‘heaven sent’

When Mike and I decided to take the leap and buy our little farm, we had to find friends fast. (How else were we ever going to make it, knowing practically nothing about farms or country living?) But it took me awhile longer to find a horse “tribe” — that quest proved more of a challenge. Thanks to the very sweet Jan E. we were introduced to Michelle Blair, a University of Georgia alumna who rode for the Bulldogs Equestrian Team throughout college. How very lucky for us that this talented rider and horseman was now living and working just two miles down the road! Michelle and I met up last spring, hit it off right away, and I knew we had found the right partner.

Three years ago, after deciding to leave the horse show world behind after 10 (mostly) wonderful years, it was scary to be without a professional trainer for the first time. My mind was always racing with thoughts like, Was I crazy to walk away? Where do we go? What do we know about owning a horse farm? How are we going to take care of the animals? Can I even ride without a professional’s help? Geez, are these horses going to survive all this? Looking back now, I see I need not have worried so much. We got help from some great friends during the big transition (you know who you are and a thousand times, thank you!). And Michelle? Well, that girl was just “Heaven Sent.” Today our horses are thriving due in large part to her wisdom and loving care.

There’s an old Arabian proverb that says, “The horse is God’s gift to mankind.”  I believe that Michelle is God’s gift to us.

A Conversation with Michelle Blair

Do you recall your first horse experience?

When I was about six, my parents bought our first farm in West Union, S.C. Neither of them had ever owned horses or knew anything about them. But that didn’t stop them from taking us to an auction and blindly buying five horses and ponies (one for each family member). I can still remember walking around and pointing out the ponies I wanted. This was the first time I encountered that horse “smell” that really sticks with you. I should’ve known then that I’d grow up with horses.

What was it like growing up in Australia?

Utterly amazing. I have the most vivid and wonderful memories of our life in Australia. Even now, it’s so easy for me to close my eyes and be back at 10 Bruck Court picking plums from the trees in our yard. We leased my first “real” pony from Samara Park. Sam Siminic at Samara taught me how to be a horseman at a very young age. I can still hear his thick German/Austrian accent: “Fiiiiirm contact. FIRRRRM CONTACT, ME-Shell!”  With Sam, I went to my first horse show, and we actually would ride our horses to the show grounds, manes braided and all. And it wasn’t uncommon for us to tack up and ride the 20 minutes or so to our Sunday Pony Club meetings or gymkhanas. I always felt so proud riding back from those shows with the ribbons tied around Solly’s neck. Along similar lines, we were hardly ever driven to school…no one was. My brother, sister and I walked or rode our bikes every day. In fact, biking was so big there that one of the classes we took in school was bike education. We would all go outside on the netball courts and ride our bikes, following our teacher as she showed us things like hand signals for riding on the road and how to change a flat tire. But of all of the things I remember, my best memory was just being able to walk to my best friend Sarah’s house at any time, picking up other friends along the way. It wasn’t scary to walk anywhere by yourself. Australia was the most pedestrian-friendly place I’ve ever seen or lived — and I’ve been to Portland!

Tell us about your first pony.

Oh, that would be Julie. What an unrideable little thing. I guess that’s what you get from buying a pony at an auction! Anyway she was horrible. She was about 13 hands, but she seemed huge to me — a fiery little brown-and-white paint who loved to lie down with the rider on her back. I probably fell off that pony about 90% of the time. Soon after, Julie went to live at a petting zoo, and I got my second pony, Jesse James. A thin, 14.2-hand chestnut Quarter Horse gelding that only knew how to follow others. I came to love him but, boy, was he stubborn.

You’ve said that Hannah was your “horse of a lifetime.” Why was she so special?

When I was in 8th grade, we woke up to a horrible noise that turned out to be our barn crashing down. Overnight it had caught fire, and we lost everything, including two of our horses. One of them was mine, Zazarac, who had traveled back from Australia with me. Anyway, after Zaz died, I ended up with Jazz, who tried so hard but was just not all there; in fact, we would often get eliminated in dressage competitions for her being too “dangerous,” judges would say. That’s when I got Hannah. At our first show we went double clean in stadium jumping and cross country, then we got a dressage score of 33 (a first for me). I continued to show Hannah and took her to my Pony Club rallies. When we later qualified for Nationals my mom looked at me teary-eyed and said, “I know her name. It’s ‘Heaven Sent.’”  From that point on, Hannah and I continued to compete for years. She was my everything. We went all the way through prelim eventing, second level dressage, 3’6” jumpers, and practically everything else we wanted. I felt unstoppable with her. She was the little horse that could. We learned the ropes together and grew as a team. She was the most reliable horse I’ve ever owned. She may have been sassy and she could throw a huge buck right before your dressage test, but the second you entered that arena her switch flipped on and she performed. She gave me confidence and to this day she’s the main reason I like to work with difficult horses. Sometimes you just gotta brush off the dirt and work through a few issues, but maybe there’s a small piece of a Hannah heart in there. I will never have a more special horse.

In high school and college you rode for Bouckaert Farm, a premier equestrian center. What was that like?

Simply incredible. I got to ride horses I had only dreamed of, and took lessons with such talented riders (like Michael Pollard and his wife, Nathalie Bouckaert Pollard) almost every day, all at a facility that was so breathtakingly beautiful your jaw would drop. I loved the experience of riding multiple horses a day, ranging from the “greenies” to the advanced, even horses that had competed in the Olympics. I gained so much knowledge on how to keep up these types of equine athletes with interval training, trot sets, water treadmill, water trot sets, special shoeing, wrapping, magnetic blankets, state-of-the-art veterinary technologies, you name it! I’m just so grateful that the Bouckaerts gave me the opportunity to work with them. I doubt they know how far it’s taken me as a horseman.

