Back in the Saddle
Returning to a Childhood
Horse-crazy twin girls, Zoe and Izzy Grutkowski, sit atop Patrick, one of Salko Farm’s many schooling horses.
Photo by Courtney Henry
My earliest childhood memories involve horses. On weekends, I fed carrots to the horses down the road and tried my best to sneak a pat. Every summer, my parents took me to the Hampton Classic, a big to-do on the East End that draws a mix of serious equestrians, locals, and society-types. I remember watching dozens of riders soar over huge, ornate colorful jumps. Afterward, I would get a “pony ride” on our family friend’s Grand Prix horse, and my parents would treat me to a Breyer model horse of my own.
At age five, I began taking lessons. Eventually, I graduated to a summer camp program where we learned to muck stalls, clean tack, barn etiquette—and of course—how to ride. When we weren’t at the barn, my friends and I would pretend to be horses, jumping over fences constructed from supplies in my mother’s broom closet. It was always about having fun.
Eventually we followed our instructor to a new barn and I rode competitively for several years. The summer before my parents sold our home there, I won two ribbons at the Hampton Classic. It was a bittersweet ending to a special time in my life.
While I dabbled in riding in high school and college, it was never the same. My parents sold my saddle and transformed my tack trunk into a cool coffee table. Most of my ribbons went into the trash except the two from the Classic.
It wasn’t until my husband and I were expecting twins that horses came into my life again. We began the hunt for our forever home in the ’burbs and fell in love with Southport. The beautiful landscape dotted with horses and red barns felt like home.
On my twins’ eighth birthday, they took their first lesson at Salko Farm, a teaching barn in Southport, with 25 horses and ponies. They are all “school horses,” meaning they are not owned or leased. Rather, the instructors match children and horses based on their size, age, and skill. While Salko is focused on children, it’s a safe and friendly environment for adults to learn horsemanship and take lessons, and to bond over your child’s passion. Salko Farm has been in Chris Salko’s family since the 1950s and now he lives there with his children. Owning a stable is a 24/7 job; you have to be passionate.
My girls fell in love instantly and the hot temperatures and smells didn’t bother them. Even our anxious daughter felt at ease on a horse. There’s something to be said about the therapeutic value of riding and being around animals. Watching the girls was a great excuse to be around horses again. The itch to ride was undeniable, but I was worried my time in the saddle was long gone. “If it’s something you love, you should absolutely be doing it,” Andrea Zaleski, barn manager and lead instructor at Salko Farm told me. “You can totally do this mama. I’ll remind you to breathe.”
The day of my lesson, I had a stomach full of butterflies. When you’re little, you don’t always see the risks involved but as a mom coming off two broken bones, I was wary. Soon my happiness washed away the nerves. When it was over, my legs felt like jelly but I had a new sense of confidence. It was exhilarating, but like any new exercise, I was sore the next few days. Riding is much more than just sitting there and moving the reins. It’s a solid workout that relies on your core, legs and arms. It’s like powering through the first few spin classes.
You’ve probably driven by Fairfield County Hunt Club, an equestrian facility and country club established in 1923. Most people don’t know that you can purchase a lesson pack without a full membership and its summer shows are open to the public. Additionally, The Pilot House Equestrian Center in Greenfield Hill is geared towards adults and children with special needs.
Fairfield County is also home to nearly 20 bridle trails, including beach access in the off season at low tide. Most barns have indoor riding arenas so students can continue year round. Summer camps tend to book quickly and are a great way to introduce a child to the sport. It’s important to test out a few before making the investment.
Twin Bays in Dairen supports top show riders as well as non-competers.