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Bell View Acres: Creating Memories For More Than 40 Years

by Ann Bullard

Memories Are Made Of This. That may be the title to a song popularized by the late Dean Martin. But in the American Saddlebred world, and particularly in the Illinois area, such memories are being made by Jeanette, Dick, their daughter, Lynn, and their staff. It’s been that way since 1965.

Neither Jeanette nor Dick Durant set out to become horse trainers. After Jeanette’s father died, her mother went to work to support their five children. As the youngest, Jeanette spent after-school hours exercising the neighbor’s horses. Her family always knew where to find her.

As Jeanette put it, she "was born with the addiction." Although she never had any formal riding lessons, she learned to work a horse. In time, she went to work for the Kay and late Everett Ledbetter where she perfected her training skills.

Dudley Abbott of Versailles, Ky., trained ponies in the Chicago area during those years. "Everett couldn’t ride," he said candidly. "Jeanette finished and showed most of the horses against the ‘whole crowd’ at the time."

That crowd included the late Tom Moore, Chat Nichols and Ben Segalia.

"I remember a stallion she had, (CH) Sylvan’s Choice. He slow-gaited in almost the old-fashioned way. Jeanette could fix a horse and fix one that was kind of bad. The only lady trainer in history I know of that might have been any better than she was would be Donna [Moore’s] friend, Jane Fahey."

Sylvan’s Choice had a good show career. However, his legacy to the show world came through the breeding shed, and especially though his son, the great gelding, CH Giddy-Up Go.

Actually, Jeanette was the first woman to show a five-gaited stallion and to show a road horse.

Dick Durant grew up in Michigan, helping pick crops and milking cows to earn his pay. At the time, milking cows paid 10 cents an hour; he had to milk a lot of cows to earn a dollar. He served as a tank driver in the Korean War. After his discharge, he worked with the late Mark Dickey and Chester Caldwell when they shared a barn. He moved on to work with [the late] Tom Moore at Valley View Farm.

One of Dick’s main responsibilities was caring for Valley View Supreme. He transferred his state allegiance to Illinois; and has remained in the Chicago area ever since, moving next to the Silverman’s Delaine Farm, in Morton Grove, on the city’s north side. One of his clients, a Mrs. Natalie McCoy, often sent some of her horses ‘down south’ to the south side of Chicago to be shown by Jeanette, when she worked for Bob and Lorraine Mocny’s Rolling Meadows Farm in Lemont, Ill. Inevitably, she and Dick became friends.

The two married in 1962. Each remained at their training jobs until, in 1965, they had saved enough to buy the property and build the barn that now is Bell View Acres in Homer Glen, Ill. A few clients, including the late Jane Mueller, moved with Dick to the other side of town.

While Bell View Acres bears the Durant names as owners, Junior Ray has played a major role in their success since the beginning. He worked for Dick Durant at Delaine Farm. Before the day was over, he often made the trek to the south side of town to help Jeanette. One of many horses that remains etched in Ray’s memory is Jane Mueller’s CH Delaine’s Winged Victory, the 1970 World’s Champion Ladies Five-Gaited Mare.

Shortly after they opened their barn, the Durants realized they were missing one key ingredient: Ray. "He had to come and work with us or we were going to kill each other," Jeanette said.

"It used to be that Dick had his own barn and I had mine," Jeanette said, adding that Dick’s arthritis was one reason they merged their operations. "We’ve always had Junior Ray here with us."

Actually, Ray’s name has been associated with the Durants for a ‘mere’ 43 years. The Durants were voted recipients of the UPHA Tom Moore Professional Horsemen of the Year Award in 2006; Ray received the honor the following year.

"Junior has been beside us through the good times and the bad," Dick said. "From every champion gaited stake to equitation rider, amateur or youth. He quietly brought along many youngsters, working them in that back barn. Neither Jeanette nor I could imagine this trip without him at our side."

In delivering Ray’s Hall Of Fame induction speech, Brendon Heintz quoted Jeanette as saying, "You’re only as successful in business as is determined by the people you have working with you towards the same common goals. Dick and I both hold Junior in the highest regard and there is something about him that horses just sense. I’ve trusted this man with my life in more situations than I care to admit and he has never once let me down."

