10/14/09 — From class to field, teacher shares passion for horses

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From class to field, teacher shares passion for horses

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on October 14, 2009 1:46 PM

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Dominique deVarona works with 4-month-old bay filly Steel-N-Debt on her horse farm in Pikeville. Ever since she was 8 years old, horses have been Ms. deVarona's passion.

The sounds of cadenced hoofbeats have been dancing in Dominique deVarona's ears since she and her sister Natalia were children.

When she was 8 years old, Ms. deVarona convinced her parents to buy her a horse, on the condition that her older sister would have to teach her to ride and care for the animal.

"I got hooked, I wanted to do it," Ms. deVarona said. "My sister taught me everything I know."

From there, her work with horses took off at a gallop. By the time they were teenagers, the deVarona sisters were winning horse shows locally and nationally. When college came around, Ms. deVarona held on to her interest by taking a part-time job "breezing" race horses -- riding them at a fast pace around a race track to exercise them.

"It was a passion of mine, and I went through everything I could to be the best," she said.

Today, as a sixth-grade English teacher at Mount Olive Middle School, the Pikeville resident continues to expand her knowledge of horses and the show ring. She's even spent time sharing her knowledge with the next generation of horse-crazy girls and boys. Although she can't offer riding lessons due to horse show circuit regulations, she worked to create a competitive 4-H equestrian team at Spring Creek High School and coached them to success.

Ms. deVarona also plays a vital role in training some of the most critical, and critically important, eyes in the horse world. Horse show judges make the calls about which animals will go home with first place ribbons and earn points, and which horses will leave without placing in the money.

Ms. deVarona has served as a horse show judge for many years and now teaches others to work as judges. While she can teach people what to look for in a champion horse, there is a special knack to judging horse shows that just can't be taught. Being a judge and breeder has helped Ms. deVarona make informed decisions about which horses she will buy, breed, train or sell, she said.

"You've either got it or you don't," Ms. deVarona said. "It has taught me to be able to purchase the best. I have an eye for a good mover."

The deVarona family operates a horse boarding facility in Pikeville, which is also home to their own champion horses. Krooked Kreek Farms has a few up and coming hopefuls, too. Little bay filly Steele-N-Debt, at just four months old, recently won second overall in a halter show, proving her conformation and movement among the best.

Steel N Debt is far from the only award-winning horse in the deVarona barn. Her mother Bella, registered as Stella Good Cause, was the three-time top mare in the nation in quarter horse pleasure driving. Other horses have claimed top prizes in everything from hunter under saddle to western pleasure, both different types of riding.

One special thoroughbred horse has done especially well in dressage. In a way, Halfalert, a thoroughbred gelding, was a rescue horse. He was the very first racehorse Ms. deVarona worked with while learning to breeze horses in college. The horse's owner eventually decided to retire him from racing and sell him to a horse trader, but Ms. deVarona had already bonded to Halfalert and couldn't stand to see him sold elsewhere.

"I didn't want that to happen. I fell in love with him," she said.

She was able to purchase the retired race horse, and years after leaving the track, Halfalert has been retrained for a different purpose. Today, as a 10-year-old veteran, he is doing well at shows in the East Coast Open Show Circuit.

The deVaronas don't train the horses themselves, but they do practically everything else, from riding their "finished product" horses in competition to raising the next generation of athletic equines.

It's a hectic schedule, even with boarders who help out with chores. Between cleaning, feeding, exercising the horses, mowing the lawn and performing other maintenance, it can take five hours a day just to get everything done. Being a teacher gives Ms. deVarona time to pursue her lifelong interest, but during her summers, when her students are taking a break, she's sure to be hard at work.

"I'm definitely a country girl, on the tractor or the lawn mower all summer long," she said.