By Jenny Neyman
Outside Connie Green’s greenhouse-turned-arena, a breeze ambled unbridled across the rolling hills of Sterling, making the air feel icy, like the layer of slick, frozen crust barely hidden under a scant covering of snow.
Inside, with the wind blocked by the clear sheeting attached to the curved metal rib cage, the captured warmth from the afternoon sun mingled with the retained temperature generated from a propane heater and the bodies gamboling about within.
Some were two-legged and diminutive, requiring a coat to ward off any remaining Alaska winter chill. The others were four-legged, were equipped with coats and were plenty capable of generating their own heat from their couple hundred- to 1,000-pound frames.
All were enjoying activities usually reserved for fairer seasons in Alaska — horse-riding lessons.
The newly built greenhouse allows Green, owner of Alaska C&C Horse Adventures on Jim Dahler Road in Sterling, to teach kids horsemanship year-round.
“There are personal indoor arenas around, but they usually aren’t open to the public, so this has been real special, especially to bring kids. The kids say, ‘Really? You’re riding in the winter? We can come in here, turn the heater on if I need to. It’s out of the wind, out of the rain, the snow, the darkness. I’ve got lights that come on at 4 p.m. and it just lights up like a football stadium in here,” Green said.
As she well knows, a love of horses isn’t seasonal.
“It’s my passion. It’s 24 hours for me, I love it,” she said. “And there’s so many kids out there who can’t afford horses. And because of my journeys in life and my love for horses, I yearn to share.”
The participants in Green’s most recent horse camp, a no-school day Jan. 21, were Green’s horse-wrangler-in-training,
Gracie Carroll, 13, of Sterling, and four other girls, all as enamored with all things equine as Green had been at their ages.
“I’ve loved horses always, since I was a kid,” said Kylie Ness, 10, of Sterling.
“Ever since I knew how to say ‘horse,’” said Jenna Helminski, 13, of Sterling.
“They’re fun to ride, you can groom them, you can walk them — there’s so many fun things you can do,” Kylie said.
Of course, there are some not-so-fun things to do, as well. Shoveling manure wasn’t high on any of the girls’ lists of favorites. Saddling them also wasn’t much fun. Though, when you’re all of 4 feet or so tall, hefting even a kid-sized saddle into place, weaving the elaborate knots and cinching the heavy cords down tight can be a challenge.
But Green wants to make sure the experiences are representative of what horse ownership is like. Yes, it’s petting velvety noses and braiding manes and traversing the countryside at a gallop. But it’s also a lot of work and responsibility.
“They need to know that it’s not always getting on their backs and going for a ride. I’m trying to teach them the
responsibility of owning a horse and what it takes to be able to keep one. Because they see a lot of glory here when they come. But, well, it’s like I say — 24/7,” Green said.
This stable of campers didn’t seem to mind the work, not Green’s strict expectation that they all follow the rules, just as long as it was something to do with horses. Everyone must wear a helmet in the arena, and latch gates behind them. For safety, Green catches the horses in their pasture and puts bits in their mouths, but everyone in the camps learns all the rest of the basics. There’s care and grooming, from the fun part of brushing coats and plaiting elaborate braids into their manes and tails, to the not-so-fun tasks of picking mud out of their hooves and pitching manure.
They learn and practice how to put on and take off a halter and saddle, and walking the horses around the arena. They practice mounting and dismounting, often with a big old boost from someone taller. And they get to ride. Bareback at first, since Green said that’s actually easier for kids to learn, then in a saddle.
It’s more than can be thoroughly conveyed, much less mastered, in a one- or two-day, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. camp, and Green finds she’s getting a lot of repeat participants.
“There’s so much to learn. I’ve had horses all my life and I’m still learning,” Green said. “(I’m teaching) what I know from my knowledge of a lifetime of riding horses. We start out with the very basics. And, to me, it’s all about safety around here. Number one is always safety.”
The large, powerful animals can be intimidating, even when they’re as well trained as the ones Green uses for her youth classes.
“You’re a little nervous when you ride the first time, but you get used to it and then it’s so much fun,” said Annie Quinn, 13, of K-Beach.
There’s Bob, a gray, three-quarter Haflinger with shaggy hair around his hooves. Green had been using him to give winter sleigh rides to the community, so he’s acclimated to newcomers. And at about 900 pounds, Bob is smaller than most of her other horses. For a little more advanced rider, she uses others from her 12-horse stable, particularly Freestyle, a stallion who is playful with the other horses when he gets bored, but is a smooth and willing ride.