In the Saddle Horse world, you also judge a trainer’s success by the number of customers he or she has retained through the years. Few have a better track record than the Durants. Mueller moved with Dick when the couple opened their barn. The Antalek family and Dick Gallagher ‘came with.’ Barbara Friedman has been there more than 40 years. The Oselkas, Wirtz, Teach and Cairns families are ‘relative’ newcomers.

Not only have the Durants brought along students and young trainers, they raised their two daughters in the business. Margaret moved on into the art world, studying in the U.S. and Italy before becoming a teacher at the Art Institute in Chicago. She has taught inner city children for 17 years and has had her work featured in The Chicago Tribune and Family Circle Magazine.

Lynn attended college as well and began a career as a dental technician. As Pam Oselka said, her parents tried to get her ‘to not want to be a horse trainer.’ However, the lure of the horses was too strong, and she returned to work alongside her parents and Junior Ray.

"Lynn is very vital," her mother said. "She married and got out for a while. Now she’s kind of stepping up and doing the whole thing. She knows horses and has exceptional people skills: training, helping teach and running summer camps as well as handling the business end."

Simply put, the future rests securely in Lynn’s hands.

Jeanette loves to teach, from beginners through advanced riders. Norma Engebretsen works with her as an instructor.

"We’ve always had higher end people, but we like a structure to have a bottom end coming up," Jeanette said. "Think of what lesson programs are doing. Younger people rely on new customers coming out of them.

"We have a nice lesson program and are starting new riders all the time," Jeanette said. "Our young adults, in their late 20s and early 30s, are the best they’ve ever been. I’m very proud to be around them."

Few trainers have one client who has remained with them for 40-plus years. So what engenders such loyalty among the Bell View Acres family? Certainly the Durants and their staff’s talent and hard work. But it is more than that.

"They’re very quiet, modest people," said Barbara Friedman. "They are very loyal to their customers and their customers to them. They’ve brought along a lot of people who are still in it. If for some reason, one moves away, they’re always welcome back.

"Jeanette and Dick are very unique and do a good job for everyone. They treat every customer as an individual and have horses and ponies for every division," she said, pointing out that the Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota circuit is "very competitive. That makes it fun and challenging."

Friedman raised her daughters, Morgan Wolin and Lane Zaben "in the Durant technique. Lane tries to ride a gaited horse like Jeanette; Morgan is a perfectionist like Dick," she said, adding that Jeanette is coaching Wolin for adult equitation competition. Friedman is showing a Sue’s Great Day in the Saddlebred western division.

"I love it. It’s really a challenge, like riding dressage," she said.

Pam Oselka looked back on the years she and her family – particularly their daughter, Kelly – has spent with the Durants. "We have become very close. They’re good friends for us and for Kelly as well as trainers," she said. "The Durants looked after her."

Oselka said Dick had cut back on his riding when they were with the farm. Jeanette was very competitive in the show ring. Lynn trained many of their horses including the pleasure horse, CH High Noon AS, a consistent winner under saddle and in driving. The Durants directed her to world’s championships with her three- and five-gaited horses when Kelly rode in the 13 and under division.

"Kelly always loved watching Jeanette show a gaited horse. I think she learned a lot about riding one from that," Oselka said. "I remember when she drove CH High Noon AS at Lexington. It was so crowded; there was just enough room for her horse and cart."

Records show that 18 drivers, ages 14 and under, competed in the qualifier, with 15 juniors and adults returning for the championship. Kelly and High Noon came back with a tricolor drive after being reserve in the qualifier.

"After the drive, Dick said to her, ‘Kelly, when you drive a car I’ll drive with you on any highways in North Chicago.’"

The Cairns family has been with Bell View Acres since 1978, when Heather was nine. "They engender that kind of loyalty," Sandra Cairns said. "It’s different, sort of a by-gone era barn. The employees are there forever. Norma has been there as long as we have.

"Jeanette is a very, very hard worker," she continued. "She seems to get it together; working and living with someone, having your and your children’s lives so public is not easy. They do it very well. Take Jeanette’s work ethic, Dick’s eye for a horse… put it all together. They have a sincere interest in their owners and doing what’s best for them. They’re always cheerful and happy doing little things. Jeanette is pretty willing to try anything. Stray dogs, cats, kids, help… she always sees it through. That’s what makes them successful."

And the Cairns have been most successful under the Durants’ direction, owning ‘at least’ 35 horses over the years. Dr. Scott Cairns has won a pair of Amateur Gentleman’s Fine Harness world titles with Simbara’s Exclamation. Heather Cairns (Kues) and CH Reassessment won their world’s titles in 1986.

