20 questions with Katie Gardner of Otteridge Farm in Bedford

Katie Gardner of Otteridge Farm stands with her Thoroughbred hunters Sunset Boulevard (left) and Frankly My Dear. Photo courtesy of Katie Gardner.

Katie Gardner of Bedford, Virginia, is a third-generation Virginia horsewoman.

“My grandmother was the lone ‘horse girl’ in her family, wrangled the purchase of a naughty Shetland pony, and taught herself to ride from watching silent Western movies during her 1920s childhood. The horse bug stuck, and someone let her ride their hunter at a local show when she was a teenager – and a legend was born,” Katie said.

Her grandmother, Eileen Beckman, showed her conformation hunter, Ramos, to considerable success and fame before she went overseas to serve in the Red Cross during WWII. After the war, and around having her family, she began teaching riding lessons and breeding hunter ponies.

Both of her daughters were riders. Katie’s aunt, Laura, did a lot of the pony starting and early showing, and her mom, Randee, was the equitation star of the family. Their ponies, Chantilly and Slipcover, are to this day remembered as two of the greats in the history of pony hunters.

“Nanny taught lessons and had camps and took children to shows for many decades, and to this day so, so many people in our area had some sort of childhood connection to her. She taught everybody! She also bred, among many others, Otteridge Black Hawk, who was the first, and to date, only, pinto pony to be Pony Breeding Champion at Devon,” Katie said. “Black Hawk had an incredible performance career and is retired with us at Otteridge Farm. Among Nanny’s many accolades are her inductions into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame (Chantilly is also in it, the first pony to be inducted), the Virginia Horse Shows Association Hall of Fame and the Wall of Honor at Upperville, among others.

“My mom has come into her own as a fantastic pony breeder, has bred her own Devon Grand Champion, and carries on the farm prefix mightily. She and I own and run the farm together, after Nanny’s death in 2010. I know that’s a long answer, but that’s the background on the world into which I was born. Hunters are in my blood,” she said.

Tell me about your business. What kind of services do you offer?

Mom and I own the farm together – she does the breeding and sales end, and I do the lessons, training and showing end. Her prowess in finding nice horses and ponies has benefitted my riders tremendously, and people often send us youngsters for myself and my riders to train and for Mom to sell. I start beginning riders and produce them up the levels through our local association into rated shows.

What would you like people to know about you and your work with horses and riders?

Firstly that I’m well aware of the legacy I inherited, that I take it seriously and wear it with pride. My grandmother was known for being tough, but always a lady. She demanded that her riders have nice manners and good horsemanship in addition to riding skills. She gave me the framework for my program: I have modernized it, but the basics of good correct riding are ever the same.

I’m a traditionalist, I’m a complete turnout nutcase, and I’m pretty old school in that it’s very important to me to turn out horsemen, not “clients.” I absolutely despise the “client” mentality that so permeates our sport. I’m going to teach you to ride, but you’re also going to learn to bathe, blanket, wrap legs, clean stalls, get a bad loader on the trailer, braid, lunge and break babies. And that, in my view, is how it should be. I think you get comparatively little out of the sport when you pay someone else to do all your chores, and I think there’s no possible way to have a close relationship with a horse that you have no idea how to care for and no context to know if that horse is “off” or having some sort of problem.

What makes your stable/business different than others?

I sort of started to answer this one above, but I would say that my specialty is producing well-rounded, knowledgeable and self-sufficient horsemen in an increasingly full-service world.

We recently attended the Lexington Spring Premiere and Spring Encore at the Virginia Horse Center, and one of my riders split the braiding duties with me. All the girls did their own bathing, care, stalls, feeding, and I never sat on a single horse either weekend. THAT fact is my pride and joy.

I really, really love that I have riders who can ride their own horses. It’s not my goal to show all my clients’ horses and rack up humongous bills for them; it’s my goal to mount these kids suitably and teach them to ride their own horses. Of course I do training rides; of course I’m ready to help if I’m needed, but my goal is for the kids to be able to do their own horses successfully.

Katie Gardner and Sunset Boulevard. Photo courtesy of Katie Gardner.

What do you look for when choosing a young prospect? Do you have favorite breeds or bloodlines?

Anyone who has been around me for 30 seconds knows I’m a diehard, absolute Thoroughbred fanatic. In 2021, the time felt right for me to add a young horse to my family, and I went to New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, gained adoption approval, and waited until I saw something. I trust my gut and had zero concern obtaining a horse that way.

