by Mitzi Summers
My first job with horses was as an instructor/trainer at a multi-million dollar stable complex in Walled Lake, MI. Walled Lake was an hour northwest of Detroit near Bloomfield Hills, which then was an established Equestrian center and Hunt club. I had just returned from England where I completed the British Horse Society Instructor’s Course. I had answered a classified ad in The Chronicle of the Horse that required an instructor/trainer who had preferably completed a formal course of training such as the B.H.S.I. Course. I received an immediate reply by telegram — this was before the internet — requesting that I would agree to fly to Michigan (all expenses paid) to go through the interview process.
Obviously, at the age of 19, I was extremely excited. At that time there was a small airport in Utica, NY, which housed Mohawk Airlines. They had a direct flight to Detroit. Within the week I flew out.
A chauffeured car met me at the airport and drove me the hour to the stable. Heady stuff indeed for a small-town teenager!
When I arrived at the stable I was very impressed. Centaur was located off a dirt road. It was landscaped, with a huge beautiful building which had been designed to look a bit rustic from the outside to blend in with the surrounding fields and woods. When you entered through the front doors, the opposite wall was entirely glass. It was designed so that clients could come and eat dinner or have a drink and watch the horse activity below them at ground level.
The indoor ring was huge. It is still the biggest ring I have ever seen which was not connected to a school or agricultural complex. You could easily teach two lessons with 12 horses in each lesson at the same time.
About 12 grooms were employed, plus a second crew to just muck out and provide maintenance. When I was hired there were three instructors, later it grew to four. The basement level contained separate bedrooms with a separate great room for the kitchen and living room area. These were provided for any instructor that wished to live on the premises. This was free as it was a bonus for Centaur to have qualified professionals on hand. A janitor cleaned the area and provided fresh linen twice weekly!
They had a longeing paddock outside, a large outdoor with semi-permanent natural hunter fences, and a demanding cross-country course. There were large turn-out areas for the horses The dressage arena and warm-up rings were toward the back of the barn. Many of their staff were English, as they wanted to model the care and educational program with that of the British Horse Society.
My interview consisted of a verbal interrogation of my teaching an advanced private lesson, a group beginner-intermediate lesson and a group advanced lesson. One was based on dressage and one on jumping. They then had me ride and jump two horses — one of which was a bit green and difficult. Afterward we all had lunch and I was offered the position! I stayed overnight, was flown back the next day, and within a week was driving to Detroit.
I was put in charge of teaching six days a week, training three of the boarder’s horses, riding school horses to keep them fresh and respondent to proper aids, and establishing a program to keep track of all the various lessons and horse usage. I wanted to make certain that the best school horses were not overused and that each horse got at least one day, preferably two days of turn-out without being worked. It was probably the most fun anyone could have at a job! It was hard work; the request for lessons from me soon steadily increased, but it was probably the best learning experience I could obtain. My groups were often 12 riders. I do not now recommend this as far as providing individual attention, but that was how the stable could accommodate all of their customers.
I was fortunate to be able to receive steady lessons from the experienced senior instructor at Centaur, as well as many clinics. I was encouraged to attend another advanced Horsemaster Course tested by Jennifer Stobart. We showed at many shows such as the Detroit horse show, and with school horses often placed in the top third in dressage, hunter and jumper classes.
At one time we traveled to England and were allowed to buy four horses from the Fulmer School of Equitation owned by Robert Hall. These were beautiful, talented horses. Some were a bit difficult. Fair Serenade was nicknamed “Hairy Mary”. She lived up to her name even though she became one of the top dressage horses in the Midwest. Rubez was a huge horse imported from Russia. He could jump the moon, though he was sweet and very gentle. The head instructor would often ride him at night for the customers to watch.
One thing I appreciated in the area was the sense of comraderie from all of the other commercial stables. If one of us was having a problem with a training or teaching concern, one phone call to a fellow trainer and they would come to Centaur or we would come to their stable. I remember everything done with a high sense of correct classical training.
I chose to live in the quarters provided by Centaur for the instructors, so I could do the early feeding to earn extra money, and I was always on “colic call”. Back then, as we waited for the vet to come — this usually happened around midnight — the horse would be given a drench and walked. Since I was the tallest I was always elected to administer the drench. It was a foul-smelling liquid given from a bottle shaped like a beer bottle. Of course half of it would end up on my pajamas and robe and ruin them. I should have worn a raincoat. We would all take turns walking the horse.
What wonderful horse personalities and friends I grew to love at Centaur. Tiny Tim was a retired racehorse who was 18 hands high. He was extremely narrow in front. When I first worked at Centaur I was told to take him cross-country on a trail ride. I was about a mile from the stable when suddenly I was on a runaway. Nothing I could think of stopped him. I finally just position myself forward to gave him a loose rein. With nothing to pull against he stopped. When I returned quite happily to the barn I had a welcoming committee awaiting me. I am not agreeing with what was done but it was part of the initiation process and at least I had passed.
There were so many fun things to remember that I could fill a book. After hours we instructors taught ourselves to Roman ride. Foolish, dangerous, but we were young. As the NEW instructor at Centaur I sat with well-heeled people in a box at the Detroit Horse Show. It was at night under the lights. I saw my first Grand Prix musical Kur with a faultless gray horse performing. I burst into tears…it was so beautiful and unforced and flowing. However this was an embarrassing moment for the owners of the Centaur who were introducing their new “sophisticated” trainer.
At that time no expenses were spared. We had top quality tack all imported from England and top school horses. It was such an opportunity to learn and the horses received such good care.
Unfortunately the owners suffered financial reverses that had nothing to do with Centaur, but they were forced to liquefy their holdings. I am told that Centaur was turned into condominiums with game machines in place of the indoor ring, and many semi-mansions on the cross-country course. I could never bear to go back and see.
It did allow me to begin my apprenticeship with the “Father of American Dressage”, Charles Grant, who taught me an endless amount. However, I carry the visage of each patient, loving school horse in my heart and in my mind.
Memories of Centaur Farm Stables
by Mitzi Summers