In 70 years of teaching riding, Norwich’s Toni Prince stays focused on the essentials

  • Toni Prince, of Prince and the Pauper Riding School, watches one of her students during a lesson on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 in Norwich, Vt. Prince, 80, has been teaching riding lessons since she was 10. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Katie Lehmann, 16, of Hanover, N.H., leads Luke, and Lyla Eve Bauer, 10, of Hanover, leads Simon, down to the ring for their lessons with Toni Prince on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Toni Prince , of Norwich, Vt., checks the bit on Roo during a lesson on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Riding Roo is Ella Swett, 11, Norwich. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Piper Ankner-Edelstein, 17, Norwich, Vt., rubs Adonis' ear at Toni Prince's farm in Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Ankner-Edelstein takes lessons with Prince, and also helped care for the horses when Prince had knee surgery this past spring. Roo is on the left. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With her black Lab Calapittar by her side, Toni Prince, of Prince and the Pauper Riding School watches riders during an afternoon class in Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Riding are Siena Curtis, 16, on Adonis, left, and Lyla Eve Bauer, 10, on Simon, both of Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Riding sidesaddle Toni Prince competes in 1957 in Middleburg, Va.,. Prince of Norwich, Vt., has been teaching riding lessons since she was 10, she is now 80. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Before the start of lessons, Toni Prince leads Adonis back to the barn after lunging him on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 in Norwich, Vt. Prince, 80, has been giving riding lessons since she was 10. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/8/2019 5:05:30 PM
Modified: 11/8/2019 5:05:15 PM

The barn at Toni Prince’s small riding school in Union Village is tidy and snug, just four stalls, two on either side of a central aisle.

With Prince and six students all grooming and tacking up the school’s four lesson horses on a recent afternoon, it felt like a busy place. The students chatted while they brushed the horses, and asked Prince questions about what the day’s lesson might bring. Ranging in age from 10 to 17, the students had come straight from school, still buzzing from their work and social lives.

But once they were all ready, the horses and ponies saddled and bridled, the students filed out the back door of the barn and down a side-hill to the farm’s small riding ring. The short walk seemed to quiet them, not entirely, but noticeably, as they headed for the sunny riding ring on one of the last brilliant days of October and prepared to enter into partnerships with their horses. Prince considers Simon Says, Roo, Luke and Adonis the true teachers at the school she’s run in Norwich for nearly 50 years.

Prince herself started teaching riding 70 years ago, at age 10, when she led her own horse door to door in McLean, Va., where she grew up, looking for other children to teach. Now, at 80, she has developed a lesson program like virtually no other. Where most lesson barns prepare students for competition, Prince tries to prepare them for life.

“I think there’s a lot of emphasis here on working on your emotions,” said Katie Lehmann, who is 16 and has been riding since she was 9, both with Prince and elsewhere. “I think riding can be a pretty emotional sport.”

The students talked about the main emotional and physical journey they have to take, from being a burden the horse must carry to being a partner with the horse. Siena Curtis, 16, of Hanover, started at The Prince and The Pauper Riding School when she was 7.

“Mrs. Prince had me come and watch” before she got on a horse, Curtis said. She and other students start by grooming the horses and by watching more experienced riders. “That was really helpful,” Curtis said. She was able to learn about how a horse moves and behaves before Prince put her in the saddle.

While Prince still teaches the skills required for successful riding, she has no interest in the competitive aspects of the sport, preferring instead to create a supportive community.

“I think so many of the coaches, they are so competitive, they are so oriented toward winning at all costs, even at the cost of the children,” she said.

It’s a lesson she learned firsthand.

Growing up in McLean, Toni Layton Brewer lived in rarefied circumstances. She lived across the road from Jackie Bouvier, the future first lady, who was a decade older. Prince was friends with Nina Auchincloss, Bouvier’s step-sister.

“I’ve been riding since I was 4 years old, when my mother decided that’s what I was going to do,” Prince said. Her father wasn’t in the picture, and her mother was overbearing, at best. Later, failure at horse shows could mean being locked in the horse trailer. “I was punished if I didn’t win,” she said.

But the horses, and other animals, were a saving grace. The black horse she led around the neighborhood when she was 10, Sable, was her first partner. She rode in the style she now teaches, the classic American hunter seat equitation, which is meant to provide a rider with a solid leg, seat and hand, in that order, in preparation for riding over fences, both in the ring and in the field. The “hunter” in the name derives from fox hunting.

She finished fourth in the ASPCA Maclay equitation finals at Madison Square Garden, perhaps the most prestigious competition in American equestrianism, riding Sable. This was in the 1950s, when the Maclay winners included George Morris, arguably the most celebrated horsemen of his generation and the author of Hunter Seat Equitation, an essential instruction manual for trainers and riders.

“My sister and I knew very, very little about that” until they were older, Prince’s son, Greg, said in a phone interview from the stable he operates in Sherborn, Mass. He called her showing record “an astonishing accomplishment.”

Equitation is based on a rider’s abilities, but it can also seem like a bit of a beauty pageant. A rider’s form is meant to be functional, but it can be put on, too, especially for the show ring. Prince teaches the fundamentals.

