A world-class indoor riding ring and stables saves some 60 acres from becoming another suburban housing development.
MANCHESTER, Conn. (AP) - Family farming in this town has nearly vanished over the years, falling victim to commercial and residential development.
But up on Birch Mountain, the Zeppa family has found a way to keep the tradition alive, exchanging the cultivation of vegetables and strawberries for the training of horses.
After four years of planning and construction, Kristen Kuzmickas-Guadagnino this August opened a world-class indoor riding ring and stables on her family's farm, single-handedly saving some 60 acres from becoming yet another suburban housing development.
Her operation, Full Circle Farm, is a hunter-jumper facility offering premier boarding stalls attached to one of the largest indoor riding arenas in the area, along with horse training, lessons and showing from local to national-level competitions.
The land was put up as collateral for loans to build the facility, the national blue-ribboned rider said with a shrug while patting down the withers of a chestnut-colored jumper named DonStar.
But in three short months, all but three of the 19 stalls have been filled with boarders. And the ring is never silent as private lessons - from beginners to skilled competitive riders - are constant.
"Every week there's one to two new clients for lessons," Kuzmickas-Guadagnino said with a smile and a peppermint candy treat for 5-year-old Donnie.
Her grandmother Shirley Zeppa isn't worried about losing the four-generation family farm over the new enterprise.
Horses are in the blood, she explained.
Zeppa's father-in-law, Joseph Zeppa, had been an Italian cavalryman before emigrating to American in 1908 to farm on the mountain.
While his efforts consisted mainly of growing vegetables and strawberries, Zeppa was also a master at training plow horses.
And "he always had the best team on the mountain," said his granddaughter (and Kristin Kuzmickas-Guadagnino's mother), Diana Kuzmickas.
"He liked to train the wild ones," she said as her face lit up with the memory.
Family legend holds that on one particular fall day, Joseph Zeppa was sent to town by his wife, Angela, to buy shoes for their four children.
Instead, he came back with two horses.
That love for the tall regal animals was passed down to his great-granddaughter, who at age 11 won blue ribbons up and down the East Coast as a junior and adult on the back of Call My Bluff.
Now 27 years old, that horse has been retired and spends his days with three others whose working days are over in the Zeppa farm's original 1834 hand-hewn chestnut-beamed barn across the street.
Not all the steeds are ready to hang up their horseshoes, however.
Baxter Blue, another champion Kuzmickas-Guadagnino rode for years, recently came out of retirement to work in the new facility with younger riders.
On a recent Monday, 8-year-old Isabella Skoulis trotted around the ring on his back, as instructor Leslie Poirier shouted out commands.
"Go into a half-seat" she told Skoulis as the young girl bent over the gentle horse's neck into a two-point position readying for a jump. "Now stand - and keep your head straight."
Baxter's eyes were wandering, Poirier explained. In the corner he had spotted Kuzmickas-Guadagnino, his old rider and first love.
Skoulis readjusted and Baxter's mind returned to the present day, softly responding to his young charge's commands.
Poirier, who met Kuzmickas-Guadagnino on the circuit and has been a horse and rider trainer for 35 years, calls Full Circle Farm a "fantastic" facility.
"The care of the horses here is impeccable," she said, adding that Kuzmickas-Guadagnino is a wonder with the animals in her charge.
A graduate of Manchester High School and the University of Connecticut's equine science program, Kuzmickas-Guadagnino serves on the Connecticut Horse Show Association's board of directors and the New England Horseman's Council board of delegates.
She holds a U.S. Equestrian Federation "R'' license in hunters, equitation and jumpers, and also is licensed to be a national judge and steward.
While Poirier is the main trainer of riders, Kuzmickas-Guadagnino trains the horses.
She also is a broker for buying and selling, flying to Germany to buy specially bred jumpers.
The muscular yet fleet-footed Cory and Leon are her own.
Primarily, she wants the farm to focus on equine wellness and harmony with the horses' human partners.
"Our training philosophy develops a solid mental and physical foundation for horse and rider," she said.
And the farm can afford to be selective in whom she takes in for boarders and riders.
The horse's disposition is taken into consideration, and she always looks for a good match between the horse and the rider.
"We want people to understand that horses are sentient, intelligent animals," the owner said. "If all we do is help them to understand that they're not just livestock, then we've done our job."
Kuzmickas-Guadagnino, who was inducted into the Manchester Sports Hall of fame this month, credits her grandmother for helping to make her dream a reality.
She remembers the older woman, clad only in a bathrobe, helping to shovel out a horse trailer to help a teenage Kuzmickas-Guadagnino get to a competition.
Until recently, the 80-year-old woman could be seen mucking out stalls and sweeping hay.
"She really wanted to see me do this, so we could keep this as agriculture," Kuzmickas-Guadagnino said.
Shirley Zeppa just smiled.
"She'll do it, too," she said.
From: Journal Inquirer, www.journalinquirer.com