Tag Archives: horses

Meet Zephyr’s Way Stable.

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Photo credit: Sandy McDermott

Owned and managed by Amelia County native Caitlin Ashton, the operation is housed at the Sappony Creek Farm property in Chesterfield. Students and boarders at the facility enjoy riding and training in an indoor arena, an outdoor ring, and plenty of nearby trails.

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Photo credit (top and bottom): Ali Cerkez

Virginia is home to approximately 215,000 horses valued at $1.2 billion and about 41,000 horse operations which each specialize in services ranging from breeding and boarding to training and trail rides. Zephyr’s Way Stable’s focus is horseback riding lessons for children and adults, and the farm has grown and diversified to include summer camps, trail rides, boarding, and leasing.

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Today, the barn’s instructors and staff are busy teaching lessons on most days of the week. However, as is done with any new agricultural enterprise which relies on direct business with customers, Caitlin Ashton built her client base from the ground up when she started the operation in May of 2009. At that time, her focus was training and sales and she spent much of her time starting horses under saddle to prepare them for clients.

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However, she saw a greater opportunity for long-term business viability in lessons and began to engage with more customers through her website and online marketing tools. “Groupon and Living Social have been great advertisement for us. We have also used local companies like Flier for Hire, radio advertisement, and word of mouth,” she says. Because different customers have goals varying from becoming more active to learning to compete in shows, Caitlin has benefitted from offering an array of horses, instructors, and disciplines to her clients. “We try to be diverse in what we offer so that we can attract a larger number of students. We have flexible lesson times with trainers of different disciplines. We also have horses for small children, all the way up to adults,” she notes.

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Photo credit (top and bottom): Ali Cerkez

Working in the field she loves had its initial challenges, particularly in the realm of finances. “I had to start off small and work my way up. Everything about horses is expensive and it takes a tremendous amount of extra work, quick thinking, time management, and marketing skills to make this work!” she says. As the owner and operator, the ball was in her court for most of the initial labor. “My typical day used to be wake up, feed, clean the barn, teach lessons, return phone calls in between lessons, feed, turn horses back out, and go to sleep,” she says.

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Photo credit (top and bottom): Sandy McDermott

Now that the business has grown, she has been able to hire labor and focus her time on paperwork, marketing, and other crucial details. More time for management also means more time for her to step back, enjoy what she has built, and appreciate the progress her clients have made. “Horses are very relaxing to be around in general, and it’s great to see the transformation that they can make in other people as well,” she says. Since Caitlin broke, trained, and finished most of the twenty horses that are used today for lessons at the barn, she also enjoys watching each horse build strengths in a certain discipline area. Throughout the summer, she takes some of her horses to local shows so that her students of all skill levels can ride and compete.

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Some of her students participate in 4-H clubs and compete with fellow 4-H members in shows. Caitlin herself grew up in the 4-H horse program in Amelia. She recalls participating in clinics, shows, and horse judging teams, all of which helped set the tone for her career path. She remains supportive of educational industry, 4-H, and Extension programs. In fact, last July she hosted a hay quality workshop at the barn taught by local agricultural Extension agents.

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Although the horse industry may not always have the look and feel of traditional agriculture, it is a strong contributor to Virginia’s agricultural sector and many horse farms undergo challenges typical of any farm operation. Lesson and boarding barns like Zephyr’s Way Stable experience the client acquisition and product diversification challenges that agritourism and direct-marketing farm enterprises face, but they also experience labor, land management, and animal management challenges that would match those seen on any livestock operation.

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Photo credit (top and bottom): Ali Cerkez

Despite this unique set of challenges, Caitlin believes that people with a similar passion can learn to navigate these obstacles in order to run a successful operation. “It’s something that anyone can do if they are willing to put in the time. I’ve worked since I was 14 years old and have had up to three jobs at times. There is nothing wrong with a good work ethic, and it makes you stronger in the end!” she says. “I think most people hope for a career doing what they love. I went into this with the idea that starting and maintaining a business can be stressful, but having a job that meant something to me was worth the extra work.”

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Photo credit (top, middle, bottom): Ali Cerkez

Additional Resources for Readers:

Zephyr’s Way Stable

Virginia Cooperative Extension horse resources here

Virginia 4-H Horse Program

eXtension Online Horse Resources

Virginia Horse Council

Virginia Horse Industry Board

Meet Smithfield Horse Center.

