Not Just Horsing Around

Three women with a love of horses have a reach far beyond themselves

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

photoThe owners of East Hill Farm, a teaching, boarding and training stable in Plainfield, are in the process of turning over the reins of ownership to Ruth Hogan-Poulsen. She is the daughter of Con and Jeannette Hogan, who founded the farm with their friend Kathie Moulton.

Ruth Hogan-Poulsen was a lucky kid: Her parents took her seriously when she said she wanted a pony. 

Ruth’s parents are Con and Jeannette Hogan, the founders and owners, along with their friends Bill and Kathie Moulton, of East Hill Farm in Plainfield. East Hill is a teaching, boarding and training stable that boasts two outdoor rings — one for jumping and a standard dressage arena — plus a spacious indoor arena. The farm offers instruction in hunt seat and jumping, but its specialty is teaching children and adults dressage from the beginning through Grand Prix. 

It all began with a pony ride; and although the husbands in the equation do physical improvements and repairs around the farm, this is a business run by the three women.

Ruth, an accomplished dressage competitor and trainer, divides her time between Vermont — where she and her husband, Bo Poulsen, a skilled farrier, spend their summers — and Florida, where he plies his trade while she continues to train, choreograph, compete and produce her series of audiocassettes.

In Plainfield from May through November 15, Ruth manages East Hill and is in the process of taking over ownership of the business.

East Hill started in 1976, says Jeannette, a registered physical therapist who moved to Vermont with Con in 1972, when he was hired as the deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Ruth was in kindergarten. Kathie, a lifelong horse enthusiast who had moved here in 1971, was hired soon afterward as the assistant to the commissioner. 

Kathie was living in Woodbury with her then-husband, and invited the Hogans to come out and see the horses, Jeannette says.

“... and  help with the haying,” Kathie chips in with a deadpan face but a twinkle in her eye.

“She gave Ruth her first pony ride, and that was that,” adds Jeannette. “We didn’t have horses at that point ... I had never really been on a horse.”

“The answer is, ‘Never,’ Ruth pipes in. “Just one of those paid, go-up-the-side-of-the-Grand-Canyon rides.”

photoStanding, from left, are Kathie Moulton and Jeannette Hogan, who launched East Hill farm in the ’70s as a way to support their riding hobby. Seated on Pepper, whose show name is Dream Lady, is Ruth Hogan-Poulsen, Hogan’s daughter.

This is how it goes with these women, who live and work together so well they can often complete each other’s sentences.

Ruth was hooked. “I leased a pony when I was 6,” she says, “before we even had the farm out here.”

“The deal was,” says Jeannette, “we had the pony only for the winter, and if she did a good enough job, come spring, we’d find a pony for her.”

The subject of a business came up one day on the trail. “We lived off the Northfield Road in Berlin,” says Jeannette, “and Kathie and I were off trail-riding. She had just bought the [Plainfield] property where her house is, and said, ‘You know, we really need to have a business out here.’ So we started planning in ’75 and opened the facility in November of ’76.”

Kathie, by then divorced, had bought some acreage in Plainfield and lived in a converted school bus while she was building her house. The Hogans were helping with the haying one day, says Jeannette, when “Joe, the original owner of the dairy farm, came to Con and said, ‘Don’t you want to buy some property?’ We bought 15 acres.”

All three women laugh when asked to explain who owns what on the 120 to 140 acres that make up the farm today. “The corporation and partnership don’t own any land,” says Jeannette. “Ruth owns some, Neil owns some.” Neil is the Hogans’ son — Cornelius III — who has a house on the property, but is not involved in the business.

“The corporation owns the buildings, historically,” says Kathie.

“It’s messy,” Ruth says.

“This is not a business organization we would recommend to anybody,” adds Kathie, and they all laugh. “If anybody got mad, it would be a hopeless morass.”

photoRuth Hogan-Poulsen (in red) pauses to join other workers for a photo. From left are: Callie Richardson and Luisa Hoyt, who trade work in exchange for privileges; Meghan Maurice, the full-time barn manager who runs the place in the wintertime; Gina Couture, another full-timer, and Lauren McNabb, an apprentice, who runs Ruth’s barn and travels to Florida with Ruth. Melissa MacLaren, who wasn’t there for photos, also helps run the barn.

Indeed, one thing that seems clear is that these women are following their bliss, and getting mad seldom comes up. Having fun at business, however, does not mean they don’t take it seriously. They realize they have been on the leading edge of the wave of popularity their sport has experienced.

Back in the ’70s when Jeannette and Kathie decided to build their first barn, they visited every indoor arena in the state to get ideas. “At that time there were seven — in the state!” Jeannette exclaims. “I counted the other day, and there are now five in Plainfield.” 

To make sure there was enough interest to support a business, they put together a questionnaire. “We got some names from the Extension Service, Blue Seal, anywhere we could find them,” says Jeannette. “It said, ‘This is what we’re thinking about.’”

“’And what services would you be interested in?’” Kathie adds. 

