I was the horse crazy little girl who collected Breyer horses and wished for a horse of my own every birthday when I blew out the candles. Now, I’m in my 21st year of coaching the University of South Carolina Equestrian Team. If you had told me 22 years ago that this would continue to be my job going into the year 2019-2020 I would never have believed you. I can definitely say that I am living my dream.

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When I was three years old, my mother got my older sisters and me involved with riding a a farm called the JJ Ranch in Blythewood, SC. We had a wonderful time there riding in the rodeo arena and taking overnight trail rides where we all slept under a GIANT tarp and took baths in the lake. Truth be told, I think the “wagon train” trail probably went in a giant loop around Blythewood, and our campsite was probably five minutes from the ranch, but we thought we were hours away. Tragically, The owners of the JJ Ranch were killed in an airplane crash when I was five years old.

Although that ended our regular riding lessons for a while, we took every opportunity we could to ride at my uncle Mac McCrory’s farm. I became attached to a horse there named “Pretty Boy,” and by the time I was ten I was galloping up and down the roads of Blythewood. My mother became desperate to find out a more structured outlet for me to ride, so she enrolled me in English riding lessons at a beautiful farm called Belle Grove.

The beauty of Belle Grove was that it was a self contained place where young kids went and rode and be happy just riding on the 1000 acre facility.  The horses all lived out and had the run of the farm in one big giant herd.  The rule at Belle Grove was that after two years you had to quit or buy a horse. The horses cost between $250 and $400. My parents weren’t wealthy but reluctantly agreed to buy me a horse. His name was Ajax, he cost them $300 and although he was really naughty, he was a great teacher to me and would jump anything, anywhere, at any time. Belle Grove was a magical place. Although I only spent three years there riding, it was the real beginning of my many friendships I still have today and my love for horses and living in the country.

Belle Grove was sold after my first year as a horse owner.  But my riding instructor Betty Belser bought a farm in Eastover and named it Hickory Top Farm. Those of us that wanted to continue to ride moved there. Although, Mrs. Belser  wanted us to expand our horizons past the gates of the farm.  We fox hunted with the Camden Hunt weekly and I was lucky enough to receive my colors at 15.

Ajax was eventually sold, as well as his successor Charity. At that point I began leasing horses from different individuals. Mrs Belser had a lovely horse named Flyer and one of my other trainers had a nice horse named Aerie and they allowed me to ride and show their horses, I’m sure because they felt sorry for me. I didn’t own a horse and was rabid about horses.  I worked weekends at Hickory Top feeding horses, turning out and cleaning stalls. I was also a “riding assistant” which meant I was allowed to help the younger ones during their lessons and on the weekends when we had organized riding all day Saturday and then Sunday afternoons.  I spent every weekend riding and once my friends got their driver’s licenses, we rode every day.

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I resented my parents back then for making me work my board off each month but am so grateful now I had that opportunity.  I learned more about proper horse care and correct riding and teaching from those days. It helped me tremendously. Once again, my good friends were those that rode at Hickory Top, not folks at my high school.  I am still great friends with many of those people today in which very few of them made riding their career.

As the end of high school neared, several of us from Hickory Top decided to go to Sweet Briar College in Virginia following one of our trainer’s alma maters.  It was the only school I applied to. My grandmother had recently given all of her grandchildren some money as a gift. I was so obsessed with going to Sweet Briar that I volunteered to pay for tuition myself the first year so I could go and my parents agreed and would pay for my riding lessons.  Sweet Briar exposed me not only to different people around the United States but I also learned a tremendous amount riding and being a weekend worker at the barn.

After two years at Sweet Briar, I had no clear major, finances were tight and I was a bit homesick so decided to transfer back home to the University of South Carolina.  Mrs. Belser had passed away and Hickory Top was being run by Mrs. Belser’s additional trainers. I worked there for a year before being offered a position at Woodcreek Farms Stables in Pontiac, SC where I continued to show and hunt but also began to dabble in eventing.  The owner, Marguerite Cooper Ferguson, wanted someone to help her with her growing program. Marguerite was a wonderful mentor and we had (and still have) a wonderful relationship. I graduated College with a degree in broadcast Journalism and continued teaching at Woodcreek and later back at Hickory Top.

As I became more involved with eventing, I began to branch out more in my teaching and became more of a freelance trainer.  I had been working with a very young equestrian named Sinead Halpin when her mother, Bernadette, invited me to come and teach at their new facility in Irmo, Irish Oaks Equestrian Center.  

My career path took a sharp turn when at my 38th birthday celebration at Irish Oaks someone with connections to athletics at the University of SC told me they were looking for a new head coach of their equestrian program.  Bernadette and I looked jokingly at each other and said, “Why not us?” The joke turned into a serious pursuit of the equestrian program coming to Irish Oaks under Bernadette’s management with me as coach.  We both felt very confident that we were capable of making this change.

USC athletics held a search in the Columbia area for a Coach and equestrian center combination.  Several facilities with built in coaches were considered. After much number crunching and logistic consideration, Irish Oaks and I were awarded the title of Head Coach and home of Gamecock Equestrian.

I had to “fake” my way through the western side of things for a few years but was soon learning all the ins and outs of western horsemanship and reining.  Ruth Sorrel was one of the first student athletes I added to the team through a walk on try out as a western rider. She proved to be invaluable as a rider and leader on the team.  Several years after she graduated, I hired her as an assistant coach to run the western program and she has been with the program ever since.

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Being head coach of the fledgling USC equestrian program had its’ challenges. In the late 90’s it was hard to sell equestrian to the student body population as a sport.  The general consensus was “anyone can ride a horse” to which I often responded “And anyone can throw a football, too.” We often invited other sports to come out to ride and they were shocked at how sore they were after walking and trotting for 15 minutes or less.

Things have changed dramatically with USC equestrian since the beginning.  When Bernadette and I took on the job, USC owned no horses, I was the only coach for both hunt seat and western and we were involved in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association.  Fast forward to 2019…Not only does the University own its’ own equestrian facility, OneWood Farm in Blythewood, but we own 26 horses through donations and I have two assistant coaches, a farm manager and an administrative assistant!  Our issued clothing went from warm up suits, a duffle bag and T-shirts on special occasions to fully outfitting our western and hunt seat teams from head to toe in custom competition clothing and Under Armour shorts, T-shirts, tennis shoes, warm up suits, jackets, back packs, etc. We have a beautiful locker room at OneWood and are able to meet as well as eat in the Great Room of the “Peterson House” on competition days. We support 40 female student athletes on our team and they have access to athletic scholarships, academic tutoring, a training table and doctor visits as needed. When I started, I did not have an office and have since gone to a suite in the Rice building at the USC Athletic’s village.

To be raised in a Gamecock athletics supporting family and then to become a member of the athletics department while continuing to do my passion was literally my dream job and still is.  I never get tired of it. It certainly has its days and drama but the positive far outweighs the negative.