The common threads that run through Columbia’s earliest riding schools are intangible, but they are strong as a tightened girth, warm as a horse’s breath, real as the thunder of galloping hooves. Freedom. Responsibility. Respect. Confidence. Friendship. Some even say magic.
Many of those who learned to ride horses at Webb’s Riding Academy, Belle Grove, Wildewood Stables, and Hickory Top Farm gathered recently for a reunion to reminisce about these programs. They also celebrated the revival of Hickory Top as a place where children and adults engage emotionally and physically with horses through therapeutic riding. The large, Sunday group was testimony to the remarkable impact these riding programs have had upon individual lives and thus the Columbia community and beyond.
Those gathered included an array of occupations: doctor, lawyer, nurse, teacher, historian, naturalist, engineer, college coach, interior designer, writer, philanthropist, parent, farmer, dentist, Peace Corps volunteer, artist, huntsman, professor. They gave much credit to these riding programs for shaping their lives in a positive way, and it’s hardly a stretch to say it all began in 1930. That’s when Webb’s Riding Academy was established by Hughes Webb, a tall drink of a man who plied his trade as a salesman but who, at the age of 28 years old, decided he wanted to teach children to ride.
Thus began the magic.
Webb’s Riding Academy
A small, gray cottage cleaves to the side of Trenholm Road, where the four-lane road leaves Forest Acres and begins a turn toward downtown Columbia. The homestead where Hughes and his wife, Nellie, lived is tucked between a day care, a senior citizens center, and a dry-cleaning establishment. Behind it, Penn Branch Creek trickles by. Tall grasses cover its banks. Yellow dandelions dot the landscape. Recently, workers repairing the creek banks compromised during the 2015 flood found old horseshoes buried in the sand.
“Grandaddy loved horses,” says Laura Webb Dennison, who was raised by her grandparents and lives in the gray cottage. “Grandaddy grew up downtown on Senate Street, and he’d been riding since he was a tyke. He and his buddies would go down to Assembly Street where a man would let them ride his horses.” In 1930, he purchased this property for $2,000, wanting a riding academy where he could teach children to ride and where he could share his love of horses.
At the time, Trenholm Road was a dusty, unpaved thoroughfare. Hughes built a ring and a barn, brought in horses and ponies, and the riding program began. Many of his horses were American saddlebreds, and he taught both Western and English style riding. “Grandaddy had such a good influence on his young riders,” Laura says. “He called them all his ‘children.’”
One of those “children” is Page Hodson. “It would be impossible to overstate the role Webb’s Riding Academy has played in my life,” Page says. “I have been told that when I was as young as 3 years old, I would stand by the rail of the huge riding ring and ask anyone riding by on their horse to ‘please give me a ride.’ Not very subtle, but I was completely in love with the world of horses.”
Page considers herself lucky to have been introduced to this world by her father’s sister, for whom she was named, and who would become best known to legions of children as “Miss Page.” For years she organized summer day camps at Webb’s and then went on to teach kindergarten at Heathwood Hall.
“I always called my aunt ‘Nannie,” so with Nannie’s help and my parents’ somewhat reluctant blessing, around age 5, I found myself the owner of a Shetland pony named Little Colonel. I absolutely adored him and spent as many waking hours with him at Webb’s as I was allowed. In summer, after Colonel and I had gone for a ride and before I had groomed him at the end of the day, I would lie flat on his back, pick a long vine of honeysuckle, bite the ends off the flowers, and suck the sweet juice. For me, it was heaven.”
In those days, she explains, the riding was delightfully unstructured — sometimes Western, sometimes English, and very often bareback. “My days at Webb’s gave me not only an abiding love of horses but also a deep delight in the magic of the entire natural world.”
Hughes moved his stables to Hopkins in the early 1960s, after the City of Columbia incorporated the area of town where his school was located. In 1979, he retired and closed his stables for good. The State newspaper paid homage to Hughes and his riding academy in an article entitled A Way with Horses. Hughes was quoted as saying, “I liked to work with horses because I love them, and I love people.”
A drive from Columbia down Bluff Road goes past small Baptist churches with names like Bethlehem and Zion Damascus. A Dollar General has made its way to the area, as has a Circle K. Eventually, a Westinghouse plant appears on the right. Just before the plant is an entrance to a dirt road. An iron gate proclaims, “Belle Grove Plantation.” The vast property is owned by a private hunting club.
In the early 1950s, the marker was different — a green, wooden sign hanging on two poles. Etched into the sign were a horse and rider jumping over a fence. The words “Belle Grove” stood out above the horse and rider. Below the pair, “W.S. Manning.” For 30-some years, the late Sinkler Manning and Betty Belser worked together to create a riding program that served a host of Columbia children, teaching them to ride hunt seat, to jump, and — when ready — to ride with The Camden Hunt in Camden.
Belle Grove began as a 900-acre cattle farm, which Sinkler established after flying in World War II and returning to his ancestral home of South Carolina with his wife, Barbie. Sinkler grew up in Connecticut, where he played with a little girl named Jacqueline Bouvier (later Kennedy Onassis). He attended Yale University where he lettered in rowing.
