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August 2002

A Haven for Children and Horses:
The Susie Schoellkopf Story


If you’ve lived in Western New York for any length of time, you probably know the area, an enclave of gracious homes, hard by Delaware Park where the stately columns of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society shadow Hoyt Lake. Perhaps you didn’t know what sits in the middle of this urban landscape, just off Amherst Street: A large stable, still the anachronistic home of some 50 horses.

Susie Schoellkopf spent a good part of her childhood in what used to be known as the Saddle and Bridle Club. Today she wears at least three hats, serving as executive director of what is now called the Buffalo Equestrian Center and the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center. She is also president and owners of SBS Farms, Inc. She is, in case you haven’t guessed, a horsewoman par excellence, but this Buffalo native is so much more.

In her no-nonsense style, Ms. Schoellkopf explains the mission of the Therapeutic Riding Center: “We teach children who have been physically and mentally abused. Learning their way around horses, they develop self-esteem, in addition to using muscles that would not otherwise be used.” Sharing horses at the facility is another leasee, the Buffalo Equestrian Center, which offers riding lessons at all levels for ages 6 through adult, as well as a summer riding camp for children.

A former nursery school teacher at Elmwood-Franklin School, Ms. Schoellkopf has created a special place for kids in this horse haven. In a career that includes the ownership of the highly-successful show stable, SBS Farms (boarding horses at the Amherst Street facility), she says her greatest satisfaction comes from seeing the positive interaction between youngsters and horses.

“This is a haven for children, all kinds of children,” she says, from kids in crisis to kids just going through the everyday turmoil of adolescence. “This is where they come, to see that animal, make that animal a friend.” Though not a parent herself, she likes to say, “I’ve raised quite a few children here.”

Ms. Schoellkopf’s own attachment to the world of horses began in childhood. “I started riding when I was three years old, while on a family vacation in California. I fell in love with it.” Her older sisters, Ann Jewett and Penny Banta, also rode as children, starting back in Buffalo at the Amherst Street stable. Their parents, Paul and Jane Schoellkopf, were devoted spectators at their daughters’ horse shows, when all three began riding competitively, including showing at Madison Square Garden.

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Susie, Penny and Ann competing at Madison Square Garden.

Once Again and Susie retiring a trophy at Madison Square Garden.

“We girls had three different trainers,” she recalls. “I worked with Roger Young, who was from Rochester. My sisters were trained by Chuckie Graham of Clarence and Max Bonham, who was in Michigan.”

Through all those years of traveling to horse shows and studying and working in other places, Susie Schoellkopf had an inkling she’d be back in Western New York one day. After college (she graduated from Mount Vernon, now a part of Georgetown University), she took a job in Virginia for a few years. “I worked and rode with Rodney Jenkins, one of the best in the world. I loved it, but I always knew I would come back here...This place beckoned me in some way.”

In 1980, returning to her hometown to board and show horses, she leased part of the property on her old North Buffalo stomping grounds. The facility was donated to the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center in 1989, the year the board of directors asked her to sign on as executive director. Today the land is owned by the not-for-profit Therapeutic Riding Center, with the Buffalo Equestrian Center and Ms. Schoellkopf’s SBS Farms on board as leasees. In a mutually beneficial arrangement, horses are shared by the first two organizations, ensuring year-round utilization of the animals.

“These are ex-show horses that have been donated to us by people who know they’ll get great care, and be used as they best fit our program,” she explains. “If a horse isn’t a good fit, we don’t take it.”

Call it horse sense, if you like—the expertise possessed by Ms. Schoellkopf in combination with her compassion make her uniquely suited to run this enterprise. Still, from the beginning of her tenure as director, it was quite a challenge, she admits. Serious maintenance problems, from a roof in decay to a collapsing barn, had endangered the structure built by a private group of investors back in 1922 as an indoor polo facility. What was once an exclusive playground for some of Buffalo’s wealthiest families metamorphosed into an Army truck depot during World War II. After the war, the facility was open to the public, serving as a boarding and riding place for area folks involved with horses.

By the time Susie Schoellkopf took over as director, a dream come true for someone who used to imagine being in charge of this beloved stable, there was plenty of rehabilitation to be done. Her dad Paul Schoellkopf, “a weekend rider,” was a real help in the restoration. “He was a great part of this place,” his daughter recalls. “He drove the tractor here on weekends, and put in the sound system for all our show announcements. For some 20 years, he headed the board of directors.” She credits the board with “sticking their necks out” and raising a lot of money to rebuild the place.

Today the old stable is—well, stable. The Buffalo Equestrian Center is thriving in the for-profit sector. The Therapeutic Riding Center continues to match, with great success, horses and children who glow with the sense of accomplishment that caring for an animal brings, not to mention the thrill of physical exercise brought to the disabled. SBS Farms boards between 40 and 60 horses. The success of Ms. Schoellkopf’s small show stable has been phenomenal, with numerous National High Score Awards achieved since 1984. She has trained many students from all over the country to national titles. She has trained four National Champions—Gabriel, Kansas, Big Bad Wolf and GG Valentine.

“We’ve had four horses that have been National Horse of the Year, including 2001’s GGValentine, a seven-year-old bay mare owned by Barbara Kearney of Colorado, and ridden by our Jennifer Alfano.” In addition, she has trained many junior riders to national awards, including Lauren Gioia, Stephen Comunale, Leslie Awender and Jason Schenlle. Ms. Schoellkopf’s hefty resume includes numerous memberships, including The USA Equestrian, Inc., where she’s served on the National Hunter Committee, the Junior Hunter Committee, and the Drugs and Medication Committee. She travels regularly to see her horses in horse shows, and frequently serves as a judge in other shows, including many of the top horse shows in the United States.. For something a little bit different, she is also a New York State Parks Commissioner for the Niagara Region.

Ms. Schoellkopf is quick to credit the team of dedicated workers who make all three endeavors—SBS Farms, Buffalo Therapeutic and Buffalo Equestrian Center—successful, including Sharon O’Neill, Jennifer Alfano, Steve Young, Stephen Comunale, Jimmy Hudson, Nancy Abendschein, Libby McKnabb, Alexis Mierzw and both the boards of directors for the Buffalo Equestrian Center and The Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center. “I am only as good as the people who work with me,” she says.

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Susie Schoellkopf.

It’s enough to exhaust anyone. “By the time the end of the day comes, that’s enough,” Ms. Schoellkopf admits. Though she’s a successful business person by any standards (those unfamiliar to the world of horses may not know this is a major, big-money industry), it is ultimately an emotional tie that keeps her in the ring.

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Susie’s dog Wally.

Susie’s dog Josh.

“I love the horses,” she says. “And I love people, and making their quality of life better through this sport. Taking on the place was the biggest challenge of my life, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see it survive and succeed.”

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.

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