You don’t have to have a horse to ride here

Childhood friends Susan Gosnell and Wanda Gust have come full circle.

The pair met when they were around 12 years old while riding in the Vancouver Pony Club.

Fast forward several years later and they’re still participating in the club, albeit in a much different capacity.

While the event is the same, the setting is a bit different.

Gosnell and Gust having been hosting their own Pony Club in Campbell River at their barn, Balance Equestrian Centre, on the former Shady Stables Property off Shetland Road.

It’s a place where kids learn about horse care, sportsmanship, and team work. And everyone is welcome.

“You don’t have to have a horse,” Gust says. “It’s something kids can do who don’t have the financial means to do it.”

And that exclusivity extends to the entire facility.

“You don’t have to have a horse to ride here,” Gosnell adds. “We have amazing school horses that people can learn to ride on – quiet, calm, well-trained and all different sizes.”

And while riding lessons can be expensive, Gosnell and Gust don’t want that to hold anyone back.

“For our students, they come and they help,” Gust says. “They work and they get a helper discount on their lessons, so it’s another way to be around the horses.”

But it’s not just all fun and games – there’s actual work involved.

“We really hold them responsible for a doing a good job,” Gosnell says. “And they’re responsible for replacing themselves if they can’t make it. They muck, do waters and feeding, and general clean up of the barn. I joke that the 8-year-olds run the farm but they really do. I haven’t picked up a pitch fork in days.”

It’s honest work that Gosnell and Gust know all too well.

Both were working students on the mainland when they were fresh out of high school and took part in work to ride programs.

Both women were mentored under team Canada equestrian members – Gust worked for Mark Laskin who is the current chef d’equip for the Canadian team – in exchange for working around the barn. As teenagers they started teaching others and both became certified instructors.

When Shady Stables went up for auction about three years ago, the pair took a leap of faith.

“The previous owners had won the lottery so they left town and rented it out for awhile,” Gust says. “Then it was just sitting empty and they wanted to unload it after sitting on the market for awhile, so they put it up for auction.”

Gosnell says when the property came up it still took awhile to make the decision to jump in with both feet.

“It wasn’t something any of us had ever really talked about at all but then Dave (Gosnell’s husband) and I started tossing around the idea and I approached Wanda who was moving back from Vancouver and we thought ‘let’s try it’ and we did up a business plan,” Gosnell says.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

balance-equestrian-riderBalance Equestrian is hopping, seven days a week – there’s rarely any down time.

Gosnell and Gust both teach beginner to advanced lessons with a focus on hunter/jumper/dressage.

Gust also teaches certified therapeutic riding to help build physical coordination and cognitive skills in riders who have cognitive and physical disabilities.

Gust runs the program 365 days a year and is always looking for volunteers. She says there are a handful of students signed up for the program, which is growing all the time.

Balance also offers birthday parties complete with pony rides and a petting zoo of goats, sheep, chickens, and horses.

“They get the full farm experience,” Gust says. “They get to look for chicken eggs, do a horseshoe scavenger hunt, learn grooming and feeding and of course ride the horses.”

The facility has also been known to host a few weddings and can accommodate both ceremony and reception; it’s also been a nice backdrop for wedding photos.

And while Gosnell and Gust are all about their students, they also like to open up the barn to the larger community.

Three times a year – at Christmas, Halloween and Easter – they have an open house family day with proceeds going to the therapeutic riding program. The fun events involve activities such as an Easter egg hunt, face painting, pictures with Santa, and the freaky haunted house which returns this October.

“We’re going to be doing the haunted barn and we can rate the scare factor to a degree,” Gosnell says. “This will be our second time doing it and it’s going to be bigger and better.”

Plans this year involve a live operation, possibly a monster in the loft, a ghoul with chains and real, live scary ghouls to jump out and scare the pants off you.

And if that’s not enough to keep the two women busy, they also host horse camps three times a year, during winter break, spring break and summer vacation. The camps run Monday to Friday for three hours a day and culminate with a horse show on the last day of camp.

Through it all, Gust says, they’re trying to instill a sense of pride and respect in each of the riders who come through the barn.

“Our goal is to create well-rounded equestrians that know how to look after the horses and be supportive of one another in a team environment,” she says. “We strive to provide a fun, educational place with a focus on safety and fun.”balance-equestrian-rider-2