Riding Clubs in Atlanta’s Horse Country
Written and photographed by Kathleen Stevens Moore
Ralph Waldo Emerson had a lot to say. The famous poet wrote
extensively on topics from nature to self-reliance. But to multitudes of Atlanta equestrians, the words that might resonate most soundly are “Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion.” A true horse lover would nod their head in unwavering agreement. They, more than anyone, know exactly what old Emerson was talking about.
A Field of Dreams
The equestrian life has many faces. It may be the joy a child feels grooming her horse, or pride achieved from helping around the barn. Showing up on your volunteer day though it’s freezing cold and pouring rain. It can take the shape of hours of focused training. Rigorous “A”-level show programs, travel weekends, ribbons and mounds of check writing.
We all know horses and their care are expensive, but it’s heartening to note an impressive number of riding clubs around Atlanta’s Northside are making a conscious effort to meld passion with the confines of reality.
Milton’s Keely Ryan, owner of In Your Dreams Farm, is a seasoned equestrian leading the charge to make sure kids who should be riding, are riding. Her passion led to the founding of RIFNA (Riders Interscholastic Federation of North America). That’s a mouth-full.
What it means, however, is quite simple. A reasonably priced topnotch show program designed specifically for middle and high school students. Interestingly, owning one’s own horse is not a requirement. Young equestrians train astride the farm’s 21-horse arsenal: ponies, quarter horses and warm bloods.
Out of that success tumbles EPIC (Equestrian Programs Interscholastic & Collegiate), a force in leveling the financial playing field in the sport. Academic scholarships and discounted lessons currently serve approximately 150 riders around the greater Atlanta area.
Striding from her barn with upswept blond hair and knee-high work boots firmly in place, Ryan cracks the mold as a modern-day myth debunker. This woman is on a mission to educate the public that a passion for horses and the dream to show is not only for the Richie Rich’s of the world. Ryan’s handy-dandy spreadsheet comparing youth sports to riding costs proves it. A few examples include one season of cheerleading ranging from $355 to $1,200, one season of football ranging from $840 to $1,665 and one full year of competition with RIFNA falling around $935 to $2,480. This is powerful information coming from one of the area’s premier show barns, a facility located at the epicenter of Atlanta horse country: the intersection of Birmingham Highway and Birmingham Road. Birmingham & Birmingham. Sounds like a law firm, but with loosened tie and actual spring in its step.
Across Atlanta’s Northside, equestrian programs of all calibers and levels abound. There are polished riding clubs finer than your best crystal, twice as shiny. Heavyweight facilities with big-name trainers only too happy to assist a rider in her quest for “A”-circuit royalty. But it’s nice to know the smaller operations are still breathing in and out as well — quiet stables happily existing under the media radar.
One such family-owned Woodstock facility actually prefers it that way, incognito- style. The gravel drive of Show Me Farm slides from the blacktop, immediately disappearing under a canopy of green. What lies beyond the street is anyone’s guess. There is no sign. I passed the place thrice. Eventually I figured it out. Curtains of foliage parted, revealing one butter-yellow barn, several pastures and three generations of family members on hand to greet me.
Show Me Farm is a hunter-jumper show barn specializing in family feel and individual attention. Owner/barn manager Hillary Roebuck Blackinton and trainer Karen Boysen run a riding program balanced with expertise, purpose and kindness. Though Blackinton is the energizing force of the establishment, it was her parents who began the endeavor decades ago, quite accidentally. Blackinton’s mother Deb Roebuck explained the only thing their 5-yearold daughter wanted was a pony.
“We bought some My Pretty Ponies trying to appease her.” “Didn’t work?” I offered. “No, it didn’t,” Roebuck laughed, gesturing to the barn, the grounds and entire operation that has flourished due to their daughter’s passion.
In time Blackinton took over the facility, leaving mom and pop in need of new digs. Instead of moving someplace sandy and tropical, the Roebuck’s simply purchased more horse property. Located in Ball Ground, Show Me Farms North is now a 35-acre spread where they’ve founded For the Love of A Horse: a nonprofit rescue program for abandoned and tuckered-out horses.
Another organization evokes a similar mission. Cheryl Flanagan, founder of Save the Horses, understands a horse-lover’s life can also look like this: caring for an abused animal rendered unrideable by human cruelty. She and her posse of volunteers have gained national attention for their dedication to the rescue and rehabilitation of equines suffering ghastly abuse.
You’ve got to hand it to Save the Horses, not just for their righteous efforts, but for the creativity oozing from their programs. Recently launched: You, Yoga and A Horse! Not sure if they’ve officially slapped an exclamation point on the end of that title. If not, they should. How ingenious of them to partner with Sami Jackson from Seva Yoga, conceptualizing how to do yoga alongside a horse companion. Relaxed grooming. Meditative walking. Synchronized breathing. Human hands placed across a horse’s soft back as a balancing point. I feel more calm simply writing about it. Both Flanagan and Jackson agree: horse therapy is people therapy.
Trailing an Equestrian Lifestyle
In the same spirit, one residential community in Cumming has uniquely incorporated equestrian trails directly into its floor plan. Echoing the streets, mulched riding paths course throughout the Chattahoochee River Club (CRC), eventually disappearing into woods. From there, riders have unparalleled access to more than 12 miles of trails within the Chattahoochee National Forest. Riding enthusiasts may either trailer in their horses, or do it the easy way by signing on for trail rides at Flowered Rock Farm, an independently owned stable nestled at the neighborhood’s entrance. Show up with a nominal $36 and be treated to a glorious afternoon ride. Winding and dipping, the trails offer amazing views of the Chattahoochee River and its wetlands.
“It’s fun to see the horses passing by,” said Nicole Solano, a longtime CRC resident. “Reminds me of riding when I was a girl.”
Twenty-five years ago equestrian trails also wove through Sandy Spring’s Huntcliff neighborhood. They’ve since succumbed to overgrowth. The Huntcliff Equestrian Center, on the other hand, is still going strong. Perched on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, riders train against a backsplash of natural splendor and waterscape sunsets. Currently, the center boasts four Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) teams. The IEA brings a unique aspect to the world of horse competitions, in that none of the students own their own horses.
The idea is for the host team and participating barns to supply mounts and equipment. Before each show, lots are drawn to see which rider gets which horse. It’s the mother of all meet-and-greets. Scores based upon horsemanship and equitation, not the horse. The innovative decade-old program has succeeded in creating both ribbon winners and horse-lovers for life.
Shadowbrook Farms is the equine facility of choice of Forsyth County’s Kim Pate. The avid equestrian has shown hunter-jumper for more than 25 years, and recently added dressage to her repertoire. She looks forward to passing the equestrian lifestyle down to her daughters.
“My kids are raised in a barn,” Pate half-joked. “It’s the best thing for them.”
More than ever, equine opportunities across Atlanta’s Northside abound; each encouraging the magic, peace, power and healing that comes from loving a horse.
Perhaps Winston Churchill said it best: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
For More Information
Flowered Rock Farm
Huntcliff Equestrian Center
Save the Horses
Show Me Farm