By Annette Hinkle
There was a time on the East End, not that long ago, when riding horses was an integral part of many people’s lives — especially young people.
Today, the equestrian arts remain a firmly entrenched tradition on the South Fork — but now it is a sport where participation is largely dictated by money rather than desire or talent.
“I grew up with horses and riding and showing,” says Maureen Bluedorn who keeps horses and trains in dressage at Amagansett’s Stony Hill Stables, which is situated on 10 rural acres on Town Lane. “A lot of people in this community did the same thing. It wasn’t about having a lot of money then.”
Bluedorn recalls recent conversations with stable owner Wick Hotchkiss about what riding used to be like out here — back when Hotchkiss’ mother, Liz Hotchkiss, founded the stables more than 50 years ago.
“Wick and I always reminisce about it being great to just jump on horses or take lessons,” adds Bluedorn. “You lament the fact you do not have a lot of the local people having their kids doing the same thing because it’s gotten to be cost prohibitive.”
Bluedorn says Hotchkiss has always tried to look out for local residents by offering discounts on after-school riding programs, but then she suggested they could take it a step further by forming a non-profit to expand that mission.
“I have a financial background, I told her why not start a foundation and provide full scholarships for children of local residents who can’t afford summer pony camps and riding lessons?” recalls Bluedorn.
Bluedorn is now president of the Stony Hill Stables Foundation, a not-for-profit program established in 2012 to offer equestrian training scholarships to local residents. On Saturday, June 29, the organization will hold its second annual fundraising cocktail party at the stables.
“Last year we had our first fundraiser which turned out to be unbelievably successful and provided seven scholarships, including a teenager doing dressage and a women doing hunter,” notes Bluedorn. “We have several beginners and several short stirrup riders. We did more than we thought we could.”
The scholarship includes training and lessons over a four month or longer semester and can include lease of a horse and boarding fees. Recipients also take part in horse care, clinics and competitive shows.
“We structured it in such a way that it fits into the Stony Hill culture which exists already,” explains Bluedorn. “That means various camps for youngsters – pony camp for beginners, short stirrup for more advanced riders who know how to do a small course, then scholarships for adult hunter and dressage which can be for ages 12 to 28.”
“The kids learn how to take care of horses, tack and what it means to be responsible for animal care,” says Bluedorn. “It is actually a pretty high level of riding.”
In order to be eligible for scholarships, recipients must be local residents of the Hamptons community and otherwise not able to financially manage the cost of riding. Bluedorn notes that each scholarship is tailored to the skill level of the individual recipient.
“We have the kids write essays, give some background on sports or scholastic achievement and include reference letters, just like a professional scholarship that kids can get when they’re doing academics,” says Bluedorn who adds that as far as she is aware, this is the only equestrian scholarship program of its type on Long Island.
“We really didn’t look at other models. With Wick’s understanding of the stable industry and mine of the financial not-for-profit aspect, it was great to come together with what we though this would look like and how to make it work,” says Bluedorn. “And we have. It’s hard to believe.”
“We’re creative,” she adds. “And because it meant so much to me as a child, we wanted to extend ourselves to the community.”
Beyond any blue ribbons or accolades earned in competitions, Bluedorn feels the life skills attained through the sport will take young riders well into their future.
“It makes you outgoing and sports minded. It’s not a team sport, but a partnership sport. You form a partnership with a horse,” explains Bluedorn. “A certain bond develops with horses and riders. As a child for me it was a life changing experience to immerse myself in the whole process of riding, competing and taking care of horses.”
One of last year’s scholarship recipients is 11-year-old East Hampton resident Lara Lowlicht who trains in the hunter/jumper division at Stony Hill and took a grand reserve title in her first competition.
“Through riding she’s grown enormously,” says Lara’s dad, Marc Lowlicht. “Though she seems to have natural ability, [trainer] Aisha Ali’s commitment to her goes above and beyond. She’s taken such an interest in her, I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
“All the kids there, whether they’re on scholarships or not, have a different level of maturity and responsibility,” he adds. “I’m not sure if it comes from caring for a horse and dealing with a large animal, but the kids are on a different level of commitment and responsibility.”
That makes sense to Bluedorn, who finds through riding, children also learn grace, discipline and the value of hard work. And despite the fact it’s not technically a team sport, riding does offer a strong sense of camaraderie on many levels.
“You gain an understanding of what teamwork is. We consider all the kids part of a team, even if they are individually showing or riding,” says Bluedorn. “You see them all coaching each other in the ring. There isn’t a feeling of competing against this other person but they’re on this team of Stony Hill.”
And that sense of belonging extends to the parents who come to watch their children in the ring every week.
“It’s so marvelous to go to the stable on a weekday afternoon and see the local children riding and their parents gathering,” says Bluedorn. “It’s about community and Wick’s mother felt the same way. We wanted to continue the tradition.”
“It’s a life enhancing experience.”
Lara’s mother would agree.
“As in any sport, children grow so much,” says Lanie Lowlicht. “Lara’s cooperating, collaborating and learning to support others in their endeavors. She’s also learning all about caring for something other than herself and her own needs. She’s in love with these ponies. For her to have something else to care about in life I think is a great avenue to direct her energy.”
And, she adds, her daughter is realizing what it means to have a real passion in life.
“She’s learning how to have her own dreams, and Stony Hill affords Lara the possibility because we couldn’t,” she says. “It gives her tremendous confidence. She knows who she is.”
The Stony Hill Stables Foundation Second Annual Benefit Cocktail Party is Saturday, June 29, 2013 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the stables, 268 Town Lane, Amagansett. The event includes a special dressage exhibition and pony drill team performance. Tickets are $125 or $200 per couple. Call 267-3203 to reserve or visit www.stonyhillsstables.com. Scholarship applications are also available on the site.