An oasis for horse and rider opens for business on a mountaintop in Ashland
By Susan Eisner Eley
Ericka Nolan & Chris with Jack last summer as part of the Adaptive Sports Program
If you were a horse living in the Catskill Mountains and could design your own home, it might look something like this: there would be acres and acres of rolling pasture to roam with friends, ample grass to graze and glistening spring-fed stream water to drink. Each morning and evening a nice lady named Nancy Partridge would be waiting for you at the barn to give you top quality grain and hay. During the day you would be luxuriously groomed and occasionally bathed, to the accompaniment of trills of loving words, kind pats and brisk nose rubs.
You would spend freezing winter nights and searingly hot summer days in immaculate 12 x 12 foot indoor stalls, lined with state-of-the-art rubber matting and wood shavings. A local veterinarian and a farrier would be on call to monitor your welfare, and if you ever fell sick, that same nice lady would stay up all night watching you, as a mother would a sick child.
And here’s the utterly amazing part. You would get all of this in exchange for carrying a few people on your back each day as they practiced the art of natural horsemanship with head trainer Ericka Nolan. As if this weren’t enough, this cutting-edge method puts the horse first and rejects traditional restraining techniques that rely on kicking the horse and pulling the reins. To all you skeptics, equestrian and human, this place does exist. It’s the recently opened Mountain Brook Farm in Ashland, located in the heart of the northern Catskill Mountains.
Nancy and husband Edsall Partridge own the stable, located on their 600-acre historic farm, which has been in the Partridge family for over a century. Half pasture and half woods, this former dairy farm sits at the northern end of Partridge Road, off Route 23, with majestic views of both Windham and Hunter Mountains. The farm is on a dead end road that borders state land. Traffic is limited and there are no intersecting roads to baffle or spook horses or riders.
Before the dairy facility was converted into a horse farm last year, an occasional car would drive by the Partridge homestead. Sometimes the car was lost, having meandered too far up the road. But lately more and more cars are driving by to see what the buzz is about. And buzz there is. Inside the barn, open for lessons seven days a week, Ericka and Nancy are busy from sun up to sun down with the care, feeding and training of 16 horses.
The barn, a work in continual progress, houses ten stalls with construction of two foaling stalls and four more box stalls underway. There are plans for an office, a lounge and eventually an indoor ring to extend the riding season into the winter months. Outdoors there are two 60-foot round pens, a hunt course, a 90 x 180 foot sand arena, access to 1,800 acres of trails and numerous pastures for horses to do what horses want to do. “A horse needs to walk at least 15 miles a day to be healthy,” says Nancy. “As herd animals, they also need to be together to socialize.”
Ericka Nolan with a studen from the Adaptive Sports Foundation, trotting for the first time
While there are several horse farms in the region, few offer the amount of turn out time in open pastures that Mountain Brook does. “Horses that spend too much time alone in stalls often become unhappy and isolated, a perfect recipe for a troubled horse,” says Nancy. No troubled horses here. They seem the picture of equine health—calm, strong and responsive.
Mountain Brook offers private and group lessons for all breeds in all levels of equitation, dressage, jumping and obstacles. Recently, they have added a spate of courses to keep up with the demand from a growing clientele. These include Parelli clinics, school programs three afternoons a week, a summer camp for ages 8-15 and programs developed in conjunction with such organizations as the Adaptive Sports Foundation (which provides ski lessons at Windham for people with disabilities), the Greene County Mental Health Center and the Greene County Department of Social Services.
How did all this come to be? A year and a half ago, this same site was an old dairy barn that was dark, underused and dirty. Today, there’s a magnificent energy and excitement you feel just entering the barn, diffused with the smells of horses, worn leather, wood shavings and newly constructed wooden stalls. The barn is bright and neat as a pin with tack organized and hung in military-like fashion and bales of hay and feed, precisely stacked in another corner.
As I sit and talk to Ericka, Nancy comes bounding in, breathless from rounding up two horses from a pasture across the road. She leads Alma, a first time mother, and her foal, Maje, into their stall, feeds and waters them and then joins us at the other end of the barn. Meanwhile, Ericka and I sit near Crystal, an 11-year-old Pony of America, whom my 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, is grooming and tacking up to prepare for a lesson.
