The Riding Centre celebrates 50 years—Louise Soelberg’s legacy trots on
- Published: September 24, 2009
Celebrate Centre’s 50th
Join the Riding Centre Association and staff for an open house on Saturday, Oct. 3, at 2 p.m. at the Riding Centre, where Gene Justice and the Back Forty Blues Band will play along with refreshments by Current Cuisine.
At the edge of the Glen next to a recently refurbished barn, the 8- to 10-year-olds tack up their horses. They stand on their toes to brush the horses’ backs, stoop to clean their hooves and then wind up to hoist their bulky saddles up and over in hopes that they’re centered enough to ride. Too small to mount from the ground, the young riders climb on from a set of steps in the outdoor ring and wait for Carolyn to check their stirrups. They sit high up in the air on Whisper, Honeypepper, Salty and Chipper, animals 20 times their size, which they are learning to lead and care for.
For 50 years the Riding Centre in Yellow Springs has operated for this purpose, to teach people how to be with horses. That was the aim when Antioch College dance professor Louise Soelberg started the centre in 1959, simply and truly, to have a place where anyone could come and learn to ride. That’s what made it possible last week for Yellow Springs youngsters Emma Romohr, Madeleine Sunshine Fleur and Steffi Cooper to travel just a few blocks to come nose to nose with the white and brown paint that Fleur rode last Thursday at the centre. They were all smiles, prepping and touching their horses and helping each other to adjust their bridles.
“We really like horses,” Fleur said. Cooper agreed, and thought for a minute about why she likes them so much. “It’s fun…I like riding horses because you feel like you have control over this big animal…even though it’s scary sometimes.”
This group isn’t the first to find a local outlet for their love of horses. Several generations of youth grew up at the Riding Centre under Soelberg’s wing, adopting her meticulous do-it-yourself work ethic and the practice of accepting responsibility for the wellbeing of the horses. That influence has reached three generations for Nina Myatt, Carolyn Bailey and Carly Bailey, who have made the Riding Centre a significant part of their family life — particularly Carolyn, who has directed the centre since Soelberg passed it to her in 1989. She has carried that mantle in the spirit that she received it, and after five decades, very little has changed in how the centre operates.
“Louise’s goal was to teach kids to care for, love and safely ride horses,” Bailey said. “To me, that’s what we are, is little kids taking care of their horses.”
Soelberg the soul of the centre
Soelberg started the centre after an injury ended her professional dancing career, according to Myatt, who was a long-time historian at Antiochiana archives. Soelberg had trained and taught at the Cornish School of Music, Drama & Dance and England’s Dartington Hall in the 1930s, followed by a career in modern dance performance and choreography, which eventually brought her to Antioch College. Soon after arriving, she convinced the college to let her lease a parcel of the Glen with barn facilities and offer riding lessons to Antioch students for physical education credit. She moved into the small frame house she called “the hovel,” where she could oversee the operation. And the people came.
Jenny Cowperthwaite-Ruka started at the age of 7. By age 11 she had her own horse and was assisting teachers, and at 13 she was an instructor, “and a good one!” she said on Monday. Soelberg liked the self-starters and doled out responsibilities not by age, but by level of determination. Jalyn Jones (who is now Jalyn Roe) also was teaching at 14, with all the confidence in herself that Soelberg had in her, she said this week.
“That’s what kind of woman Louise was — she let us do that,” Cowperthwaite-Ruka said.
And because Soelberg believed in her, Roe, who had real talent, had the courage to perservere as the only African American to compete in very a hostile environment in Kentucky and southern Ohio horse shows, finally winning a grand championship in 1970.
“Louise brought to the Riding Centre something that a lot of local equestrian centers didn’t have — a much bigger view of the world,” Roe said. “Even though she had these makeshift buildings, it didn’t matter, she saw it as bigger, better and bolder.”
Having found just the right balance of freedom and guidance there as teenagers, Roe and Cowperthwaite-Ruka fashioned whole summers around the Riding Centre with their friends Debbie Vernet, Suzie Wagner and two boys, Duncan Wilson and Bob Funderburg, who said they wanted to be cowboys.
And when that generation came of age, Soelberg’s horse influence inspired Roe to study at the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Michigan, where she learned how to use horseback riding as physical and emotional therapy for people with disabilities. She later taught at an equestrian center in La Hoya, Calif. Funderburg helped his family run the horse farm they owned just south of the Riding Centre, and Cowperthwaite went to manage stables on the East Coast.
Cowperthwaite was quickly disillusioned with the moneyed power struggles of the Eastern circuit. And Roe found the same with the rich families in California who were taken aback when she suggested that the children groom their own horses to deepen the experience of riding. So they came back to Yellow Springs, to facilities that were perpetually in disrepair for the real treasures of caring relationships with family, friends and horses.
