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August 1, 2011

Mindy Darst Knows How To Make Things Happen

Mindy Darst makes things happen, whether it's training ponies, teaching children or growing Pony Finals into the mega event it is today. Photo by Cathrin Cammet.

This busy trainer inspires horsemen of all ages with her compassion, energy and positive attitude

If you’re ever trying to track down Mindy Darst at a horse show, just look for a flock of kids.

 If it’s the early morning during USEF Pony Finals (Ky.), she’ll be in the barn aisle giving a modeling lesson to any young riders who have wandered over. During the day, she’s probably in the schooling ring—warming up a student before a junior hunter class, giving a pep talk in a quiet corner to a pony rider who’s having a bad day or jogging alongside a 4-year-old on a pony while she trots her first crossrail. In the evenings, hers is the camper with the marshmallows.

A remarkable knack for connecting with young people coupled with Darst’s skill as a horseman means that those juniors learn to ride quite well as they’re following her around. Yes, her students have won tricolors at the fall indoor horse shows, Devon (Pa.) and Pony Finals, but perhaps it’s more telling that when it comes time for professionals like Lynn Jayne, Scott and Renee Lenkart, Michael Matz, David Beisel, Mary Anne Funk, Sarah Doyle and Jennifer Beiling to find a trainer for their own children and family members, they call Darst. Her former students include successful pros like Beisel and Abby Blankenship, and she mentors myriad trainers on how to communicate better with their youngest riders.

“Mindy knows how to make it magical for the kids,” said Doyle, whose daughter Ava Stearns rides with Darst. “When she teaches she has this way of making them want to do it for her. She makes them want to try harder. There’s a lot of content in there, and she knows how to be tough without being demeaning. My daughter loves riding because of Mindy. I’ve never bought or leased a pony from her, that’s not what drives it. She’s just so passionate about the kids learning to ride.”

For Darst, that preternatural ability to provide a positive experience for young people in their first lesson at her Lochmoor Stables in Lebanon, Ohio, and at major horse shows, is just the beginning.

She’s racked up a laundry list of successful mounts that she’s started or had a serious hand in training, including Newsworthy, Caped Crusader, Warlock, Bound To Shine, Longacre Hats Off, Brownland’s Mr. Mack, Hillcrest Blue Gem Stone, Dare Me Little Willy, Highland’s Make Believe, Walk The Line and Washington.

She’s a leader in governance at a national, affiliate and zone level, the visionary who’s guided Pony Finals from an event with 400 riders to one with 700, an avid fundraiser and volunteer for various programs, a busy clinician and an R judge in hunters and hunt seat equitation.

“Mindy puts 150 percent into everything that she does,” said friend and mentor Sue Ashe. “She’s been through so much, and you’d never know it. She’s unbelievably generous with her time. She’s just a phenomenal person who makes a real difference in the lives of everyone she’s around.”

Despite all her responsibilities, Darst considers herself a mother first. She’s lost clients who thought she was giving her own children undue attention, but that didn’t faze her. Her husband, Greg, helps on the business and upkeep sides of Lochmoor; her twin children Maddy and John, 13, are regulars on the show circuit, and her stepdaughter Jenny rides for Lochmoor and helps Mindy train. Every night they’re in town, the family—and whatever friends are staying at her house—sit down at the 16-seat dining room table to say grace and eat a dinner that Mindy’s cooked with vegetables grown in her garden.

“She’ll come home from the longest horse show, one of those times when I can barely pick my head up off the pillow, and she’ll have half a dozen kids in the kitchen, making oatmeal raisin cookies,” said Doyle. “She’s the most die-hard, diligent and passionate person in the horse business, but she’s also a better friend and a better mother than anyone I know.”

The Road To The Top

Mindy delved into the sport horse world as a student at Miami University (Ohio) thanks to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, and she was hooked. After college she set her sights on eventing, and she decided to spend a year each with the best dressage, show jumping and cross-country trainers she could find. So she packed herself off to classical dressage guru Dominique Barbier’s farm in Sun Valley, Idaho.

“There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think of something he taught me,” said Mindy, 51. “But it was a tough time. I cleaned hotel rooms and waited tables in a French restaurant to pay the bills. After a few months I got a call from Ball State University asking me to coach their new team, and by then I was tired of stealing food from the restaurant to survive, so I headed to Indiana.” 

Some weekends she’d trailer a load of school horses to foxhunt with Romwell Fox Hounds (Ind.) and others she’d take students to IHSA competitions, coaching them to the national stock seat championship and the reserve hunt seat title during her four-year tenure. Despite her success, she knew she still had a long way to go. So twice a week she’d get up at 3 a.m., hook up her trailer and drive three hours from Muncie, Ind., to Louisville, Ky., to train with Rick Fancher, making it back just in time to teach afternoon lessons.