In October of that year, a 3-year-old with the Jockey Club name Ready to Show, by the great More Than Ready, was posted on their social media. With his stunning topline, big beautiful shoulder, correct legs, short little back and pretty face, I was sold instantly. There was no way a horse put together like he is would not be a beautiful mover and a talented jumper – and he is beautifully bred. I love Thoroughbred bloodlines.

I literally chose him from a photo, which is why it’s important to have a good understanding of conformation – and by that I don’t even mean looks, which are great, but functionality for the desired job. The brief video I saw later was an afterthought – I had already emailed my desire to adopt him. That horse shows as Sunset Boulevard and goes by “Max” – and has exceeded every expectation thus far. He was Champion or Reserve Champion at every show he attended his 4-year-old year, and his winnings at the Thoroughbred Incentive Program Championships in 2022 paid for most of our trip to Aiken for that show. He got to go to WEC Ocala this winter, and he’s continuing his development into what I hope will be a top Thoroughbred Hunter.

Can you describe your training/teaching philosophy?

I’ve talked a lot about my girls, so I’m going to shift to the horses for this question. We do a lot of young and green horses at Otteridge Farm, and I would say the most important thing I’ve learned is to meet the horse where they are.

We do an awful lot of “talking” and not nearly enough “listening” – and it’s much easier to meet the horse where the horse is than to demand that the horse come to where you are. They don’t all learn the same way, or at the same speed, and they don’t all fit in the same box. Sure, I have the same basic format I use when backing the babies, but once that very early learning has taken place, you really have to listen to the horse.

Of the four youngsters in my program currently, one is a super sweet but extremely cautious soul that has to be reassured and handled with a lot of calm patience, one is a very smart and athletic young mare with some previous baggage that left her reactive and a little anxious, one is a sassy little know-it-all coming to grips with the reality that she doesn’t in fact know it all, and one is a gregarious man of the people who has similar properties to the average mouthy wrecking ball. While some tools are universal, you just cannot approach all of those the same way. Every single horse you’ll ever work with in your life has something to teach you.

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

Outside of my family, I have always loved Ellie Wood Keith Baxter and Betty Oare. Ms. Betty and I have been buddies since I was a little girl, and she is set apart as an example to me (and everyone else, let’s be real) of everything a living legend should be: She is the kindest, most gracious and charming lady, she has a moment and a genuine exchange for everyone and she’s a true sportsman, in addition to being one hell of a rider (and a GREAT judge!). She still works at her riding, rides multiple horses a day multiple days a week, and still really loves the sport.

Another rider I adore watching is Sandy Ferrell. Oh, if only I could borrow her quiet, waiting upper body and hands for just one afternoon!

Closer to home, it would be our neighbor Anneliesa King. She’s known me since I was a walk-trot baby, accepted me as a professional the minute I aged out, and is always so encouraging and positive. I’ve loved being at shows with her as an adult and fellow trainer, and spending time together at the rail watching our students. I love watching her ride her wonderful (Thoroughbred!) mare RF Piper and am always happy to cheer for her even when she beats me!

Tell us about your first horse/pony.

She was a Shetland/something-or-other cross, buckskin, 11.3 hands, and went by the auspicious name of Candy. She had been a barrel pony, but she also jumped, and if you jumped an outside line away from home you were good, but as soon as she rounded the turn she knew she was supposed to sprint back to the gate! Maybe not ideal as a hunter pony, but she was safe and so much fun and I loved her dearly. Home movies reveal a lot of galloping, grinning, chaotic fun, so I think she filled her role beautifully.

If you could ride any famous horse from history, who would you choose?

Gonna have to go with Secretariat, but only because Aspercel and The Pie are not real.

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

“Don’t ride the head down, ride the back up.”

What is your proudest horse-related moment?

There are so many special wins, special trips, and rewarding experiences so far in my life with horses that I’m going to take the risk of sounding cheesy and answer more generally that it’s the fact that my horses love me and are always, always, always glad to see me. They know exactly how valued and appreciated they are.

Do you have a favorite horse movie or book?

I loved “The Saddle Club” and “Thoroughbred” series as a youngster; I think the “Thoroughbred” series was especially formative for me. As far as movies, “The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit” or “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.”

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

Clean tack. I have never one time in my entire life left for any kind of away from home riding without cleaning my tack first, and I plan to keep it that way. I detest seeing grubby tack at a horse show.

What advice would you give new/young riders?

