Like every little girl yearning for a pony, Shachine Belle read A Very Young Rider by Jill Krementz, with dreams that she too could one day be like Vivi Malloy and show at the top horse shows in the country. That’s no longer a dream for Belle.
Belle, 31, of South Salem, N.Y., rose to the top of her profession in 2002 riding the incomparable In Disguise. However, it took a long road of sacrifices and compromise for the professional hunter rider and trainer to get there.
Born an only child in Bridgeport, Conn., Belle’s parents divorced when she was 4. She was then raised by her grandmother, Aldonna Rawa and uncle Richard Rawa in Farmington, Conn., and later her mother returned to help her fulfill her riding dreams.
After Belle had read A Very Young Rider, she naturally asked for riding lessons. So her mother, Phyllis Belle, took her to the nearby Farmington Polo Club, and Shachine didn’t leave FPC until she was 28. And, ironically, one of the first ponies Shachine rode was Fresh Paint, the same pony given to Vivi Malloy for Christmas at the end of A Very Young Rider.
Riding was something Shachine’s mother had always wanted to do but could not afford. Shachine said that her mother is still her No. 1 fan. “She’s been my biggest supporter from the beginning,” said Shachine. “She braided, body clipped and cleaned the barn so I could ride and go to shows.”
As a youngster, Shachine’s instructor at FPC was Molly Flaherty. “Molly was my role model. I wanted to be just like her,” recalled Belle. “I had to have everything that Molly had. I even got the same pair of chaps.”
Other role models included professional rider Lainie Wimberly, and horsemen Hugh Kerrigan and Emerson Burr.
Shachine had the good fortune to pick up catch rides on ponies such as Treasure Hunt and Got The Touch–both for Burr. “Emerson was a great man with a very large heart. He believed in letting the ponies be themselves. He wanted you to just run and jump,” said Belle. “He was stern, but all the kids at the shows loved him. I loved to be around him and I hope I can be half as respected as he was as a horseman.”
Finding Her Way
Belle relied heavily on catch rides as a kid, and she also found herself riding FPC’s sales horses and the greener horses no one else wanted much to do with. She owned only a few ponies and horses growing up. “The most expensive horse I ever owned cost $1,500,” said Belle with a laugh.
Even aboard catch rides, Belle raked in her fair share of achievements as a junior. She won the ASPCA Maclay at Devon (Pa.) one year and also showed Phillip and Lucky Lad to achievements in the junior hunter ring.
After graduating high school, Belle attended St. Joseph’s College in Hartford, Conn., where she earned a degree in psychology. She continued to ride during college, and after graduating in 1995, she assumed a riding and teaching roll at FPC for the club’s owner, Hughie Kerrigan.
“My love of teaching influenced my decision to become a professional,” said Belle. “I used to love helping Emerson with the little kids.”
But then at age 23, Belle started losing interest in riding and she quit. She looked for an internship involved in psychology, but nothing worked out. So she decided to return to Kerrigan to see if she could get a teaching job. Unfortunately, Kerrigan didn’t have any teaching opportunities open.
Kerrigan did have a young horse that he really wanted her to work with, however. The horse was New Hope. Belle quickly developed a relationship with “Liam” and showed him from the time he was 4 through the second year green division before he was sold to Georgina Bloomberg as a junior hunter. Belle also showed Holy Smoke and High Regard for Kerrigan before they went on to acclaim with later owners.
In 2001, Belle decided she wanted to do more horse showing at a higher level. And, as sometimes happens, the timing was right. She took a customer of FPC’s to Jimmy and Ellen Toon’s to try a horse and ended up taking a job.
Longtime friend, Betsy Keating Rooks, who was the stable manager at JT Farms when Belle arrived, recalled Belle’s first show with her new employer.
“On the schooling day for Old Salem [N.Y.], Shach schooled over 20 horses. When Robin [Swinderman] and I asked Shach that night if she wanted to go to dinner, Shach said she was too tired to go. So Robin and I brought dinner back to her apartment. When we got there, she had the apartment at 90 degrees and was under a pile of blankets,” said Rooks. “Going from riding only four horses a day to riding 20 was literally a shock to her system.”