One of the responses was from former Gov. Deane Davis, who was into horses, says Jeannette. “He said, ‘I think this is a wonderful idea. It’s needed, and if I had a horse, this is the place I would go.’”

They opened the barn in the fall of 1976, and Kathie’s house was completed the next year. 

At first, the orientation was toward an environment where the families could have fun and children could learn to ride. Ruth says that when she was a teenager and “very into what the kids do — equitation, dressage, eventing,” that was the farm’s focus. As the farm evolved, so did the focus. 

Because Kathie’s interest was in dressage, she taught the basics to anyone who was interested. As the children matured, their interests veered more toward hunter-jumper activities, and so did the farm’s. Jeannette and Kathie hosted a 25-mile trail ride for 15 years or so.

photoCouture, with East Hill 13 years, washes down Tyson, a boarder, after a workout.

They began working with a 4H group for young people interested in horses. “It’s all volunteer. We now have girls working for us who are current and former 4H-ers,” says Jeannette, who keeps her physical therapy skills honed by offering lessons for people with disabilities in addition to her regular junior and adult teaching.

Today, Kathie is remarried — to Bill, whom she met in the Hogans’ living room, where he was playing mandolin with the Hogans’ bluegrass group. They married in 1984. 

East Hill continues to work with 4H Clubs, earning its keep by teaching, boarding and training.

“Earning its keep” might be a bit of an overstatement. “Are we profitable? A little,” says Jeannette. “Kathie had a couple of horses, I had a couple of kids, and we started the business as a way to support our hobby. Kathie and I still don’t take a salary.”

Everything that comes in goes back into the farm, says Ruth. “Mom and Dad always had other jobs; Kathie and Bill had other jobs. With two full-time staffers, a large amount goes into workers’ comp and such,” she says.

Ruth, too, for a while, expected to earn her living another way. She attended the University of Vermont, riding for the UVM intercollegiate team. In 1988, she graduated with a degree in animal science, followed the next year by a master of comparative nutrition to further her plan to attend veterinary school. 

She moved to Pennsylvania to become a resident before entering school there, having obtained deferred acceptance. She took her horse.

“I decided the best way was to become a working student for a top dressage rider, so I did that for a year. It was the first time in a long time I had gone to another horse facility, with new trainers and everything, and when the time came in April to put in my application at school, I didn’t do it,” says Ruth. “I knew I couldn’t give both 100 percent, and I was really excited about what I had come to that place with and what I had learned, positive and negative.”

She decided “to make a living doing horses. There was some skepticism,” she adds wryly, gazing at the other two.

“We were just afraid she’d starve!” exclaims Kathie.

“I’m a very hard worker, and stubborn, and I had goals,” Ruth continues. She apprenticed for a couple of years to gain experience.

Florida is a huge center of dressage activity, and Ruth decided to see if she could survive there. It was 1989. She found a job through the newspaper. “The job would be taking care of this woman’s horse, and she would give me a stall for my own horse and a place to live. I thought, ‘What else do I need?’ I was sadly mistaken,” she says, laughing as she recalls a visit from her parents, who were quite upset, “because my horse had better accommodations than I did.” 

Ruth had to take on two more jobs, which also served her riding career, she says. One was working with Robert Dover, who was training the Olympic team to get ready for the Olympic Games in Barcelona. Her third job was helping Jane Savoie, whom she knew from Vermont, to get ready for the Olympic trials. Savoie of Randolph Center, who now boards her horses at East Hill, was also training for the Olympics.

“I did not go to Barcelona,” says Savoie, “but Ruth groomed for me that year in Germany and some of the competitions in Europe.”

A happy memory from that first season in Florida was meeting Danish rider Bo Poulsen, whose accommodations were the same as hers. “We had enclosed stalls, basically,” says Ruth. He ended up being my neighbor, and one thing led to another.” They married in 1994.

These days, Ruth competes through the Grand Prix level. She and Bo bought a condominium in Florida about five years ago, but she still leases facilities for the horses. They’re trying to put together an investor group to buy farm property. 

To supplement the income from teaching and riding, Ruth produced an audio cassette series to guide riders taking dressage tests. “Each test is a certain pattern,” she says, “and people often have a hard time memorizing the pattern or knowing what judges look for. It’s in real time; you can put it in the Walkman and ride to it. It tells you where to go, what to look for — a review of how to ride a test.”

Ruth also choreographs freestyle routines for riders. Using a filmed image of the horse, she matches music to the beat of the footfall. She also makes CDs for competitors who can provide them for announcers when they go into competition. Her work has been acclaimed and much copied, she says, but since each production is customized, it’s not easy to produce equal quality.

While Ruth continues to work in Florida, she says she will always come home for the summer, “because physically, emotionally and financially, it’s tough down there, and I’m lucky to have this place to come back to.” 

She and Savoie now work as colleagues, sharing programs, training each other. “I take lessons from her, she takes lessons from me,” says Savoie. “I would say at this point in time that the student has become the teacher.” •