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Sunday in the stables

The Lakes Region Riding Academy featured exciting races in Sunday's Gymkhana

Paige Stockman, riding Gracie, rounds a barrel during Sunday’s Gymkhana in Gilford. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
August 15, 2011
GILFORD – Julie Lawrence's voice has a soothing tone, calming and relaxing. In her line of work, that's just what the doctor ordered. Shouting out finishing times and competitor names over the PA system on Sunday, Lawrence watches from her announcer's booth as the Lakes Region Riding Academy hosted its third and final Gymkhana of the summer in its scenic perch at the Winnipesaukee Stables on Young Road in Gilford.

"The atmosphere here is so down to earth, it just makes you forget all of the other stuff going on in your life," says Lawrence, the barn manager and head instructor at the Academy, in between youth barrel races on Sunday.

The Academy has been busy this summer, as three Pleasure events and three Gymkhanas have taken over Sundays in what is referred to as the Winnipesaukee Show Series. Sunday's event also featured runs from the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA), with riders coming from N.H. and Mass. to take part in the festivities. Other events include suicide barrel racing, with a set of partners competing in the same heat at the same time on the barrel course.

"We're fairly new to hosting Gymkhanas so we don't have a lot of team activities," says barn manager Tom Holley as we walk into the outdoor arena between events.

It's the third year the Academy has featured Gymkhanas, which is an Indian term for "games on horseback." Sunday's event featured nearly 30 riders of all ages, with speed being the ultimate focus. All races are timed, with disqualifications coming via a knocked over barrel.

"These are the fun events, the ones I really enjoy," says Holley as we watch just feet from the action. "Everyone's positive with these things, everyone's cheering for each other."

But the day is still competitive, with ribbons given for most events while the jackpot barrel races feature cash prizes. The NBHA runs are where things get really interesting though, as points are awarded and accrued throughout the season. The Academy is hosting an NBHA state event in Sept.

It's been about 15 years since Lawrence first started her own academy in Meredith. Located right next to Inter-Lakes High School, the place began operation in 1996. The location shifted to its current home in Gilford eight years ago, as the stables boast a capacity of 22 horses. The current occupancy stands at 12 horses though, as the number has dipped some in recent years.

"The economy has definitely affected us," Lawrence explains. "People aren't keeping their luxury items so we'll get people calling and saying they just can't afford to hold onto their horses anymore."

Don't tell that to nine-year-old Jake Marshall however, as the young rider began taking lessons from Lawrence when he was just five years old.

"He saw me riding at one of my Gymkhanas and told his parents, 'That's what I want to do," Holley recalls.

Marshall's youthful enthusiasm is just one of the many reasons why Lawrence, who also works at Newfound Regional High School in Bristol, keeps coming back for more.

"I remember Jake wanted to go by himself so badly on his first barrel race and we decided we'd let him do it but still go out there and stay close to him," Lawrence recalls as her pupil weaves his way through the course in front of her. "And he comes across the finish and the smile on his face was just incredible. I looked at him and just said, 'Now you know why you do what you do."

Lawrence has had many moments like that, reassurance of her passion. Having recently turned 50, she had decided not to give any lessons on her milestone birthday. But those plans eventually changed.

"I have a handicapped rider and although I wasn't planning on giving lessons that day, I wasn't going to say no to that," she says with a genuine gleam in her eyes.

Lawrence is joined in her announcer's booth by Tom's wife Kathy Holley, who does a little bit of everything during Sunday's events.

"It's just an enjoyable place to spend your time," she says while relaying messages between various parties. "It's a happy place to be, that's for sure."

With horse trailers sprawled all over the compound, the day's action continues into the late afternoon. While it may be the last regularly scheduled Gymkhana of the summer, a week-long youth camp is slated to begin the next day. The Sandwich Fair will also hold a Gymkhana to close out the season over Columbus Day weekend, and the winter will bring about skijoring and other snow-covered activities to the Academy's Gilford home.

"I'm always here, always around the stables and everything else," says Lawrence of the year-round commitment. "But like I said, you build great friendships with people, and you get to spend time with them as they get older and grow up."

For more information on the Lakes Region Riding Academy, visit their website at www.lakesregionridingacademy.com.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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