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West Michigan, On Horseback

When Dante Villarreal was a little boy, he would think about his grandfather as he picked apples in the Fruit Ridge orchards. He and his parents were migrant workers, and every year after the picking season ended the family would stay with his grandfather in Mexico.

“My grandfather was a humble man; he led a very simple life in the mountains,” says Villarreal. “His horses were his only transportation. So I would ride with him when we were there. And I loved it.”

From these humble beginnings, Villarreal went onto graduate from Grand Valley State University, later assuming the role of regional director for theMichigan Small Business Development and Technology Center, which is located at the university. “The first thing I did when I started working was to buy some property where I could have horses. I bought horses before I even had a house.”

He now raises a unique Latin American breed called Paso Finos (“the horses with the fine walk”), known for their smooth, natural gait and elegant headset. “They look like chess pieces,” says Villarreal. “They have a lot of pride, also a lot of stamina and what we call brio, which means energy in Spanish.”

Villarreal is not alone in his appreciation of the species. West Michigan, never more than 15 minutes from farmland, is teeming with equestrians of all types and backgrounds.

Rachel Mraz is a wealth management consultant for Merrill Lynch during the work day, but when she is not in the office she applies the same competitive spirit her profession demands to eventing, an equestrian competition that combines dressage, cross-country and show-jumping.

Like Villarreal, Mraz also was introduced to horses at a young age. She got her start when she was given riding lessons for her sixth birthday.

“I loved it. In the summertime, my mom would drop me off at the barn on her way to work and I’d stay there 10 hours, riding my pony two and three times a day,” she recalls. “It’s been in my blood ever since.”

What is it about horses?
So what is it about little girls (and grown men and women) and their horses?

“I think one of the things is that they’re so big and strong — 1,200 pounds — and yet they do all this stuff for us when we ask them to,” explains Kristi Tompkins, who with her husband Mark owns Kentree Stables in Ada, one of the area’s longest-running stable operations.

Villarreal agrees. “What other creature allows you to put a harness or a saddle on them and then follows your direction when you tell it what to do or where to go?”

For others, horse-riding is their sport of choice. Mraz has competed regionally and nationally for 20 years.

“You’re not dependent on other people like you are with team sports,” she explains. “It’s just you and your horse. And there’s a lot of training involved; you can’t just show up at a show if you’re not prepared. I practice several times a week. I throw my boots and britches in the back seat and head to the stable right after work. Once I’m there I start to decompress; it’s a real stress releaser.”

From dressage (“flat” work done in an arena) to jumping to Western riding to polo, there are as many categories of riding as there are people who ride.

The horse listeners
Kathy Covert, who runs the Honey Creek stable where Rachel belongs, says she took over the care and feeding of the 19 horses that board there to “support the habits” of herself and her two high school-age daughters, who each have their own horse. “It’s a great activity for a family,” says Kathy, who leases 40 acres and coaches her daughters’ equestrian team at Forest Hills. “It’s a lot of fun to go out on the trails, very peaceful and relaxing.”

Like Villarreal and Mraz, Covert also has a “regular” job, running the office at Spoelstra Pools. While time-consuming for her, the horse hobby keeps her kids busy and out of trouble, another reason she doesn’t mind indulging in it.

There are more affordable passions to have. Buying a horse will set you back at least $5,000 (the very low end) and boarding runs around $700 a month. Kristi Tompkins says that while local horse sales have been impacted by the sagging economy, lessons are as popular as ever. And both Calvin College and Grand Valley State University have equestrian teams, which Mark Tompkins coaches. “It’s a sport kids can start and then enjoy throughout their whole lives,” says Kristi.

Villarreal says it goes beyond that for him. “For me, it’s a lifestyle,” he states emphatically. “I live and breathe horses. And I’ve learned so much from them. One of the biggest things is communication. It’s amazing to see a herd of horses communicate with one another without ever making a sound, just with gestures. It made me realize how a lot of times we humans don’t listen very well. But the best horse trainers are phenomenal listeners, so that’s something I’ve tried to incorporate in my job working with small businesses.”

He adds that the Paso Fino breed provides a good learning experience for others, too. “A lot of the owners are not Hispanic, but they embrace our culture via the horse. They don’t try to make it something else. It’s a great way to bridge our ethnicities.”

Horses have expanded Rachel’s horizons in different ways, too. She now serves on the board of the Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding, a Rockford organization that works with disabled children. “I know how therapeutic horses are for able bodied people, so I can’t imagine the joy they bring to kids who are not as able,” she says.

“The horse community in West Michigan is really fantastic,” she continues. “We all tend to gravitate toward one another.”

And then, like a roadie for a rock star, she begins packing up her gear to head for yet another show – this one at the eventers’ Mecca: The Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky.

Keasha Palmer is a freelance writer who lives near Rockford. She recently wrote for Rapid Growth about the region’s growing interest in farmland preservation.

Photographs of Rachel Mraz by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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