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Will Golden, the center manager, teaches students about foal and broodmare care.

A visit to the farm on a warm spring day affords joggers and passing cars the opportunity to see newborn foals napping in the grass while their dams graze nearby. The teaching and breeding facility, located on Smithfield Plantation Road, is about a mile away from Virginia Tech’s dorms and classrooms, allowing easy access for students and visitors alike.

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1094024_485505144872194_2099086190_o (2)The property at Smithfield formerly housed Virginia Tech’s renowned sport horse breeding program which was moved several years ago to the 420-acre Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Today, the Blacksburg facility is home to a herd of registered Quarter Horses, including broodmares, young stock, and breeding stallions. The Smithfield herd’s ancestry includes the likes of Smart Little Lena, Peppy San Badger, Peptoboonsmal, Freckles Playboy, and other famous cow horses. While many horses can be trained to work cattle, Quarter Horses—especially foundation-type Quarter Horses—have innate “cow-sense” coupled with abundant muscle and agility, enabling them to excel as performance horses in sports like cutting, roping, and reining.

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10301966_609712135784827_8269116604272816649_nBecause mares cycle during the warm season, the Smithfield broodmares are bred in the spring to one of the stallions available at the farm. They foal the following spring after eleven months of pregnancy. This year, eleven foals are expected and several have already made an appearance. The foals are kept on pasture with their dams, or mothers, for four to five months before they are weaned. Throughout this period, they are acclimated to human interaction and learn to be groomed and led. As they grow and mature, they learn how to walk onto a trailer, stand still while tied, stand for bathing, exercise in a round pen, ground drive, carry a saddle and bridle, and other skills that set a foundation for later training.

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Mares are pregnant for eleven months. They are brought into a large foaling stall close to the time they are expected give birth so that both mare and foal can be monitored. In many cases, foals will stand up and nurse within about an hour of birth.

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Mares nurse their foals for several months before the foals are weaned. Even while they are still nursing, foals begin to learn to graze and eat grain, enabling them to become independent at weaning time.

While Smithfield Horse Center strives to provide the horse industry with high-quality animals, it also provides excellent opportunities for students to learn valuable skills as part of a degree tailored to their interests in Equine Science. Students in a basic equine management class visit the center to practice horse handling, treatment, and care. A more advanced course in equine production enables students to watch a mare through her pregnancy, monitor her as she foals, and care for the newborn foal as it grows. Students in the undergraduate Animal Science program can apply each semester to volunteer extracurricular hours at Smithfield where they work with the farm staff to handle, train, and care for the Smithfield herd. Will Golden, the center’s manager, oversees daily operations and the breeding program.

223272_351960008226709_236005113_n (2)1455990_527498234006218_822894531_n (2)Students who work with the young stock at Smithfield have the opportunity to carry their skills to the Middleburg MARE Center for a summer internship or a semester-long Equine Studies Program in the fall and spring. Furthermore, they can hone their riding skills in one of Virginia’s Techs equestrian clubs and courses or participate on the college’s horse judging team to advance their knowledge.

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464640_250157388406972_902318408_o (2)Like many offerings from the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture, the undergraduate Animal Science program prides itself on providing a hands-on approach that relies on real-world experience and practice. For students seeking a career in the horse industry, which has an economic impact of $1.2 billion in Virginia alone, this recipe for success relies upon good facilities, passionate teachers, and animals that represent the current industry. Smithfield Horse Center, with its dedicated faculty, manager, and volunteers, certainly fits the bill.

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Special thanks to Christine Thomas Photography for providing the photos for this story. Christine has been part of the farm staff at Smithfield for several years and will be graduating with a degree in agribusiness management this spring.

Additional Resources for Readers:

Smithfield Horse Center

Extension Resources and Publications about Horse Care and Management

Extension Information about the American Quarter Horse

Virginia Tech’s Equine Science Program

Meet Sprouse’s Corner Ranch.

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The 81-acre ranch in Buckingham County, operated by LaRue Sprouse Dowd, has belonged in the Sprouse family for many generations. After gaining years of experience working, training, competing, and teaching in the horse industry and studying Veterinary Technology, Equine Therapy, and Horsemanship, LaRue returned to the ranch in 2006 and worked with her family to restore the property and create a fully-functional horse operation.  

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LaRue provides lessons and training for a variety of disciplines.

