By Melinda Harrell
Published in News on August 1, 2014 1:46 PM
Neena Cruz cleans her horse's hooves before beginning another training session in preparation for a two-day competition in Raleigh.
Madison Alpers, Neena Cruz and Hannah Corr practice their show moves at the Spring Bank Equestrian Center.
A rhythmic thud pounds like drums.
One used to race.
Another pulled a cart.
But these days, inside the Spring Bank Equestrian Center, a group of horses has found new meaning.
Members of 4-H's The Riders of Tomorrow are currently training for The Summer Special in Raleigh -- an event that will be held at the James B. Hunt Complex and will mark their very first two-day horse show competition.
"I am not gettin' off my pony," Seyerah Basden shouts as she trots around the outdoor classroom atop Jumpin' Jaxx. "I am having fun."
But riding, for her, isn't just about having a good time.
She is also focused -- and determined to accomplish something special.
Ashley Nicholas, the center's stable manager, shouts to each one of the students.
"Now, trot," she says, as the students fall in line. "Loosen up the bridle."
More dust flies up behind their mounts as they, one after the other, send their horses into a trot and, eventually, over the small hurdle in the middle of the corral.
But it is going to take more than training to get these girls to the competition.
"This trip is going to cost each girl $350 to $400," Ms. Nicholas said. "These kids work hard and they want it. I tend not to work with high-end clients on purpose. These kids work for it and so do their parents. We go to shows and we consistently do well. It goes to show that you don't have to have a lot of money to be competitive."
Ms. Nicholas knows first-hand about the team's desire to be competitive.
She bought Lando Carlrissian out of her own pocket, and one of the 4-H students worked throughout the winter months to take ownership of the horse.
Now, Lando is Neena Cruz's, and as she circles the corral, doing exactly as Ms. Nicholas instructs, she smiles.
"That horse looks out for her," Ms. Nicholas said.
Lando, she added, was perfect for Neena.
Ms. Nicholas became an instructor to help children make a connection with horses that, as she sees it, will teach them lessons that can't be learned in a classroom.
"I do this for the kids and the connection they make with the horses. Helping children build a relationship with animals is important," she said. "They learn about who they are and what they want to be. It shows them how to develop a sense of responsibility, and patience, also a sense of teamwork. These things they can't learn in the schools today."
Ms. Nicholas has been involved with horseback riding for nearly her entire life. When she was 5 years old, she asked for a pony for Christmas, and from there, her involvement with riding and caring for horses grew.
In Charles City, Va., she helped start the local 4-H's horse and pony organization.
"I showed horses in Virginia as a teenager and young adult. I am a hereditary horseman," she said. "My aunt and grandfather were horsemen, and I didn't even know that until a couple years ago."
Some of the riders in the program do not own horses, but utilize Spring Bank's resources -- practicing on what Nicholas owns.
"I came here with four horses, and the lesson program grew so much that now I have 20," she said. "All but two are used for lessons. A good horse costs between $1,000 and $5,000."
The horses that live at Spring Bank all have a history and personality.
Hannah Corr's mount, Sam's Point, or Sammie for short, is an ex-race horse.
"Sammie was not a good race horse. He came in dead last in two races and they just get rid of them if they aren't going to be winners. The owners just don't want them anymore," Ms. Nicholas said. "And if the horse doesn't want to, then they aren't going to win. Sammie wasn't happy racing, so I brought him here and he loves his job now.
"Race horses are one my favorite things. We attempt to give them a new career and find them a match for the kids so they both can succeed."
Jumpin' Jaxx used to be a cart pony until a terrible accident left him with a scar on his hoof and a deep fear of carts. He had no purpose with his former owners, and Nicholas saw this.
But these days, with Basden on his back, he is strong and steady.
The 19 acres of land in which the stable sits offer horses ample area to graze and train. The indoor arena allows lessons to unfold in any type of weather.
Spring Bank also hosts horse shows, with all the proceeds going to non-profit organizations, including 4-H. They are also affiliated with Make-A-Wish Foundation and offer an adult therapeutic riding program.
To keep a horse healthy and well taken care of costs more than $200 a month, but the price tag doesn't frighten Ms. Nicholas' riders.
Some hope to own their own horse one day, but right now their minds are on the competition that is fast approaching.
But even though their commitment to the training has moved them far, they still have to find a way to pay for the expenses of the trip.
"To haul the horses, their rooms, board a horse and the proper show attire could cost each one of these girls hundreds," Ms. Nicholas said.
They have been raising funds throughout the year to be able to get to the competition and with the big weekend looming, they need the last of their funds.
Those interested in making a donation that would help them get there can call Ms. Nicholas at 919-252-3338.