse’s performance rather than dictate and command. It’s one of the things I just worship about Olin Armstrong, too – but I’m not sure that’s teachable?

I’m following Maryland horsewoman Deloise Noble-Strong and actively trying to make something happen there. Her blog often seems to be speaking so directly to many of the bigger concerns I see in daily life, she’s got a super analytical voice in her writing. There are fewer and fewer well-versed columnists in mainstream journalism, let alone readable, well-informed bloggers – and how many of those are speaking to the hunter world? She’s alone in her class as far as I know and I’m intrigued by her efforts to make the hunters accessible.

Most of us teach equitation and I firmly believe in the value of that. But I’m finding that equitation prepared me better for the jumper ring than the hunters — which it should do and I believe is the intent! Showing off a hunter is a different skill set and one I’m trying to reverse engineer a little? So I’m really hoping I’ll be able to set something up with her soon.

But I swear to you there are days I miss having Kim Sobeck on the rail more than I can possibly describe. I keep trying to lure her out of retirement and she won’t bite.

Q: What is the best piece of riding advice you were ever given?

A: Ragan Roberts likes to say that the horses should be teaching you, that you really should be learning from them. And that can sound a bit obvious when you’re sitting on a proclaimed schoolmaster, then a bit reductive when you’re riding around on a goofy OTTB that doesn’t know his left lead from his right… But he’s right. And when I put the riding together with the teaching and the reading and the listening, then the riding other horses, the pieces start to add up and I have these light bulbs go on. So yes, even my baby Thoroughbred has something of value to tell me.

That said, I also rode with a guy many years ago who had all kinds of one liners I find myself dredging up. And since I have a tendency to overthink and get overwhelmed, sometimes I refer back to one of his good ones – “It’s all just kicking and pulling.” And that may be an oversimplification, but sometimes that image helps me get myself a little untangled.

Q: What was your proudest moment in the saddle?

A: I’m still working on that! I’m trying really hard to appreciate the good things as they come. I have this unfortunate habit of being happy for about 1 second and almost instantly second-guessing myself and wishing that we were doing more, bigger, different.

I’ve gotten immensely proud of seeing our girls with their horses go around after all the work that we’ve put into them together. That’s huge for me.

Coming to the racehorses as an adult and starting that as a sideline, it was a little easier to enjoy the riding with a clearer perspective. I remember galloping past the grandstand on the main track and Keeneland for the first time and just grinning like a fool.

Q :Do you have a favorite horse movie or book?

I refer to Hunter Seat Equitation on a regular basis, I keep coming back to Judging Hunters and Equitation, I try to squeeze all the imagery out of Centered Riding for my students.

But for fun I love Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven. There’s a book called The Horsemen, by Jack Engelhard, which is also about racing, that I just cherish. It’s definitely one of my favorite books of any kind. I’m not sure why the best horse books and movies tend to be about racing. We should probably try to fix that!

Q: You’re headed to a horse show. What one item would you never leave home without?

This is beyond the basics? Helmet, for sure, cause I’d rather not borrow that! Beyond the necessities I probably take a huge bag of clothes – a million layers if it’s cold, a dozen clean shirts if it’s hot! I guess I’m not very exciting. Gloves? I just don’t ride without gloves anymore.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give new/young riders?

Yikes. Just keep learning, stay open-minded? Because there is never an always with horses. And the moment you pop your head up and feel pretty good that you know something, horses have a way of humbling you.

I guess it just depends on what you want to get out of it. If you want to be a serious rider the standards are a little different. I saw a list circulating the internet the other day that I thought was good; it was just a recommendation of good habits for good horsemanship – one of the first items was clean your tack after every ride. The whole list was good stuff, but I believe there’s something in cleaning the tack that sets the tone? You have time to reflect on your ride, you start caring for the details, lots of things branch out from there. Somehow that turns into taking more care to make sure the tack goes onto a tidy horse, then the rider needs to be equally tidy, then the work space needs to be swept up and before you know it someone offers you a working student gig. Because who doesn’t want the polite kid who looks neat, takes care of the horse and equipment, and cleans up after herself?

