Horse Around

Horse Around

By Teresa K. Traverse

Carefree Farms equine facility builds friendships and
community

When horse trainer Alice Sarno arrives at Carefree Farms to
start her work day, the horses and her clients know they’re in well-trained
hands. Sarno has worked with horses for more than 50 years. It’s been her only
job.

“I seriously think I was born with a horse gene,” Sarno
says. “I started riding when I was 9, and I’ve been riding ever since.”

Sarno says she was always drawn to horses. She grew up
giving lessons and running stables. She was born in San Diego, grew up in Las
Vegas and has been in metro Phoenix since 1983.

“The thing that I’m impressed with about horses is that it’s
such a commitment. When you’re around them, you really don’t think about
anything else,” Sarno says. “What attracts people who have really high pressure
jobs is, it’s a way of coming out and just enjoying your horse. You stop
thinking about the rest of the world. It’s definitely a mind-eraser. You’re
just totally focused on what you’re doing at the barn.”

Sitting on 17 acres in North Phoenix between the Phoenix
Sonoran Preserve and Cave Creek Regional Park, Carefree Farms is a boarding and
training facility that’s home to 40 horses. The horses are as diverse as the
clientele, who range in age from 6 to 70. Carefree Farms offers a wide range of
breeds and sizes, although the horses are predominantly thoroughbreds. Riders
also can enjoy the area’s sweeping desert views complete with mountain
backdrops and seemingly endless skies.

According to the Arizona Horse Council – an organization
that touts itself as an “all-volunteer, member-elected board that provides
leadership, sets industry standards, and unifies the equine community and
industry in Arizona” –  there are 177,000
horses in 60,000 households in Arizona. The metro Phoenix and Scottsdale areas
are home to many horse properties and equestrian-friendly neighborhoods. And
Carefree Farms has made a home and a name for itself among them since it opened
for business more than 11 years ago.

Privately owned by a married couple, Carefree Farms has been
in business for more than 11 years and was previously a thoroughbred training
center. The facility features two full court arenas for dressage (training),
two barns, a galloping track, a cross country course and a lighted show jumping
arena so riders can practice at night when it gets too hot during the day. It’s
available for tours, parties, clinics and educational activities. Carefree
Farms specializes in dressage, jumping, show jump and starter lessons. Their
clients take lessons, ride on their own and some even compete. Most of the
clients privately own their own horses. Carefree Farms  also boards horses provided they’re in a
training program. 

“It’s really basic training, but like in everything, there’s
many levels of training,” Sarno says. Riders can stay in one level of training
and then move on to the next level when they feel ready. Dressage helps the
horses build muscle, have better coordination and ultimately can lengthen their
lives.

“It’s very important for a horse to have that kind of basic
training,” Sarno says. Dressage is foundational because when a horse is
struggling with certain exercises at the next level, it’s key to return to
basics.

“Each horse is an individual, so you have to structure a
program that’s going to be conducive to further the education of the horse that
you’re working with,” Sarno says. “You really have to be very conscious that
one size doesn’t fit all. That’s part of the environment of working with horses
– the challenge of being able to educate riders to ride their horses and be
able to figure out what a certain horse needs.”

Like Sarno, trainer and farm manager Laura Borghesani
started riding horses when she was a child. She began at age 11 in Northern
California with a horse named Sheba and continued for more than a decade both
in California and in Connecticut, where she moved as a teenager. But after
feeling burnt out, she hung up her horse tack in her early 20s. After earning
her master’s in exercise physiology, she then worked full-time in physical
therapy and spinal rehabilitation for humans in Connecticut and Arizona. After
moving to Phoenix in her early 30s, she met Sarno through a patient of hers.
She then started riding again and hasn’t stopped since.

“Riding is a passion, and it never really goes away,”
Borghesani says.

Carefree Farms also offers “eventing” training. Borghesani
explains that eventing is similar to a triathlon. First, riders must go through
basic dressage. Next, they compete on a cross country course. Carefree Farms
features a five-acre cross country course (large, but still not a full-size
one) that includes banks, ditches, terrain and a water jump – a rarity since
many facilities don’t have enough land to include a cross country course.
Lastly, riders are expected to perform a variety of jumps. This is intended to
develop the rider’s relationship with the horse so he or she can gain the
skills necessary to compete at a Horse Trials competition alone and without a
trainer’s guidance, since trainers can’t teach their students when they’re
competing. 

