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Passion’s Journey

Mary Ann Parmelee Shares Her Story

by Sally Kay

Celia Cram (granddaughter) and Mary Ann- 2009 ASC Leadline
Source:  Shawn McMillen Photography

Passion….ambition….determination.  Each of these characteristics has not only played an important role throughout the life of Mary Ann Parmelee, they have also served as the foundational cornerstones for her riding instruction.  

Mary Ann’s journey within the horse world officially began at the age of six.  After much begging and pleading, Mary Ann’s parents finally relented and enrolled her in a riding lesson program at the School of Horsemanship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Unfortunately, Mary Ann’s father passed away when she was twelve; however, she did not let that prevent her from pursuing her dreams of riding and teaching.  There was a farm nearby her home in Grand Rapids that was owned by the Bonds.  “All of us were considered their kids,” fondly recalls Mary Ann.  “I would pack my lunch and sit outside each day listening to the lessons being given and try to learn as much as possible.”  Additionally, Mary Ann learned how to braid, $1.50 per horse, which provided an income and gave her a reason to be at the area shows.

One day, Mary Ann heard about a man by the name of Gabor Foltenyi through a friend who kept her horse at a neighboring barn. Foltenyi was known as the “God with horses.”  She also understood that the barn where he taught was “off limits;” therefore, Mary Ann was more determined to hop on her bike and make the five- mile trip.  She arrived, hopped up on the fence, and witnessed a man donning boots and britches and speaking with a very thick Hungarian accent.  “He sensed my presence and abruptly questioned, ‘What are you doing here?’

I simply replied, ‘Watching you teach.’  He gruffly retorts, ‘Nobody watches me teach.’  I think, uh oh… and begin to climb down from the fence…he must have sensed my extreme disappointment and added, ‘If you want to watch, you have to work.’  Gabor takes me to the indoor ring and looks over at a cavaletti of huge telephone sized timbers.  My task at hand was to move them, which I honestly don’t know how I did, but I knew he was truly testing my sense of passion and commitment.

From that point on, Mary Ann was allowed to come and watch Gabor teach.  It also helped that a friend of hers bought a horse and kept it in his “unbelievable barn.”  Not only was Gabor a fabulous rider, he was also good friends with Bert de Nemethy and Bill Steinkraus.  “He was the ultimate horseman, a beautiful rider and gave nothing up,” commented Mary Ann.  “I don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t ridden my bike there that day.”

Equestrian legends Gordon Wright and George Morris also made their impressions on Mary Ann as her riding journey continued.  She had the chance to ride in a clinic with Mr. Wright.  “The two things that I remembered most from him were:  1) ‘don’t allow yourself to get any heavier; and 2) it is important you are ambidextrous…both hands and both legs need to be equally effective on a horse.’   As for George, she laughs, they met under some interesting circumstances…the Maclay Finals around 1970. Both George and Mary Ann had riders who made the final cut, and those riders were asked to exchange horses.  Mary Ann explains that she was holding the horses and helping the girls as they were adjusted their saddles, stirrups, etc.  All of a sudden, there is a booming voice, “Who is this Mary Ann?”  During that time, Mary Ann was one of the very few female trainers.  She had previously scoured through the AHSA, now “USEF”, rules and knew that it was acceptable to ask questions about the horses if there was “rider swap.”  Mary Ann asked him, “Is there anything we need to know about this horse?”  “Nothing,” he retorted.  Then she noticed that his rider had spurs and offered, “Spurs aren’t needed for this horse.” He quickly replied, “All horses require spurs.”  The girls performed their tests on their respective new mounts.  Mary Ann was quite pleased with her rider’s effort and added the fact that George’s rider “came very darn close to being bucked off!”   Since that time, Mary Ann and George have become good friends and see each other at his clinics and the indoor shows.   “George is a very good horseman and a tremendous asset to this industry.”

Rick (left) and Brent (right) on their ponies

And speaking of assets, both of Mary Ann’s boys, Rick and Brent (about 14 months apart), began taking riding lessons at ages five and six, at the same School of Horsemanship in Grand Rapids. They each received a pony, when they were eight and nine, from the area blacksmith, and each pony came with a Western saddle. “We were living on a 100-acre farm at the time, and I would pack their lunch each day,“ she began.

 The boys would spend the day exploring.   Brent’s pony, Flyer, in fact, was a ‘run-away’ and would not stop.  One day Brent came up and said, ‘Mom, I taught Flyer how to stop’.  I was thinking to myself how many times they’d run those ponies back to the barn to see how fast they’d go.  Brent proceeded to pick up a canter for a bit, jumped off of Flyer and stood right to the side with reins in hand.  Completely bewildered I asked him, how’d you learn to do that?  He replied bluntly, ‘Watching the cowboys.’

Watching, as well as educating, are equally important attributes to Mary Ann’s style of teaching.   “Many individuals who ride well do so through feel; however, some of those who ride well are unable to say or use the right words which can cause extreme frustration in teaching.”   One of the hopes is that the individual being instructed rides enough so that he/she is able to feel what needs to be corrected.  Certain riders may remain with a particular barn because its “popular,” and the fact that they win doesn’t necessarily mean that they learn.   Mary Ann firmly believes that some of the best instructors never ride.  “I, for instance, would ride anything with fur. Typically, I got the leftovers, which gave me challenges and taught me how to ride a variety of temperaments.” In today’s environment there seems to be fewer kids who truly have the passion for riding and therefore don’t consistently demonstrate a robust work ethic.   Mary Ann agrees that the difference between good riders and great ones is the level of drive or initiative.  “A rider who has mediocre talent but wants it badly can make a better rider.  If there’s one who has the raw talent but doesn’t have the desire to work…sometimes they get lucky, sure, but ultimately the ones who fight for it are the ones who succeed.”  