For new riders, but most especially their parents: Even if you don’t know anything about horses, if you get the feeling that the situation is unsafe, it probably is.

Thoroughly vet the trainer you allow to be responsible for your formative riding education, as that person will play the most important role in your development in the sport, and few things are more damning for the rider than having to be re-taught with years of riding experience because they started out with an incompetent instructor.

Do a trial lesson before you commit to anything. Look at the condition of the horses and the facility. Skinny horses, dirty stalls and the like do not bode well for what’s going on at that barn. Remember that absolutely anyone with access to a horse can call themselves a trainer and take your money, so be vigilant in your homework and invest in someone with the skills and the background to benefit your child. To me, it is equally important that the trainer present themselves in a manner that you feel comfortable with as a role model for your rider, because this person can and will have a great deal of influence. You need to be comfortable that they will use their powers for good, in and out of the saddle.

Secondly, do not, and I mean do NOT, even consider buying a horse if you aren’t working with a professional. Horses are expensive, require a lot of knowledgeable care, can be dangerous, and no beginner needs to own their own horse – and no average parent can competently buy a horse for their child. Invest in riding lessons, and lots of them, with a good barn, for a long time, before taking the plunge into ownership.

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

I have literally always wanted to ride a really good, really fancy, really spicy five-gaited Saddlebred.

What is your favorite local horse show or event? What makes it special?

It’s not local local, but the Deep Run Hunt Club’s Field Hunter Trials is probably my all-time favorite. Hunter Trials are the perfect combination of the competition of a horse show and the tradition of foxhunting, and the “outside course” element of jumping solid obstacles in a rolling field is something that has disappeared from horse shows. It’s so much fun, and you have to be a little gutsy to do it well, which I personally enjoy quite a lot.

What one thing would make the Roanoke region a better place for equestrians?

Major upgrades of footing, jumps and facility at Green Hill Park. It could be a better and more versatile horse show venue than it is, but it desperately needs modernizing in management and equipment. I believe that the cross country course is a total hidden gem, however – it’s absolutely breathtaking up there.

Katie Gardner riding Frankly My Dear. Photo courtesy of Katie Gardner.

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

That’s the easiest question so far. Frankly My Dear is my bay Thoroughbred partner of the past 15 years, a giveaway after a modestly successful racing career, whom I didn’t vet, didn’t try and never met until he was in the farm driveway. He turned 22 a couple weeks ago. You name it; we’ve done it, and he’s won it. He’s been a racehorse, a show hunter (primarily), a jumper and a field hunter. He’s great side saddle, Western and bareback. I can jump a course on him bridle-less. He’s beautiful, and in fact has won many in-hand classes and championships.

We share a brain, we read each other perfectly, and he is the greatest thing on four feet. He once won a Handy Hunter class out of 54 entries, and the Handy is always our favorite thing to do together. None of the work I do with Thoroughbreds would have happened if Frank hadn’t paved the way. He’s the OG, the GOAT, and the absolute joy of my life. I don’t expect to ever meet his equal.

What is your favorite characteristic in a client/student?

I’m going to assume this is not limited to riding, so my answer is: being a team player. That sounds so generic, but as a tie-in to my earlier answers about horsemanship and self-sufficiency, we do not have barn staff. That means that every day, regardless of if we’re at a show, or if I have five horses to ride, or seven lessons to teach, or whatever the case is, we are still responsible for the twice a day care of the barn. My girls are very, very good about helping when they’re done riding — and if everyone does one chore it doesn’t take any of us very long! Not paying barn help keeps our costs way down, and I’m able to pass those savings on to my families, but the tradeoff is that there’s a general expectation that everyone helps. The best fit for my program is someone who feels like they’re ALL all our horses, and I’m so grateful to say that that’s exactly what I have.

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

Sitting in a nice, quiet, indoor, climate-controlled, clean, wonderful-smelling library, coffee at hand, working on writing projects related to my other love: Old Hollywood.

20 questions with Mustang trainer Rob West, who will hold clinic in Buchanan in April

Rob West riding Moonshine Lady in the 2016 Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Virginia Horse Center.


Training any horse is no easy task, but for the trainers who take part in the Extreme Mustang Makeover events around the country, the challenge is made even more difficult by four-month time limit and a horse that’s never been handled.

Rob West, of New York, says he has found his true calling in showcasing the potential of Mustangs. “It just doesn’t get any better than this. I am given a lump of clay to mold and sculpt the way I see fit, until I have a masterpiece to present 120 days later.  …  We take these scared wild animals and we ask for their trust. And guess what? They give it to us.”

