Saddlebred horses offer a riding thrill in Audubon Park
Updated: Thursday, April 14, 2011, 5:28 PM
“Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole, and once it has done so, he/she will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
“There’s nothing like the thrill of a Saddlebred,” said Leslie Costelli, who drives from Gulfport, Miss., to New Orleans at least three times a week to ride at Cascade Stables in Audubon Park.
Costelli, 54, learned to ride horses as a child and picked up the sport again 10 years ago when her 9-year-old daughter took lessons. Now she boards and trains two horses, Atticus Finch and Merciless, at the only Saddlebred stable of its caliber on the Gulf Coast.
“I fell in love with American Saddlebreds, and I have to ride them,” she said.
Harriet Butscher, a first-grader at Louise S. McGehee School, feels similarly. Although she has taken lessons for only five months, Harriet rides daily and has her own Saddlebred horse, My Guy Popeye. Together, they won four ribbons March 26-27 at a regional horse show in Texas.
Harriet’s instructor, Joel Dorignac, recommended that the 7-year-old start riding Saddlebred horses, known to be a spirited and responsive breed. Stable owner Barbe Smith looked for a good match and chose Popeye.
When Harriet and Popeye met, they just “clicked,” said Janine Butscher, Harriet’s mother, who rode hunters and jumpers for 20 years in England.
Butscher no longer rides, but enjoys walking Popeye in the grass and grooming him, particularly his curly, golden mane.
“I wish that every child that wanted could learn to ride,” Butscher said.
There’s almost a spiritual bond that forms between horse and rider, Butscher said. A very special trust exists between the rider and trainer, as well. The rider must trust the trainer when asked to perform something “outside of the box” that they’ve never done before, Butscher said.
Dorignac won several top-10 national championship equestrian awards.
“Joel is always there for me, reminding me to keep my chin up and heels down,” Harriet said. “He makes me laugh and gives me lots of praise.”
James Nichols, president of the United Professional Horsemen’s Association, recently moved to New Orleans to work at Cascade Stables. People bring their horses from all over the country to train with Nichols.
The stable has 40 privately owned and boarded horses, but its mainstay is providing about 150 horseback lessons a week on 21 horses. The riders’ ages range from 4 to 72. The stable just restarted hour-long trail rides around Audubon Park on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well.
Jennifer O’Sullivan brings her three boys, ages 3, 5 and 7, for lessons to learn discipline, she said.
Elise Hagenow is the stable’s head riding instructor. "Miss Elise" is the boss, O’Sullivan said. “They listen better and follow directions better since they started riding in September.” Her son Sebastian, 5, also likes cleaning horse stalls and earned a Cascade cap for his efforts.
Smith learned to ride at Audubon Stables in the 1960s and was a champion before she became an equestrian instructor. Since then, she has run the stables and coached national and world champions, including four World Cup riders: Lauren McMichael, Kelcy Smith, Victoria McHenry and Scooter Scheurich.
When the Audubon horse barn was falling down, Smith’s clients formed a nonprofit group, Friends of Audubon Stables, to raise the funds to rebuild. Smith reopened Cascade Stables in 2006.
In March, Smith took seven horses and seven riders to the Pin Oak Charity Horse Show in Houston. Harriet was the Reserve Champion in the Walk and Trot Academy. Anne Pateman and Georgie Wilson, Cascade Stable riders, also won show awards.
The Friends of Audubon Stables are holding a fundraiser on May 7 to build two new horse barns. A lawn party will feature a hat contest, mint juleps, food and a big-screen TV to watch the Run for the Roses at the Kentucky Derby. The party will be a cool, relaxing alternative to Jazz Fest, Smith said.
By Mary Rickard, contributing writer
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