Stony Hill Stables in Amagansett has always been a cute one, a wonderful place to start the kids riding, though when it’s come to the Hampton Classic, other South Fork barns have brought in far more ribbons.
Now, however, that has changed: Stony Hill, whose owner is Wick Hotchkiss, and whose chief trainer for the past four years has been Aisha Ali-Duyck, can boast of five 2012 Long Island Horse Shows Association Winner’s Circle champions. They are Katarina Ammann, 9-and-under short-stirrup equitation grand champion and 13-and-under hunter grand champion (it’s the first time Stony Hill has had a double winner); Amelia Ruth, short stirrup 10-to-12 grand champion, Caroline Cole, the mini-stirrup grand champion, and Oliver Ritter, 13, reserve jumper champion.
“In all, Stony Hill riders won over 100 blue ribbons in 2012 and 37 championships,” said the justly-proud Ali-Duyck during a conversation this week at The Star.
Asked if Hotchkiss, a well-known dressage competitor, were happy, the tall, young New York City-bred trainer smiled. “She’s very happy.”
Ali-Duyck has a compelling story of her own, and it fits in well with the philosophy of Hotchkiss’s newly-formed Stony Hill Stables Foundation, whose goal is to avail more and more local youngsters of the joys — and responsibilities — that attend equestrian sports.
“I’ve been riding since I was in the womb,” Ali-Duyck began, with a smile. “My mother rode with my father until she was seven months pregnant. When I was an infant, one of them would hold me on the horse and the other would take photos. It was sort of like what they do with babies in swimming pools. I was riding by myself with nothing to hold me up before I walked.”
Her father, who, she said, grew up in a rough section of Elizabeth, N.J., had always wanted to ride, but his dream, because of circumstances, had to be deferred until he discovered in his college years the Union County-owned Watchung Stables in Mountainside, N.J.
“He was putting himself through N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts’ film school at the time. He took my mom there on a date. She wanted them to have an activity they could do together. There are miles and miles of rolling trails, lakes, and hills on that 100-acre reservation. They cantered and galloped and fell in love with it. Riding was indeed his passion.”
“He told the manager he’d do anything that needed doing around the stables. He read books, looked at videos . . . he’s a real genius in a lot of respects. They hired him when he was in his late 20s, and he stayed, becoming a very successful trainer.”
“My father’s talent lies in his ability to transform young race horses who failed on the track into equestrian champions. He’s always proved people wrong who tell him his picks won’t pan out. . . . Moreover, he’s African-American . . . he’s had to overcome a lot.”
“He’s always been my trainer. It was a family thing. I’d stay in the barn from the time it opened at 7 a.m. until it closed at 9. If it was the day of a show, I’d be up at 3 a.m. One of my favorite things has been watching him teach. He has a commanding presence. He can get a timid student and a seemingly crazy horse to perform beautifully.”
“I was started off on a naughty horse,” Ali-Duyck continued, “and I fell off a lot, but I always got back on. I believe in the end goal, that if you’re brave you can reach your goal. . . . By the time I was 7, I was winning everything, on ponies my father had transformed or was in the process of transforming. Sometimes I was the guinea pig! Not everyone was happy. Mothers of kids I was beating who rode fancy horses said some terrible things, but my father always instilled in me that I belonged.”
“I so enjoyed that team feeling with my father. . . . My happiest moments were when the two of us were warming up at dawn at a show, with the sun coming up and the dew on the grass. Those are the fondest memories of my childhood.”
The sociability of riding was not limited to her father and mother (a psychology professor in New York University’s graduate school who uses dance in her work with at-risk teens in the Bronx): “I had great friendships that developed around horses. We had this whole group of girls, and some boys, including my younger brother, who also rode, that centered on the barn. There was a sense of community and teamwork.”
“We were competitive,” Ali-Duyck said, “but in a good way. We’d always tap each other on the head before we went into the ring. For good luck, like a magic wand. We were all very close, through high school.”
Riding “amazing ‘made’ horses” donated by wealthy alumnae at Skidmore College, where Cindy Ford was the riding coach, had been, she said, “a life-changing experience, but I wasn’t challenged academically, so I transferred to N.Y.U., where I continued to major in business on the way to becoming an event planner.”
But riding, as had been the case with her father, ultimately (with his support) won the day.
“It was always in the back of my head that I wanted to do dressage and teach and spend winters in Wellington [Fla.], but I knew enough about the horse world to say to myself, ‘Maybe in the next lifetime.’ ”
“Then, in 2008 — I was a trainer at Watchung at the time — I saw Wick’s ad: Wanted, a working student to teach in the Hamptons and spend the winter in Wellington.(!)”
“I came out and rode for Wick — that was my audition. I told her all I could offer was my loyalty and my hard work, but for Wick that was enough. Often, working students have to buy a horse first before they’re signed on.”
“That was the start of my career here. I began to give lessons and Wick could see I was a very strong teacher. She became my dressage trainer, and we went to Wellington, where I competed on a horse she’d borrowed from a friend and which I rode in clinics given by famous trainers. . . . Wick’s foundation has been bridging the gap between weekenders and the local kids here. There’s a great sense of community at Stony Hill, just as there was at Watchung.”
Lara Lowlicht, the East Hampton Middle Schooler who this past year was the first recipient of a Stony Hill Stables Foundation riding scholarship, had done famously, Stony Hill’s trainer said.
“She’s blown us all away. She knew how to ride, but she was rough around the edges. I saw she could be a champion the first time I gave her a lesson. She works as hard as the hardest worker. On Shenanigans, which had been one of the school’s leadline ponies, she was the short-stirrup champion at the Sagaponack Show. But on the day before the Classic — she never thought she’d ride in it — the pony injured a leg.”
“Talk about a blow, yet Lara never complained or cried. Not even a frown.”
“I told her I’d find her something, and I did — Dara, a school pony that hadn’t shown all summer. After an hour of jumping this horse, it was as if she’d ridden it all her life. They competed in a short-stirrup class at the Classic, a class of 29 kids, and got really great ribbons. She became one of the Classic’s poster girls.”
“She knows,” Lara’s trainer said in parting, “that if you work hard you will succeed. She’s riding a number of the ponies who board here now. She’s turning into quite the young professional.”
More scholarships are on the way, the young trainer said, “in dressage and jumping. We’re excited about the 2013 season. And we’ve got another ‘first.’ We’re taking five kids to Wellington to compete in the Winter Equestrian Festival this winter. . . . It’s great.”