Getting to the Heart of Riding Lessons

As the sun dips below the horizon, the fun at Hanging Heart Ranch in Templeton is just beginning.  Children brush horses, pick hooves, and chat about their school day, as the scent of fly spray mixes with the earthiness of autumn.  Four horses stand patiently as they are groomed, tacked, and saddled.  After a day relaxing in their new barn, these lesson horses are ready to work.  First and foremost, this herd must take care of their young and sometimes novice riders.  Secondly, they must work in unison with the two women at the reins of it all, Justine Gentilini and Michelle McKenzie.

Meet Justine Gentilini and Michelle McKenzie of Hanging Heart Ranch

From the tack room, McKenzie carries an armload of bridles while Gentilini balances a kid’s saddle on each hip.  Both smile and joke with their students while navigating the herd with precision. Statuesque, tanned, and confident, the two young women have just celebrated their third year in business.

“We met in 2011, while working together at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort as wranglers.  We were responsible for leading trail rides and caring for 100+ horses, which included bringing them in from pasture on horseback in the mornings, as well as caring for any injuries or illness,” Gentilini explains.  In January 2013, the two women wrote the Hanging Heart Ranch business plan, and by September, they both moved to the Paso Robles area, launching their dream with a small herd.

Two Different Paths Forged One Business Plan

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Gentilini comes from a Hunter/Jumper background.

Although they are from vastly different riding backgrounds, these two women have forged a friendship and business based on a love of horses and educating eager riders.  Gentilini began her riding career at the age of 6 in New York.  “I competed all over Long Island in both hunter and jumper shows, including the Hampton Classic, where I was Champion in the Short Stirrup division.  I was fortunate enough to participate in clinics with three-time Olympian and 1984 gold medalist Joe Fargis and six-time Olympian and USEA Hall of Famer, Michael Page.  In 2008, I made the Equestrian Team for Cornell University, competing in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association and earning the title of Ivy League High Point Rider Champion my first year.”

In 2010, after working the summer season at The Alisal, in Solvang, Gentilini’s riding took a Western turn after her return to college. “I started taking lessons in Western Riding with Nicole Kurty in Binghamton, NY.  I wound up helping her train and start both running quarter horses and barrel horses. My senior year at Cornell I switched to the Western Equestrian Team, training and competing in both horsemanship and reining.  I was the IHSA Individual Open Western Horsemanship Champion and Individual Open Reining Reserve Champion for Zone II Region I. I earned a spot to compete at the Semi-Finals in Ocala, Florida in both events.”

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McKenzie grew up in Santa Ynez and has Western roots.

In contrast to Gentilini’s East Coast English training, growing up in Santa Ynez, McKenzie’s riding is rooted in Western disciplines.  “I began my riding career at the age of 8 with a friend’s family who trained cutting horses. By 10, I was riding with Cindy McClellan, a local trainer/instructor who has taught many professional rodeo athletes.”  In her teens McKenzie started working at her trainer’s summer camps.  “My love for teaching children how to ride horses started at a young age.”

Through her training, McKenzie started competing in barrel racing, pole bending and goat tying at 14.  “I competed at local gymkhanas, West Coast Junior Rodeo Association (WCJRA) and the California High School Rodeo District 7. I was also given the opportunity to ride some of McClellan’s tougher horses.  Riding these ‘problem horses’ really helped shape me into the rider I am today. I learned that I had to vary my training to fit the needs of the horse. With the guidance of Cindy, I was able to purchase a project horse (Charley), re-train him for rodeo events, and was very competitive – even winning several large events!  Charley is now a lesson horse teaching children to ride and still competing at barrel races all around California.”

Gathering the Hanging Heart Herd

Gentilini’s and McKenzie’s love of project horses has guided them in assembling their herd.  Most of their horses have had one or two previous careers before becoming lesson horses, and this must be taken into account.  Starting this new career may involve medical, dietary, or wellness tune-ups before getting to work.  “Duke”, a paint gelding, came to the ranch with lifelong soundness issues, no longer well enough to be a trail horse.  Through diet, corrective shoes, and almost 2 months spent in therapy at Eclipse Equine Therapy Center (which was in part paid for by a fundraiser thrown in his honor), “Duke” is a successful lesson horse and an integral part of the program.

McKenzie’s “Charley” and Gentilini’s “Tucker” may be their personal horses, but every horse that is a part of the Hanging Heart Ranch herd is an important part of the program.  The newest addition to the herd, “Misty”, a flea-bitten grey mare, serves as both a calm lesson horse and a blank canvas for summer horse campers to paint on.  Accomplished barrel racer, “Kippy”, is often the clown of the group- giving kisses, ‘horse hugs’, and bowing.  “Cooper”, the Percheron/Thoroughbred cross, excels at jumping, which Gentilini, with her English background, is especially excited by. “Fetch”, the small, sorrel quarter horse trained in cutting, is the perfect little gymkhana horse because she’s speedy and fearless.

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Students prepare for a lesson at Hanging Heart Ranch.

“When it comes to looking for a good lesson horse, it depends on what level of horse we are looking for; our program includes lessons for first time riders, as well as more advanced students. Horses for first time riders must be mellow, have a slow trot, be responsive to commands to help keep the rider balanced, forgiving of incorrect cues from the student, not spooky, and have had ample exposure to a wide range of stimuli. More advanced horses need to be able to perform more complex maneuvers, so that students can progress through more intricate riding techniques (such as side passing, lead changes, collection & bending). Advanced horses should also be appropriate for speed events such as barrel racing or pole bending, without getting too hot or overly sensitive to leg and rein cues. Although there is no such thing as a bombproof horse, we feel that the more the horse has been exposed to, the better,” Gentilini explains.

What Does the Future Hold for Hanging Heart Ranch? 

In addition to a highly successful 2016 summer of horse camps, and a Show Team of advanced students formed this year, Gentilini and McKenzie are launching their Horsemanship Program in 2017, allowing for students to learn every aspect of the horse – from groundwork, to care, and riding.  After attending a Buck Brannaman Colt Starting Clinic at his home ranch in Sheridan, WY, the two women have been expanding their techniques, both on the ground and on horseback, incorporating Brannaman’s methods into their existing programs.  They are planning to purchase younger horses and train them in everything from performance events, ranch work and jumping.  By merging lessons with team events, combining English and Western disciplines, and adding Brannaman-based horsemanship, Hanging Heart Ranch is creating a generation of well-rounded riders on the Central Coast.

Photos: Courtesy of Hanging Heart Ranch

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Erin McGee went from shopping Nordstrom to Boot Barn when she and her husband fled Silicon Valley for San Miguel in 2012. At 40, her life changed the instant she heard jingling of spurs. She recently adopted a 23-year-young retired cutting American Quarter Horse, named Sam. As a seasoned veteran, Sam is teaching Erin everything there is to know about keeping her first horse healthy and happy.

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