As Nancy and Ericka share stories of their lives, there is an overriding theme—their undying, visceral love for and need to be with horses. We all know this type of horse-crazy girl. Like Samantha, she’s the one who gazes out of the window during school, dreaming of horses, doodling horse heads in textbook margins and thinking only about when they can ride again. Nancy and Ericka were these kind of girls.
Operating a horse farm has been Nancy’s dream since she was a child. Growing up on a dairy farm in Carlisle, NY, she helped her father, Burdette Dewell III, with chores from the time she could walk. “When I turned five, my grandfather gave me my first pony, Molly,” she says. “All I wanted to do was ride her, so I just got on her back and learned to stay on.” Nancy, a self-taught rider with no formal training, rode 365 days a year in rain, sleet or snow.
“On mornings after I washed my hair, I used to head for the barn and rub my hair on my pony to pick up her smell. In class I would wrap my ponytail under my nose to feel closer to her.
The interior of the barn at Mountain Brook Farm
“There were some freezing days when I would finish riding, take care of the horse and then go home. By the time I got to the front door my fingers were so frozen I couldn’t open it. I would stand there and kick the door until someone opened it up for me.”
Nancy learned the importance of putting the animals first by watching her father put his cattle first. From him she also learned the value of a hard day’s work, how to care for animals and how to work a farm, a 24/7 job. “I made extra work for my Dad even when there was none!” she says. “He had his cows and I had my imaginary ones. When he milked, I milked, and when he put grain down, he put grain down for my cattle. He was a patient man, even when he was dead tired from the real work!”
It was inevitable that Nancy would settle down with a farmer, and in 1980 she married Edsall. Combining their two families—both had been previously married—they raised nine children, currently ranging in age from 21-34. In 1997 they closed the dairy operation (it had become increasingly difficult to make ends meet as a small dairy) and started raising cattle for beef. “I had thought of making a horse farm for many years,” she says. “But I was too busy with the dairy work and the kids.
“When I decided to open a stable, I did my homework first, talking to as many people in the horse world as I could.” Satisfied with her research (she learned that there was a real need for a boarding facility in the area), she set her sights on the conversion, enlisting Edsall and one of her first clients, Bob Lawyer, owner of a standard bred boarder named Fortune El, or El for short.
Nancy met Ericka soon after Ericka and her two daughters moved from Millbrook to Hensonville last year. “I came here eight years ago to ski and my heart just grew roots. I knew I would ultimately move here.” She found land to lease on Mitchell Hollow Road in Windham, where she continues to supervise the care of several horses, in addition to her work at Mountain Brook.
Nancy had heard about the horse trainer with a big reputation on Mitchell Hollow and went to meet her. Several meetings later, during which they discovered their overlapping philosophies on horse care and training, they created an informal partnership to realize a dream.
“When I saw Nancy’s barn, I couldn’t believe what she had built,” says Ericka. Nancy had the facility, but needed a partner with a strong training and teaching background. Ericka needed a barn and support to allow her the freedom to train horses and teach lessons. Like an equestrian Reese’s peanut butter cup, they merged their talents, knowing that together they were so much more than their separate parts.
Nancy and Ericka say they surprise a lot of people because they haven’t inked a partnership on paper. Nevertheless, they have found an informal structure that works. “Our partnership is a success because we are on the same page about what kind of operation we want to run,” adds Nancy. “We also enjoy working together and anticipate each other’s thoughts and needs.”
“Ever since I could walk I was all about horses,” says Ericka, who spent her childhood in Wales, Massachusetts. “Every year for my birthday, Christmas, Easter and every other holiday, I asked my parents for a horse.” Her parents couldn’t afford a horse, so it would be many years before she acquired her own. When Ericka turned 14, her aunt gave her a gift of a month’s worth of lessons at a local stable, which only deepened and cemented her love for the equestrian world.
