Riding English Style Through Suburbia

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)

RIVERVIEW - The headline from a reader story in the Brandon section of the St. Petersburg Times reads, "Sprawl has metastasized in once-peaceful Riverview in just a few years, with no end in sight."

The picture that the headline paints, however, isnít entirely complete. Even in Riverview, there are pockets of resistance, the occasional island oasis among the marching waves in the churned up ocean of urban sprawl.

One such oasis is the Agency Farms on Mint Julep Drive.

It would appear to be in a most unlikely location. Until you actually come across the fences and horses you would swear that it couldnít exist within the brick walls of the neighborhood subdivisions.

But the five acre stable dedicated to training students in the science, art and zen of English horseback riding does exist. It is, literally, an island among the endless tracts of homes.

At Agency Farms, Riverview is still peaceful.

Keith and Linda Hopper have owned the farm since before the sprawl began. "We were here way before this area was built up," said Linda Hopper. "We used to ride across [U.S. Highway] 301 - no one was on it. Weíd ride to Bullfrog Creek and have a picnic. We could have trail rides everywhere from here."

The trail rides are a thing of the past, as are the acre-hogging Western riding practices such as barrel racing but Agency Farms has found their niche in the neighborhood.

"We are an English riding hunter/jumper facility," said Hopper. "We started about eight years ago with Western riding but now we specialize in the hunter/jumpers. We do local shows as well as the big shows."

Students young and old come from all corners of South Hillsborough County for English riding lessons in this quiet Riverview neighborhood.

English riding differs in many ways from the more traditional Western riding. The saddles are smaller and the rider has to learn to manage the bouncy gait required of the English rider. Also unlike Western riding, the English rider must learn to coordinate the many aspects of the sport including the use of their legs, the reins and balance to maintain control over the horse.

The horses certainly arenít mindless. If they donít trust the skill and abilities of the rider, they arenít going to launch their lanky bodies over a fence. Trust and respect on the part of both members of the team play a huge role in English riding. "This is the only sport that takes two living, breathing entities to do one thing," said Hopper. This sport is 50-50 between the horse and the rider.

In the hunter classes the horses and riders are judged on style over a course of jumps. The horse and rider team are also scrutinized on changes in gait and style in clearing fences. The style of both the rider and the horse is important.

In the jumper classes, the team is judged on their ability to cleanly complete a series of fences.

At Agency Farms, the horses are already trained in the multiple aspects of the sport and they are ready to teach their two-legged team members.

"The lessons are from a half-hour to an hour and depend upon the skill level of the rider," said Hopper. "Weíll start out with just getting the students on the horse and learning how to ride. We also teach them how to groom and bathe the horse and put it away. After they can control the horse then the advanced lessons will run from 45 minutes to an hour."

The English riding lessons are for people who want to learn the sport given by people who want to teach. There are no trail rides and the horses arenít props for a day-care center. "We are strictly for lessons," said Hopper.

Cars travel down the quiet suburban street towards busy Highway 301 which lies just blocks away. Meanwhile the horses and riders create an artwork of motion, muscle and coordination as they negotiate various fences in the small corral under the direction of instructor Jackie Barbetti. The scene is incongruous yet it somehow all seems to fit.

"This was built to be a small family oriented facility," said Hopper. I built this barn four years ago and "I wanted it to be personalized. We have five acres here and I want to be able to run my shop personally. You go to one of the huge barns and you can get lost."

English riding, however, does come with a price tag. "They donít call it the Sport of Kings for nothing," said Hopper. "Everything to do with English riding costs more, the saddles, the bridle all cost more. I usually recommend that students come twice a week at the beginning because there is nothing like repetition. But I know that there are financial factors involved."

For most students, however, the cost is well worth the gain. Learning to trust your horse, and more importantly perhaps, learning to trust yourself is a valuable commodity. Earning the respect of not only your fellow riders but also the respect of your horse can carry through far beyond the fences and corrals.

"I fell in love with this," said Hopper referring to English riding. "It is so energizing and you never stop learning."

The small farm, the barn, the fences and corrals also make for an island oasis in a seemingly raging ocean of urban sprawl.

Agency Farms may be contacted at 677-1247.

Mitch Traphagen Photos

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