Aspiring to be betterby Pam Gleason, photography by Gary Knoll
Ann Thal knows a good horse when she sees one. A professional in the hunter, jumper and equitation world for close to four decades, she teaches and trains at Greystone Farms on Aiken’s Southside, along with Sharer Dale. Ann is devoted to her profession. When she is not teaching and training, she is reading about horsemanship. When she is not reading about horsemanship, she is looking at sales horses on the Internet. When she sees something she likes, she knows what to do.
“If they are balanced and well put together, if there is something that catches my eye about them, then I think they are worth looking at,” she says. “Ann has sent us on a few adventures,” says Sharer. “She found a horse for us to look at in Florida the day after Christmas, so we drove down. We tried him, vetted him in two hours, put him on the trailer and hauled him back to Aiken. And we sold him in 30 days. Another horse we went to look at during a torrential downpour. He was a big 4-yearold Belgian Warmblood. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, including the vet, thought we were crazy. But we bought him and he turned out to be our biggest success yet.” That horse went on to win a championship at the Spy Coast Young Horse Competition in Kentucky in November and then moved on to a new home in Chicago. “It’s so rewarding when you feel you personally changed a horse’s stars,” says Sharer. “We’ve been lucky,” says Ann. But her success in identifying and developing talent in a young horse is probably not luck. More likely, it is experience, coupled with an educated eye and a dedication to providing the horse with everything he needs to live up to his potential.
Greystone Farms, LLC is owned by Sharer Dale, who divides her time between her passion for horses and a successful career as a realtor in Aiken – she recently became a partner in the new RE/MAX, Tattersall Group office on Laurens Street. The stable is located at Allwin Farms, which is owned by Don Houck, Sharer’s partner and a periodic investor in Greystone’s young horses. Ann Thal came on board late in 2012, and she and Sharer have a complementary relationship. Ann is the ground person, while Sharer rides. Ann does the majority of the teaching, and Sharer runs the barn. Their personalities and personal styles are quite different, but they fit together.
“I’m the cheerleader,” says Sharer. “Ann is more serious. She’s the technician.”
Greystone has three different aspects. First, there is the boarding, training and teaching aspect. The stable has 14’x14’ matted stalls with fans, grassy pastures, an all-weather jumping ring, dressage ring and its own trail system on over 300 acres in Allwin. The stable has a quiet and private atmosphere that Sharer describes as “no drama.”
“Our boarders have mostly owned or managed their own facilities in the past so they have a greater appreciation for one that is well organized and well run. They are mostly mature adults – they are supportive of each other, and not competitive with each other, so it turns out to be a great, stress-free environment,” she says.
Ann’s lessons are an integral part of the stable’s success. She has a small lesson program that is tailored to each individual and encompasses all levels, from serious competitors to riders just getting back in the saddle after decades of doing other things. Her students can’t say enough about her ability to analyze their riding and come up with suggestions for improvement. Ann teaches at Greystone, and also travels near and far to give lessons and clinics.
“I accomplish more in a single lesson with her than I have in years of training with other people,” says Mary Guynn, a real estate attorney, who has competed on the hunter/jumper circuit for years and who works with Ann at her own facility on the East side of town. “I’m grateful that she has taken the time to impart just a fraction of her knowledge to me.”
“She sees things that other people don’t see, and she knows how to put it all together so that it sticks,” says Sharer. She adds that, because Ann has other clients around the region, she brings a valuable perspective back to Greystone. “She’s constantly measuring us against the bigger picture, what is happening outside of Aiken. I think that is really helpful for out clients.”
Ann is in her first year serving on the United States Hunter Jumper Association Zone 4 jumper committee. She has worked with Diann Langer on young horse incentive programs and with Kim Land on regional adult and childrens’ jumper championships. She believes that she is at least as much a student as a teacher, looking to some distinguished horse trainers as mentors – people such as Linda Allen, Frank Barnett, Carol Bishop and Kathy Kusner, an Olympic showjumping silver medalist.
“Back when I was showing jumpers, Kathy Kusner once asked me ‘who is it that you would like to be like when you are riding?’ I chose a rider who I thought was good. She told me ‘Why not Ludger Beerbaum?’” naming the German rider who has won Olympic gold four times. “You need to ride and train like you are going to the Olympics,’ she said. And that has stayed with me forever. You need to be the best that you can be, and you need the horse to be the best that he can be.”
Ann’s approach includes meticulous attention to horse care, as well as to rider education. “I think the best thing people can do for their horses is to be better,” she says. “Be better, be smarter, be more confident, be more understanding.”
