Riders mourn loss of center Farewell: "We have so many friends here. And it's not just the people, it's the horses, too," one child says of the only county-owned equestrian facility.

January 11, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

As the setting sun turned the sky pale peach and blue, a handful of youths converged Friday on the Andover Equestrian Center in Linthicum for one of the last good times they will have with each other and the horses they care for and love.

Anne Arundel County's Department of Recreation and Parks will close the facility -- the only county-owned equestrian center -- indefinitely Jan. 30. The 30 horses will be moved elsewhere; 10 of them have been moved already. Those that are leased will be returned to their owners.

And the members of the Linthicum 4-H Hi-Riders, their leaders, a group of disabled youths in a therapeutic riding program at the center and their parents will mourn the loss.

"We have so many friends here. And it's not just the people, it's the horses, too," said 12-year-old Kate Hoffman of Brooklyn Park, who has been going to the center on Andover Road for more than three years. "It's going to be really awful and stuff. We'll never see them [the horses] again."

County officials announced the closing in November.

Tom Angelis, director of Parks and Recreation, said his department had to close the 25-acre center because Virginia Conover, who has had a contract to operate it since 1992, has mismanaged the facility.

She fell behind on payments of liability insurance required by the county twice last year, Angelis said, and violated certain terms of her contract, including not providing the department regular financial reports and lists of all horses kept there and by boarding seven more than the contract allowed.

Conover said the contract was terminated by mutual agreement. She said that she could make a profit only in the summer, when she organized horse-riding camps and events at the center, but that she barely covered her costs the rest of the year -- even though she has supplemented her income with night jobs at gas stations or fast-food restaurants.

She said that she kept more than the allowed 23 horses on the property because she needed about 15 horses for her therapeutic riding and 4-H programs and riding lessons and that she needed to board more horses -- at $175 a month -- to make ends meet.

Conover said her stint at the center has been tougher than she anticipated, which was why she wanted out.

"I've never regretted it," she said. "But I'm leaving. Why should the rest of the people be punished?"

Jay Cuccia, chief of special facilities for Recreation and Parks, said that the center would be closed only temporarily so it could be renovated and that county officials would review their contract procedures to ensure the center would be run well when it re-opens. But he could not estimate how long it will remain closed.

"We want to be darn sure that the next operator can make a go of whatever operation we have there, that they're not only knowledgeable of the industry but that they're also a capable business person," Cuccia said. "We had never doubted [Conover's] ability to take care of the horses, but from the business standpoint, there was something lacking."

Even with Cuccia's assurances that the center will reopen, 4-H leaders and parents have been lobbying county officials to make sure it does.

"Not all kids want to play baseball and not all kids want to play soccer," said Susan Hull, a 4-H leader. "This is something to keep them out of trouble."

Hull said she was worried that if the Linthicum center closed permanently or if it operated differently after reopening, it would be hard to find another convenient and inexpensive place to organize programs for her youths.

Amanda Hardesty, 12, was sad about losing daily contact with her friends -- one in particular. Tears streamed down her face as she talked about Cody, the 10-year-old black-and-white horse she has leased for a year and a half. Amanda makes the trip from her home in Baltimore to Linthicum with her grandmother to feed, brush and ride Cody almost every day.

But with the center closing, even temporarily, Cody is being returned to his New Jersey owner permanently.

"No horse will be as good as he was," said Amanda, sobbing. "If it wasn't for Cody, I wouldn't ride that well. He taught me. If I see that county guy [who closed the center] I'd tell him he really hurt my feelings."

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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