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A Commitment to Family

Posted June 7, 2002

by Bob Funkhouser

We all know the stories of families which have sacrificed so their daughters could ride and show horses. This story has that same familiar ring, but the sacrifices that were made were done so the entire family could stay together doing something they love.

Michael, Dale, and Julie Anne Arnston have been a part of the Midwest show scene for many years now. In fact, they spent 25 years at their New Lennox, Ill., location before purchasing the famed VIP Farm in Mokena four years ago. All along the way they have worked as a family with each individual having roles, but with everything for the good of the big picture.

Michael and Dale have known each other since they were nine. That longtime friendship bloomed into a romance with each other and the horses. Dale’s sister rode as a child and that gave Dale her first exposure to the equine world. Michael and Dale became more and more interested in horses, starting with Arabians and Thoroughbreds and showing some hunter/jumpers.

“We bought five acres and a six stall barn,” recalled Michael. “We thought we could buy a few horses and board horses for customers. That’s how we got started. That’s how we made a living. It seemed like it would be easier to do it ourselves than to have our horses at someone else’s barn.”

A trip to Lexington, Ky., for the historic Dodge Stables Dispersal at Tattersalls changed their direction in the equine world.

“My sister had a Saddlebred so we went to the sale looking for a horse for her,” said Dale.

Not only did they find a horse for Dale’s sister, the Arnstons bought a few for themselves that day. “It was something,” explained Michael. “We went to that sale and saw all of these wonderful horses. We bought a few, came home and sold them right away. That did it. We were hooked on Saddlebreds from that moment on.”

Now armed with American Saddlebreds, the Arnstons training and lesson program started growing. Dale loved to teach and Michael loved to work horses and be the general repair man. They had a way with people that was just as effective as their way with horses. At the height of their business in New Lennox they were giving close to 100 lessons a week. One of those students was their daughter Julie Anne. She liked the horses, but it wasn’t a way of life for her.

“I wasn’t a barn brat,” said Julie Anne. “I rode, but I went to the barn for my lessons and left. I was like a customer.”

Julie Anne went along with the program and showed a little at the local open shows. It wasn’t until she was nine that she got her first Saddlebred, a country pleasure horse named Stonewall’s Premier Genius.

“We got this horse and he didn’t have registration papers,” said Dale. I checked around and Armon Effinger had him as a two-year-old so I called him and told him we had bought the horse for our daughter to show at rated shows but didn’t have his papers. He didn’t know us from Adam but was so nice and helped us get everything together.”

Julie Anne made her walk, trot, and canter debut at Northbrook but it was far from memorable.

“I remember I was so little I couldn’t get his nose in and I’d be last,” chuckled Julie Anne. The next year I was a little bigger so I could get his nose in a little better and we got second. The following year I finally worked my way up to a few blues. I also started getting to catch ride a few horses for people like Scott Matton, Bonnie Byrne, Kenny Guell, Nealia McCracken, and the Pettrys.”

From Stonewall’s Premier Genius Julie Anne stepped up to horses like The Compliment and Perfect Pitch. Too Hoots was one of the top horses she got to show for other people as was Peerless.

“I can remember Bonnie [Byrne] calling me to show Peerless and I thought that was so cool that she would ask me of all people. We got second at Midwest and I can remember the crowd really cheering for us. Then we won at Waukesha.”

Julie Anne was enjoying success in the show ring, but her enjoyment was staying on the junior exhibitor/amateur level. Turning professional wasn’t something she was contemplating yet. Plans were to go on to school and study Marketing at a local junior college.

“The time away from the barn made me realize how much I missed it but I was afraid of the grunt work,” said Julie Anne. I would come back and help mom and dad but I didn’t think I wanted to be a trainer because of all of the physical work.

“Then I just decided, ‘no more school.’ I wanted to give training a try. They were very supportive. We laid down a few ground rules and then I jumped right in. I found out I did love the work. I am so grateful of how they sat back and let me do it. It was up to me to get myself ready. They encouraged me, but I was the one who had to do it.”

With their defined roles, the Arnston family built a solid business and the quality of their show string was improving all the time. Sometimes family constantly in close proximity doesn’t work well. It was the exact opposite here.

“We are closer than most families and this really brings us together,” said Julie Anne. “I have never considered it a negative,” added Dale. “We really enjoy each other and we support one another when one is having a bad day or a problem. It’s a very supportive environment.”

