Since she was a teenager, when her parents said she could own a horse, Tanya Rennie has been hooked on the animals and everything there is to know about horseback riding.
“I was just always one of those horse-crazy kids,” said Rennie, owner of Vienna Farm in Gorham, who began caring for horses at age 15. “We had a farm, so we had room for ponies.”
“Then somebody gives you another one, and before you know it, you’ve got way too many horses,” she said.
Rennie, 54, established Vienna Farm with her husband, Jim Jaeger, in 1984. The farm primarily offers horseback riding lessons and training of dressage horses, and also boards horses.
When the farm opened, many of Rennie’s clients were interested in taking lessons or getting their horse trained because of the reputation Rennie’s competition horse, a paint stallion, had as being “a very good horse,” said Rennie.
Rennie and another instructor, Amy Libby, teach 40-50 students per week, of all ages, how to ride a horse or improve on their riding skills. Rennie and Libby also train horses.
Rennie is a United States Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist who has competed up through the Grand Prix level, the highest level of competition.
“I have trained two horses to Grand Prix and trained two riders to Grand Prix,” said Rennie. “It’s pretty cool.”
At Vienna Farm, the instructors focus on dressage, a competitive equestrian sport where the rider and horse are expected to perform a series of predetermined movements.
“It was originally used to develop battle skills for horses for the cavalry,” said Rennie. “It’s kind of evolved into a sport and an art form. That’s the kind of riding that we are known to teach, so the people that come to us, who already know how to ride, want help in that particular style of riding.”
Dressage is “a very high level of skill that’s required of (the rider) and the horse,” she said. “There is a certain subtlety that is required between you and the horse that makes it beautiful. I tell my students, ‘if it was so bloody easy I wouldn’t be able to run this business because none of you would be taking any lessons.’”
Rennie admits that teaching horseback is not a lucrative career. But it’s “incredibly awesome to have a relationship with a horse,” she said. “It’s very, very magical, and very addictive.”
Rennie spoke with Maine Women about what inspired her to become a horseback instructor, and the advice she has for women interested in taking on the job.
Q: How did you become a horseback instructor?
A: As a teenager I had accumulated a bunch of horses. People asked if they could take lessons, so I said yes. At a certain point you decide that it’s one of the ways you are going to make some money. I started teaching in the 1970s. There’s nothing else that I want to do. I am an animal person. I love animals. I get to spend all day, every day surrounded by horses.
Q: What inspired you to teach?
A: People asked about taking lessons and then I got into it as real life’s work. Inspiration comes from my own journey as a rider, and from helping my students achieve their goals, whatever that might be. When it works, it’s very gratifying to know that you did it well and did it right. You are always looking for that feeling again when you are helping another person, or are starting training with another horse.
Q: What skills are required to be an instructor? What makes a good horseback rider?
A: Communication is key – trying to say the same thing 100 different ways until you see it click in the rider’s brain is pretty fun. We are talking about trying to learn how to communicate with a 1,300-pound animal that has no real interest in doing anything other than eating. I also have been riding and training longer than I have been teaching. I am a student as well as a teacher, so everything I teach, I know how difficult it is. I know all the mistakes because I have made them. I like to think this makes me a very empathetic teacher.
I ride with people that are higher up the ladder than I am. My regular instructor right now is a lady named Kathy Connelly, who is down in Massachusetts and Florida. When I can I take lessons from her or from anyone else that I can snag a lesson from. It’s a lifelong skill that you never get close to good enough at. Some famous horseman said, “A lifetime isn’t long enough,” and it’s not. It’s a lot like golf – you always want to improve and you can do it well into your later years.
Riding doesn’t have any particular formality to the process of being a riding instructor. It’s important to understand that for each type of discipline in riding, there is a certain set of skills, but what makes someone a good rider is their natural ability to balance on the horse, to move with the horse, and to communicate clearly with the horse.
Q: Why would you encourage other women to pursue this field? What is your advice?
A: I wouldn’t. It is a brutal profession, and it is dangerous at times. You work in all kinds of weather, and you do not make lots of money. You are teaching people to ride on large animals, and you only have so much control of two living things. The constant potential for disaster exists in the safest barns, with the safest horses, and the most experienced instructors. It is a high-stress job. I have clients who have gone on to become fellow instructors, but most people don’t come to me and say they want to be a riding instructor. I don’t recommend it as a career because it’s really hard. It takes a certain kind of person. It takes a particular form of insanity to do this as long as I have, and still love what you do.
Q: Why should women take horseback lessons? What is your advice?
A: It’s very therapeutic. I have clients who say to me it’s either this or psychotherapy. There’s a certain mental-health aspect, and it’s good exercise. I would encourage people to ride, for sure. I think women should check out the barn before they commit. A little research on their instructor wouldn’t hurt. They should also ask people that they know who ride about horseback riding so that they have some sense of what they are getting into. They shouldn’t be afraid to communicate with their instructor about any issues they might be having.
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