Patty Ball was 12 when she began giving riding lessons on her off-the-track Thoroughbred mare and a few ponies borrowed from her grandmother out of her backyard in Carmichael, California.
It’s been quite the journey from those first lessons in that backyard to winning the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s 2016 Jane Marshall Dillon Award, which recognizes top trainers for their commitment to horsemanship. From living in a camper shell while building her farm to examining her own flaws to battling a disease, Ball, 66, has become an inspirational trainer.
“Patty is the best teacher because she’ll make you laugh,” said Kristie LaFreniere, a full-time trainer at Ball’s Hunterville Stable in Penryn, California. “Through everything, she makes her riders joke and smile. There are moments where, if I couldn’t get out of the golf cart, I’d be breaking down, but she gets up every day happy to go train.”
As a child, Ball trained with western trainer, Betty Greene, as well as her mother and grandmother. “I learned my horsemanship from them,” Ball said. “They were all great horsewomen, and without them, I couldn’t have been in the position to teach lessons in the backyard at 12 years old. On top of that, I learned all I could by watching other trainers at shows and attending any clinic I could. I also learned through trial and error, and I was fortunate to be allowed the freedom to do so.”
With her Thoroughbred Pat Gordon, Ball learned the ropes of showing. By the time she was 16, Greene had asked her to give lessons at the barn, and after two years Ball knew she’d found her career.
“I knew that if my trainer ever told me she was going to quit, I would’ve been devastated,” Ball said. “The idea of quitting went out the window. Once I tell people I’m their trainer, then I would never quit them.”
An accident early on made her re-examine her choice and drove home the importance of prioritizing safety. “When I was 16, I was giving a lesson to a little girl in my pasture on Pat Gordon,” Ball said. The horse spooked, and “[s]he dropped straight under Pat Gordon’s hooves, and Pat stepped on her chest.”
The child suffered a punctured lung and multiple broken ribs. Ball described the experience as one of the defining moments of her career. “It makes you stop and think, ‘Is this something that I really want to do or not?’ Really, I was never going to quit, but it slowed me down for a second and made me think,” she said.
When she turned 18, Ball left Greene’s farm, which had been sold. She struggled over the next few years to find a facility that fit her needs. By 1979, Ball had saved up enough money for the down payment on a property in Penryn. For three months, Ball lived out of a truck camper, only showering when someone offered her the opportunity. Next, Ball moved into a double-wide mobile home that was more than 30 years old.
“It was so old that the walls were separating, so frogs came from the outside into the shower. That was my house for 11 years,” she said.
Every day, after she finished teaching, Ball spent two hours working on the property until the business could support help. Then, she’d clean the stalls and feed the horses. “The footing would get very deep in the winter, and so we would go on the lawn and ride,” she said. “We actually rode up and down the dirt road. We would ride wherever I could find that we could ride.”
The flooded winter arena inspired creativity. “The pasture out in front had a little stream running across it, so that was the year we taught the horses to jump over water,” Ball said.
Growing As A Teacher
In the midst of showering with frogs, Ball saw her dedication start to pay off. “Toward the end of the ’80s, I had a really good, competitive group,” she said. Her students excelled in the equitation arena from local shows to national competitions.
But Ball wasn’t satisfied. She struggled to see anything but the improvements that needed to happen. “If something is ‘not right,’ I can’t ignore it,” she said. “That’s probably why I was so strong about, ‘You have to change that.’ ”
Ball read self-help books to teach her to harness her critical eye. “As far as the perfectionism, I got better when I was able to take that pressure off of myself and realize that I’m just going to do my best,” she said.
When she started to understand the utility of her own mistakes, it led to a breakthrough in her teaching. “I learned that the students learn by making the mistakes themselves,” Ball said. “Through their trial and error, they learn it, and then it’s ingrained.”
She also became more patient with her students, encouraging them to think for themselves. Ball started incorporating personality tests into her teaching, handing them out to her students and to other horse trainers on the circuit. “For 10 years, I had two personality tests that I would take to the horse shows, and I would give them to everyone who would take them,” she said. “I have a list of probably every trainer you know who took my personality test.”
While the tests were fun, they also provided Ball with a comprehensive analysis of her students’ learning styles. “As I gave them to more people, they showed me that people all think and learn differently,” she said. “I saw the value to teaching of understanding those differences.”
Gradually, instead of only training kids who could stand the pressure, Ball could help any student who walked through the barn door.
Why Not Me?
Several years ago Ball was diagnosed with inclusion-body myositis, a progressive muscle disorder that attacks targeted muscles in her arms and legs. As she was forced to give up riding, she drew on lessons learned from watching her mother, Geneva Ball, fight cancer for 25 years.
“She was such a role model,” Patty said of her mom. “This is nothing compared to all that she went through and compared to what so many people go through. I don’t pity myself. I have nothing but gratitude for having led such a fulfilling life.
“As long as I can do it, I’ll do it,” Patty continued. “The business still keeps going, and I have to say that my customers have never made me feel like I shouldn’t.”
LaFreniere does the under-saddle training, while Patty is in charge on the ground. “We work well together,” Patty said. “Kristie is very receptive to my suggestions; I appreciate her effective riding, and I think she appreciates my experience.”
Patty continues passing on her knowledge to students like Haley Webster, who became Patty’s assistant trainer after a successful equitation career.
“Patty’s training style is noteworthy for so many reasons,” Webster said. “One [of those reasons] is her eye and her ability to teach her students how to ride through the issues as opposed to just having someone else get on the horse and ‘fix’ the problem. I think so many young horsemen and women lack basic horsemanship, which Patty teaches from the ground up. Her ability to teach horses and transform them into better performers without ever sitting on them is incredible.”
Through everything, Patty remains steadfast in her conviction to her vocation.
“I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t see the future, but I keep running the barn and doing what I can do,” Patty said. “There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be here tomorrow, and I have never been one of those people who says, ‘Why me?’ Really it’s, ‘Why not me?’ “