If you were at the 2016 Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Virginia Horse Center, you may remember West and his red roan mare, Moonshine Lady. Their Native American-themed freestyle routine featured the mare jumping over barrels while a tarp flew overhead, earning them a Top Five finish. Moonshine Lady then was purchased at the competition’s auction by a family in Virginia. But that was not the end of West and Moonshine’s story together.

Not long after going to her new home, the mare jumped her pasture fence to escape a new pasture mate and disappeared into the dense woods. West, tipped off by a fan in Virginia that had heard about her disappearance, traveled to Virginia to help find his beloved partner. (See Rob’s account of training the mare, competing, learning that she was missing and how she ended up going back to New York with him by clicking here.)

The story of how the trainer traveling to Virginia to help find the horse he trained touched New Freedom Farm founder Lois Fritz. She later contacted West and they formed a friendship. Now the Buchanan, Virginia, nonprofit,  which helps veterans suffering PTSD find healing through horses, has announced it will be hosting a Westang Equine Confidence Building Clinic on April 28-29, 2018.

Read about New Freedom Farm here.

The clinic’s basic goal will be to make a braver more confident horse and rider. The clinic is open to all disciplines and horses. There will be an trail obstacle course and a chance to have fun playing equine soccer on your horse. All experience levels are welcome. There is limited space available. The 2-day clinic will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

The clinic costs $150.00 for both days and includes daily lunch. One day clinic is $85.00. Private sessions on Friday afternoon or before or after each clinic day available for $50.00/session. Audit only (includes lunch) $20.

Veterans who want to ride in the clinic are half price and veterans who want to come and audit the clinic are free (includes lunch). Call 540-855-1158 or email newfreedomfarm2016@gmail.com with questions or for more information.
$50 nonrefundable deposit due by April 10 to secure a spot.

We spoke to Rob about his start in the horse industry, the challenges of training a wild horse and his equine teachers/partners along the way.

Q: Tell me about your business. What kind of services do you offer?
I work mostly with both troubled or problem horses with issues ranging from bucking and rearing to bad ground manners and starting young and most times unbroke horses. Although I do not refer to my method as breaking. I call it gentling. When done right, it can be a nice experience for both horse and rider.
Q: When did you get started in horses? What is your riding background?
I started riding at the age of 3 and got my first Shetland pony “Cupcake” on my 4th birthday. My mom wouldn’t allow me to show until I was about 9 years old. Her idea was that I should love the horse first and showing came second. I am glad she was so wise, because that’s exactly what happened. I then began barrel racing and gymkhana gaming shows. I instantly loved it and excelled at it.
MM012Q: What makes your stable/business different than others? What’s your specialty? What do you take the most pride in?
My specialty seems to be that I can gain the trust/respect of a horse almost right away. The horses bond with me and love me to a point that they can overcome their fears by putting their faith in me. My business is very much like a lot of others. All sorts of obstacles and desensitizing tools to make a more bombproof horse, but I believe its how I deal with the horses that makes my barn different. When it comes down to brass tacks, I care. I never started this as a business. I started helping horses because they needed it, and I care so much about them. When I see a distressed horse my heart goes out to them. The thing I take the most pride in is that I can speak to these horses in their language. I can regain their faith in humanity even if we don’t always deserve it. I believe that every horse that I encounter and work with is all the better for it.
Q: Can you describe your training/teaching philosophy?
My philosophy is simple. Make deals and don’t break them. Offer a horse an option and reward it with release of pressure or with praise. NO HAND TREATS. Your horse will not love you because you give him mints. He will however begin nipping and pinning his ears because you aren’t getting the treat when he wants it. I can’t say enough how important praise is.
Q: What is your favorite characteristic about Mustangs?
Its hard to pick just one. They are loyal to a fault. They will also do anything you point them at. Once you have a Mustang’s heart they will literally walk through fire for you.
Q: What is the most difficult part of training a wild horse?
The hardest part for me is far and away letting them go. I try to build a wall and not get attached by telling myself that I am training someone else’s horse for them, but it doesn’t work. I am devastated every time I say goodbye.
Q: How did you learn about New Freedom Farm?
The founder Lois messaged me after hearing I drove from New York to Virginia to find a mustang that I trained that had gone missing. We became instant friends with a mutual respect for each other’s passions.
Q: What will be the main goal taught to the riders at the clinic at New Freedom Farm?
I try to keep an open mind and invite whatever is presented to me, but I always strive to have both more confidant horses and riders in the end. I want to show how we teach our horses on the ground first and then transfer that to the saddle. Its safe and effective.
Q: Who are your riding mentors? How have they influenced your riding?
I don’t have a trainer that I follow. However I have picked up quite a bit from many of them. Like I’ve said before, I am a student of the horse and they teach me more than any other person ever has. On the national level I admire Monty Roberts and Guy McLean. I also had the pleasure of being guided by some people as a child that were great horseman like my neighbor Joan Norman and another strong influence named Richie Fisher.
Q: If you could spend the day riding with any horseman, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
I would have to choose Bobby Kerr. I have met him twice and I just love what he does for
Mustangs. He is a talented horseman and a showman of the highest caliber. We have similar ideas and a flair for a wow factor filled performance in our freestyles. I am not at his level yet, but I am on my way.
Q: What was your proudest moment in the saddle?
My proudest moment has to be finding my lost mustang Moonshine Lady after she was missing for eight days. We covered many miles and exhausting hours. She heard me speaking on my cellphone and came out of the dense woods to find me.

