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Saddle Up! It’s Time to Ride

By Emma Young

“Horse riding in the county is huge, stronger than ever, and I only see it growing,” said Kari Boberek, Nokesville Horse Society Secretary and former Crystal Crown Series Chair. “It’s not a sport, and it’s not
a hobby. We sacrifice personal and family time. There is nothing we won’t do in this county to better our horses. Non-horse people say we are rich, but we’re not. We’re just willing to work hard and sacrifice because we just love this lifestyle,” Boberek continued. “My horses have more clothes than I do. Our nails look terrible, but our horses have the best of everything.”

“It does go beyond reason sometimes,” said Paul Holmes, owner and manager of the 52-acre Wild Acres Farm in Manassas, which boards and cares for horses adjacent to the Prince William County park Doves Landing, with miles of multi-use, including equestrian, trails. “It’s a personal love. Horse owners are drawn to them and love them. It’s always been in my blood,” he said.

For this love, Holmes has sacrificed time and money. He added barns and fences to the existing Wild Acres farm, which has been in his family since the 1930s. “I wanted an equestrian place for people who want a small farm and stable and want to be close to riding trails. I have some on my property and the county park right next to me. It’s a nice, calm, quiet and safe place to have a horse. You have to have a love for anything you do, and I love this,” he said.

Growth and Land-Use Pressure
Prince William County’s increasing population has helped equestrian-related operations, explained Criswood Farm and Tack Shop’s co-founder and one of the owner-operators, Connie Christopher. Originally with one location off Hoadly Road in Manassas for horse-boarding and riding lessons, the family now also owns Criswood Farm II off Vint Hill Road in Gainesville. “More people means more opportunity. People want to learn to ride a horse, or they haven’t ridden in a long time. A lot of people
like riding, but don’t want to financially own a horse or don’t like the responsibility,” Christopher said. Facilities like hers, centrally located and offering private, semi-private and group riding lessons, with experienced and calm horses and boarding, have benefitted from the demand. Criswood II has adapted to growing interest and is able to offer expanded and fun programs, such as Pony Parties and Scout badge group outings, and both locations now host fun summer camps. “We play games with the horses
and have riding lessons,” Christopher said.

Brentsville Stables has seen fast growth as well. Noted owner and trainer at the 11-acre site Anne Humphreys said: “When Brentsville Stables opened in summer 2012, there were only two lesson horses. My goal was to teach about 10-15 private lessons a week since I was also working at a few other barns. I kept getting calls for riders wanting private lessons, got more lesson horses until I was maxed out with five lesson horses and more than 40 private lessons a week. In fall 2015, I had an indoor riding arena
built to accommodate riders in inclement weather.”

Nokesville’s Silver Eagle Stable has grown from 21 horses on its 87-acre site in 2014 to 70 horses this year. The site now boasts two outdoor arenas, one indoor arena and 42 acres of private wooded riding trails and offers “a very rich assortment of riding programs open to the public,” according to Tom Russell, Silver Eagle stable owner and retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel. Those programs include 4H, home school enrichment, scouting merit badges, riding clinics, and day and summer camps.

Yet, equestrians feel the strain as more open land in the county is converted to homes. “It’s definitely making it tougher for horse lovers to have facilities close to population centers. I see more equestrian resources getting moved further out from Manassas to Gainesville and Haymarket for example,” said Holmes. “Although there are quite a few places to ride in the county, I have seen many facilities get pushed out of Fairfax—over half of my riders are from Fairfax—due to construction and building.
Prince William is continuing to be built up, and I hope that doesn’t push the equestrian facilities out of Prince William,” Humphreys said.

Prince William is home to many trails that are easily accessible
to riders.

Criswood Farm experienced the difficulties directly. “When Prince William Parkway was built, it went right through our riding trails,” explained Christopher. “It makes it better to get to Manassas, but
you can’t cross it, so no more trail riding,” she said.

“We’re constantly losing land to developers and are grateful for what we have,” said Nokesville Horse Society’s Boberek. “Horses remain a strong presence though, if not stronger than ever before,” she said. And it’s needed.

