Equestrian center gives young riders a leg up

"Some people live to work, others work to live. Jill Seely worked to build her livelihood--a barn for her to train horses and teach riders the art of dressage and jumping.Dressage, pronounced like massage, is French for training. It is the execution by a trained horse of complex movements in response to barely perceptible signals from its rider.Clearly unemotional, the dictionary doesn’t capture the essence of the sport like Seely, owner of the Clover Valley Riding Center off of Phillips Road in the Port Orchard area.“Dressage is the training of the horse to be an ultimate athlete,” Seely said. “The horse must be both mentally and physically willing and capable to perform very intricate moves for the rider, but to look as if they are doing it on their own.”Seely knew her life would revolve around horses since she was an inquisitive 11-year-old near Seattle. Her neighbor had horses and Seely found herself going back to them every day. By the time she was 15, Seely was training and teaching out of other people’s stables. She would pay the owners to use the barn and give lessons. It was during her teen years she decided she wanted a training facility of her own.The drive to own a barn and live out her passion for riding, training, and teaching ran so strong she worked six years at Boeing to afford her dream.Seely bought a run-down barn in 1990. It was ragged, but she saw unlimited potential. “The barn was partially built then. It had a roof and it had several walls,” she recalled.It took two years before the barn was reasonable to use, and five years to really get it going, Seely said. Now, 10 years later, Seely’s vision has become a reality. She and four other instructors have nearly 400 students who practice dressage or jumping.Seely said her students area all ages. “We have a group of adults that do dressage,” she said. “I have kids that range from 8 to 22. We even have a men’s night. Seely’s riding center has also allowed many talented riders to flourish in dressage. Port Orchard’s Margaret Briggs, Nikki Grandia, Megan Fisher, Stacie Glenn and Tina Hansen have spent countless hours sharpening their skills as dressage competitors.Last month, Grandia and Fisher brought home championships at the Area VIII Regional competition at Donida Farms in Auburn. Grandia took first place at the training level and second level, while Fisher won her title at the first level.Winning at the regional, which incorporates Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana, is not an easy accomplishment, Seely said.“Just getting there is very rigorous,” she said. “You have to attend so many shows under different judges, and (the competitors) had to qualify with excellent scores at three or more shows under three or more different judges to go to the one (regional) in Auburn.” Seely said the experience levels of dressage competition are similar to karate belts. Riders start at the training level and can work their way up to grand prix, which is the highest and most difficult level--the one riders must strive for to compete in the Olympics.Unlike the individual promotions in karate, dressage is a partnership between a horse and its rider, where trust and communication is essential to moving up to the higher levels of competition.“At the beginning level it takes anywhere from one year to three years,” Seely said. “In general, it’s like the structure in karate. You move through the levels by going to shows and riding in the dressage tests.”Seely said getting involved with dressage and jumping is a time-consumingand long-term commitment.“It’s not something you do haphazardly,” she said. “You don’t just take it out of the closet and play with it for a while and put it back.”The cost for competing is just a fraction of where the money goes. Grooming the horse itself is a time-consuming process that requires love and patience for the animal.“Normally you spend about 10 years with the same horse,” Seely said, adding her students and their families realize the commitment they must make in dressage.A week of practice can add up to as much as 40 hours a week, especially when competitions loom. But it’s a choice that especially benefits teenage riders.“Dressage teaches them responsibility,” Seely said. “The responsibility and discipline they gain is the most important.”Seely said most teenagers don’t have the worries of responsibility, but the earlier they learn the importance of responsibility, the more prepared they’ll be for the real world.Grandia, a senior at South Kitsap High School, doesn’t refute that statement.“Dressage keeps you directed because it’s really serious, so you have to stay on this path,” Grandia said. “It teaches you to grow up a lot faster and teaches responsibility.”Briggs, a freshman at Pacific Lutheran University, always wanted to ride horses and own one. That wish came true in the form of a Christmas present when she was 12 years old.But she said it is never easy to just own a horse.“It’s a big decision,” Briggs said. “It takes a lot of time and money. Owning a horse has taught me so much responsibility. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it keeps you determined. I’m stubborn and always want to make it work and have everything perfect.”Because of her college studies, Briggs said she has to take care of her time management.Though she’s still serious about competing, Briggs said she does it more for fun.“I like competing, but I’m not like hard core,” she said. “It’ll be a part of my life forever.”Fisher, 15, is aiming high with her goal “to go as high as dressage can take you--the grand prix level.”Fisher’s mother, Karen, said she would never get in the way of such a dream.“I don’t know if she’ll ever get there, but I don’t discourage her,” Karen said. “She’d love to be in the Olympics. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’d rather see her have that goal and ride seven days a week, than hanging out in malls or getting involved with boys.”At the age of 9, Megan didn’t have any interests or passions. So Karen wanted to add something constructive to her life.“We gave her a riding lesson (as a Christmas gift) because she’d never done anything but stay on the couch--no sports, no nothing,” Karen said. “My husband didn’t want me doing it, but I said ‘Hey, if it’s something she wants to do, I’ll try it.’” Once Karen put her daughter on that horse, there was no looking back.“I thought it would be just one lesson and she’d quit,” Karen said. “Then I thought the first time she falls off, it’s over.”One year later, the Fisher family’s life snowballed into one of horses.“We bought an old, used horse trailer and a truck,” she said. “Then we bought a larger truck with a larger horse trailer. Now we’ve got four horses. We sold our house and bought property and built a house.”Dressage isn’t limited to just teenagers.“I’m an old fart,” said 47-year-old Tina Hansen. “I’ve been riding most of my life.”Hansen, who is starting at third level, said she’s received serious instruction for 20 years--the last six under Seely’s tutelage. Unlike the young budding stars, Hansen works for a living but is able to manage a 40-hour work week and riding. “It’s my husband’s fault,” Hansen laughed. “When we got married, he gave me a riding coat, a helmet and gloves so that I could show. And he rues the day.”With no children and a job that ends at 3:30 p.m., Hansen enjoys her time with her horses.Though dressage is a partnership between a horse and rider, Hansen said the match doesn’t always work out.“You find out you like dressage and you don’t have the right horse for it but you love the horse,” Hansen said. “So you have to wait until you can afford the right horse.”"

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