The Riding Centre at 60 — Soelberg’s legacy lives on
- Published: September 12, 2019
When Louise Soelberg died in 1994 at the age of 90, it was enough to spark the interest of several national news outlets. Obituaries in the NY Times and Variety note her work as a pioneer of modern dance and the injury that ended her dancing career. That’s where the obituaries end — but Soelberg’s life was far from over when she stopped dancing. In 1959, when she was 56 years old, she established the Riding Centre, and 60 years later, it continues to fulfill the mission laid down by Soelberg: to connect people and horses. On Saturday, Sept. 7, the Riding Centre will celebrate its 60 years.
The Riding Centre, located at 1117 E. Hyde Road, is a nonprofit organization that provides riding lessons for students ages 8 and older, as well as horse boarding services, clinics and the Therapeutic Riding Program.
Trading the stage for a saddle
It was dance that brought Soelberg to the village. After dancing and teaching across Europe and the United States, Soelberg came to Yellow Springs in the late 1940s after receiving a William C. Whitney grant to teach dance at Antioch College. Her husband, the actor Basil Langton, worked with the Antioch Shakespeare Festival and Antioch Area Theatre, and Soelberg also choreographed some of the company’s productions. Though her marriage to Langton ended and he left the village, Soelberg remained in her position at Antioch College until she sustained a back injury in the 1950s. As she told the Dayton Journal Herald in 1976: “I sort of eased out of dancing rather than quit. A ruptured disc had a lot to do with it. I was one of those who couldn’t sit and teach, but had to move.”
Soelberg’s daughter, Jessica Andrews, was entering elementary school when her family moved to the village. Before establishing the Riding Centre, Andrews said that Soelberg would occasionally talk fondly of the time in her youth that she spent with horses.
“She would tell me about how she and a friend in Seattle would go riding. They would tear down cliffs on horseback and horrify the drivers on the road,” Andrews said.
Andrews said she suspects it might have been her own young love of horses that inspired her mother to get back in the saddle: she and Robin Lithgow — daughter of Antioch Shakespeare Festival co-founder Arthur Lithgow — both young teens and “horse crazy,” bought a horse together. When the Lithgows left the village in 1957, the horse then belonged solely to Andrews and, by extension, Soelberg.
“We kept [the horse] at the Carr’s barn [on Xenia Avenue] for a while,” Andrews said. “And I think that was how my mom came back to her love of horses.”
In 1959, Soelberg petitioned Antioch College to lease 15 acres of unused farmland owned by Glen Helen to her in order to establish a horse riding school. The Riding Centre would provide riding lessons to community members and physical education credits to Antioch College students who chose to learn to ride.
The Riding Centre did — and does — teach English riding, most recognizable to the horse layperson as the kind of riding that involves a small saddle, jodhpurs, hurdle jumping and the occasional top hat.
Under Soelberg’s leadership, the Riding Centre strove to keep costs low in order to keep riding lessons accessible to the community. Soelberg taught her students to ride properly in the English style, but she also expected them to understand that caring for a living being requires hard — and often dirty — work. Andrews said that her mother’s own life, in some ways, reflected this contrast.
“She had a way of speaking that wasn’t a British accent, though she had been [in England] for 20 years, but it was very ‘proper,’” Andrews said. “She liked to have nice things around her, and she conveyed a sense of grace and elegance to people — but then she would run around in rubber boots in the mud and clean out the stables in whatever weather.”
In 1961, Soelberg and Antioch College drew up a formal lease agreement that granted the Riding Centre 60 acres. The Riding Centre would lease the land and be responsible for the upkeep and improvement of the facilities there. Original to the property, which had been vacated by a local farming family several years before Soelberg leased it, were a 19th century barn and a small house that the Riding Centre used as an office for several years. Soelberg eventually moved into the house — she called it her “hovel” — which, for the first year she lived there, only had electricity in the kitchen. Soelberg lived her evenings that year by candlelight, but because of her overall air, Andrews said it seemed “glamorous” to the young people she taught to ride.
“There was never a lot of money, but she did what she had to do, and I’ve always thought of it as pioneer spirit,” Andrews said. “The kids loved it when she invited them in. She always gave them a sense that they were valued.”
So beloved was she by her students that, in the mid-1960s, a group of tween and teen riders threw a surprise party in Soelberg’s honor, complete with round-trip tickets to London, where Soelberg’s elder daughter and grandchildren lived. The party was held at the barn of the McCally family, and Soelberg was celebrated with gifts and flowers — and in verse by students Debbie Vernet and Diane Leger, as reported by the News:
“There was a lady from Seattle,
Who soon will see the Be-atles.
Her name is Louise,
She does as she please
She raises horses and not ke-attle.”
Riding Centre expands, transitions
With the money they raised from lessons, boarding horses and on-site horse shows, Soelberg and her cohorts continued to make improvements to the Riding Centre where they could, building stalls in the old barn and an outdoor arena for training. An indoor arena followed in the mid-1960s, after young Peace Corps members in residence at Antioch began training there in summer.
In 1974, The Riding Centre expanded its offerings with its Therapeutic Riding Program, which offers riding as an alternative therapy to children and adults with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Program participants are referred individually by physicians and agencies, and ride specially trained horses, with the aim being to improve balance, coordination and muscle tone.
