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Giving free rein to that dream

Since the terrorism that struck New York City and the Pentagon on 9/11, it has often been said that people have paid more attention to what it is they really want to do in life.

And that, say some horse people, has meant more work for quiet horses such as Thunder, a staid 20-year-old thoroughbred at Columbia Horse Center who has seen an increased workload carrying adults taking riding lessons.

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"It's a dream," said Nanci Steveson, general manager of Columbia Horse Center, referring to many of her adult students who never learned to ride a horse despite childhood dreams nurtured by reading such classics as The Black Stallion and Black Beauty.

"Since 9/11, we see more and more adults. People realize life can be short, and they say, 'I'm going to do it,' " said Steveson.

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Adults make up about 25 percent of her clientele at the facility owned by Columbia Park and Recreation Association, she said. Of those, probably 85 percent started riding as adults - "or they rode a bit as kids or had a friend who had a pony - but not in structured lessons," she said.

The Columbia facility offers a free, no-obligation introductory lesson for adults who want to finally try riding.

Shelly Stevenson-Buhlman, manager of Marriottsville Ridge Farm, said that about two-thirds of her riders are women who started as adults or who are resuming riding after having ridden as children.

"The adult riders are great," Stevenson-Buhlman said. "They have a really long attention span and understand better than the kids."

A key for adult lesson programs is finding suitable mounts, horses that are quiet, patient and sturdy enough to carry a larger rider.

"They have to be bigger, and that can be a challenge to find big, safe horses," said Steveson. "They have to be extremely tolerant."

A safe horse also builds confidence in the adult rider, who knows that if he or she falls, the rider is not going to bounce the way the kids do and, thus, are more fearful. But the possibility of falling does not deter them from pursuing their dreams.

"We get a lot of parents that watch their kids take lessons and say, 'Wait, I want to do that,'" Steveson said.

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Columbia Horse Center student Sandy Silberman of Riverdale is one of them.

"I thought I should do something besides groom, but it is scary," she said. She has walked, trotted and cantered and, so far, she said, views her biggest reward as "not falling."

Falling would mean major consequences for Julie Dougherty, 45, of Columbia because she has osteoporosis.

"I'm more aware of safety issues, but I'm smarter because of my age," said Dougherty, who is not new to riding, having begun on ponies when she was 2 years old. "I know I'll break, but I'm not afraid."

She is hoping to buy one of the horses out of the Equi-Lease program at Columbia.

That program provides a pool of horses that riders can lease, riding every day or twice a week.

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"We work with [the horses] and keep them schooled," says Tiffany Harvey, who teaches at Columbia when she isn't riding for her college team at Virginia Tech.

She teaches adults differently than youngsters, she said.

"I love adults. They listen. They want to know why and how. But kids will do anything, and adults don't always have that."

Riding does not necessarily have to be just for recreation. Local shows include competitive classes for adults.

The American Quarter Horse Association has an Amateur Select Division, with all types of riding open only to riders ages 50 and older. More than 500 riders have qualified for next month's national championships in Texas.

The patient equine schoolmasters who tote around beginners, putting up with conflicting signals and riders who plop ungracefully on their backs, occasionally get rewarded with a new home.

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"Adults fall in love with the horse, and they want to buy it," Steveson said.

Dr. Kristi Bennett, 29, a small-animal veterinarian who lives in Oakland Mills village, bought Willow, a paint horse, from the Columbia lesson program. Now she squeezes in riding around work and jokes that she dumps her boyfriend to ride.

"You just make time," she said. "It's something you love so much you make time. This is my first horse, and I asked for a horse every birthday and Christmas."


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