Therapy Programs
“Riding is a very good pastime,” according to Dale City resident and equestrian Marji Sapien, who started riding at age 2. “They are such calming animals,” said county resident Yvonne McKeown. “They are great for therapy because they rely so much on body language.” “Riding isn’t only soothing and therapeutic,” added Brentsville Stables’ Humphreys, “but is good exercise and teaches people to be kind, patient, loving and responsible since caring for horses is a lot of work. Horses, just like other animals, are good at reading your body language. They teach you to stay calm in any situation.”

“Riding helps with communication skills and coordination. Communication needs to be more than verbal with a horse. A horse understands and responds to facial expressions and gestures. It also teaches patience because you have to be calm and patient with the horses,” said Sapien, who recommended the Rainbow Therapeutic Riding Center in Haymarket.

“People are becoming more aware of alternative therapies,” said Mary Vardi, Rainbow Therapeutic Riding Center’s Program Director. “We work with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. We are horse people who have been trained to work with people with special needs.” An instructor and volunteer
work with each person to keep everyone safe. Programs are available upon application and availability to all in need—from Wounded Warriors facing coordination challenges with new prosthetics or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to children ages 4 and older with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or sensory processing disorders, for example.

“We have a child who is very small for his age. He is extremely, painfully shy. When he started about two months ago, his mother had to come into the arena with him to help. Now, 10 weeks later, he is leading the pony, Blueberry Poundcake, off lead, stopping the pony, making the pony go and turning into a chatterbox. And he’s getting more social at school, so there is carry over [to life outside the arena]. This shy, anxious, nervous boy is coming out of his shell, and it is amazing,” recounted Vardi.

Therapeutic lessons are in such demand that Silver Eagle Stable started a growing program that now has eight participants, and “Battlefield Park Polo is working in conjunction with officials in Prince William County government to provide a location for therapy and treatment to address juvenile substance and mental health issues,” noted Dori Burner, owner of the Gainesville-based Battlefield Park Polo Club and Equestrian Center.

“Riding has been a healing experience for all of us,” said Dorothy T., a resident of Montclair whose children take horseback riding lessons at Battlefield Park Polo Club and Equestrian Center.

Lessons
“I recommend taking a few lessons to try out horseback riding,” said Dorothy T. Her children started as young as 4 years old, and she has noticed they “are getting stronger and more confident with each lesson. Besides learning how to ride, they learn how to respect the horses. They brush them and clean up after them. They have to use proper manners and safety around the horses. Everyone helps. Your kids learn responsibility…and get exposed to a country lifestyle… It is truly a life-enriching activity.”

Battlefield Park Polo Club and Equestrian Center teaches ages five up to 70 years old. “We teach on average 50 to 100 people per week,” Burner said. The center has been in Gainesville for about eight years and “has experienced tremendous growth over the years due to its location two miles off Route 29 next to the Manassas Battlefield,” according to Burner. She attributes the growth to their summer programs “which are consistently in demand.”

The atmosphere contributes as well. “Children come to the farm to ride and participate in farm activities all summer long….It is always fun and exciting to ride with friends and laugh and enjoy our beautiful Virginia weather,” Burner said. “It is a very loving environment,” said Dorothy T. “You have to slow down and relax and forget about the hustle and bustle of the city when you are there. There are chickens and ducks running around.”

“The horses at Battlefield are chosen for their common sense, their loving natures and their lack of bad habits that make them safe for even our smallest riders. Our horses are beloved by all who know them,” said Burner. “It is a safe environment, and the horses are very well taken care of and tame,” Dorothy T. said.

Lessons aren’t only for children, as county resident Tina Forbes knows. “About three years ago, I told my husband I was interested in finding an activity just for me that didn’t involve my children,” she recalled. “He gave me a certificate for horseback riding lessons. [Eventually] I found Criswood Farm. I’ve been taking riding lessons there for two years now and love it.”

“Just like any other activity,” said Silver Eagle Stable’s Russell, “one must practice and train to become accomplished. Lessons involve learning how to control the horse, communicate with the horse, confidently remain in the saddle and respond when the unexpected occurs. With a house herd of 19 horses, we are sure to be able to match the right horse to each student’s abilities and riding style.”

