Ginette Michelet agrees with Will Rogers that "the best thing for the inside of a person is the outside of a horse."
"They're beautiful animals and an absolute pleasure to be around," Michelet, AG '81, says.
She should know. She spends about 12 hours a day with them.
A full-time equestrienne who cares for about 30 horses at her "Been There Farm" in Mount Holly, N.J., Michelet also teaches horseback riding and competes in events. Horses truly are her life.
"I did a pony ride at age 8 and that was it. I was hooked right there," Michelet says. While she would occasionally manage to get her parents to take her for a horseback ride, it was several years before the Moorestown, N.J., native was able to fully indulge her love of horses.
When she was 12, a neighborhood friend encouraged her to come along for a two-week-long summer day camp program that taught youngsters all the basic aspects of riding.
"That was really when it began in earnest," she recalls. "Like a lot of young girls, my friend went through her 'horse phase,' but soon got over it. I never did."
In the fall of her freshman year in high school, Michelet was introduced to the Wieland family, who owned a horse farm near her home. Michelet and the farm's owner, Ted Wieland, struck a deal: If she would help care for the horses boarded at his stables, she could ride as much as she wanted.
"It was a good situation," she says. "He found someone to help him out and I had access to horses." Learning to ride, she says, is "totally pass-fail. You either do it right or you don't." Before long, she became an expert English-style rider without the benefit of formal lessons.
Most days after school and each weekend, Michelet could be found at Wieland's.
"In addition to being able to ride, I learned how to manage a working horse farm," she says. "I grew up there, in a sense."
At age 18, unbeknownst to her parents, Michelet bought her first horse, with $800 she'd saved up. The male Thoroughbred, named Pass Key, became her first competition horse and "best friend" over the years.
"I couldn't tell my parents because I knew they wouldn't approve," she says. "They kept thinking, hoping, that horses were something I'd outgrow."
Unsure as to her career path, Michelet took a year off after high school and worked at the farm full time. She then decided to attend the University of Delaware, a decision based in part on its proximity to her Moorestown home and the availability of a major that would allow her to learn more about animals.
"I didn't want to be a veterinarian, but I wanted a lot of their knowledge," she explains. "With animal science, I was that much ahead of the next person. I really learned about the biological makeup of animals."
During her years at UD, Michelet worked at Wieland's on the weekends, and, for a time, held a part-time job at the Cherry Hill, N.J., Garden State Race Track, where she groomed and exercised--or "ponied"-- racehorses.
By the time she graduated, Michelet was firmly entrenched in running Wieland's farm.
"Mr. Wieland decided to retire, so I took over the majority of the responsibilities," she says. "Eventually, the farm became synonymous with my name." She cared for boarders' horses, rode each day, taught lessons and competed at the intermediate level.
And so it went for nearly 15 more years, until one night in the summer of 1995, when the stable mysteriously burned down.
"Fortunately, the horses were kept out in the fields in the summer months, so none of them was hurt," she says. "But, it was a tremendous shock. I was devastated."
Not only did Michelet have to deal with the loss of what she considered her second home, she had to find a new farm to rent so she wouldn't lose her boarders to another stable.
"I had to keep my head about me and keep all these horses and boarders happy," she says. "Never was there a moment when I was allowed to cry."
Within a month, she'd found a stable based at a former thoroughbred training facility in Westhampton, N.J. Dubbing her new business "Been There Farm," Michelet found that the only difference between running her own business and working for Ted Wieland was that "now I had to pay all the bills myself."
While she has someone assist her with the horses for a few hours each day, Michelet pretty much runs the farm on her own. "I'm there at least six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.," she says. "It's hard work, but I love it."
She competes about twice a month in the spring, summer and fall and is an impassioned riding instructor.
"I teach all private lessons on a one-to-one basis and really get into it," she says. "My students are intelligent and very driven, which I like. I put a lot into my lessons, and I expect my students to give me a lot back."
Pass Key, her first horse, died two years ago at age 26, and the memory of his passing is clearly imbedded in her mind.
"When he was put down, his imprint was on the grass for four days afterward," she recalls. "It was sort of freaky, but it was also a beautiful moment because he truly was an exceptional spirit that was passing."
Horses, she believes, are highly intuitive, sensitive animals. "They are the most amazing creatures," she says. "I never feel so good as when I get off a horse after riding."
Michelet owns four of her own horses: Norton, a 17-year-old male Thoroughbred; Gato (or "Lump," as she calls him), a 12-year-old male Thoroughbred; Gypsy, a 13-year-old broodmare; and Monet, an 18-year-old female pinto.
"They're like my kids," she says. "Each one has its own personality."
Some might find it utterly torturous to be outside caring for horses in rain, snow or sweltering heat, but Michelet expects to remain at it for "as many years as I can."
"I'm totally doing what I love," she says. "I don't know how many people can say that."
University of Delaware Messenger, Volume 10, Number 3, 2001