The second aspect of Greystone is that it is a place for Sharer’s personal horses. She has a passion for showjumping, and loves to compete. In her long amateur career, she had a large share of success, with several standout horses that jumped her to the awards table while competing with and against top professionals. Her plan is to keep and develop two personal horses to campaign at Aiken’s shows and beyond.
The third aspect of Greystone is the buying, training and selling of promising young horses for the hunter/jumper circuit. This is the aspect of the enterprise that Sharer and Ann are particularly excited about this spring.
“We’ve been very fortunate that, in the last year or so, we have had 10 big sales, which is respectable for our program, given that we are not, and don’t want to be, a big sales operation,” says Sharer. They have been focusing their attention on 3- to 4-year-old horses that can be prepped for the young horse shows, selecting mostly American-born European warmbloods.
“To bring a young horse in from Europe is really not cost effective,” says Sharer. “We’ve found that there are a lot of really good breeders on this side of the Atlantic that have wonderful breeding programs now.”
Ann and Sharer are particularly excited about a new partnership that they have formed with Page Brook Farms in Whitney Point, New York. They met the owner, Jayshree Schrubb, at Spy Coast in the fall, and fell in love with one of her 3-year-olds, First Mate (aka ‘Captain.’) They bought the horse on a handshake, and brought him back to Greystone. Over the winter, they have worked with him, training him at Greystone, taking him to school over fences in a show in Georgia, and schooling him over a cross country event course. This spring, he will make his first entrée into the show ring, most likely at the Aiken Spring Classic. He’s handsome and cocky, and clears the fences with plenty of air. Ann and Sharer think he is special, and possibly a personal horse for Sharer. After all, his bloodlines are similar Antares (Acord II), Sharer’s best and favorite partner in the jumper ring.
“Page Brook is focused on breeding for performance and quality,” says Sharer, who adds that they now have three horses from that breeding program in the barn for training and for sale. All of them are showing great potential. Ann and Sharer hope that the stable will be able to send them two or three quality young horses each year.
Once Greystone buys a young horse, he goes into their program, which includes meticulous attention to his health and well-being, including a chiropractic and acupuncture or vet appointment with Keelin Redmond or Sarah Thompson, to identify any areas of physical weakness or discomfort. Before offering any horses for sale, Greystone has all of them prevetted, to make sure there are no surprises for anyone. Ann and Sharer are careful to provide each horse with everything he needs to make him happy and stress free. They give great credit to their staff whose attention to day-to-day horse care goes beyond the ordinary.
The training regimen includes work in hand, trail riding, ring work and dressage training. To prepare horses for a career in the show ring, they also expose them to as many things as possible. This means trailering them to new places for schooling, and frequent exposure at schooling shows.
“We’re fortunate to be in Aiken where we can go to a horse show every month and it is affordable,” says Ann. “That’s one of the things that makes it hard to develop a young horse – it can be so expensive to put the mileage on him.”
Ann and Sharer are also thrilled with their jumping arena, which has jumps that are designed and built by Jean Rohland, who rides with them.
“Jean can build anything,” says Sharer. “We call her our construction manager. When we go to a show, if there is a jump that we like, or one that our horses have had trouble with, we take a picture of it with our cell phones, and send it to her. She builds it, and then we can school over it at home.”
The jumps Jean builds are generally smaller versions of jumps from major horse shows, making them perfect for schooling young horses. Greystone also use some other nearby facilities – a jumping chute at Mike Rubin’s Breezie Hill South and the covered arena at Lisa Darden’s farm, for instance.
All of these facilities make Greystone ideal for young horses. Its location is ideal, too, because of the varied and active horse community in Aiken. According to Ann, the area is beginning to attract more attention in the hunter/jumper world, and she can see it becoming a place that is known as a training ground for show horses, just as it is already known as a training ground for event horses.
“What we would love to do is have relationships with all the professionals,” says Ann. “That would be the best way to utilize Aiken. When someone comes in from out of the area, it would be great if they could have 15 horses to look at from different programs. Part of the draw of Europe is not just that they have good horses, but that you can go to one place and see 10 horses. We could do that same thing in Aiken. All it would take is working together.”
Ann, Sharer and the riders at Greystone Farms are looking forward to an active season of riding, training and competing. They are also excited about an upcoming clinic that they will be having with Linda Allen on April 12 and 13. Linda will be in town as the course designer at the Aiken Spring Classic I at Highfields Event Center. In addition to giving a clinic at Greystone, she will also be designing a bank jump on the edge of the jumper ring.
“We’re constantly trying to improve ourselves,” says Sharer. “So we’re always improving the facility and trying to learn as much as we can from people who know more than us, the Linda Allens of this world. We try to provide individualized attention and focus on long-term relationships. But most of all, we aspire to be better.”