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The author’s daughter, Bella in the barn at Hedgewood Farms Photography by David Benthal

My favorite childhood memory is trick-or-treating on a horse. My mother was a Broadway and soap opera actress in New York City but insisted on buying a home 45 miles north in Westchester County so she could have horses. She had been raised on a Vermont horse farm, her father an equestrian judge, and she passed that passion along to me. One Halloween, I rode down Bedford’s dirt roads to collect candy on my white Welsh pony, Doodlebug, alongside my big sister, Amanda, on Golden Berry, her tan and black Connemara.

Flash forward 40 years: Amanda now has two Connemara ponies and is living our childhood dream in Louisa County, Va., on her 60-acre farm. That’s where my daughter, Bella, first learned to ride.

She was less than two years old, but from the moment she was placed in a saddle, her whole body seemed to smile. On a trail ride in Turks and Caicos when Bella was 6, her pony spooked and began barreling down the beach at a full gallop. By the time I caught up with her, she looked at me, her eyes alight, and said, “Can I do that again?”

Bella’s friend and riding partner, Levi, with Cookie Photography by David Benthal

We live in Brooklyn, and so finding a stable where she could ride regularly was challenging. Then COVID hit: The world shut down and we moved out to our home in Orient, where Bella began doing third grade at our dining room table, as my husband and I did our best to work full-time jobs. Then we learned that our beloved babysitter Isabelle Simon was also finishing college from home — and was free to take Bella and her dear friend Levi on afternoon adventures. 

As we were dreaming up COVID-safe outings, I said, “I wonder if we could find a stable where Bella and Levi could ride?” Isabelle’s face lit up — much like Bella’s does whenever horses are concerned.

“I grew up riding out here,” she said.

It turned out she had done 4-H camp with her childhood pals, sisters Sarah and Katie Tuthill, our neighbors and also favorite babysitters of Bella’s. It all felt meant to be.

It had been a while since Isabelle had ridden, so she went on a mission: Find a barn that offered the whole experience, from pasture to stable to ring to stall, and everything in between. That meant grooming and tacking, picking out hooves and mucking the stall once the lesson is over. Over the years, I had visited several barns where Bella was placed on a fully tacked “push button” pony for a 30-minute lesson. Fine, but perfunctory. I wanted my daughter to get to know, respect and love the horses she rides. 

Bella jumping Cameo, Photography by David Benthal

Isabelle took this task seriously and spent one afternoon with Bella and Levi, starting in Riverhead and working their way east, looking for this ideal barn. When they arrived back in Orient that early evening, Isabelle was beaming.

“I think we found it,” she said.

Hedgewood Farms is a sprawling family-owned equestrian estate in Laurel. As you approach, the rolling pastures stitched together by post-and-rail fence appear behind a thin buffer of trees like a green patchwork quilt, dotted with a dozen horses. A narrow dirt driveway leads to a large A-frame barn surrounded by several outbuildings, one of which has purple angel wings painted on it.

It was a spring day when I first visited. Isabelle had been taking Levi and Bella to weekly lessons for a month, and after each visit, they would return home beaming, buzzing and smelling like wood chips and manure and sweet oats. They all loved the experience, including Isabelle, who started riding again, too! This was thrilling for Bella and Levi, who got to watch their favorite person on top of a horse, doing the things — sitting trot, cantering, jumping — that they were learning to do. Afterward, Isabelle would take them to Magic Fountain to talk about what they had learned that day, all of which would be reported to me back home as Bella stripped off her dirty jodhpurs while I ran her bath.

The children with Dawn Hommel, lead trainer at Hedgewood Farms, Photography by David Benthal

Bella proudly walked me into the main barn which was bustling with kids, ranging in age from 6 to 16 and overseen by several knowledgeable adults. There were four horses in cross ties, each at a different stage: Some were being curried, their hooves being picked out, others were being unsaddled and fed peppermints for jobs well done. Kids were leading ponies out to be hosed off or tightening girths on their own. A teenager greeted Bella and Levi with halters and leadlines and said, “Let’s go!”

I followed the kids to a nearby pasture and watched in awe as Levi fetched Cookie, a pinto paint pony with big brown eyes, who put her head down to make it extra easy for a slim 8-year-old boy to slip on her halter. Bella called Cameo, a stocky gray pony who made her work a bit harder before giving in. His silver white tail and mane reminded me so much of Doodlebug, the pony I rode at Bella’s precise age. My heart began to skip as I watched these two small people lead these two giant and gentle creatures up to the barn.

There, they joined the older “barn rats,” who guided them in grooming and saddling up before bringing their ponies out to the mounting block. The lessons were outdoors in a large ring with a variety of jumps in the middle. Dawn Hommel, the lead trainer and mama bear of the barn, runs it for her mother, the owner, and with the help of her 13-year-old daughter, Anna. Three generations. Dawn grew up here and, as I soon learned as we swapped stories, also used to trick or treat on horseback when she was young.

Bella entered the ring and Dawn started shouting directives. “Heels down!” “LEG!” “Lean BACK!” in a husky voice that was a warm mix of direct and deeply kind. As Bella raced by on Cameo, I could both feel and see the thrilled smile pasted on her face.

Levi riding Cookie, Photography by David Benthal

As the summer passed, the kids got to know, respect and love Cookie, a rescue pony who also found her happy home, and Cameo, who defines stubbornness. Dawn has 30 horses at her stable, and each has its own wonderfully unique personality, which any of the kids will happily describe if asked. Bella and Levi look up to the older “barn rats”: Sydney, Kenzie, Ben, Sage, J.P., Claire and Izzy. All started young like them, and have grown into die-hard riders who train weekly and compete on the Hedgewood team.

What began as a question — “Does my dream barn exist?” — has turned into a full circle affair. Even though we are back in school in Brooklyn, and Isabelle has found a full-time job, she, Bella and Levi continue to take lessons with Dawn. Sarah and Katie Tuthill have begun riding again at Hedgewood, too, inspired by their childhood 4-H friend, 

For all of us, it is a reminder of that same feeling Bella had when she first sat on top of a pony at two years old: a full body smile. To find such joy during this most difficult year has been a dream realized.