Q: Tell us about the best horse you’ve ever ridden.

The best horse I’ve ever ridden is probably a school horse. They’re amazing animals. The two that I use the most right now are kind and clever and forgiving. One in particular is just a genius at pointing out – safely – an individual rider’s weaknesses.

In terms of talent, it’s just hard to say. I’ve been lucky enough to have people let me ride the truly accomplished horses. One of our customers has a pre-green type hunter now that I think could be really special.

Years ago there was the one horse that I regret not buying. He was a plain little dark bay Thoroughbred – never raced, bred for sport. He had this huge step and the most confidence, he’d been in a professional rider’s program his whole life. I did him in the pre-adult hunters for his 4-year-old year until he got sold; he didn’t have the tightest front end, especially at the little fences, so we weren’t going to set the world on fire in the hunter ring. I kind of took it for granted that he was just a nice little Thoroughbred and there would be others, but in hindsight it was a good match. He would have been a super horse for me to take to the jumper ring.

That’s something I think I didn’t place enough value on at the time.

Q: If you could try any other riding discipline, what would it be?

I guess I always thought I wanted to event? But that doesn’t really count I guess. I still kind of wish I could try riding races but I’ve seen enough up close now to know that’s a terrible idea and I would be awful.

I think it would be amazingly fun to just step off and try something completely different. I kept hoping I’d get a chance to take some reining lessons or something.

Q: What is your favorite local horse show or event? Why?

One of the girls and I were just talking about this. The Roanoke Valley Horse Show has been such a fixture for me, growing up here. Losing it to Lexington and now almost losing it completely is a little scary. Shoving all the different disciplines in a small, temporary space at the Salem Civic Center was insane. And awesome. I was always terrible in the main ring. But it was unique and it was ours, as a community. I hate that it’s moved out of town but I hope we can continue to support the event so that it remains viable.

Q: What one thing would make Roanoke a better place for equestrians?

Cover at least one ring at Green Hill Park? I think that’s such a great public resource; if there were a plan for inclement weather, it seems like it would be easy to schedule — among other things — clinicians. Education is everything, no matter what your discipline.

Q: If you could change one thing about the horse industry, what would it be?

I wish it was more accessible, mostly financially. It’s really not affordable for the average person to get started and do well, even as a hobby. Doing the right thing by a horse is expensive, education is expensive.

Q: What is your favorite characteristic in a client/student?

There’s probably not much better than a good work ethic and the ability to laugh at yourself! I love the ones who can be open-minded and just get to work trying what we ask them to do. There are a million ways to train a horse. I mean, there has to be because look at all the wildly different things you can get a horse to do! I’ll never say my way is the only way; just that it’s the best I know right now.

Andee Djuric talks with husband Steva Djuric while riding at Green Hill Park Equestrian Center.

Q: What was the biggest surprise about making riding your full-time job?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how open people have been to what we’re doing. Any new business struggles early on and we’ve had more support, more people respond and want to get involved, than I could have possibly anticipated.

Maybe beyond that it’s just an eye-opener to be on the other side of it. Being a working student, a DIY-type amateur, even that can only prepare you for so much. It’s  overwhelming when you’re immersed and responsible for so many decisions and details. I’m always saying that it all starts with just wanting to ride a horse, right? How does that turn into operating a tractor and managing a website and editing video and running payroll and on and on. The first year I tried to do most of it myself and I pretty quickly started getting better at delegating. Steva has taken a ton of the details off of me in the last year.

Q: If you weren’t in the horse business, what would you be doing right now?

Two days ago I might have said I’d be working at a newspaper, possibly even in Roanoke. But the most recent layoffs almost certainly would have eliminated me. If it didn’t, I’d like to think I’d have moved on afterward. I strongly believe that we need professional journalists now more than ever. So maybe I’d try to rally up those veteran reporters to start their own digital outlet to compete with these media conglomerates.

Or just get started on that novel we’ve all got rattling around in our heads, right?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s