The program was groundbreaking enough that it earned Soelberg the distinction of being the first woman to be named national “Senior Citizen of the Month” in September of 1976. The award was sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Soelberg accepted it from Col. Harland Sanders himself, decked out in his trademark white suit and black string bow tie.
YS News Editor Kieth Howard wrote of the day: “In accepting the honor she emphasized that members of her staff had done more to carry on this program than she — particularly instructors Gail Brown and Jalyn Jones Roe. In the past two years, 79 students have benefitted from the program.”
Soelberg was 72 when she accepted the award, and still involved in the everyday operation of the Riding Centre’s business. The center gained nonprofit status a few years later in 1979, incorporating separately from Antioch College. A board of directors was established to handle the center’s financial concerns, which were many. In her YS News obituary, Soelberg was quoted as having said to a friend about the award she’d received: “It’s a very pretty medal, but I ought to hock it. We need to raise $1,714 for the therapeutic riding program for the coming year to match a grant — and we’ll raise it any way we possibly can.”
Carolyn Bailey, who had been training at the Riding Centre since she was 8, was inspired by the Therapeutic Riding Program to enroll at The Cheff Center for the Handicapped in Augusta, Mich. in 1977. After four years of training and teaching there, Bailey returned to the Riding Centre to work alongside Soelberg as head instructor and trainer. When Soelberg retired in 1989 at the age of 85, Bailey became the Riding Centre’s director. Though she was retired, Soelberg continued to live in her “hovel” on the Glen property until her death in 1994.
“When I think of how I am as a boss, it’s because of who Louise was as a person,” Bailey said. “There was never a day you left that she didn’t thank you.”
The Riding Centre today
Unlike in the Riding Centre’s early days, when students like Bailey would sometimes get up before dawn to come down to the barn and take care of the horses, today’s students are bound by liability clauses that prevent them from doing as much heavy lifting. Though employees of the Riding Centre do much of that work now, the Riding Centre still teaches students as much as it can about what it takes to care for a horse.
“In camps, the young people have to clean the stalls, and they get a bare minimum taste of the care that goes into these horses,” Bailey said. “They learn to tack up the horse, brush the horse — they learn that 99% of horse riding is the care of the horse, whether it’s cleaning the stalls or mowing the fields or putting up the hay or holding them for the farrier. It gives them a sense of responsibility.”
Of the approximately 80 students currently learning at the Riding Centre, Bailey estimated that 98 percent of those are girls or women.
“We do get mostly young girls — and women who wanted to get into horses when they were little, and now they have enough money to do it,” Bailey said.
Marsha Casdorph was one of those women — she started taking lessons at the Riding Centre when she was 41.
“At first, I was a little intimidated by the English riding style that we teach here,” said Casdorph, who is now the secretary for the Riding Centre’s board. “It can look very prim and proper, but that’s not how Louise taught it and that’s not how we teach it. It’s very down-to-earth and low-key.”
Bailey said that it’s a nearly universally accepted truth that young girls are drawn to love horses, whether for their beauty or their nature, both wild and gentle, or for the freedom they often represent. Whatever the reason, for young girls especially, she said, working with horses can be a confidence boost.
“There are very few things of which these kids have been in charge. And I tell them, ‘You may not be in charge when you go home, but when you’re here, you’re in charge of this 1,000-pound horse — and look at you!” she said.
Though the Riding Centre has made some necessary augmentations to programming and facilities over its 60 years, much about the Riding Centre has remained unchanged over the years, according to Bailey. Since becoming director 30 years ago, Bailey has continued to run the Riding Centre according to Soelberg’s values, including instituting affordable lesson fees and a scholarship program as the cost of living rises nationwide.
“That’s part of our mission: to keep our lessons affordable, to inspire people to ride and love horses and to get away from the idea that riding is a rich man’s sport,” she said.
Bailey also said that the Riding Centre’s longevity can be chalked up to its unflagging attention to its core values, and that the center’s best strategy going forward into the next 60 years is to keep doing what they’ve been doing since 1959.
“In the horse world, 60 years is phenomenal, and I think our success is that we haven’t really changed what we do — which is teaching people horsemanship,” she said.
Louise Soelberg’s influence is still felt by those in the village who learned from her, even as their lives have taken them into different career paths. Jenny Cowperthwaite, executive director of the Little Art Theatre, said that the Riding Centre provided her with a work ethic that has followed her throughout her life’s work.
“Louise Soelberg was pretty exceptional,” Cowperthwaite said. “This woman gave a lot of responsibility to us — it’s where I learned responsibility. We lived for her praise and, to me, she just had a magical, mystical touch.”
Cowperthwaite said that both she and Bailey, who have been friends since their time together at the Riding Centre in the 1970s, look for the same types of qualities in their employees that Soelberg looked for in her students.
“Carolyn and I came out with the work ethic that we didn’t wait to be told what to do — we just did it, and I think that made Louise proud,” she said. “And to this day, when we have to hire somebody new, we’re looking for ‘horse people’ — people who look around to see what needs to be done and do it.”