Passing the mantle
The Riding Centre incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1979 and continued to lease through the Glen what became a 60-acre parcel on Corry Street and a small tract for the McCally barn on Hyde Road. Working with a board of trustees was different for Soelberg, Myatt recalled. She didn’t always agree with the board’s decisions, which were made in the centre’s financial interest, but not necessarily in keeping with its independent, funky tradition.
“The board thought of it as a business, and Louise thought of it as her life,” Bailey said.
With Roe’s help, the centre continued the therapeutic riding program, and helped not only children with developmental disabilities and injuries, but also their parents, who learned to let go and trust that rider and horse could forge an independent learning process, she said. Roe worked with an angry autistic girl named Mary, who learned through her relationships at the Riding Centre how to articulate her needs. She taught one man with nerve damage how to control his jerky movements so that eventually he could drive a car.
“It’s so far beyond going around in a circle on a horse’s back,” Roe said. “It gave them independence like the independence Louise gave us.”
Roe also helped teach the next generation of Riding Centre youth. Bailey began when she was 8 and was compelled from the start to be the class pet, she said in an interview last week. She worked hard to muck the stalls, clean the horses’ back feet and do the things others didn’t want to do before being asked to do them, she said. She too fell into a close relationship with Soelberg, who made her want to work hard and do good, Bailey said.
Bailey also left to study at the Cheff Center, got certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), and came back to be the head instructor at the Riding Centre. She helped transition the centre into the age of computers by taking over the accounting for Soelberg, who said at the time, “I wasn’t trained for this!” She and Myatt also cared for Soelberg in her old age, knowing the legacy they would inherit and the responsibility they had to carry it forward.
In June 1994, six months after Soelberg’s death at the age of 90, Bailey was walking toward the outdoor ring to teach a class, when she felt a strong presence, she said. She stopped and turned around, and there on top of the barn, she saw her old teacher smiling and giving her a thumbs-up.
The Riding Centre now
Bailey now leads the centre with much help from board members, other teachers, caretakers, and riders, many of whose families have gotten involved and contributed to operations. Her own family has done so, too. Chris Bailey, her husband, has helped build or renovate nearly every structure at the center. Carly Bailey, who caught the horse bug early on as well, now teaches a little and manages the center in Bailey’s absence — though that doesn’t happen very often.
The 30 horses that both live and board at the centre require oversight seven days a week to get the proper care. Those horses, 11 of which are owned by the Riding Centre, support the 95 youth and adult riders a week who come for private and group lessons and day camps, the therapeutic riding program, and dressage and jumping competitions.
In an effort to refurbish the centre 10 years ago, a fundraising campaign yielded nearly $100,000 from donors and private area foundations to renovate the barn, tack room, indoor ring and equipment shed, plus build 10 new stalls. All of that was made possible by a large number of volunteers and the centre’s nonprofit status, Bailey said. Though Soelberg had the centre’s best interests at heart so long ago, “it is a business,” Bailey said, and it has to be operated with that in mind.
Liability issues have been another big influence of the modern world on the centre, which can no longer risk giving large amounts of responsibility to the youth who ride there, Bailey said. Insurance regulations also prohibit children under 14 from working there, and now most of the chores are done by paid staff.
Still, a committed rider who sticks around long enough can reap the benefits of that experiential education. Carly Bailey remembers taking on the responsibility of being at the barn at 3 a.m. walking a sick horse, working from dawn to dusk on show days, and dragging herself out of bed in the dead of winter to feed and water the horses.
“There’s days when it’s 12 degrees outside and the last thing you want to do is leave your house, but you have a barn full of horses that need taking care of,” Carly said. “It’s shaped me in ways that nothing else could have — having that commitment to do it.”
Inspired by the positive effect her mom’s work at the Riding Centre has had on so many people, Carly chose to study nursing at Wright State University, where she goes now between stops at the barn. She knows she can do the hard work, and the maturity she gained handling horses gives her the resolve.
Others say the same of the Riding Centre, even if they didn’t make riding their lifetime career.
“Raising a horse is an enormous responsibility, and when you’re that small and you’re handling this huge animal, it builds a lot of confidence,” Cowperthwaite-Ruka said. “I feel like any task I’ve taken on after that I’ve had high standards for.”
“For 8- or 9-year-olds with a 1,000-pound horse, the responsibility of keeping themselves safe and being in charge of something that big…it empowers them,” Bailey said.
Perhaps for that life lesson, or for the camaraderie or the exhilaration of being outdoors with animals, local and area people have continued to come to the Riding Centre to be part of the horse culture there. With Soelberg’s hovel still standing and her spirit to guide them, Carly believes Soelberg would be pleased with what the Riding Centre has become.
“We’ve never taken away from the original character of the original centre, and it’s still running and is more beautiful than ever,” she said. “She, like anyone else, would have to be proud of it.”