Skip to content

Linda Shelhart Inducted Into Carolina Hall Of Fame

Posted September 28, 2001
Editor's note: The following speech was read Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001, during the North Carolina State Championship Charity Horse Show.

Tonight the United Professional Horseman of the Carolinas has chosen to induct into its Hall of Fame a lady whose life and career have displayed an incredible love of and dedication to both the American Saddlebred Horse and the teaching of Saddle Seat Equitation.

She grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., the daughter of the CEO of a major insurance company. Her riding career began in the early 1950’s under the tutelage of one of the undisputed giants of equitation of that time, Joe Vanario. He taught largely from horseback, riding near his students, critiquing not only ever move they made, but every move their horses made in response to their movements. For three years she showed exclusively equitation from Joe’s barn, and was extremely successful with her beloved equitation mount, Headlight Genius.

However, fate would interrupt her career with Joe. Her father’s position required a move to Rhode Island, not exactly a hot spot for saddle seat equitation. But, undaunted, she found a beautiful barn in which to board Genius and continued to ride. The only problem was every other horse and rider at this facility was into fox hunting, and had never been to a horse show. Still determined, she talked her parents into a horse trailer, educated them on being great “do it yourself-ers” and then, in order to have some “friends” at the shows, she successfully convinced some of her fox hunting friends that they should be showing in the hunt seat classes at the nearby shows. Soon, she and Genius, and some of the hunt seat converts, were back on the circuit, and she was the competition to beat in the saddle seat equitation classes.

In 1960 she graduated from high school and left for Rollins College, with Genius in tow. She continued to ride during college, although was not able to show. In 1964, after graduation from Rollins, she expressed strong interest to her parents about wanting to continue to ride and perhaps to make horses her career. But her daddy insisted she had to get a job in the “real world”. So, she and Genius moved to Texas, where she worked as an Executive Secretary for the District Manager of Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. During this time she rode, and Genius was boarded at Tri Oaks Farm.

After several years in the business, her burning love of saddlebreds and saddle seat equitation had not diminished; in fact it was growing brighter, and she was more settled on the fact that her future was to be in the horse industry. In the middle 1960’s her parents decided to retire in Wilmington, and after much convincing, they agreed to build a barn for her in Wilmington. At that time it didn’t concern her that nobody in Wilmington, N.C. had ever heard of a saddlebred, that Wilmington was six to twelve hours away from most saddlebred shows, that hay, grain and shavings were much more expensive once they were transported almost to the “ocean”. All that mattered was that she would be able to share the love and joy that she had experienced from riding and showing with others.

So, in 1968, wide eyed in anticipation and totally naive to what she was undertaking, she and Genius moved to N.C. and designed and supervised the building of what was at the time the first all steel structure in New Hanover County. It would be named Canterbury Stables. While the barn was being constructed, Linda purchased a group of school horses, and they remained in the pasture while construction continued. As completion of the facility neared, she decided it was time to begin to put them to work, so they would be appropriate mounts for her students. She lunged each horse before riding it, as they had not been worked for months. All went fine, until the last one. Because it was only a small pony, the most innocent looking of the bunch, she opted to just ride it, without first lunging. It immediately slammed her to the ground, badly breaking her collar bone. Doctors put her in a body cast from the waist up with her left arm sticking straight up in the air, and it was in that condition, body cast and all, that she and Genius opened Canterbury Stable with a full slate of riding lessons given every day.

There are many ways in which all of us who love the American Saddlebred contribute to the industry supporting the perpetuation of the breed. Some of us breed these gorgeous animals, others own and show them, others are the revered professionals who make it possible for them to make it to the show ring through endless hours of training. But none of these contributions is more significant than the dedicated professional who spends patient hour upon hour teaching children and adults the art of saddle seat equitation.

To take a person, be it child or adult, who has never sat on a horse, and progress form the “up/down, up/down” stage of learning to post to the show ring can only be described as an AWESOME accomplishment. In today’s world of academy classes, winter tournaments and riding programs at most large saddlebred barns, we have grown accustomed to this happening. But in the early days of Canterbury Stables, they were no academy classes, no winter tournaments and no other large riding programs from which to model or draw support.

Tonight’s honoree was truly a pioneer in terms of her early successes. In the absence of academy classes or winter tournaments, she introduced her students to the show ring by holding her own horse show each year at Canterbury Stables, each time persuading her fellow trainers to come to “judge”. She was adamant that her students learn the possibility associated with taking care of animals as well as riding - all students participated in tacking their horses, bathing and walking them after the lesson, and cleaning their own tack. She commanded respect and instilled in each rider what they were learning was to be taken seriously. She loved animals passionately and taught the students by example to share in that love. And she made the experience “fun”. She took a packed car of kids for lunch on Saturdays, and had elegant cocktail parties at the barn for the parents and older students. Her methods were effective; her enthusiasm was contagious. Shortly after beginning to teach, she purchased and remodeled an old postal van and, driving it herself, because she trusted no one else with its precious cargo, she appeared at almost all the shows with a full load of horses to be shown in the equitation classes. The first of innumerable Canterbury show riders had been born.

The rest, as they say, “is thirty years of history”, thirty years of total dedication to teaching, training both equitation and performance horses, while continuously teaching twenty or more lessons a week to newcomers. For thirty plus years she has made the joys as we all know are associated with riding American Saddlebreds available to countless children and adults. And while teaching and bringing the joys of horses and the showring to so many, she has remained scrupulously honest, totally devoted to doing that which was in the best interest of her customers, and highly responsible when given the job of finding the appropriate mount for a certain rider.

Some of the students who learned the art of saddle seat riding at Canterbury Stables achieved world champion status. Gabe Deknatel, who would have been here tonight had he been able to get a flight, began riding with Linda at age six, taking, according to his mother, a teddy bear with him to his first horse show. Also with Linda in the ring tonight are World Champion Riders Karen Jones, who under Linda’s guidance rode WC Kalanchoe to five world championships in the pleasure division, Cackie Loughlin (pronounced LOCK-LIN) Stephenson and her mother Sissy Loughlin and Bradley Zimmer. Also accompanying Linda tonight are Bradley’s parents, Ronna and Herbert Zimmer, longtime friends and customers, and former students and show riders Darby Harris, Sarah Bowman, Laura Andrews Gainey, Emily Flolo Schardt, Lee Perry, Carla Farmer, and her parents Carl and Wanda Farmer. Linda is further supported by all her current customers and students presently showing at Canterbury. Tonight Bradley Zimmer will present to Linda flowers sent to her with love from the entire Deknatel family, Elizabeth, Gabe and Maria.

The UPHA of the Carolinas is richer tonight for having talking into its membership a lady without whom the Carolina circuit would not have been as viable. How many more riders will be given what one of Linda’s riders described as an “awesome foundation” for a show ring career remains to be seen. Dedication to this industry, to what we all love. That is clearly what this lady is, and has been about from the beginning.

P.S. Headlight Genius, buried at Canterbury at age 32, looks down on you tonight, and says “Congratulations, on a job well done, my friend”!

More Stories