Eye on the Prize
After warming up her pony, Julia, Shayla Conner takes her through a more strenuous workout, which includes jumps and canters. KAREN CIMMS/TIMES NEWS
Shayla Conner has a dream, and this summer, she's one step closer to making it happen.
The 16-year-old high school junior wants to own a horse boarding and training facility some day, and thanks to an internship obtained through her school, Commonwealth Charter Academy, she's learning the ins and outs of the business.
"It's a program that helps students get ready for interviews, internships. It teaches us how to create resumes," says Shayla of the Conservatory Program at CCA.
Offered on a trial basis this year, teachers focused on helping students match their interests with careers. The process started in the fall. After meeting with her teacher and learning the ropes of getting a job, it was time to find an internship.
That internship turned out to be at the prestigious Ashwell Stables, a horse training facility outside West Grove in Chester County. The facility is owned by Jonathan Sheppard, a Hall of Fame trainer in American Thoroughbred horse racing. Sheppard has successfully trained horses and jockeys for both steeplechase and flat racing.
Shayla's plans had originally included finding an internship at a local barn, but fate, and her mother, intervened.
"My mother, last summer, went to Ashwell Stables with an old classmate whose brother is a half-owner of a racehorse being trained and boarded there," says Shayla.
While at Ashwell her mother met trainer Keri Wolfsont.
"She got in touch with Keri and asked if I could do an internship. Keri said yes, so I sent an email with a formal introduction of myself, and Keri accepted my request."
The daughter of Diane and Shane Conner of Lehighton, Shayla began her internship in May. She went to the stables every other weekend until school got out. Now she goes Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
Her duties include cleaning stalls, making sure the horses have fresh water, helping the hands bring in and take out the horses, and holding the horses steady when they need their feet trimmed or are getting a visit from the vet.
She also gets to fold laundry.
While some of that may seem a bit mundane, Shayla is exposed to young thoroughbreds destined for the world of steeplechase or flat racing. Some of them will go on to make appearances in events like the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness, to name a few.
"Horses at that barn are just starting out, getting used to the racing cage and the track and building up muscle for the race," says Shayla.
The experience has been a positive one thus far.
"I like the environment that's there at the barn," says Shayla. "There's hardly any drama. When I've been at other places, there's always drama. There's no jealousy or pettiness that I've seen at other horse facilities."
Shaylas's internship is also helping her step out of her comfort zone.
"Currently, I have a fear of very tall horses. I'm aware of it and this is helping me overcome it. I'm used to riding ponies. All the horses I've either owned or leased have been ponies."
Shayla has been around horses all of her life. She's been riding since she was 5 or 6 years old.
Her current pony, Julia, is 8 years old. Shayla's had her since she was only 5 months old.
"She's small and adorable," Shayla says.
Shayla's long-term goals include owning her own equestrian facility and owning horses as well as boarding them. She also wants to train horses that already have their ground, which means they are used to wearing a saddle and carrying a rider, and who also know how to walk on a lead line and lunge.
"Once I have those horses, if my barn is a hunter/jumper barn, I would teach them how to go over a jump, get them desensitized to different environments, and also desensitized to decorations that go along with the jumps," says Shayla.
She explains that competition rings are usually decorated for the show, depending on the time of the year. Things like giant dice cubes, floral arrangements and scarecrows might spook a horse.
When she graduates from high school, Shayla plans to go to Penn State and study business management.
"After that, I want to work at a barn. It doesn't matter what kind. I'll work until I have enough money saved up or experience to begin my own barn or manage that one."