After the month ended, Ericka stayed on for another year and a half, trading her labor (cleaning stalls, grooming and tacking horses) for one lesson a week. Ericka spent her childhood at no less than 10 stables, ranging from dusty backyard barns to expansive well-kept farms in Massachusetts and New York. Along the way, she held jobs as barn slave, stable hand, groom, teacher and eventually barn manager and owner of her own stable called Spring Meadow Farm in Hamden, MA.
Wherever she went along the eastern seaboard—preparing horses for competitions at the show circuit—she soaked up knowledge, picking the brains of great riders like Steve Milne, George Morris and Eric Hasbrooke. Along the way, she became a great horsewoman and got an education you couldn’t pay for.
Ericka soon discovered that her true calling was working with difficult horses. “The first hard horse I worked with was Mister Mister, a 16.2 hand sorrel gelding, who reared and bucked,” she says. “Nobody liked Mister Mister, but I took a shine to him and wanted to wanted to ride him so bad!” The owner allowed her to work with this recalcitrant horse, hoping at best that she wouldn’t land in the hospital. “I read everything I could on working with horses so I could fix this one,” she explains. Fix him she did through a mix of grit, knowledge, patience and skill using equipment, like a rubber bit (it’s softer on the mouth).
The first horse Ericka owned was Goblin, a nightmare thoroughbred (in Ericka’s own words) when she met him. He had been through many trainers and was living in a dark, corner stall at Hawthorne Farm in Enfield, CT. “As soon as I saw him, I liked him,” says Ericka. “When the owner said he was for sale for $60,000, I said, great, let’s see him go. ‘Oh no! Nobody rides Goblin,’ they said.” The owner opened the back of the barn to let him into the pasture. He took two steps and jumped the fence. “I looked at them and said, ‘I’ll give you $2,500 cash if I can catch him and put him on my trailer.’” They agreed to the terms and Goblin became Ericka’s.
Ericka has since folded her experiences with Mister Mister, Goblin and countless others into training people to ride as feeling riders. Her teaching method draws from several sources: an ancient text called On The Art of Horsemanship (360 B.C.E.), by Xenophon the Athenian cavalryman, which stressed the importance of the horse’s psyche; the Native American methods of working as partners with their horses, and the Pat Parelli system of natural horsemanship, which teaches riders to communicate with their horses through psychology and understanding, rather than force, fear and intimidation.
“To ride, you ask your horse to go forward by asking him to raise his back and carry you,” she says. “This is accomplished by shifting one’s weight with a light seat (no matter what size you are), having light hands and proper balance. Natural riding relies on subtle modifications in the legs and seat which the horse feels and reacts to.”
In contrast, adds Ericka, “Traditional riding asks you to balance yourself with your hands on the horse’s mouth and pull mechanically on the reins, as if they were a system of hinges for steering.” While learning the traditional way may produce results faster, she says, learning to ride organically results in a better rider and a happier horse in the long run.
Ericka feels that she is finally at home at Mountain Brook, where life keeps getting better and better. The expansion has been astronomical as more and more people discover the superb facilities and cutting edge curriculum at Mountain Brook. “We both kept thinking, ‘If we build it, they will come,’” says Nancy. And come they are as more and more riders discover their field of dreams on a mountaintop.
Mountain Brook Farm
393 Partridge Road
Windham, NY 12496
518 734 3917
www.mountainbrookfarm.net (under construction)
518 734 3592
1) Outdoor Board-- $150.00 a month
Horses live in the pastures year round and are brought in twice daily for feed.
2) Indoor Board--$250.00 a month
Horses are turned out during the day in winter and at night in summer.
$35 for a 1/2 hour private,
$60 for an hour private
$35 per person for an hour group lesson.
Summer Camp for ages 9–16
This camp offers children a hands-on experience with horses. Focusing on confidence with horses on the ground and in the saddle, this camp will include all aspects of horse care and riding. the kids will ride for about an hour and a half every day.
Sessions: July 5–9, July 12–16, July 19–23, July 26–30, August 2–6, August 16–20, August 23–27.
10:00 am–12:30 pm
$150 per session
For more information, contact Ericka or Nancy at Mountain Brook Farm.