Discover the vibrant equine culture alive and kicking in the western suburbs
It’s easy for horse lover Pam Ruminski to do a trail ride. She doesn’t even need a trailer. She opens her front door, ambles to the corral in her yard and hops on her handsome Paint Horse. “I can go out my front door and ride in four directions,” she says. “We wanted to move to Texas but could not find a home where you could ride out your backdoor.”
The Ruminskis live in Wayne, an equestrian-friendly town of nearly 3,000 near St. Charles. Many residents keep horses on their multi-acre lots. Nearly 100 miles of trails crisscross the small town. Easements allow riders to get from one point to another. It’s not uncommon for residents to do errands on a horse. Horses are so ubiquitous that police are trained in corralling loose ones and squads are equipped with a lead rope, halter and coffee cans filled with grain.
Chicago is not Texas. Cowboys are found on the silver screen in multiplexes. Still, a vibrant horse culture thrives in the suburbs. Wayne is its epicenter, though other suburbs, especially Barrington Hills and others in the Fox River area, also are home to stables and riding clubs that offer lessons, board horses, buy and sell them, and host equestrian shows. The suburbs may be a blur of cars and pavement and digital technology may keep some residents hunkered indoors. But an area once rooted in an agrarian past and dependent on the horses that broke the prairie and ushered in prosperity remains tied — in affection and pleasure, if not economically — to the beautiful, majestic, snorting, four-hooved creature.
It’s not hard to find places to ride in the western suburbs. Says Sharon Nolan, president of the Trail Riders of DuPage, “I’ve got a 61-mile horse trail in my backyard . . . the Illinois Prairie Path.” It’s not only completely legal to ride horses on the Prairie Path, but the path is a favored destination for horse riders. “It’s gravel, and it’s six feet wide,” explains Nolan, who lives near West Chicago.
The Trail Riders of DuPage advocate for preserving trails for horses. They’ve done a good job, or, more precisely, local authorities have. “We have some of the finest trails in the nation in DuPage County,” says Nolan, praising the Forest Preserve.
A very recent riding improvement is the Forest Preserve’s spiffy renovation and expansion of the indoor riding arena at picturesque St. James Farm in Warrenville. The 595-acre farm, once the estate of business titan Chauncey McCormick, the great nephew of Cyrus McCormick, is a touchstone for the equine community. Chauncey’s son, Brooks, built a 62-stall barn and steeplechase track here and hosted popular competitions to raise funds for Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital. The indoor arena once served the St. James Riding School for the Handicapped.
The local horse subculture is underestimated, says Nolan. “There are a lot more horses in DuPage County (and Kane County) than people are aware of,” she says. “I’ve heard there are 72,000 horses in DuPage County.”
The exact number is not known. Nolan’s estimate is most likely high. But her preservationist group illustrates the diversity of the horse community. Among the group’s 100 or families are people who do pony parties, English, Western and bareback riders, horse therapy devotees, Annie Oakley impersonators who appear in parades, actors and an advisor to Disney movies for action scenes with horses. “We’re kind of a sub-community,” says Nolan.
A longtime real estate professional and property manager, Nolan herself has owned 200 horses of all kinds during her lifetime. She’s found homes for 138 horses made “homeless” because of divorce, death and financial reversals. She now has two dozen horses in her backyard as well as at a ranch in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Her current favorite is a haflinger named Eli but nicknamed Butthead for his frisky searching for treats in her pockets. “He’s a real prince in the saddle but a butthead on the ground,” she says with a smile. Nolan’s name gets tossed around in the horse community, which leads to some interesting encounters. One day a rider sauntered from the Prairie Path to her backyard to say hello. The horse had 18 tiny bells attached to each foot, an attention-drawing gimmick. The woman on the horse was riding across the country to raise awareness of domestic violence. Several years ago, Nolan was part of a mounted search mission in wooded areas of Bolingbrook for Stacy Peterson, the late wife of Drew. She’s part of the DuPage mounted search and rescue team, officially established subsequent to that search. Kane County’s similar team predates the DuPage group by a few decades.