Eventually she found her way to Christina Schlusemeyer’s Quiet Hill Farm in Ocala, Fla., where she spent two years learning the ins and outs of a busy show stable. In 1990 she returned to Ohio to be closer to her parents and founded Lochmoor Stables, Inc.

From the beginning Mindy knew where her focus at Lochmoor would be: instilling confidence in riders.

“It would really bother me when I’d see kids riding who were scared and adults who were fearful or not mounted properly,” said Mindy. “I wanted a place for local people to come in, get on a safe horse and get good basics, then do with that foundation what they wanted.”

So she built it. Lochmoor’s not a fancy operation. It’s the kind of place where kids bathe and brush their own horses, and the rare student who doesn’t put away her mount properly loses the prospect of any additional rides. It’s also the kind of place that hosts USHJA Emerging Athletes Program clinics and regularly invites other clinicians to teach. There’s a local day camp, and for one week in June show kids from across the country flock to Lochmoor. That week Mindy personally hosts a week of intensive pony camp with activities ranging from gymkhana games and course design clinics to lightning bug hunts and trips to the water park.

Over the years, Mindy developed a reputation as the kind of trainer who would spend hours holding the end of a longe line helping a nervous rider become self-reliant long after other instructors would have given up, and it wasn’t long before the aisle started filling up with customers.

While her passion lay in the grassroots, she never lost her competitive drive. But she started to prefer standing at the in-gate to trotting in the ring herself. She earned her R the same year she started Lochmoor, and she started judging more as her business at home was taking off. By the late 1990s she was spending more time on the road at bigger shows and training clients from out of state, and Jenny’s junior career was soaring. Eventually she was making regular trips to the Pennsylvania National, Washington (D.C.) International and Devon (Pa.).

“It was a big struggle between keeping Lochmoor what I wanted it to be and being on the show circuit, where I also wanted to be,” said Mindy. “Even though I always had a trainer at home, for a while things weren’t going at home the way I’d always thought in my vision they should.”

All that changed in 2006. Her longtime assistant, Blankenship, decided to strike out on her own, and Mindy was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. The doctors informed her she had a 15 percent chance of being alive five years later.

The sudden regular visits to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston started punctuating her blistering schedule of judging, training, clinicing, teaching at home and fielding conference calls. But five surgeries, three years of chemotherapy and three months of radiation didn’t slow Mindy down. It just gave her a new outlook.

“It’s not something I dwell on,” said Mindy, who’s on daily chemotherapy. “Whatever time I have left I make the best of it, and I’m grateful for what I took for granted. What’s become really important to me is to be loving, happy and to enjoy life, and to never be jealous, angry or sluggish.

“Cancer has been a really strange blessing,” she continued. “It makes you want to listen to your children and watch the sunrise and just enjoy everything around you. I was an angry, jealous, competitive hardhead for the first 30 years of my life. This is new. I really do feel like it’s happened in the nick of time for me to show my kids that love of life and of each other is more important than anything else.”

Giving Back

For Mindy, it’s simple. When there’s a problem, you fix it.

When her boyfriend dumped her on her 30th birthday, she put the word on the street that she would offer free riding lessons to anyone who set her up with her future husband and doggedly endured 16 blind dates until she met Greg on No. 17. (It cost her $3,700 in riding lessons before that friend mercifully moved to Florida.)

If she sees a friend’s child at the show ring looking left out because she doesn’t have a mount to show, Mindy radios back to her barn for a reliable pony then teaches an impromptu lesson.

So when Mindy felt alienated by the American Horse Shows Association, she jumped at the opportunity to be involved with the new government. She was present at the first Steering Committee meeting of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association in 2003. She worked her way up to her present slate of responsibilities, which includes chairing the USHJA Pony Hunter Task Force and the Zone 5 Hunter Committee, sitting on the USHJA’s Board of Directors, the Officials Committee and the Hunter Zone Council and heading the U.S. Equestrian Federation Hunter Committee.

The USHJA honored her with their Volunteer of the Year award in 2008.

“We were discussing a few things I’d like to see in my zone, and she just turns to me and says, ‘For goodness sake, stop talking about it and go make it happen yourself!’ ” said Doyle. “She was right of course. She’s the model for getting things done. She inspires others to action by how many of her own minutes she gives away.”

Mindy’s desire to make government relevant to all its constituents informs all her efforts. She’s been at the forefront of the USHJA’s effort to reach out to grassroots members, and early on she compiled for them an exhaustive list of every local organization she could track down and every IHSA team in the country.

She and Diane Carney started the Special Projects Committee and the USHJA Affiliated Clinic Program, which helps pair up host stables with clinicians. Mindy is especially proud of her work founding a $10,000 need-based college scholarship in Zone 5 with Carney, who heads the Zone 5 Jumper Committee. That scholarship served as a model for similar projects in other zones.