How did you come to compete in New Zealand?

In 2003 I had a successful outing at the USPC National Championships while competing in dressage. After one of my rides some examiners said I should apply for the USPC International Dressage Exchange in New Zealand. They mentioned that only two riders from the United States would be selected — one from the East Coast and one from the West. The application process was exhaustive…it felt like I was applying for college. Three months later I was walking into our barn one day when I heard my mom screaming. I ran to the house scared to death thinking what could be wrong. Right as I got to the garage, my mom literally ran straight through the screen door ripping the screen entirely out, shouting, “You did it! You did it!” She shoved the phone into my hand and a very sweet lady on the other end of the line said, “We’ve elected you to ride for the United States in the USPC New Zealand Dressage Exchange.”

My coach in New Zealand was former Olympian Lendon Gray. Once we got there we had two competitions to prepare for — each on different sides of the island. The first was the Pony Club portion and the second was the International Young Rider portion. During that time, Sheri (my partner from the West Coast…Spokane, Wash.) and I had the amazing opportunity to work one-on-one with Lendon, riding different horses at various farms. Lendon was absolutely awesome. I learned more from her in two weeks than I have from other trainers in years. In fact, she taught me so well that she coached me right to the International Young Rider Champion title. It was truly the coolest experience.

You rode on a full scholarship for the University of Georgia Equestrian Team for four years. (And didn’t the team just happen to win two National Championship titles during that time…any coincidence?) What was it like riding for UGA?

UGA was the most rewarding, humbling and eye-opening equine experience of my life. I came to the team having a very strong three-day eventing/dressage background and very little equitation/hunter experience so I had a lot of adjusting to do in every aspect. I was fearful the “hunter” girls would judge me, and at first there certainly was some of that. But truth be told, I did the same thing to them. I had never done hunters or equitation and had only heard about the stereotypes (“push-button horses,” “the rider just sits there”). The team allowed me to see the different types of riders that the hunter/jumpers produce and my skewed vision immediately changed. In addition, the bond I formed with the girls on the team was like no other. I’m a team-oriented person, and thrived on the opportunity to make “horses” a team sport. I also found my niche for riding under pressure, and still get chills thinking of some of those rides and the immense support from the team. Whether it was Western or English, girls who actually got to compete or those who didn’t, it didn’t matter because we were always a team. I hope to figure out a way to give back to the sport and if I could be a spokesperson for NCAA/Varsity Equestrian, I would!

What are some of the most important life lessons you’ve learned through horses?

  1. Dedication. I certainly wouldn’t have had a scholarship without it.
  2. Perseverance. Fall off? Get back on.
  3. Confidence. Yeah, you know that whole little bit about “horses can feel when you’re scared”? It’s true!
  4. Responsibility. You have to keep your horses fed and happy. Try riding them when they’re not…they’ll certainly give you their opinion.
  5. Humor. Laughter gets you through some of the toughest times. And sometimes a horse may decide that today is just not going to be your day.
  6. Leadership. (Thank you, UGA!)

By day you work for The Colonnade Group (a sports production and event management company). On nights and weekends, you train horses. How do you juggle it all?

Another thing to thank UGA for (6-7 a.m. workouts, 9-2 classes, afternoon practices, evening team meetings, homework). I learned time management quickly (it probably helped that my dad went to The Citadel) and I like fitting the puzzle pieces of a busy day all together…”Okay, so how can I work out, go to work, ride three horses, cook dinner, and also get to watch my favorite TV show?”

Favorite “rides” you’re currently handling?

There’s Codi, a fiery little mare that requires calmness and patience. Blondie is a typical Quarter Horse…a bit lazy and stubborn, and who doesn’t mind a big spur. Then there’s Fern, who’s very much my type of ride—a sensitive Thoroughbred mare who wants you to be thinking every single second. By contrast, we have Rodeo, who doesn’t want you to think at all because he’s a simple guy who just wants to go straight on a trail. Handsome is an almost “hot” older gaited Tennessee Walker who’s teaching me a few things about racking. Twig is a 12-year-old Warmblood mare, former show horse, who is just a delight and knows everything — she’s probably the coolest horse I’ve ever ridden when she decides she wants to be. (Note: I always have to make sure I “read” this one.) Breezey is so gentle and always in the same mood but learning everything right now (he’s 4 years old). Rialto, a 17+ hand Brandenburger from Germany, is my love and the sweetest horse in the entire barn but because of old injury issues we only ride trails. I saved Dane for last because that’s just what I do when I ride…save him for last. He’s the icing on my cake. An 18-year-old Hanovarian competition horse, also imported from Germany. He’s an amazing horse that knows just what to do all the time. You can take him on trails, jump him, ride dressage for a day or heck, throw a western saddle on him. Dane won’t care and always gives his best. I love all the horses I ride for the different things they offer and teach me.

Do you hope to have your own farm one day?

Yes, definitely! In my mind, our farm will be quaint, cute and practical. It’ll have a simple barn, with four to five stalls. The stalls would open up to pastures so if we’re out of town the horses can just come and go as they please. We’d probably have three horses — one I can compete, another to teach lessons on, and hopefully an up-and-comer I’ll be training for someone. The fourth stall would open up into a big dog pen where we’ll keep all the strays we tend to adopt. Hopefully we’ll also have a pond or lake, some ducks, a potbellied pig, and a sweet and simple house. That’s my little dream farm.

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