Like many others, Nolan’s affection for horses arose at an early age. Her aunt rode, and an envious a 3-year-old Nolan, wore cowgirl boots. At age 7, she took to wandering from her home in Villa Park to the nearby Prairie Path. “I would search for horseshoe prints,” she says. She lied about her age to snag a job at Venture as a 15-year-old and rushed out with her first $350 paycheck to buy a horse.The Prairie Path, as well as other trails, remains a focal point for Nolan and other riders. The paths represent a bit of a role reversal for bicyclists and a flashpoint for horse riders. Some bicyclists, who approve of the Share the Road signs on streets, seem to not heed those same signs on paths, a nod to horse riders. “Don’t speed by us,” says Ruminski. “Slow down."
Land of Stables and Barns
People can’t seem to get enough of horses. The Forest Preserve of DuPage County’s biggest one-day event is the Fall Festival at the Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton. More than 10,000 people come to gawk at a variety of horses. They also tour the barn that once housed Lucky Debonair, the winner of the 1965 Kentucky Derby. (Dan Rice, who died in 1975, owned a commodity brokerage firm, and the equestrian center was where his thoroughbreds were trained. His wife was named Ada, and “Danada” is a combination of their first names.)
Looking at and learning about horses is one thing. Riders say nothing compares to sitting high in the saddle and trotting through the countryside. “You can go places you can’t go in car. You see the world from a different view,” says Kelly Fencl, who runs the Wayne Equestrian Center at Dunham Woods Riding Club. “Working with an animal, you’re working with two brains. It’s the only sport where you are working with two brains." "It’s freedom. Sitting on the horse you feel the wind in your face,” says Lisa Afshari, the director of a horse-based therapeutic recreational facility in Plainfield (see “Horse Therapy” on page 38). “A horse is the only partner who will always agree with you. There is something about a horse’s eye. The look of the eyes is he wants to be your friend.”
The relationship between rider and horse is real and complex. “Horses are very smart. They can adjust to people better than a dog,” says Fencl. “They have long-term memories of people and experiences. They don’t trust everyone. They’re like people that way. They can bond with a rider. It takes time.”Says Ruminski about riding, “It’s definitely a partnership. It’s not like riding a bike. You have to trust your horse — they can be dangerous.”
Riding lessons, for advanced equestrians as well as for beginners, are available at a number of facilities. One of the busiest is the Wayne Equestrian Center with about 500 lessons given each month. All levels and ages learn here. Some riders want to learn the basics and get comfortable on the horse. Others aspire to buy a horse or gain enough skill to compete in shows.
It typically takes three or four lessons for beginners to attain a minimal sense of balance and motion, says Fencl. After a year of weekly lessons, most riders are ready to canter and within another six months they’re ready for jumps.
Fencl’s sprawling equestrian center is horse heaven, as detailed and atmospheric as a movie set. Two rustic barns, one with 35 stalls and the other with 15, date from the mid-19th century. The center also has two sand outdoor arenas and a heated indoor arena, a derby field with natural jumps and a bank, acres of neat grass fields for riding, and easy access to trails such as the Prairie Path or at Pratt-Wayne Woods.
The equestrian center is adjacent to and associated with the Dunham Woods Riding Club, begun in 1934. The barns were part of a large farm owned by Solomon Dunham, a stalwart pioneer who arrived in a covered wagon from New York. He shrewdly imported Percheron horses from France for the muscle needed for plowing. When tractors became widespread in the 1920s, horses became a recreational attraction. Wealthy families from the North Shore motored to “the country” in the Wayne area to enjoy equestrian activities.
In the 1800s, DuPage and Kane were sparsely populated but their large-scale breeding farms produced tens of thousands horses, first, for the Civil War (the average Union soldier went through six horses — many were shot from under them) and then for farms as well as for deliveries for stores such as Sears and Marshall Field’s. Naperville, Downers Grove and Wayne were centers for horse production.