In With In Disguise
In the winter of 2002, Belle went with the Toons’ horses to Wellington, Fla., for the Winter Equestrian Festival circuit. Jimmy, who stays home in New York during the winter, arranged for Rodney Bross to help Belle with the horses including In Disguise, or “Odie.”
“The first time Rodney saw Odie, he looked like a bleached out buckskin,” said Belle laughing. “He was sixth in the model. My first trip ever on Odie was fine. In the second round I was third. Rodney started giving me little tips here and there. By the next week, we were winning everything–including the model. This goes to show that looks are deceiving.”
Odie’s form over the jumps is amazing, and Belle said it all comes naturally to the flashy bay gelding. She’s never had to work on his jumping.
“He jumps all jumps the same and great. When I get in range of the jump, I just let go of the reins,” said Belle. “He curls into you. Everything is slow motion. When he’s confident, you can’t mess up.”
Despite Odie’s achievements–including USEF Horse of the Year awards and the Chronicle’s 2004 Show Hunter of the Year title–Belle said that she really doesn’t feel any pressure when she rides him.
“When he’s right, you feel like you can’t be beaten. I put pressure on myself to do well. No one puts pressure on me though,” noted Belle. “He gives me a lot of confidence.”
Bross noted that Belle wears her emotions on her sleeve, though. “Shachine can turn into a nasty nervous wreck. There is no ice water in her veins,” said Bross with a laugh. “She gets so nervous because she knows she’s on a horse that can score 100. Sometimes we have to scoop her up with a net.”
Belle will only show Odie a few times in 2005, as owner Ellen Toon is showing him in the amateur-owners. While she enjoys watching Ellen show Odie, it’s not as easy to stand ringside as she would have hoped.
“I am a bundle of emotions when Ellen shows Odie. I’m happy, proud and I’m also a nervous wreck,” said Belle. “When they won the classic at the National in Florida [last year], I almost cried. Her second round was breathtaking.”
Belle continues to revel in her job working for the Toons. “JT, Rodney and I have a lot of respect for each other. There’s no hierarchy,” said Belle. “We laugh a lot, and there are things that we just agree to disagree about.”
Added Bross, “No one’s ego shows when we’re working as a team. The fact that Ellen is out winning on Odie proves that JT, Shachine and I have made up an animal that isn’t just ‘a professional’s horse.’ We have been very methodical in his training.”
There are a lot of people that Belle points out as valuable members of her support staff. “I have a great crew of people to work with, beginning with Jimmy and Ellen. We have some of the best grooms in the industry who love and care for their horses. Our clients, such as Dudley Macfarlane and Alesandra Perna, are the greatest because they root everyone on and make the horse shows fun,” said Belle. “Elizabeth Sheffler [barn manager] and Shaine Brooks [road manager] also do a fabulous job.”
Odie and Belle have picked up almost every accolade there is to win in the hunter ring. Belle said that being back-to-back champions in the green conformation division at Devon in 2002 and 2003 was her favorite accomplishment to date.
“Devon is my favorite show. In 2002, Louise Serio [on Hat Trick], who I admire immensely, and I were neck-and-neck in points. When it came down to the last class, we wished each other good luck,” recalled Belle. “When I won that year, I wasn’t overcome with emotion. It was more of a silent, ‘I did it.’ “
With all that Belle has won, she still has a lot left that she would like to achieve. “I don’t want to be a one-horse wonder,” said Belle. “My goal is to be champion at Devon this year with Attaché®¦quot;
Attaché¬ nicknamed Donald, is a large black gelding owned by the Toons and was 2004 WEF second year green circuit champion. Belle is excited about showing Donald in the regular working division this year.
“Donald is the sweetest horse ever. He’s a Labrador crossed with Shamu,” said Belle. “You can never get mad at him. He even has a Mr. Wonderful doll that goes to all the shows with him.”