Mary Ann and her husband Tom have now lived in the Aiken area for 18 years.    Tom also teaches and is classic trained.  He, too, spent some time with Gordon Wright and Mary Ann believes his knowledge of flat work is a good complement to her program.  Sometimes the pair offers clinics together and while their message is the same, the delivery is different.  But what she enjoys most about clinics is working with those she’s never seen before.  It’s a challenge to help them through their riding pilgrimage.

If given a choice between teaching, conducting clinics, and judging, Mary Ann’s passion is clearly teaching.  Her most rewarding aspect of it is experiencing the riding adventure and knowing that everything cannot be accomplished in one lesson or series of lessons.  Riders need to trust their teachers in that they make an environment which is safe for them, but her ultimate gratification is the realization when “they get it.”  “I can see the light bulb that goes off, and they finally feel it.”  There can be challenges, too, in teaching.  For Mary Ann, the most challenging can be deciding what words, or which phrases, to use for the rider to understand the feel, and/or for him/her to realize the progress that has been made. 

“I wish I had had Mary Ann as my first riding instructor,” openly admits Cathy Cram.   I came to her as a young professional and asked her to be my ground person.  I was amazed at how little I knew of the basics and why to apply them.  I basically had been riding by the seat of my pants.  The horses I had at the time loved her, and the transition from good to great was apparent immediately.  Everything became easier.  Anyone who thinks he/she doesn’t need a person on the ground when they are schooling is foolish.  He/she is your eyes when you cannot feel something.   That teamwork is so important for success.

“I’ve been riding with Mary Ann now for about nine years,” adds Donna Beals, a seasoned veteran who has been riding for over 35 years. “Since I’ve moved around the country a good bit, I have ridden with a lot of different trainers.  While they taught me how to sit on a horse, Mary Ann has taught me how to ride one.”

The horse business today is a huge business.  “While we can’t go back to the way the business was 20 or so years ago, it is important to understand that as long as there’s passion and the work ethic to work hard for the horse, there will be a horse industry,” affirms Mary Ann.  “The horse is the common denominator and brings a very diverse group of people together.  My job is to get into a partnership with the horse, whether it’s trail riding or showing in Palm Beach.”   Effective riding begins with training at home.  While trainers should continue to raise the bar for their students, they should not over face them.  Mary Ann believes it is important to focus on the big picture and be willing to pick one’s battles.  It is also critical for equitation/medal riders to study all aspects of USEF tests and work on them at home. The judges should do their part in requiring more challenging tests at the shows.  “It’s Important for the riders to be prepared, and important for the trainers to ensure that they are prepared.  The tests should also be fun.”

With the onset of the Internet, trainer symposiums, books, CDs, etc., there can be information overload when trying to improve one's knowledge.  Mary Ann believes in the “village” concept of sharing knowledge and realizes that she can learn from all of her peers.   “Yes, Tom does help and we talk back and forth as well as give advice when asked for.  It is important to find someone that you respect and get their help.”

“Riding with Mary Ann has not only taught me horsemanship, but also important life skills,” asserts Sarah Chafin.

Mary Ann may be tough on her students, but in the end the hard work pays off. Everyday riding involves intense flat work and usually a jumping exercise that Mary Ann has put together to educate both horse and rider.
If I am ever having a problem with my horse, Teddy, Mary Ann takes the problem home, talks it over with her husband, Tom, and comes back the next day with a new idea. Mary Ann dedicates much of her time to her students and does whatever it takes to make us the best we can be.

Mary Ann’s philosophy is that everyone is individual, and she encourages her students to strive toward excellence. Understanding the true meaning of commitment, developing brainpower, and exemplifying a high degree of dedication are key ingredients to achieving success in life.  Embracing ‘the nothing can stop me’ attitude and pursuing the things you love are all part of riding.   

Melanie and Mary Ann after winning 2007 PSJ
Junior Medal Finals
Source:  Aiken Standard

 “There’s so much I can say about Mrs. Mary Ann,” offers long time student Melanie Carraway.

 She has an incredible amount of knowledge about horses and our sport and is enthusiastic during every lesson.  She is great at explaining what she sees and how to improve upon your current level of riding.  She really has an eye to spot even the smallest adjustments that need to be made in order to help her riders achieve success.  She has taught me since I was six years old, so she knows me well.  When I decided I wanted to be on an equestrian team in college, she gave me articles about intercollegiate programs, and what it takes to be on one.  I needed to start riding lots of different horses, so anytime there was a horse to ride, she would ask me if I wanted to ride it, in order to give me the experience I needed to be a successful member of whatever team I wanted to be on.  She even taped my initial videos I later sent to the UGA riding program.  She has been the greatest coach and support for me over the years, and I feel 100% prepared to ride for UGA in the fall.

I’m really going to miss Melanie,” confides Mary Ann.  “But through my teaching, I deliver a lot of information, believe in open communication, and know that honesty is key.  I’m hopeful that my students learn compassion, develop independence, and discover security with who they are.”

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