Today, the western suburbs boast a wide range of top equestrian facilities including Silver Spur Ranch in Maple Park, Trillion Equestrian Center in Naperville and Oswego, Jaynesway Farms in Bartlett, Perfecta Farm in Elgin, Double J Riding Club in Countryside, and Memory Lane Stables in Willow Springs. All the venues offer lessons, most provide boarding, several host summer camps and shows, and a few offer pony and/or trail rides. One of the newest and most upscale facilities is Deerpath Equestrian Club and Stable in Batavia.
The manicured grounds include a sparkling Solarium, a fancy EuroXciser in a rounded pen, a large indoor arena featuring a high-quality silica sand surface and an 8-acre outdoor field with a panoply of jumps, banks and ditches. The structures are German-made — Germany being a gold standard for horse amenities as it is with cars. Two award-winning young instructors work with the horses and their riders.
In our imaginations, horses belong to the past. Or to the West. Or to fables and children’s books. That’s why it’s a surefire hoot when a horse runs free in a populated area, as happened in 2017 in Wauconda. A white bronco escaped from its stable and naturally trotted down Route 176 before moseying down a ramp to Route 12. A veterinary technician on her way to work actually used her sweatshirt as a makeshift lasso to lead the horse off the road. The media cleverly dubbed the episode as the “white bronco chase.”
In Wayne and other pockets of suburbia, horses are less a part of the imagination and more front and center in daily life. They are treasured and savored, even in memoriam. At the front of a barn stall at the Wayne Equestrian Center is a tribute, scrawled by hand in concrete, to a beloved horse from long ago — “the Dolphin.” Elsewhere in the barn, a small sign affixed to a wall also evokes the affection for horses: “If you want a stable relationship, get a horse.”
Dozens of volunteers clear and clean the trails on Saturdays in Wayne. Local philanthropists donate land to keep space open and accessible for riders. Residents find and nurture friendships at the Dunham Riding Club or the Lamplight Equestrian Center.
In Wayne and elsewhere, riders climb atop horses. But it’s the horse that burrows his way into the heart of the rider. The focus on horses is a “bit of a glue here. Even people here who don’t own horses care about horses,” says Ruminski.
Polo Highlights Speed & Horsemanship
Photo courtesy of Oakbrook Polo Club
Decades ago, it would have been hard to overstate the centrality of Oak Brook’s playing fields to U.S. polo. The U.S Polo Open was a fixture in the small village. There were 13 top-notch polo grounds and stables for 40 horses. Royalty such as Prince Charles and King Hussein and movie stars like Audrey Hepburn and Vivien Leigh marveled at some of the best players in the world including the wondrous Cecil Smith, the Michael Jordan of the game.
Then the recession of 2008 hit, and the fields deteriorated. In 2010 and 2011 there was no polo at all. The village took over operations but lost money in the process. Riding to the rescue in 2016 was Barrington Hills resident Jim Drury, a businessman who has played polo for more than 30 years. He invested in reviving the Oak Brook Polo Club, once the province of the Butler family.
The 97th polo season in Oak Brook begins June 9 at the Oak Brook Golf Club on York Road. Attendance has risen each year since Drury took over. The average turnout last year was 650 fans. They watch a game unparalleled in speed “It’s a team sport. Everyone is used to basketball and football,” says Danny O’Leary, managing director of Oak Brook Polo Club. “When you see polo, it’s astonishing how fast it is. It’s an adrenalin sport. When you see a 900-pound animal run by, it’s pretty impressive. What polo players are capable of doing is jaw-dropping.”
The thoroughbreds, often former racehorses and trained for polo as well, accelerate to as fast as 35 mph. Drury has strove to make the sport accessible and fun. Before games, players interact with fans and even demonstrateplays. The pageantry of the past remains. “It’s like the Kentucky Derby — lots of finery and dressage,” says Drury.But tickets are as low as $12 and the atmosphere is meant to be egalitarian.
“Polo is for everyone regardless of income level,” says O’Leary. Adds Drury, “I don’t expect to make money. I loved Oak Brook polo. I didn’t want it to disappear into history. This place epitomizes polo in Chicago.”
