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Horses – and the friendships they inspire – bring women to the barn
By By Jennifer Gerrietts
Argus Leader Media

June 25. 2013 10:18AM
Christi Gilliland started out just cleaning out the barn. Today she’s found her place in the world – it just happens to be on the back of a horse.

Once a week, Gilliland would show up at the stables at Glory Bound Arabians and help out in any way she could, just to get to ride for an hour.

“I just loved it,” says Gilliland while sitting in the barn, working to connect all the pieces of her silver western-style bridle. “Every day I’d think, ‘I just can’t believe they let me do this stuff.’ ”

Today, Gilliland owns her own horse, Chester, and even competes in western-style riding. As she gets up on a stool to attach her chaps, the quiet woman who does drafting and surveying for an engineering firm says she knows she’s just following her dreams.

“If it wasn’t for the other women out here, I would have never had the courage to buy him,” she says, patting Chester’s brown flank. “It really changes your life.”

Stable owner Deb Risty loves the connection she sees between women and their horses. In the 40 years she’s run her farm, she’s become close to the women who are drawn to life in the saddle.

They all have their reasons for coming out to the horse farm, she says. Risty, who has run the business for decades, only began competing herself at age 50.

Some have brought their daughters for lessons for years. Other have always wanted to ride and decided that they now have time. They form deep friendships with both the horses and the women around them who love to ride.

“It’s our work and our social life out here,” says Risty, while walking to a corral where an Arabian stallion runs free, tossing his head as his legs jump into the air. “Our ‘barn family’ is awesome.”

Mary Thompson is putting the final touches on Mitch, straightening the beaded, bejeweled and fringed costume the horse wears for native Arabian costume competition. Thompson, a tennis professional in her real life, lives for the day she and her horse can run the ring in their fancy clothes.

“It’s so fun. You and the horse get to dress up,” says Thompson, while fastening her own beaded headdress. “I really believe this was something I was always supposed to do.”

What brought Thompson to the stables was her own bucket list. When she turned 60 three years ago, she decided that she wanted to try a number of new things: sky diving, canoeing the Niobrara River, reading the Bible from start to finish, taking guitar lessons and learning how to trail ride.

Thompson signed on to ride a very gentle horse for 30 days. By the end of that first month, she asked for a faster horse and extended her time at the stables. When she rode Mitch for the first time, she didn’t want to go back to her slow-moving horse. And last year, she bought him.

“It’s like going from a Ford Focus to a Ferrari,” she says, leading Mitch back to his stable after a trot around the corral. “He’s 1,200 pounds, and he can move, but I trust him so much that I’d put my granddaughter on his back and never worry.”

After years of bringing her 17-year-old daughter to the stables, Heidi Ode has just started taking her own riding lessons. She’s appreciated what it’s done for her daughter over the years. “When other people worry about where their kids are or what they’re doing, I don’t,” Ode says. “I know she wants nothing more than to be with the horses.”

Leaving the ring, she says it feels good to learn some of the skills she’s encouraged in her daughter for years. She’s gone to countless shows, braided many heads of hair and spent hours and hours at the barns already.

“I’ve been around so much that this really just feels like the next logical step,” Ode says.

Susan Maier stands next to a small corral, watching her new foal, Fadl’s Lil Deceptshun, walk with wobbly legs next to her mother, Daisey. The tan-colored foal, born just days earlier to Maier’s Daisey, a quarterhorse thoroughbred mix, and Arabian stallion Fadl, gets steadier on her feet with every step. “It’s my first baby,” says Maier, who owns and rides several horses at the farm. “I’ve been so nervous the last few months.”

When Maier moved to Sioux Falls from Florida several years ago, she and her husband decided to take riding lessons. She knew almost immediately that she had found her new home.
Soon Maier started rescuing horses that needed homes. She’s saved 10 so far. When one horse farm was shut down, she tracked down the owner to purchase eight of the horses, finding homes for six of them and keeping two for herself. “You learn their language, how to talk to them and how to get them to trust you,” Maier says. “They just pulled me in, and it breaks my heart when I sell one.”

As the women begin to put their horses and gear away for the night, they gather for a little wine and cupcakes to celebrate the birth of Maier’s new “baby.” The stable owner walks with them, saying she feels like she is fortunate to do something that she loves with good friends every day.

“It’s really magical. It just is,” says Risty. “I’ve never had to decide what I wanted to do when I grow up. It doesn’t feel like I have.”

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