Recommended Burner, “If you are new to horse riding, and would like to try it, then go online and read reviews, ask friends for recommendations, and visit barns and watch lessons.” Forbes added, “Visit a local riding facility. Meet the staff and see how a lesson is run. Talk to the people in the lessons and ask them if they enjoy the class.”

Trails
“Prince William County is composed of many rural settings and farms where it is conducive to owning [or boarding] horses,” Burner said, and where trails are readily accessible.

She enjoys the Manassas Battlefield, which has more 20 miles of well-maintained riding trails, largely with the help of the Battlefield Equestrian Society. It “has the safest and most patrolled trails in the county, and they are the best option for trail rides,” Burner said. Boberek would agree, “I love those
trails. I’ve been riding them for 30 years, and they are the prettiest because they are maintained so well. They have two parking areas, and you can ride for as long or as short of a time as you want,” Boberek said. However, according to her, “the downside is that if you don’t know your way around, it can be
a problem. It is difficult to navigate and easy to get lost because there are no signs.”

It is hard to get lost at the Nokesville Equestrian Ring, a county-owned arena and adjacent trail maintained by the Nokesville Horse Society with the support of Prince William County. Ample parking is available, and the arena can be reserved for events. “It is consistently and regularly used and we’re happy about that,” Boberek said.

Other recommended county-owned “equestrian-friendly parks and trails” according to information provided by Dianne Cabot-Wahl in Prince William County Parks and Recreation Department’s Communication Services include the following, with Dale City’s Sapien offering her opinion about each one:

  • Silver Lake Park, with four miles of natural surface trails through forested areas and open meadow around a 20-acre lake. “It is scenic and good for beginners with not a lot of challenges,” Sapien said.
  • James Long Park, with 4.6 miles of natural surface trails over wooded, hilly terrain along Catharpin Creek. “[It] is really nice with a separate parking area for horse trailers, and it has an arena and recently connected via a bridge to Silver Lake,” Sapien said.
  • Doves Landing, with three miles of multi-use trails. “It is nice if you are a beginner because there are no major roads to cross,” Sapien said.

Love of Horses, Love of Riding
“I love horses. For me, riding is relaxing. I ride for the pure pleasure of it. I’m a better person for it,” said county resident Yvonne McKeown. “Though it’s not all about riding. I love just being able to see her,” she said in reference to her horse. “They are calming. And there’s so many places to ride in Northern Virginia.”

“There are many reasons I love horseback riding,” said Forbes. “The first is ‘freedom.’ Many horse riders will tell you about this feeling of ‘freedom’ that you gain from the top of a horse’s back. Challenges, whether physical, mental, emotional or social, are almost literally dropped to the ground the moment your seat is placed into the saddle that graces that horse’s back. There is nothing else like it in this world. Another reason I ride is because I love horses and the graceful connection you have with a horse. There is simply no other feeling like it.”

“Horse riding is a sport for all ages,” said Burner. “It connects us with the mysteries of life, with these magnificent herd animals. Horses are mirrors of their riders’ energy. They have the ability to empower their riders, to compensate for shortcomings in balance and strength, and bring joy to all who know and ride them.” “Our highest priority,” said Russell, “is preserving the rich equestrian tradition of Virginia and enhancing the rural crescent portion of the county.” Dorothy T. summed it up best: “We are in horse-country, Virginia. Horse riding will always be around.”

Not Horsing Around: Showing in Prince William
For the serious horse enthusiast, Prince William Horse Association (PWHA) is where you need to be. PWHA is a local nonprofit association geared to support the developing horsemanship skills of all riders, youth and adult, in a family-oriented and positive schooling event environment. They organize, sponsor and support 14 competitions each year, seven English and seven Western, and host these events at the Four Winds Farm, 13550 Vint Hill Road, Nokesville.

Their events attract riders of all ages and experience, from Virginia and neighboring states. Their goals are to offer an open and encouraging show atmosphere where all riders can experience the pleasure of competitive riding.

Details can be found at the PWHA website, pwha.net.

Emma Young ([email protected]) is a freelance writer. In preparing to write this article, she watched interviewee Tina Forbes in an engaging ribbon-winning performance during a
well-organized student competition at Criswood Farm. She was in awe of the horses’ beauty, grace, docile temperament, and palpable vitality, and the clear skill of the people who rode them.

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