WHERE TO SEE A POLO MATCH THIS SUMMER
OAK BROOK POLO CLUB
• June 9, Oak Brook Polo Season Opener: Horses & Horsepower
• June 23, Butler Challenge Cup: Polo for Conservation
• July 14, Gibsons Oak Brook Polo Open: Village Appreciation
• July 28, R.R. McCormick Cup: Jaguar Concours
• August 4th, Drake Challenge Cup: Horses & Harleys
• August 18, Chicago Polo Open: Horses & Hops
• September 8, Merrill Lynch Butler International Cup: Diapers & Divots
• September 15, Cecil Smith Cup: Sips & Saddles
• September 22, Illinois Players Cup: Team Up For Tony Sekera
ARRANMORE FARM + POLO CLUB
• June 30, Women’s Invitational
• August 17, Arranmore Polo Classic
Arranmore will also be hosting Wine Down Wednesday matches at 6 p.m. on June 19 & 26; July 10, 17, 24 & 31; and August 7, 14 & 21
The Thrill of the Chase
Photo courtesy of Wayne-DuPage Hunt
Twenty hounds are howling. Also in pursuit, two dozen or so riders rush after the hounds. It’s the colorful Wayne-DuPage Hunt, a fox hunt modeled after the centuries-old English practice and, in season, held three times weekly, mostly on private property, but sometimes within the nearby forest preserves.
Foxes are not actually part of the hunt. The hounds chase the scent of a fox laid down just prior to the hunt.
The hunt is tailored for riders at three levels. The most advanced riders gallop and jump. The hunt can take as long as two hours and cover 15 miles. The season begins in August and includes a popular Blessing of the Hounds in October.
The oldest of its kind in Illinois, the hunt often begins around sunrise, indicative of the event’s appeal. “It’s as much about enjoying creation as anything else,” says Fred Iozzo, who is the “master” or leader of the hunt.
Horse Therapy for Those with Disabilities & Veterans with PTSD
Photo courtesy of the Ray Graham Association
Lisa Afshari has seen astonishing changes in children when they ride one of the 10 therapy horses at her nonprofit facility in Plainfield. One child with autism uttered her very first word while atop a horse. Another who had to wear a cumbersome back brace gained enough strength to do without it.
A therapeutic horse-riding facility in Burr Ridge, the Hanson Center of the Ray Graham Association also reports lots of success with children with autism, Down syndrome, cognitive disabilities and cerebral palsy and adults with brain injuries, among others. Being on a horse “gives them a real sense of empowerment, a sense of well-being,” says Cathy LeBeau, administrator of the equestrian therapy program. “Our riders don’t usually do all that well in academics. They feel good about learning a skill. They’re directing a 1,000-lb animal. That’s something that not all their friends do.”
Horse therapy is a well-established treatment with documented results. The movement of a horse mimics the motion of walking and helps people improve physically. The mental benefits are real, too. Forget about dogs — a horse can be a best friend.
“Horses have a sense that there is something different about these children with special needs. Horses don’t judge. Usually there is an immediate connection,” says Afshari, the director of Ready Set Ride. “You’re learning a lot of things. It’s creating confidence. It’s developing muscles. You have to take care of the horse. You’re learning about grooming.”
Says LeBeau about her clients, “It’s a new way for them to gain skills. They learn to speak up for themselves. They learn how to get along with others. They learn how to interact with others — they’re interacting with our volunteers.”
Serving 170 people weekly and using 100 volunteers, the Hanson Center has 20 horses in a farm-like setting with plenty of goats and sheep and other friendly critters. The center is a multi-faceted therapy program that uses horses to also aid seniors in assisted living homes, other seniors with dementia, and veterans with PTSD. Seniors enjoy being around miniature horses. “They love interacting with a big animal. They like to groom them,” says LeBeau, who started as a volunteer before being hired in 1994. “People like to be around animals. It makes a difference in their day. You can only play so much bingo.”