Sitting in the middle of the ring while Prince taught her lessons, some of the students reflected on what makes riding with Prince different. At other barns, “the goal wasn’t necessarily to improve upon yourself or your horse, but to look better,” said Piper Ankner-Edelstein, 17, of Norwich. Ankner-Edelstein has ridden with Prince for years, and took care of the horses last spring after Prince had a knee replaced.

The model for Prince’s current riding school has its roots in her teens. As a day student at the posh Madeira School, in Greenway, Va., Prince set up a lesson barn in rented stalls nearby to support herself.

Later, after she met her husband, Gregory Prince Jr., (their engagement was announced in The New York Times in September 1962) and he was accepted as a graduate student at Yale, he traveled to New Haven and went door to door to find someone willing to house them and Toni’s four horses, so she could teach lessons. “He found somebody who literally — literally! — built a barn for me,” she said. She had been afraid to move away from McLean.

“He says I put him through graduate school with the horses,” she said in a phone interview. In the background, he shouted, “She did!”

They moved to Norwich in 1970, when Greg got a job teaching history at Dartmouth. He would later become an associate dean, and then served as president of Hampshire College from 1989 to 2005. He is also 80, and travels the country as a consultant for Pathways to College, a nonprofit that helps students in poverty further their educations.

Both of their children, Tara and Greg, became hard-core competitive riders in the discipline of combined training, which features a dressage test of suppleness and tractability, a cross-country jumping test at speed over solid, unforgiving fences and a stadium jumping test. Toni coached her own children when they competed, but at the same time, her own interest in it waned. Once her own kids were grown, competition was at an end.

They rode in events at the Root District Riding Club, in Norwich, Greg said, then moved on from there.

“Norwich is weird,” he said. From their spot in Union Village, just up the road in Strafford was a group of riders with Olympic credentials, including Denny Emerson, who won a World Championship gold medal, and Tad Coffin, who won gold medals at the 1975 Pan-Am Games and the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. In the other direction, Norwich was blessed with Olympic-level skiers. “You grew up thinking that it was pretty normal to go to the Olympics,” he said.

Still, Toni tempered their competitive instincts by not letting them ride in the winter. They skied competitively instead.

Greg Prince believes his mother was ahead of her time as an instructor in her emphasis on both discipline and gentleness, rewarding horses and riders when they finally grasped and then mastered a concept or skill.

“A lot of people didn’t do it that way,” Greg Prince said. “She did it without ever having to be rough about it.”

It’s a results-driven world, and a monied one at the highest levels. The big equitation prizes are for students age 18 and under, so the pressure is on to succeed. The stakes can lead young riders to forget that riding is meant to fun. Worse, they can end up pushing horses and themselves in unhealthy ways.

“It’s amazing how some of them lose perspective of what’s good horsemanship,” Greg Prince said, adding that he makes sure enjoyment is part of his own teaching.

Where most lesson barns operate at least six days a week, Toni teaches only Mondays through Thursdays, to keep her horses fresh. “They’re pretty well pampered,” Prince said. “You know, you can’t teach on unhappy horses.” The three-day weekends, which began when her husband was at Hampshire, so she could visit him, also leave her time for her other avocation, buying and selling antiques.

The four horses she used for lessons on a recent afternoon were either donated or rescued. Only Roo, a Morgan in his 20s, has spent most of his life as a school horse. Simon Says, a small gray pony, belongs to a barn in Hopkinton, N.H. Luke, a small chestnut-colored horse, was rescued in Massachusetts. Adonis, a 7-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse, is the youngest and greenest of the school horses, and students graduate from one horse to the next.

Riding rescued horses, rather than perfectly seasoned school horses, makes for a deeper education. “Something that would be very simple on another horse, here is really challenging,” Ankner-Edelstein said. “It’s definitely more introspective.”

The rescued horses get something out of the partnerships they develop with some of the 40 students who are taking lessons at any one time. “There’s also a lot of emphasis on the horse’s emotions,” Lehmann, the longtime student, said.

The language of teaching someone how to ride a horse is notably tactile. In few other endeavors does a teacher tell a student so much about how she should feel.

While Prince taught her first group of students, most of the second group waited their turn in the middle of the ring and watched. Amid the instructions were descriptions:

■“Your legs should feel like they’re rubber bands; loosey-goosey.”

■“The reason it’s so hard for kids to turn their heads (while in the saddle) is because they feel they’re going to lose their balance.”

■“Never, ever, ever trust a horse. Believe in them with all your heart, but don’t trust them. They’re still horses.”

Prince isn’t aiming to teach students just how to ride. She very much wants them to learn how to feel. Horses, riders and the relationships she can foster between them are the sole focus of her work. The students help and encourage and learn from one another. The farm is a business that works like a cooperative.

For students and parents Prince has drawn up a five-paragraph statement under the heading “The Values and Vision of The Prince and The Pauper Riding School.”

“Today, I am more passionate than ever about this partnering of young students and horses,” the central paragraph reads. “It is a unique way of enabling children to examine and nurture the best in themselves, as well as to recognize and improve upon things that keep them from reaching their goals.”

This work is more than enough to keep Prince motivated. She has no plans to retire, and neither does her husband.

“I credit the horses and the kids with keeping me going,” Prince said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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