When Abby Skinner, 14, of Bradford, came to me with her mother, Keiko, for riding lessons, I never imagined Abby would become the equestrian she became. But I did not know Abby, and therein begins her story.
Fewer than 10 percent of all kids who try horseback riding stick with it beyond a year or so. It wasn't simply riding, however, that would amaze me about Abby. Soon I would learn about her piano skills, academic prowess and athletic abilities.
Her mother knew us from long ago.
Keiko, an animal lover and publisher of the newspaper Animal Sense in the 1990s, was born in Japan and came to America when she was 13.
"I was looking for a place where Abby would learn all aspects of horse back. I simply didn't want her to jump on the horse, ride, and go home. I wanted her to have discussion about veterinary care, horse illnesses, saddle differences ... I wanted an equestrian education."
Abby not only blossomed into the best rider I trained, but she recently gained acceptance into Brooks Academy.
Brooks is among the finest schools in the world and youngsters who go there are not simply among our most academically talented, but are talented in a variety of areas — like Abby.
Brooks is gaining one of the best Haverhill has to offer.
Like her parents, Abby is an achiever. Her dad, Dana, was a standout on the basketball court when he was at Merrimack College. He was so good that he earned a tryout with our beloved Celtics. He tells me, "Even the worst player sitting on the bench in the NBA was a star in college. You simply can't imagine the ability of the starters. I couldn't stand up to these guys, try as I did. I can't imagine a fellow like Kendrick Perkins (Celtics star) banging into me at full speed."
Educational achievement is in the household. Abby's brother, Alex, a star on the tennis and basketball courts, is at Boston College. To both parents, nothing should stand in the way of a sound education.
I have no doubt that, had Abby pursued her piano playing the way she pursues academics, she might have become a world-renowned concert pianist. Her piano playing is unmatched for her age.
She shines athletically. When she was 12, her mother began telling me that Abby could now beat her in a tennis match — and mom was no slouch when it came to tennis. I know. I was no match for her when I went up against her once.
In summers, Abby traveled throughout New England competing in tennis and usually winning.
Her latest bit of fun: volleyball.
She is at the top of her class in school. Haverhill High could use leaders like Abby.
I have told Abby's mom that she has outdistanced any child I ever taught how to horseback ride, but it wasn't always that way. In the early years, Abby's desire to achieve almost stood in the way of her achievement. She tried very hard and when the horse wouldn't obey, she would take it rather personally. Maturity and growing a foot taller took care of that. Not even my most challenging horses intimidates her now and she rides better than all the adults I have ever taught.
"If this had been Abby's only activity, I would have told you to buy a horse and, eventually, find an instructor who knew more than I do," I told her mother. But mom wanted riding to be complete relaxation, fun. Once you buy a horse, the fun can cease simply because of the commitment of time. I have told Abby more than once, "If you bought a horse, you would not have had time for tennis, basketball, piano, and the myriad other things you want to do."
Abby has her sights set on a law degree and professional career. Imagine if more kids at age 14 were thinking about professional careers, or advanced degrees.
I don't have many more years left in me to keep teaching riding; the demands on me physically, mentally, and emotionally are wearing.
There is so much more to the job than teaching kids to ride. The time is fast approaching to hang up my spurs.
It takes many years for a child to develop the riding skills Abby has and there is accompanying wear and tear on the instructor. Having played all the varsity sports in high school, and tried my hand at tennis, long distance running as well as bicycle riding, I can attest that horseback riding is the most challenging and difficult sport I ever took up ... and it's very dangerous!
Being able to teach someone like Abby was a gift to me. I jokingly tell her now that the only thing I am better at than she is that I have finesse. "It's why a 40-year-old baseball pitcher can strike out a 25-year-old slugger or why an aging basketball player can fake out a leaping 25-year-old. It's the same with horses, but it takes a lifetime of experience with them to develop the touch each individual horse needs."
Having owned more than 50 horses in my life, I could attest to the mind of a horse.
Abby is the model kids should strive for. She is the sort of youngster of whom we need to make a big deal.
Her hard work in school, her appetite for sampling everything life has to give provides meaning to the phrase, "Oh, to be young again!"
Congratulations to Abby Skinner on a fine start to her young life.
Michael Veves has taught riding for 25 years. A former English teacher, Veves earned two master's degrees before embarking on a doctorate.