A typical day for both trainers looks like this: Each one
will have about five to eight lessons per day where they work with riders –
sometimes privately and sometimes in groups – and their horses on specific
exercises or drills. These can be held during the morning, afternoon or
evening, depending on the weather. They’ll each generally have maybe six horses
to ride around the property. The trainers help teach the horses what they’re
supposed to do, which can help amateur riders do the same. Carefree Farms’
staff of five checks on the horses daily. They clean the stalls, replenish food
and make sure the horses are doing well.

Sarno arrives in the mornings to teach. She’ll teach
morning, afternoon or evening lessons, depending on the weather. But the
trainers don’t just teach drills. Sometimes the horses are just ridden for
pleasure.

What does the future hold for Carefree Farms? Borghesani
says she hopes to start implementing rehabilitation programs for injured horses
in addition to some conditioning. Borheshani is working on securing funding for
the program and getting an equine water treadmill.

Despite the large roles both trainers play in their riders’
lives, their ultimate goal – like that of any good parent – is to become
obsolete.

“Our goal is to educate riders to be comfortable and
confident that they don’t really need our help,” Sarno says. “We want them to
become horsemen and women, and the only way they can do it is to learn
everything. We’re here to guide them along the way, but we’re seeking for them
to become independent.”

“Riding is an evolution. You never stop learning,”
Borghesani says.

Borghesani says that Sarno’s words are their mission
statement.

“It’s a fabulous feeling of having them feel confident,”
Borghesani says of watching riders develop. “Seeing somebody come off the cross
country course and seeing them smiling and grinning from 100 feet away that
they were able to accomplish something like that.”

Tricia Ponce De Leon is one of those clients. She was under
Borghesani’s guidance two years before Carefree Farms started and has stuck with
the two trainers for more than a decade.

“I think they push in the right way,” Ponce De Leon says.
She gave the examples of Sarno gradually teaching her horse to jump higher,
switching crops and knowing when to back off and when to push. Ponce De Leon
says riders set goals annually – like what shows to compete in – for what they
want to achieve in the upcoming year. She says she trusts the trainers with her
horses. 

“They take good care of horses. They know if something’s
off. And if something needs to be done. They’re just there and to help and
support,” Ponce de Leon says.

Ponce de Leon moved to San Diego in 2014 for work and then
returned in 2016. Her dedication to riding and the trainers is more than
evident: She even found a house close to Carefree Farms when she returned to
Arizona. 

“They’ve been a part of my life. They know what’s going on
with work, how I feel, what’s going on with my life. For most of us at the
barn, it has to be our happy place,” Ponce de Leon says. “Everyone really
supports each other. We all want everybody to do well.”

Being part of the horse community has important social
aspects too. “One of the great things about the horses is the relationships it
creates. Those friendships never die,” Borghesani says. “My oldest friend is a
horse friend from 35 years ago.”

Both Carefree Farms trainers personally know this. They’ve
been colleagues for nearly 20 years. “Our ethics and our core beliefs are
really, really similar and how we deal with the horses and animals. And there’s
never a huge conflict with that. We have a really great bond,” Borghesani says.
“The people that take advantage of both of us get the best of both worlds.”

As a trainer, Borghesani has to balance her clients’ needs
and desires and the horses’ needs. “Animals don’t lie,” she says. “The horses
are really just trying to answer the questions that you’re asking for them.
They are what they are. The hard part is that they don’t talk. The hard
part is that you have to figure it out.”

When in doubt, she always errs on the side of the horse.
Clients are paying, in part, for her decades of experience. For instance,
sometimes clients will feel like they’re ready to go to show or starting
jumping and Borghesani will tell them she doesn’t feel the horse is ready.

“I can come home every day knowing that I’ve done my best to
advocate for the horse. The horse has no voice, and I have 35 years of
experience,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable, but I’m going to tell you the
truth. We don’t sugar-coat. We make riders. It’s just some people really like
to push their horses along, and I like their horses to have their basics.”

Borghesani sees her clients form strong bonds, as well.
“They come for the social aspect as well as the relationship they have with
their horses. It is a lifestyle for sure,” she says. “The clients can come and
leave life behind. There’s no drama. It’s just social. It’s friendships,
relationships, and they can get away from what’s going on on the outside.
That’s pretty important for all of us.”

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