And like magic, all of a sudden, Moonshine turned right toward me from the darkness of the thick woods. I had begun recording her walking toward me. She heard me talking to Mike on the phone, and came to my voice. As I videotaped her, I called her name. My voice cracked and I just lost it crying my eyes out. It was the most beautiful moment in my whole life with horses. I saw the love and trust as she looked at me as if to say, “What took you so long. I was scared.”

— Rob, on finding Moonshine

Q: Do you have a favorite horse movie or book?
My favorite horse movie is “The Black Stallion.” When I saw that movie with my mom as a boy, I have to admit that I wished it could be me stranded on that island with that horse.
Q: What is the one item a rider shouldn’t leave home without when attending your clinic?
Probably their cellphone or camera. Its amazing how much you forget. So if you can record it, or have someone else record it for you, then you can always go back over it later or for years to come.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give new/young riders?
Enjoy your horse. Don’t get caught up in showing and pressure unless you like that. Its supposed to be fun, so make it pleasurable.
Q: If you could try any other riding discipline, what would it be?
I have tried many, but I really do like Dressage. Mounted shooting is a blast, too.
Q: What is the best thing about riding/training horses?
I look back on some people and horses alike that are happier because they met me. I love to get their success stories all the time. I mean some were at the point of selling their horse or giving up riding altogether and I was their last ditch effort. That makes me smile.
Q: What would be your idea of a dream vacation?
I want to travel the United States with my horse trailer and just trail ride every inch of it.
Q: What horse industry/riding trend do you wish would go away and never return?
There are way to many to list but the dying crab canter in western pleasure riding really
bothers me. That is changing at this point though.
Q: Tell us about the best horse you’ve ever ridden.
The best horse I have ever ridden is whichever one I am riding at the time. As corny as that sounds, they are all so amazing. I often refer to myself as an architect that has to carefully uncover each precious artifact. Each horse has those hidden treasures.
Q: If you could ride any famous horse from history, who would you ride?
Secretariat. From what I’ve heard, he was all heart.




20 questions with Tracy Nininger of Ardmore Equestrian Center in Fincastle

Tracy Nininger with her dad, Charles Young, at Ardmore Equestrian Center

Tracy Nininger recently moved to Fincastle’s Ardmore Equestrian Center from Georgia. In Georgia, she was the owner and operator of Jump On Over Hunter/Jumper facility, and her riders competed on the local and A-rated circuit (Zone4) with the Georgia Hunter/Jumper Association. A graduate of Virginia Intermont in Bristol, Virginia, Tracy majored in Horsemanship/Stable Management with a minor in Business.

Tell me about your stable/business. What kind of services do you offer?

Ardmore Equestrian Center is a full care hunter/jumper equestrian center.  We offer a lesson program for the recreational rider as well as the serious competitive rider.  Our facility has a indoor arena that is 100 X 200 so lessons are never canceled due to bad weather or if it is too hot!

We have over 24 stalls that have matted floors, sliding doors and that are 12 X 12 in size.  We offer pasture turnout or paddock turnout.  We do not offer pasture boarding. Both of our arenas are lighted and we will offer clinics, schooling shows, summer camps, overnight camps and trail riding.  Our farm supports the community’s Botetourt Food Shelter. We currently have two instructors who both have degrees and are certified.

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

I began riding when I was 7 years old, and it is my passion. You can read my Bio for my background.  I have experience in Dressage, Western and Saddleseat.