“I felt like we were asking something of the grassroots but not really giving them anything in return,” she explained. “I wanted to create a back and forth existence with the membership. Now we can call the head of the Ohio Hunter Jumper Association and say, hey we need money for this scholarship, but then the scholarship is available to you and your members.”

Mindy has never been afraid to ruffle feathers, in particular about her stance that the USEF Pony Finals stay at the Kentucky Horse Park where it’s been since 2005. This put her at odds with good friends and fellow trainers, who argue that the competition was intended to travel across the country to give more kids opportunities to participate. But she’s never waivered in her belief that this would be best for the sport.

“When it came back to Kentucky I knew in my heart of hearts it couldn’t go anywhere else for a lot of reasons,” she said. “We needed an indoor, I needed the consistency of one show manager from year to year, and we had a lot of growth. Every year it gets bigger and bigger.”

Mindy spearheaded the effort to turn that event into much more than just a championship competition. With her efforts the show has grown 10-15 percent every year, and the event’s social and educational schedule eclipses the competitive one. In 2010 she earned the Pony Finals Volunteer of the Year award.

“Mindy is the driving force making sure there’s something happening all the time at Pony Finals,” said Marion Maybank, who worked closely with her on the event as the former hunter director for the USEF. “The ice cream parties, the parties, the clinics—that’s all Mindy. She’s the kind of person who knows how to find things, whether it be kids, money or volunteers. She jokes that at Devon anyone who sees her coming just pulls out their checkbook and says, ‘OK, OK, I’ll sponsor a dinner.’ ”

At 6 a.m. during Pony Finals, when most trainers were worrying about braiders, grooms, schooling and maybe coffee, Mindy taught free modeling clinics in her aisle, right next to the snow cone machine she schlepped from Ohio. On the first day, half a dozen kids would toodle across the showgrounds with ponies, and by Day 3, the word had spread of how much fun it was, and a line of ponies stretched down the barn aisle. This year she’s formalized the affair, with an official clinic teaching kids how to stand up their ponies formally integrated into the calendar.

But why direct so much energy toward this competition? The answer, at least in part, is because the kids and ethos of a grassroots national championship inspire her.

“These kids spend the whole year talking about it, planning it and thinking ahead,” said Mindy. “It’s a realistic goal for so many kids. The parents don’t have to go to 20 A shows a year or have the best pony. It’s about the atmosphere. Pony Finals is really about decorating a golf cart, watching dinner and a movie with your friends, a chocolate fountain at a horse show, remembering who Emerson Burr is, watching the auction, seeing the famous race horse barns. It’s such a magical week for these kids.”

Looking Ahead

In July, Lochmoor Stables and Patty and Rich Rogers’ Branch Hill Farm started hanging their banners alongside each other, merging to help keep a strong presence for both the Cincinnati-area riders and their national clients. They take customers to 20-25 shows a year, with help from Jenny, barn manager Tanya Truszkowski and Branch Hill Farm rider Sarah Mechlin. They also host nine in-house shows a year and several clinics.

As Mindy’s own children have become competitive riders, she’s started to back out of their careers. John won the low children’s jumper championship on Hidden Creek’s Kendall at Horse Shows By The Bay I (Mich.) under the tutelage of T.J. Le Blanc, whom Mindy coached when he was a student at Ball State.

Maddy has worked with a long list of trainers, especially Tom Wright, as she’s become one of the most sought-after young catch riders on the circuit. This year alone she earned the leading hunter rider title at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) thanks to rides in the juniorand pony rings, and the Best Child Rider on a Pony title after riding For The Laughter to the grand and large pony titles at Devon.

“It’s always been important to me to let my students feel comfortable seeking help in other areas when the time came,” said Mindy. “I’ve sent kids to Spruce Meadows [Alta.] with Beezie and John Madden, and I bring in lots of people to do clinics. Maddy started catch riding at such an early age, and as soon as you take off the collar and let them go, all the top pros become involved and coach your kid. It’s such a blessing. I’m there for her when she needs me, but it’s difficult to coach your own kid. That’s why I like teaching other pros’ kids, because I see them in the same jam.”

At her husband’s request she tries to limit her judging schedule to six competitions a year but considers the opportunity to turn her phone off, watch horses jump and render an opinion an honor and an ideal vacation. She’s proud of having officiated over USEF Junior Hunter Finals on both coasts and is looking forward to judging the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix Final (N.Y.) this September.

Maintaining a packed schedule while managing a health crisis may not be most people’s idea of an ideal lifestyle, but Mindy wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think it’s selfish,” she said. “I get to do what I love. I stay busy while surrounded by family and friends. I mean, how lucky am I that I get to do what I enjoy all the time and that my kids are into horses? I don’t know what I would have done if they picked up a tennis racquet.” 

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "Mindy Darst Knows How To Make Things Happen" ran in the Aug. 1, 2011, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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