Macomb TownshipSeptember 5, 2012
Macomb equestrian center draws sport’s future stars
By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer
MACOMB TOWNSHIP — On the north side of the township, the neighing of horses resonates from a red barn.
Beyond it, spectators with cameras and camcorders stand on the perimeter of a fenced-in dirt field.
Most of them are mothers and fathers, watching and shouting words of encouragement to their young equestrians as if they were cheering them on at a baseball game. Only the lingo is different.
Instead of “good eye” or “come on, blue,” here it’s “nice canter” or “put the umbrella away; you’re scaring the horses.”
Inside the white fence, adults and children — some as young as 7 — jump their mane-braided show horses over poles as dust dances at their hooves.
For more than 25 years, new riders have used the picturesque 40 acres that make up the Justamere Equestrian Centre as their staging grounds for whatever the future of horse showing holds for them.
Some riders, owner Twila Slavic and show secretary Kathy Biondo said, have gone on to widely recognized circuit shows or joined equestrian teams at high schools or prestigious universities.
Others, they say, leave behind riding after college, marriage and parenthood.
Besides one-on-one training with riders, the center hosts four horse-showing competitions during the summer, drawing rookie riders from all over metro Detroit.
Young equestrians learn the pressure of performing in front of a crowd — and so do their horses.
“There are a lot of green horses,” Biondo said. “Horses that are not used to showing, we get them used to all of this. Because they might be in the backyard barn, they come here, and there’s people and horses and tents and announcing. You have to get them used to it.”
The sport of horse showing is unique because the ability of the rider is only half the battle. The other half is the vehicle on which the rider sits. Unlike NASCAR drivers, they control a living, breathing and emotional being.
Controlling the one-ton animals is the challenge young riders like Justamere members Jillian Morisette, 15, and Sarah Sketch, 11, face as they develop their skills.
“You have to have trust in your horse, and the horse has to have trust in you,” said Sketch, who rides a horse named Sharpie. “Sometimes you do have to give them treats and just say ‘It’s all right, come on,’” she said in an even more childlike voice than the one with which an 11-year-old naturally speaks.
“It becomes your buddy,” said Suzie Souva, Jillian’s grandmother. “It’s a communication and a relationship they form.”
Karrie Morisette, Jillian’s mother, said her daughter fell in love with horses during a trip to Arizona three years ago. They rode horses on a trail, and upon returning to Michigan, Jillian told Karrie she wanted one of her own.
“I was worried because I was scared she’d get hurt,” Karrie said. “A horse weighs a ton, and she’s tiny.”
After riding one of Slavic’s horses at Justamere, the Morisette family drove to Akron, Ohio, to buy Jillian a horse of her own. They picked one named Lazy Summer Time. Now, Jillian rides her every day and can read the mare’s emotions before taking her out on the dirt field.
“You have to figure out what’s going on with her,” Jillian said recently between her appearances at Justamere’s final competition of the summer.
Slavic, much like Jillian, fell in love with horses at a young age.
She began riding them at 11. Later in life, she traveled to England and received a British Horse Society certification for training. She returned home and worked at a couple of stables before buying land on Card Road, just south of 26 Mile Road.
Slavic jokes that she made the decision based on “stupidity.” And the name of the show-horse training center, Justamere (or just a mere), is the perfect representation of that whim decision.
“It’s what I like to do,” Slavic said. “It’s the only thing I’m skilled to do. It’s not like I have a college degree in the business, because I don’t.”
Slavic said her place is unique in that it allows riders to compete in both disciplines of horse showing — dressage and jumping — on the same day.
“It’s meant to be for young riders, and I don’t mean kids. I mean new riders new to show,” she said. “It’s not just your age. Come here and show in jumping and then in dressage and decide what you like as an adult.”
And riders can do so for a tenth of the price when compared with the circuit shows in which professional equestrians ride, Slavic said.
“It’s a sport of kings,” Biondo added.
But even a king’s game at a discount has been susceptible to the recession and the slow recovery that has followed.
Slavic said her 44 stalls would normally be filled with either horses she owns or with other people’s horses. Currently, only 30 stalls are occupied, and 12 of the horses are her own.
“I usually have a waiting list,” she said. “That’s the economy, and although things are looking better, I think people are still a little stingy.”
But when the economy recovers, the sport will still be there for those hoping to ride.
The beauty of horse riding, Biondo said, is that age hardly limits participation.
“What other sport can you be good and compete in the Olympics at 71 years old?” she said, referring to Hiroshi Hoketsu, an equestrian and oldest Olympian during the games in London this year.
And the desire to ride never goes away.
“There’s just something in (riders’) brains that just says we’ve got to ride horses,” Biondo said, adding that she never rode, but her daughter trained at Justamere and now rides for Michigan State University.
Slavic agreed, hesitant to call the love for horses a “bug” but found no better word to use.
“There’s something about riding horses,” she said. “If you really, really got the bug, you’ll always come back.”
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