Then there’s Green’s entry-level animal, of a sort — Cowboy, a miniature horse. His body is proportioned normally, though smaller, than a full sized-horse, giving riders a representative idea of what it’s like to deal with a full-sized model. But his shorter legs and lesser weight — only a couple hundred pounds — make him easy for kids to control.
“We always start with Cowboy because he’s little and he’s not going to push you around,” Green said. “I had a little girl in here, 5 years old, and she actually got to ride him and trot him.”
The girls on Jan. 21 were learning by leaps and gallops.
“This is my second lesson and I’ve already got to know a lot of things I didn’t know before,” Kylie said.
And Gracie has been making Green’s ranch her home away from home, being promoted to position of “horse wrangler,” a position which Green’s now-grown daughter used to hold. Gracie just started riding at the beginning of the summer and now is taking English riding lessons and jumping in Green’s arena with an instructor from Solid Rock Bible Camp.
“I was just done with sports. I wanted to do something with animals. I just love them. They can’t talk back, it’s just great to be able to get out and ride. That’s what I love to do,” she said.
Green said that it’s great to see kids in the area having opportunities to take formal lessons in all sorts of disciplines, like English riding and dressage. That wasn’t available when her family moved to the area in 1959.
“There was no one here to do that kind of stuff back in ’59,” she said. “If I was to do it all over again I would work really hard and have an indoor arena and be totally schooled up. If I can pass that on to these girls, it is so worth it to get the education,” she said.
Green’s family homesteaded off of Forest Lane in Soldotna. When she was a kid she’d come visit the area on which she and her husband, Will Green, now live. At the time it belonged to Tennessee Miller, who ranched mules and cows.
“My childhood was this area,” she said. “I’d watch ‘Bonanza’ all the time when I was a little girl, so this was just my ‘Bonanza.’”
Her parents bought Green her first horse when she was 8.
“Dad didn’t know much about horses but he knew I loved them. They knew I was ready, and I was. I was all about responsibility and taking care of that animal,” she said. “We ended up getting a mare and, of course, we called her Frosty, and my life just blossomed since then. I’ve had horses pretty much ever since that first horse of mine.”
Horses have always been Green’s beloved hobby, and have served, in varying degrees, as a source of income. She’s got a CDL and drives heavy equipment for work, but has supplemented that with her sleigh rides and by leading trail, mountain and beach rides through C&C Alaskan Horse Adventures — named for herself and her daughter, Carly.
She’s been married and divorced, raised her kids, Carly and Cory Davis, and has been a commercial fisherman. She and her husband, Will Green, bought the property on Jim Dahler Road that once was her childhood horse-stomping ground. The site has allowed her to pursue her dreams of expanding her horse pursuits. Then, about six years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her dreams were reigned in for a time.
“I was up to 12 horses then. I was doing beach rides, I was doing ranch rides and I was doing mountain rides, so my plate was pretty full. And then I found that lump in my breast and I thought, ‘I need to take care of myself,’ so I took it all down,’” she said. “So the last couple years now I feel great. I’m really going forward with it pretty strong.”
Though she still does ranch and beach rides, she’s branching more into lessons than she had before. She’s taking some, herself, to get certified to be an instructor in certain disciplines. In the meantime, she’s teaching general horsemanship to 9- to 13-year-olds. Last spring, she put up the greenhouse through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service high tunnel program. All spring and summer she had it planted with a bountiful garden. But in the winter, she uses the space for a weather-resistant indoor arena.
“These horses, it does them very well to be interacting with all these children,” Green said.
And it can be particularly great for the kids.
“They get so much out of hanging with the horses. I think everything else of the drama of the world kind of goes away. These guys are so interesting to humans that are interested in them. Not just when you’re grooming, but when you ride, you just kind of forget about everything else. You’re relying on that horse to take you somewhere,” she said.
For the kids in her camps, that place might be a daydreamed land where they have a horse of their own, or at least can spend much more time with Green’s. And for Green, it’s her own happy place, that’s existed since she got her first horse at 8, and will continue to exist — rain or shine, winter or summer — for as far as she cares to foresee her future.
“I just get so much therapy from them. When I come in here, all the kind of stuff of the world just goes away,” she said.
For more information on C&C Alaskan Horse Adventures, visit its Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/AlaskaCandC HorseAdventures. Green’s next horse camp is scheduled for Feb. 8 and 9, and she’s planning at least one camp a month throughout he winter.