By Sue Henninger
Paula Wedemeyer is passionate about horses. There’s an empathic and emotional connection that people form with the animal that gradually evolves into a shared language, she asserted.
“It’s not just a horse,” Wedemeyer said. “It’s a friend and a partner that I love and care about.”
These days, the equestrian life is no longer simply a pastime for Paula; it’s evolved into a fulltime vocation. She freely acknowledged that life on her 70-plus acre farm, running the Ithaca Equestrian Center, is more to her liking than her previous jobs in the business sector.
“I’d much rather get up early and feed the horses and muck the stalls!” she said.
Establishing IEC was not an endeavor she and her husband, Russ Wedemeyer, took lightly. Once they decided to commit to Paula’s vision of creating and running her own horse business, the two had many things to consider. They were living in Arizona but, with ties to upstate New York, they were willing to relocate. A major criteria was that the area be economically stable.
Ithaca, with its steady supply of college students and one of the premiere veterinary colleges in the country, seemed like an ideal spot. After looking at land all over the region, they ultimately settled on the Trumansburg Road property. According to Paula, the “terraced” land there is perfect for activities like endurance riding, eventing, and hunting.
Before beginning construction on the equestrian center she was visualizing, the couple spent countless hours visiting horse farms (many in Kentucky) and consulting with other horse people.
“We needed to get the proper information to make decisions about what our options were. What we liked or what we would do differently,” Paula said. “These professionals were very helpful.”
Today, IEC continues to expand, with new stalls being built this fall and the construction of an indoor arena slated for next summer.
The first thing readers should understand about the Wedemeyer’s business is the difference between a livery stable and an equestrian center, Russ emphasized. A livery stable is where people go to rent a horse for an hour or so, ride it, then hand back the reins and leave. An equestrian center is built around all of the things a rider might want to do with their horse. Their customers have access to all of IEC’s amenities, including trails through the woods and arenas to practice improving different skills with the horse. Their home is on-premises, allowing the Wedemeyer’s to provide quality care for the horses and ensure their safety at all times. If an owner is out of town Paula will frequently send updates on how the horse is doing in their absence.
Paula explained that, no matter what their starting point or riding style (English or Western), riders and horses have the ability to develop a unique relationship where they can constantly improve their performance by challenging themselves. Once a prospective customer has reached out, by email or phone, she has specific questions for the owner about their goals and objectives. These help her set up a personalized program for them and their horse.
“They [owners] have to be active partners in the process,” she stressed.
For younger riders, educating parents is an enjoyable part of her job.
“The level of parental support here is amazing,” she said.
Women make up a major percentage of IEC’s customer base. There are younger women, the type that want to “fly over the fence and run through the woods,” along with older riders who want to learn new riding skills like dressage. Other customers include professional women who simply enjoy spending quality time with their horse or those who either want to return to riding or are entering a new stage of life and want to give it a try.
Regardless, IEC is a place where horse lovers can have a whole new world open up to them, Russ declared. Not only can they benefit from Paula’s experience and knowledge, they’ll have the opportunity to become part of a community of like-minded people of all ages who speak “horse language.”
This sense of community is vital for Paula to maintain. Barns can get cliquey, she noted, and she and Russ are committed to keeping that dynamic out of theirs. Boarders need to get along with each other.
“It’s our big filter,” she stated firmly. “We’re investing our heart, soul, and retirement money to create a pleasant environment. We’re not letting anyone spoil that.”
Another key criteria for her is that owners must care about their horse and treat it well.
“Riders who want to win at all costs aren’t a good fit for us,” Paula observed. “They won’t be happy here and we won’t be happy with them.”
The Ithaca Equestrian Center has a relationship with the broader community as well. The Wedemeyer’s recently participated in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Open Farm Days, which gave Tompkins County residents the chance to get up close and personal with Paula, the owners, and the horses. Approximately 130 people learned about things like bridle safety, how to groom, saddle, and mount and dismount from a horse, and the correct way to feed a horse treats.
Russ readily admitted that he’s not a horse person, with his wife adding that the only time she convinced him to get on a horse was when they became engaged! Regardless, he’s found many other ways to help her achieve her dream.
“My passion is building things like trail courses for our events,” he declared. “And I enjoy researching things for the Center.”
One example of this is the “flex” fencing the couple uses, instead of the more traditional wood and nails or high-tensile fences. Horses can easily spot flex fencing before they run into it, he said. If they can’t stop in time, they simply bounce off it rather than getting injured.
There’s one myth about the equestrian life that Russ was happy to dispel. You don’t need a lot of money to enjoy the benefits of horses, he said, and the riders who are attracted to IEC tend to be “nice, hard-working people” you’d like to be around. Paula agreed that the last thing they want to do is make the center cost-prohibitive.
“We want people to be able to afford lessons…I want a comfortable, safe place where people can come to enjoy their horse.” she said. “Everyone is welcome!”