Julie Anne describes the roles the three play in the operation of Country Meadow Farm. “Dad fixes stuff, does the jogging, and takes the horses to the shows,” said Julie Anne. “Mom, she’s the strong voice in the barn. She does the dirty work and works with Dad on the tough stuff. If there’s a problem, she handles it. She also does the book work. I do most of the riding and we all teach. I still can’t believe what a sacrifice they have made stepping back and giving me the limelight. They have done a lot for me.”

About five years ago VIP Farm became available and while the Arnstons weren’t necessarily looking to leave New Lennox it was something Dale thought they should explore.

“Building was going on all around and they were closing in on us,” said Michael. “VIP went on the market and we looked at it a few times but I thought it needed too much work. It had been empty for a while. Dale kept saying, ‘Are you sure?’ and I would say, ‘Yes.’ Well, you see who won that battle.”

Part of the reason Dale was so sure about buying the place is she knew Michael could fix it. Dale and Julie Anne will tell you, “he can fix anything.” Over the past few years he has restored the barn to the grand facility it once was and has also added on. There are 33 stalls on the main aisle of the barn with tack rooms and work rooms completely redone. On the back side of the indoor arena Michael has added stalls for the lesson horses and storage. It’s constant work but something he takes great pride in.

Along with restoring the facility, the Arnstons have steadily upgraded their show string. Their strong lesson program has produced riders for the show ring at all levels. One of their strongest points is the attention they give to everyone in the barn.

“Whether it’s a $4,000 horse or a $200,000 horse they [the Arnstons] give the same treatment to everyone,” said customer Debby Murray. “They are remarkable people who give you more than your money’s worth. “We are just average working class people who wouldn’t have had a chance to be where we are in the horse business today if it weren’t for them.

Murray’s daughter Paula is one of several Country Meadow riders winning championships these days. A standout in the pleasure equitation ranks she has already won a Pleasure Olympics Gold Medal with Simbara’s Salutation. Last year was also a great season for Brittany Cortina and Callaway’s Newscaster. In addition to winning on the tough Midwest circuit, they also won a world’s championship in the junior exhibitor pleasure division. Lisa McClaren has been a force riding Super Rooster in the equitation division. With many winning trips under her belt she added Chandler to her show string for this year and debuted at Milwaukee with championship results. These are but a few of the riders that have been a part of the growing program at Country Meadow. Their hard work and belief in the Arnstons have taken them far.

In addition to enjoying great success with their horses and riders, the Arnstons are still reliving the glorious wedding which took place this past New Year’s Eve. Julie Anne was married to longtime sweetheart Jay Wroble in a ceremony fit for a queen. While not in the mainstream at Country Meadow Jay gives great support to Julie Anne and is often ringside cheering for the troops.

Getting married, having riders win world and national awards, watching other riders move from the lesson program to showing a horse with confidence, Julie Anne and the Arnston family has been blessed and rewarded for their hard work.

“The best part is when you see people you taught be able to ride their horses with confidence in what we taught them,” said Julie Anne. “It’s not about winning, but did they have a good ride? Winning is nice and what we strive for, but more importantly did they have fun? It’s more rewarding for me to have a client do well than for me to win. It’s way harder to train for others to ride.

“A little success make you want to get better, makes you want more,” she added. “I feel like we have a pretty good string right now. You do the best you can with what you have and try to be successful with those. I know we’re not going to have great ones all the time, even the top trainers have to ride bad ones. My original goal was to have six horses to take to A shows and be very competitive. Now we have more.

“I think we are capable of competing at the A level and there is never an end to success. It’s more stressful. People expect more of you and you want more yourself. I just have to give consistent hard work, be modest, and take criticism when needed.”

And how does it feel for a parent who is also a co-business partner to watch their daughter develop into a successful, young professional? “It’s exciting,” said Dale. “I can separate being a parent from being a trainer. When it comes to work, we all talk about what needs to be done and how we are going to do it. As a parent I can enjoy the emotional part of it.”

The strong family values and teamwork displayed by the Arnstons are what have made them so successful. Their customers hold them in high esteem.

“The minute I walked into their barn I knew this was the place to be,” said Debby Murray. They were wonderful role models and I love my daughter being in such a family environment. They go way above and beyond what is expected as a trainer. They have taught my daughter about life, winning, and losing. I think it is important that you know how to lose.

“Everything has changed since Paula has been riding with them,” added Murray. “She wouldn’t have been Top 10, yet alone win a Gold Medal if it hadn’t been for the Arnston family. I get so emotional just talking about it.”

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