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

Our facility is different from the other area facilities because of our state of the art facility and care given to the horses and riders.  Everyone at Ardmore is qualified to teach and train. Our employees have the degrees and certifications to do the job they were hired for.  All the employees at Ardmore have the knowledge and experience to provide a professional, safe atmosphere.  We meet the needs of each one of our boarders, lesson students and we strive on excellent quality care. Friendly customer service is demanded from each employee for our customers.  I feel strongly that these are the reasons for our success.

I have been blessed to have participated in clinics and ridden under top Olympic riders. I have deliberately followed top professionals so that I have the knowledge to do correct training techniques and be a positive role model for others.  (See BIO)

Can you describe your training/teaching philosophy?

I teach and follow the training techniques of George Morris. I have followed top equitation coaches because I feel position is everything when it comes to communicating to your horse while riding.  You can not get the full potential of your riding if you do not understand how your position effects the horse’s movement.  You should be as one with your horse and not just a passenger, but understand the mental and physical attributes of the horse so you ride at your full potential and be a partner with your horse.  ​

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

My favorite breed of a horse is a thoroughbred/quarter horse cross. However, I really enjoy all breeds as I feel each one is unique and brings different challenges with each breed as they all are different. What I mostly look for when choosing a mount for a rider is the attitude of the horse.  Different riders require different attitudes so you really have to match up a rider’s personality with the horse’s personality.

A horse enjoys turnout at Ardmore Equestrian Center in Fincastle, Virignia.

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

My mentor was FEI Grand Prix rider Miss Barry Lane of Full Cry Farm in Locust Grove, Georgia.  Barry reflected hard-work and to never give up.  Always work with a positive attitude and to keep things into perspective.  I never heard her ever say an unkind word or do an unkind act.

She was always professional and surrounded herself with top professional people. She built confidence in riders and brought out the best in people.  I miss her tremendously!!

My other mentor was Katie Monahan Prudent. Even though I never had the opportunity to ride with her I admired her riding techniques.  She had perfect equitation in the jumper ring.  She is so graceful to watch in the jumper ring and she made it look so easy and smooth.  She is very consistent in her riding and she has great hands. She is like a ballerina in the jumper ring, it is just lovely to watch her.

My biggest mentor however, is my big sister. Melody Light. She is a lovely rider and growing up she would work so she could pay for my riding lessons and spent hours teaching me about horses.  She is my mentor at heart!

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

The best piece of advice that has ever been given to me is to remember that each horse is different and so are people and when you match them up they need to be partners. Don’t just buy any horse for any person.

Do you have a favorite horse movie or book?

My favorite horse movie is “Secretariat”! I really don’t have a favorite book.

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

Don’t try to train yourself all by yourself; that’s what trainers are for.  Do you learn to play soccer without a soccer coach, a ballerina without an instructor ?

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

I am interested in three-gaited natural-tail Saddlebreds.

What is the best thing about riding/training in the Roanoke area?

Roanoke is my hometown; I grew up here and I love having the mountains to ride in. I like the trail rides and the hills.  You don’t have this in Florida.

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

For trainers to respect each other better. Learn from each other. Work with each other better.

What is your favorite characteristic in a client/student?

I will take a student that may not be very talented but is the hard worker over the talented rider that is lazy.

What horse industry/riding trend do you wish would go away and never return?

Backyard owners that don’t have any business caring for a horse.

What was the biggest surprise about riding as a profession?

I really don’t have any big surprises about the horse industry. The industry itself educates many people, and following top professionals creates success. It’s the people that mess it up.

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

The Roanoke Valley Horse Show.  It was my first A-Show, I think I was 12 years old.  I loved the Salem Colesium and the all-breed show classes held at night.

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

A Thoroughbred mare I rode in the jumpers. Her show name was Clearly Magic, and she was a horse no one wanted and she was given to me.  She was fast, could turn and jump and loved it. So much fun to ride!

If you could ride any famous horse from history, who would you ride?

A horse called Snowman. He started the jumpers! Look him up!

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

There are so many great horseman but I think I would like to spend the day with Rodney Jenkins.  He definitely could ride, but as a little girl following him around the Roanoke Valley Horse Show, I loved his laid-back demeanor.  He could spot a really good horse, too!!!

Tell us about your first horse.

My first horse was a little black small pony named Star.  He was my best friend. I spent many hours trail riding him, and literally riding him all over the Poages Mill area of Roanoke, Virginia.

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?