Horse center chief resigns

City's aquatics director is made acting manager of beleaguered facility

4 others left last month

January 20, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The head of the beleaguered Columbia Horse Center has resigned, less than three weeks after a staff shake-up that has led to the facility's being managed by the city's aquatics director.

John Herdson, who oversees the Columbia Association's aquatics programs and has no equestrian experience, has been named acting manager of the 88-acre farm after the resignation of Kaye McCally on Jan. 5.

Four others, including barn manager Richard Retamoza and three barn hands, left last month, according to Rob Goldman, vice president of the association's sport and fitness division.

Goldman would not discuss the details of the staff changes, calling it a "personnel matter."

A longtime rider and supporter of the horse center, Elizabeth Richards, has also submitted her resignation from the facility's advisory committee, saying the Columbia Association should "cut bait, close the Columbia Horse Center and stay out of the horse business."

The equestrian center, which is used by about 600 of Columbia's 87,000 residents, has come under scrutiny in the past year because of its financial losses, which total an estimated $1.5 million since 1986.

The Columbia Council considered closing the facility last year, but voted to continue funding it after association staff came up with a long-range plan to attract more resident users and have it break even -- for the first time -- after six years.

Nearly 60 percent of its users were from outside Columbia last fiscal year, according to association estimates.

The horse center, on Gorman Road on the outskirts of the planned community, offers lessons, boarding, camps and therapeutic riding for the disabled.

Goldman said three people with experience handling horses, including one with a degree in equine science, remain on staff at the center giving lessons and caring for the horses.

Employees from Columbia Association's open-space division and the golf courses have been called in temporarily to assist, he said. Those without experience handling horses do not have direct contact with the animals, but help clean their stalls.

"I'm confident that we've put in place interim measures that assure the safety of the horses for the patrons down there," he said.

Seven horses boarded at the center, including one belonging to Richards, have been pulled from the stalls by their owners in the past month, according to Goldman.

Despite efforts to improve its bottom line, the equestrian center is expected to lose three times as much money in the fiscal year that begins May 1 than was projected only eight months ago.

Because of considerably higher salary and supply expenses, the facility will lose $120,000 more than anticipated, according to Columbia Association's draft budget for fiscal year 2001.

During last year's council debate over the facility's fate, Richards testified more than once on behalf of the horse center, saying it was the only facility in the area that met her equestrian needs and that the association should continue to fund it.

Last fall, she was appointed to the newly created horse center advisory committee, whose 10 members serve as liaisons among the Columbia Council, Columbia Association staff and horse center users.

In a scathing three-page letter delivered to the council last week, Richards charged that the association never intended for the advisory board to be active, and outlined a series of complaints regarding the care of her horse and treatment of the facility staff.

She said that all but one of the barn workers left -- and the barn manager was fired -- in the middle of December. McCally, who took over as facility manager in 1996, was later offered the option of resigning or being fired, Richards said in the letter.

The Columbia Association "will never be able to make the horse center profitable and will never be able to provide consistent, safe, proper care for the horses it stables," Richards wrote. "I still believe that the community should have a riding facility and that there is support for horse sports in Columbia, but I no longer believe the Columbia Association capable of providing that facility. I am more angry than I can possibly convey."

Richards could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Herdson has served as village manager in Wilde Lake and director of the swim center, Goldman said. For the past three years, he has been the association's aquatics director, overseeing 23 outdoor pools, the swim center and the boat docks.

"He does not have an equestrian background, but he knows CA inside and out," said Goldman.

The association's vice president for community relations, Pam Mack, said it has not responded to Richards' letter, but will look into the issues raised in it.

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