by Kristin Hackler
It is an amazing thing to live on a mostly-rural barrier island roughly the size of Manhattan. While an everyday drive will take you past familiar fruit stands, houses, restaurants and businesses, a short detour down a tractor-etched dirt road leaves you standing in the middle of more than 300 acres of maritime forest. One such place is Stono River Riding Academy.
Founded as Stono River Stables in 1969 by the Reed family, the Stono River Riding Academy can be found at the edge of the Blackloch Nature Preserve, a 300 acre block of forest, old pastureland and marsh located about half a mile down Hut road off of River Road on Johns Island. For forty years the Reeds managed the horses, stables and property, and when it seemed as though the work required to run a stable became too much, the Folden family cantered into their lives.
A rider since the age of 10, Michelle Folden has earned a stunning reputation both as a rider and trainer. Specializing in dressage – a form of progressive training sometimes referred to as “horse ballet” – Michelle has coached four junior riders to earn invitations to the United States Equestrian Foundation (USEF) medal seat finals, and has taken multiple students to the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) and the Colonel Bengt Ljungquist Memorial (CBLM) championships.
A Charleston native, Michelle traveled extensively before settling down with her husband, David Folden, in Greensboro, North Carolina. However, Michelle couldn’t shake her longing for the lowcountry and family vacations often involved working trips back to Charleston. Finally, in 2008, the Foldens were able to move to Charleston permanently and begin the long, yet rewarding process of bringing Stono River Stables back up to professional standards.
The stables have changed dramatically in the short time since the Foldens arrived. Fencing has been repaired, the barn stables have been opened up and new temporary stables have been installed to house all 34 of the Academy’s current residents. Eventually, Michelle hopes to bring the old cross country track on the property back up to competition standards and possibly even hold formal dressage competitions on the grounds.
Classes have already begun at the Stono River Riding Academy, and students on summer break can be found around the stables at almost any time of day. From now until the last summer session ends on August 20, school students may sign up for a one-week, full-day camp program which includes riding instruction, horse education and care, grooming, tacking and un-tacking, games on horseback, arts and crafts and much more. Michelle and her husband David, who also helps run the Academy, believe that to teach a person how to ride is only a small part of learning to ride: one must know how to care for a horse in every aspect of the term, from brushing to shoeing to knowing how it feels to ride in a truck towing an occupied horse trailer.
“It’s fun out here,” said Michelle Shellnut, one of the youngest and most promising of Michelle’s summer students. “One day I want to go to horse shows and win.”
“The horses and sweet and I like the people,” said Tiffany Kingston, smiling through her bite of fresh watermelon which the students were enjoying during their mid-morning break. Camper Ben Sullivan agreed. “Everyone here is awesome!” he laughed.
Although the Academy is an excellent place for students to learn the basics about riding and horse care, the Foldens also offer more formal, long term lessons for all ages, including a 14 week fall riding session from September 6 – December 17, and an 18 week spring riding session. An eight-lesson summer riding session is also available which can be scheduled after 1 p.m. or any time during the weekends within an 11-week timeframe in order to accommodate busy summer schedules.
There is a certain type of grace, of abandonment found in riding a horse. When you’re on horseback, you have no choice but to concentrate on the immediate: the curve of the trail, the weight of the reins, the rocking solace of a slow walk and the exhilarating rush of a full gallop. The world and its worries slip away and you are lost in the simple, powerful rush of riding. While Stono River Riding Academy offers everything you need to become a professional rider or simply a well-educated horse owner, the occasional or first-time rider can still drop by for a one-hour guided ride through the nature preserve. Called “A Lesson in the Woods”, instructors will take the time to pair you with a well-trained and gentle horse before hitting the trail.
Even though the lessons at Stono River Riding Academy are invaluable and the knowledge between Michelle and her young assistants Molly, Gracia and Lauren is seemingly unending, it is still an amazing opportunity to be able to take one of these magnificent creatures out for a simple ride in the woods. Drop by some time and let some four-legged therapy work its magic on you.
For more information about Stono River Riding Academy, call 559-0773 or visit www.stonoriverridingacademy.com. Stono River Riding Academy is located at 2962 Hut Road, Johns Island.