In addition to her hunter rides, Belle has also been spending time in the jumper ring. “Showing Onyx 66 in the grand prix classes for JT and Ellen was a lot of fun. I was lucky to get that ride,” said Belle. “Mark Leone helped me with him. Mark gave me a lot of confidence in the jumper ring. He taught me that it was OK to make mistakes.”
One point Belle reiterates is that she has a lot of confidence in her horses. “I had a bad fall off Donald in 2002 at Old Salem. We flipped over a jump, and Jimmy saved me from the horse rolling on me,” said Belle. “Now that I’m getting older I’m afraid of getting hurt, but that’s normal. My horses know I trust them and they take care of me.”
A Passion For Teaching
While Belle fully enjoys getting to show such amazing horses, teaching is her true passion. Belle plans to only show for a few
more years before she’ll turn her focus into teaching full time. “I love to teach more than anything. There’s nothing better than seeing my kids do well,” noted Belle. “Not even winning on Odie.”
Student Alesandra Perna confirms that Belle loves to see her kids do well. “Shach is such a great teacher because she puts so much of her time and efforts into seeing her students succeed. The first time I won a class at WEF, Shach was so excited that she called everyone in her phone book to tell them,” said Perna.
“Shachine has as much competition in her as a teacher as she does when she rides,” said Bross. “She’s such a hard worker and one dedicated horsewoman.”
At home, Belle treats lessons as stepping stones for the ring.
“Once the problems are solved, we move along just like we’re at a show,” said Belle. “We even start with a separate warm-up jump, then the kids have to go do a course.”
Perna said Belle isn’t one to quickly criticize errors, which she finds a positive. “Instead of dwelling on something bad that happens she always tends to find the humor in it,” said Perna.
Belle also strives to make her riders thinking riders. She asks them specific questions and makes sure that they give her intelligent answers so they understand their horse’s way of going. “We try to make it harder at home so then the shows are easy–especially before shows with lots of pressure such as Devon and [the fall] indoors,” said Belle.
Alex Arute, a top pony hunter rider, started her career with Belle at FPC. Belle still stops by the pony ring to watch Arute show. “I have a big surge of junior kids this fall that have new horses that I’m very excited about,” said Belle. “Emma Lipman [a student of Belle’s] has just purchased Onyx 66 and will show him in the children’s jumpers. I’m looking forward to seeing Onyx help Emma, like he’s helped me.”
Belle is also thrilled to have New Hope back in her barn. Perna will show him in the juniors, along with Kindred Spirit. “He has always been one of my favorite horses,” said Belle of New Hope.
What Perna values most in her mentor is her sense of humor. “At Harrisburg last year, I was nervous going into the ring on my junior hunter. Though I tried to hide it, Shach could tell I was nervous,” said Perna. “After going over the course, she sensed that I needed to get in touch with Oreo [Kindred Spirit]. Standing at the in-gate, Oreo, Shach and I had a sé¡®ce so that I could get in touch with my horse to help me have a better ride.”
Belle’s life isn’t all work and no play. In fact, she’s hoping to not spend so much of 2005 working. “My New Year’s resolution is to be the best trainer and role model I can be,” noted Belle. “I also need to learn not to work so hard. I need to relax.”
Like many women, Belle (who as she puts it is “very much an Aries”) has what she calls “a serious shopping problem.” She’s addicted to shopping, especially jewelry and shoes. Her other weakness is cruising the Internet and e-mailing friends that she isn’t able to see on a regular basis. “I can sit there for hours glued to the computer,” she said. “I follow the news, but I hate seeing how violent the world has become.”
Belle hasn’t been on a vacation in a few years, but that’s about to change. “This spring, my best friend Robin Swinderman and I are going to Las Vegas for the World Cup,” said Belle. “I can’t wait to see that city!”
When asked if she is in a relationship, Belle replied, “Oh God no! I want to get married and have kids, but I’d have to retire to accomplish that.”
Who would have thought that all that’s happened to Belle would have come from reading a single book that sparked her interest in riding? But one thing is certain–Belle’s story has many more chapters left to go.