100_1274 (1024x768)Anyone who visits Sprouse’s Corner today will be greeted by a clean barn, a tidy tack room, and several large pastures. While the ranch offers an array of services to the community including boarding, youth camps, trail rides, three on-farm shows per year, and lessons for a variety of disciplines and skill levels, the operation offers one program with a particularly deep impact on everyone it touches—the Heartland Horse Heroes therapeutic riding program.

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The ranch has an arena dedicated to Heartland Horse Heroes that meets the PATH facility standards for therapeutic riding.

LaRue became interested in initiating a therapeutic riding program after hearing about the success of a dog therapy program in Farmville and learning of a need for horse-based therapy in the area. Starting in 2009, the ranch underwent an intensive inspection from PATH, or the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, so that it could be accredited for use in a therapeutic program. LaRue also passed a rigorous testing program in order to become a PATH Registered Instructor. Thus, the Heartland Horse Heroes therapeutic riding program at Sprouse’s Corner Ranch was born.

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Heartland Horse Heroes provides riding lessons and activities for youth with physical, mental, emotional, and social challenges or learning disabling conditions. In fact, the nonprofit program is so successful that Buckingham County Public Schools brings students to the ranch weekly for ninety-minute lessons. The students spend half of their time learning in an on-site classroom and half of their time on horseback.

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Sprouse’s Corner Ranch recently hosted a training event for Virginia Cooperative Extension faculty.

Volunteers are an integral part of Heartland Horse Heroes because most of the youth in the program are still learning to ride independently. This means that each horse and rider pair needs one volunteer to lead the horse and two side walkers to support the rider. Each lesson with ten riders requires thirty volunteers. Many students from Longwood University’s recreational therapy program volunteer with Heartland Horse Heroes, but LaRue is always grateful when members of the community come to the ranch to offer their time, resources, and support.

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The volunteers of Heartland Horse Heroes are looking forward to expanding their scope by initiating a program in April for at-risk youth called “Inner City Slickers.” This program, created by former Three Dog Night drummer Michael McMeel, provides an opportunity for at-risk youth to learn about horses, work with mentors, and complete growth challenges. Participants learn the “cowboy way” of kindness, hard work, responsibility, and perseverance. Follow-up with participants will be a critical part of the program as it grows at Heartland Horse Heroes.

100_1261 (1024x768)100_1259 - Copy (1024x768)While Sprouse’s Corner Ranch enjoys celebrating the successes of the youth and adults who learn, train, and show at the facility, the accounts coming out of Heartland Horse Heroes are particularly uplifting to the parents, teachers, and volunteers who work with the program’s riders. LaRue tells the story of one participant who did not speak while at school, but who would arrive at the farm each week and readily ask about her favorite horse, saying “Where’s Peaches? Can I groom Peaches? Can I ride Peaches today?” Another child in the program struggled with handwriting at school. After she developed muscle tone from holding the reins while riding, her handwriting improved and her teacher took note. Therapeutic riding encourages students to build and strengthen some of the same muscles that are used in everyday life, and students who participate in Heartland Horse Heroes are motivated to grow and improve by their enjoyment of riding. They also gain confidence from the experience of working with a large animal.

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Running Sprouse’s Corner Ranch and Heartland Horse Heroes is not the only thing keeping LaRue active in the community. She is also the leader of Pegasus 4-H Horse and Pony club. The club is open to any youth who love horses and enjoy learning about them, even if they do not have access to animals of their own. LaRue helps club members participate in local educational clinics, shows, and 4-H knowledge contests such as Horse Bowl that teach participants about animal science and foster communication skills.100_1310 (1024x768)

Sprouse’s Corner is one of the many horse facilities across the state that provides a valuable platform for learning and skill development. Without people like LaRue who enjoy teaching and without facilities in the region suitable for horse programs, youth would have limited opportunities to spend constructive time outdoors learning the responsibility, confidence, and leadership that come from working with horses. Heartland Horse Heroes has opened the door of opportunity in Central Virginia even wider, indelibly touching the lives of the many children who join LaRue Dowd and her volunteers at the ranch each week.

100_1324 (1024x768)Additional Resources for Readers:

Sprouse’s Corner Ranch Webpage and Facebook Page

Heartland Horse Heroes Webpage and Facebook Page

Virginia 4-H Horse Program

PATH International Webpage

Inner City Slickers Webpage