Sandra Cairns spoke of Jeanette. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen her down in the dumps. And she’s not at all distant. For years, they have fixed Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for horse people around the area who had no place to go. They have made many wonderful friends over the years through the barn and horses."

Many of the caretakers and other farm staff have been around as long as the customers. Some are the third generation of their families to work for Bell View Acres.

The Durants have been mentors to a number of younger trainers. Julio Rodriguez works alongside them today. Among the more prominent graduates: Bob Griffin of Northern Tradition Farm, Ryan Rongers, Greg O’Kelly and the late Tony Ray. All have gone on to successful careers.

When Griffin joined the Bell View Acres team, he already was an accomplished rider, a good showman and trainer. The most valuable thing he took from the experience? "Jeanette taught me about running a business, making it profitable," he said. "I remember we had one horse that couldn’t work in their aisle way. We had to take it to an old farm down the road. Jeanette wouldn’t allow me to work it by myself, so we met an hour before. We talked – I asked questions about different phases of the business - while I got it ready and while I put it away. I knew I had her ear for an hour, so I’d spend a lot of that day thinking of the next ‘question of the day.’ I learned my people skills from her.

Griffin and his partner, Tom Thorpe, own and operate their successful farm and training operation in Minooka, Ill., less than 30 miles from the Durants. Rather than seeing the younger trainers as competition, the Durants encouraged their stepping out on their own.

"Our whole business is here because of Jeanette, Dick and Lynn," Griffin said, explaining he "went there the winter after Jeanette had her hand stepped on. We knew we wanted a place of our own. In a few years, everything got so big we leased a barn next door. I lived up there, my business was up there. I did all the billing for the 12-head I had. When Des Moines [Horse Show] called and needed horses, Jeanette and Dick had me take my string on my own.

"I didn’t think I was ready to start my own business. Jeanette didn’t agree. She and Dick had laid all the groundwork. They made it easy for my customers to come with me," he said, adding that 10 of his 12 customers moved with him. "Ten training horses… now who does that! They’re like parents to me. Once in a while Jeanette grabs my ear; something isn’t right and she lets me know it. Jeanette doesn’t mince words, but she does it with such tacit."

He smiled as he spoke of Bell View Acres being family oriented with an open door. "Clients walk in on Saturdays at any time, sometimes three or four at a time. They are there to ride, but more importantly to spend the day. When I was there, anything was the reason for a ‘pot luck.’ Jeanette just takes it all in stride."

While their businesses may be separate – even competitors – the younger trainers remain part of the Durants’ extended family. Between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day visits with each trainer’s parents, they stop in for an hour or more with the Durants.

"It’s our wassailing. We absolutely love it," Griffin said.

Dick Durant’s ‘wonderful eye’ for a horse made him a sought-after judge, although he has stepped back from that in recent years. He has held the cards at every major show in the U.S. and Canada except The Royal Winter Fair.

When the Durants were inducted into the UPHA’s Hall of Fame, Barbara Friedman spoke of Dick’s attitude as a judge. It happened at a show in Vermont. "He had an open class full of trainers and one young girl. When the class was over, the young girl won the blue ribbon and deserved to. When her mother came over to thank him and tell him how shocked she was that he would tie her daughter over all the professionals, Dick replied, "I did not come all the way to Vermont to tie people."

The Durants are slowing down a bit. "We’re working about 35 head," Jeanette said, "and have quite a few retired horses along with some boarders. We accumulate, it seems like. We garden a little bit, enjoy our property and occasionally go on a trip."

As they slow down, and perhaps eventually retire, the Durants leave quite a history. She was the first nominee for the Audrey Pugh Guthridge Award, named for the lady who was "kind of a mentor for me. Those were the days when you didn’t see women riding horses and grooming as they do today. I told myself, ‘If she can do it, I know I can.’

"In those days, you did a whole lot of hard work, kept your mouth shut and rode as hard as you could ride," she said. "When I started, I could count on one hand the number of women in the business. Helen [Crabtree,] Donna [Moore] and I are about the same age. We were trail-blazers, I guess. There was no holding us back."

The Durants have built a legacy of great horses and greater friends and clients, and of young trainers to carry on the work they love.

And, to use the vernacular, it ain’t over yet.

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