Friday, May 13, 2016

Terry Houghton of Marrinson Stables

Creating a Piece of Paradise

By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll

Marrinson Stables may be one of Aiken’s best-kept secrets. Tucked away on 88 acres about 25 minutes from downtown, it is an intimate boarding stable with a focus on quality care and a drama-free atmosphere. The stable offers miles of trails, dressage and jumping rings and a supportive group of boarders who enjoy one another’s company almost as much as they love their horses.

“We all sometimes have a crisis in our lives,” says Terry Houghton, who runs the stable for its owner, the businessman Ralph Marrinson. “Our boarders tell me that when there is something difficult going on in their lives, they can come here and feel happy. Mentally, it’s a really good place to be.”

Terry was born and raised in California, where she made a living at the racetrack.

“When I was growing up I was just crazy for horses,” she says. “We didn’t have any money, but I ended up with a little pinto horse that I paid $175 for – his name was Dash of Pepper, and I rode him and showed him.”

Terry went to Modesto Junior College in Modesto, Calif. and considered becoming a veterinarian. She hadn’t really thought of making a living riding, but while she was in college, a racehorse training center opened up nearby and they were advertising for help. She applied for a job.

“They told me you needed to have an exercise license to ride, and I didn’t have one, so they stuck me in the breeding barn. They would have professional exercise riders taking out the horses, but they didn’t pay as well as at the racetrack and they were out in the middle of nowhere, so no one stayed around for very long. Eventually, they got desperate for help and they asked me if I would get on a few horses for them, and I said okay. That’s how I started riding racehorses.”

As Terry gained experience, she got on some better horses and soon found herself hooked. Before long, she was riding at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, just outside of San Francisco.

“It was a strange place for a racetrack,” she says. “If you looked one way, you could see the San Francisco Bay and if you were up in the grandstands you had the most incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge. When there were regattas, you could see the boats sailing by. But if you looked the other way, you could see that the track was literally on the side of Route 80, the massive highway going up to the Bay Bridge. We’d be on our horses, and we could look out and see people’s faces in their cars as they went speeding by. It was crazy.”

At Golden Gate, Terry became familiar with every aspect of racing, as a rider, as a trainer, and as an administrator. She dealt with issues ranging from immigration law for the workers to the politics of gambling in the state of California. It was a great job, she says, until the industry began to change. The beginning of the end was when California stopped classifying racing as agriculture and began treating it as entertainment. This initiated a cascade of changes that made it more and more difficult for the sport to survive. Expenses skyrocketed, but purses did not. It became clear to Terry that it was time to find a new career.

At the same time, her mother was ailing and her husband had been diagnosed with a neurological disorder that turned out to be ALS. In 2003, Terry’s good friends, Christine and Dr. Kerry Ridgway, who had recently relocated to Aiken from California, encouraged her to come out for a weekend.

“I came and I fell in love,” she says. The weekend that she visited, the painted horse statues that adorn Aiken were being unveiled and there was a festive, equestrian atmosphere downtown. In the weeks preceding her trip, she had been in contact with Lisa Hosang, a realtor with Carolina Company, and Lisa took her for a trail ride in the Hitchcock Woods. That was what sold it. “It was just so beautiful.”

Terry was not expecting to buy a house, and she had given Lisa a list of requirements that she was pretty sure would be impossible to meet. But before she went back to California, Lisa took her to a home on a quiet street in the 302 equestrian corridor with everything she needed.

Back on the West Coast, Terry made what she thought was a low offer on the house and it was accepted right away. The die was cast. Two months later, in January 2004, she and her husband, mother, son and daughter relocated to Aiken.

Terry didn’t have a job when she arrived at her new home, but soon pieced together a living working in a law office, a veterinary office and as an exercise rider at the Aiken Training Track. Her skill and experience on the track made her a standout, and it wasn’t long before she was hired as the assistant trainer for Tim Jones, who was the Aiken trainer for Stonerside, a major racehorse operation then owned by Robert and Janice McNair, who also owned the Houston Texans football team.

“It was a great job, and they were wonderful people and they had some phenomenal horses,” she says. “The whole program was just class all the way through.”

When the McNairs sold Stonerside to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Makhtoum, the ruler of Dubai, in 2009, Terry became an employee of the Darley, one of the largest racehorse stables in the world. Meanwhile she was caring for her mother and her husband, both of whom were terminally ill. It was a busy and a stressful time in her life.

After a few years, Darley’s interest in its Aiken operation began wane. In 2012, the management announced that its employees were going to be seasonal instead of year round. Almost simultaneously, Terry heard that Ralph Marrinson was possibly looking for someone to run his stable as a business. She was interested, had a few interviews, and was soon hired as the manager.

At the time, Marrinson stable had a single boarder, and no clear identity in the Aiken horse community. Terry came in, supervised some changes and updates to the facility, and began working to bring in clients.

“Mr. Marrinson is one of those really neat people to work for,” says Terry. “He’s a very good businessman, but he also wants this place to be special. If there is something that needs to be done, all I have to do is call him and tell him about it and it gets taken care of.”

Today, three and a half years after she came to Marrinson, Terry has the satisfaction of knowing that she has helped to create a unique place. It isn’t a show barn or a competition barn. Marrinson’s boarders are horse lovers who mostly ride on the trails and come to the barn because they love their horses. There is a community spirit and a sense of camaraderie. One boarder, Kitty Corbett, is a driving enthusiast, and even gave Terry and her new husband, Nils Pontenstein, a romantic carriage wedding at the stable last June.

“There was a real need for a place for people who just want to ride their horses and love them,” says Terry. “We take really good care of the horses, and we have a very hands-on approach. For so many of these ladies, their horses are their babies, and we recognize that and we go the extra distance to give the best care we can. And we’ve been so lucky too, with the group of people we have – sometimes they organize rides together, go to the Hitchcock Woods. They all work together, and do things like raise money for the animal shelter or the SPCA. I have met so many wonderful people.”

“We have our own little piece of paradise out here,” she continues, joking that her boarders don’t want to let too many people in on their secret. “Because we have a Ridge Spring address, sometime people imagine that we are too far from town to be convenient. But once they make the trip, they realize that we aren’t that far away. And once people get here, they just love it. It’s a really good place.”

-Three Runs Plantation Equestrian Blog. Re-published article from The Aiken Horse.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.