Lessons in resiliency through the sport of dressage

Jamie Fell with rider Katie Hitzig and horse Junior at Fell-Vallee Equestrian Center on June 26. Photo by Lynn Monty.
Jamie Fell with rider Katie Hitzig and horse Junior at Fell-Vallee Equestrian Center on June 26. Photo by Lynn Monty.
By Lynn Monty

Three-legged cat, Anya, skipped beside the dressage arena after pot-bellied pig, Winifred, while trainer Jamie Fell shouted commands to horse and rider. That carefree, farm-yard behavior was juxtaposed by equestrian exquisiteness, sort of a yin and yang of rural splendor.

Dressage is a competitive sport much like a horse-riding dance. “Change direction. A little bit more energy. Now canter,” Fell told student Katie Hawko, 12, of Shelburne.

Hinesburg’s Fell-Vallee Equestrian Center operates on 240 acres at the Taproot Farm. Fell, 43, of Winooski leases the fields, barn, and dressage arena from the Ross family who also lease other areas of their farm out to area businesses like Red Wagon Plants and The Family Cow.

“Taproot Farm as a whole is huge,” Fell said. “The Rosses are very proud of it.”

Fell’s days are filled with caring for and training most of the 38 horses on her farm, thirteen of which are her own. The rest are boarded there. She gives lessons, competes regularly, and hosts a summer camp called The Ark for about a dozen kids. Animals in that program range from alpacas to rabbits.

Fell has been married to Harry Fell for 24 years. They have one adult daughter who is also a dressage champion like her mother – they are both United States Dressage Federation medalists.

Jamie started taking dressage lessons when she was 9-years old and has been teaching professionally since 2001. Harry grew up surrounded by horses on a farm in Ireland, competing cross-country, show-jumping and dressage until about the age of 16. He hasn’t ridden in years, but still love horses.

“Every day living with Jamie is a happy day,” Harry said. “Her strength has always kept me in awe of, and in love with, her. Her passion in teaching not only dressage but also in sharing life skills is something to behold. She wants people to succeed, and will not give up on anyone.”

Dressage lessons happen all day long, each being only about a half an hour because kids get tired and the horses get pooped out, Jamie said.

Hawko was riding Megara, 26, a Hanoverian she leases from the center. “It gives students a very strong sense of purpose to care for their own horse and help on the farm,” Jamie said.

That same sense of purpose she tries to instill in her students has also been a gift in her own life. In 2012, when Jamie was diagnosed with breast cancer, she kept right on working at the farm. “I couldn’t just lay in bed and feel sorry for myself,” she said. “I had to keep working. And I am glad I had to. It’s what got me through it.”

When chemotherapy treatments took a toll, Jamie took measures to help her students understand the process. “I needed to prove to them that I was okay,” she said. “They always saw me as a strong person, so when my hair fell out, I came here to the farm and my mother shaved my head with my horse clippers and I let the kids sign my head. I didn’t want it to be scary.”

Her strength and resilience did not surprise Harry. “She went to the barn throughout the treatments, essentially only missing a handful of days,” he said. “There were days when all I wanted to do was hold her. There were days when all I wanted to do was fix this, but couldn’t.”

Jamie’s in remission now. The worst part of the year-long struggle back to health was a sudden loss of business, she said. “People just took their horses and left. It was horrible. That was the hardest part, but I have a bigger and better clientele now.”

When Jamie was diagnosed they ran like the cancer was infectious, Harry said. “It was sad to see it happen, but if people don’t have the ability to stand with you, then they should leave.”

Prior to running the farm Jamie was a respiratory therapist. She liked that profession, but things fell into place for her to follow her true passion of dressage. “I wanted to be able to do this every day,” she said pointing to her student in the arena. “I don’t make much money doing it but that’s fine.”

The cost of owning dressage horses is quite exorbitant. “Especially this year, I don’t even want to think about what the cost of hay is going to be,” she said. “It’s been so wet, we can’t get on the fields to cut hay.”

Raising hard-working competition horses is about producing and keeping healthy athletes. “We can’t chuck them a round bale and say here you go, it’s much more in depth than that,” Jamie said.

She chooses horses who possess certain stunning qualities. “Everything we do is about developing a more beautiful creature, so it’s all about physical therapy,” she said. “Everything is about building stronger muscles and to make sure they stay sound.”

It’s also about keeping the horses happy. They need to be with other horses, and to be out in the pasture. She even lets them roll in the mud. “Everybody deserves to be happy,” she said giving pot-bellied pig, Winifred, a pat on the head. “Isn’t that why we’re all here … to be happy?”