Sinkler was a superb rider, playing polo with fellow polo players on a big field at Belle Grove. And then there was the cattle operation. Enter Betty, who lived in Columbia with her husband, Heyward, and whose father was in the U.S. Cavalry. Several theories exist about how Sinkler and Betty met — whether through military, social, or riding connections. Whatever the link, Betty, an Army brat who learned to ride with demanding military instructors, played an essential role in starting the riding program at Belle Grove. She wanted her two sons, Clinch Belser, Jr., and Scott Belser, to learn to ride. She proposed to Sinkler that they start a riding program at Belle Grove.
“It was the ’50s and I remember being in the first class,” says Clinch. “It was a small class of 12. My mother believed that learning in a class situation was a better experience than learning one-on-one. The program gradually grew.”
It consisted of riders being taught by Betty as they progressed from beginners in a first-year program and a second-year program, riding a well-adjusted group of school ponies with names like Teddy, Nancy, Troubles, and Lil’ Bit. Third-year riders were still taught by Betty, but they rode horses that she and Sinkler matched to each rider. These horses generally cost $300, and many came untrained from a ranch out west where Manning traveled each summer to select horses needed for the third-year riders. Fourth-year and beyond riders were taught by Sinkler — mostly in wide, open fields — with the goal that horse-and-rider pairs be skilled, responsible, and fit enough to ride to the hounds in Camden.
“Belle Grove was a magical place,” says Kitty Farnell, who has her own riding farm in Blythewood. “Sinkler would work on a new jump somewhere out in the 900 acres and then lead us over it with such great enthusiasm. I remember the old rowboat he made into a jump. It was amazing. Those little ranch horses were so brave with their determined riders, making Sinkler and Betty proud. They set high standards for all of us.”
Mary Desportes, who owns and teaches riding at Doodle Hill Farm in St. Matthews, fondly remembers when they were old enough to spend the night in the clubhouse at the farm as a group. “We all went out at night and found the herd and rode like banshees around the pasture with no tack.”
Margy Peterson, who teaches riding at her Tweedberry Farm in Ridgeway, remembers that her mother, Marguerite Cooper Ferguson, met her best friends at Belle Grove and found peace, adventure, and inspiration there. “My mother told me that Belle Grove gave her something to look forward to and work hard for during the challenges of growing up and being very shy — a place she always felt at home no matter what was going on in other areas of her life. Belle Grove gave her confidence and joy. She loved and admired Sinkler and Betty so much that she decided to open her own riding school, Woodcreek Farms.”
Due to age, Sinkler sold Belle Grove in the early-1970s and moved with Barbie to the mountains of North Carolina. Boo Major, the University of South Carolina’s equestrian team coach, remembered the sale of Belle Grove meant she and her riding classmates had just missed advancing into their fourth year and riding with Sinkler. “We were heartbroken,” Boo says.
But the heartbreak would not last long. When Belle Grove closed, Betty and Heyward purchased 60 acres of property near Sumter Highway, which they named Hickory Top Farm and where Betty instituted a similar riding program.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, another strong riding program had been serving students as well — Wildewood Stables, begun by Susan Fair Boyd in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Polo Road meanders alongside Interstate I-20 until it takes a sharp turn to the left. Both sides of the road are developed with gas stations, convenience stores, housing developments, and parks. Just beyond a baseball complex is a well-manicured entrance to Wildewood Downs, a retirement community.
On a recent Friday morning, Sherrerd Hartness, who rode at Wildewood, sat in a red truck at the entrance to the retirement community. “The road back then was just sand. Great footing for horses. There were scrub oaks everywhere. The barn was just beyond these gates. You could see it from here.”
Darnell “Donnie” Boyd, Susan’s husband, and Heath Manning had developed a flourishing polo program at the Wildewood site. The program drew Columbians to Sunday afternoon matches, and at one time the Wildewood team traveled to England to play polo with Prince Charles.
Meanwhile, Susan, whose ancestors helped found the City of Columbia and who grew up riding at Webb’s, was determined to establish a riding program for children at Wildewood. “I took my first riding lesson at Mr. Webb’s,” Susan says, “and I was in seventh heaven so, because I loved to ride and I loved horses, it was a natural thing to start a riding program at Wildewood.”
“Susan is very forthright, is a supportive friend, and loves to laugh!” says Sherrerd. “As a child, her family would spend time in Massachusetts during the summer, and my mother used to say that Susan had ‘just enough Yankee in her to tell it like it is.’ She loves animals, and she loves horses.”
Bobby O’Brien, who taught riding at Wildewood, recalled that riding students were forbidden from riding on the well-groomed polo fields. “One step on the polo field, and you were severely chastised,” she says.
Students at Wildewood rode hunt seat — jumping, hunting with The Camden Hunt, and participating in horse shows and three-day events. Many also participated in a Pony Club program established at the farm. “It was a magical time,” Bobby says. “Wildewood started with maybe 30 students and grew to about 100. The youngsters learned responsibility and how to interact with people and horses. They matured through the riding program.”
Lee Brockington, a history consultant who has retired from her work at Hobcaw Barony near Georgetown, fondly recalls that she worked for her riding lessons at Wildewood Stables. “I had done a wee bit of babysitting, but being asked to work every day after school at a stable was a dream come true as my parents could not really ‘support my riding habit.’ Cleaning stalls, tacking up 10 to 20 horses for riding lessons, feeding and exercising horses? Heck yeah!”
She also shares what an important opportunity it gave her to learn responsibility — for human and horse lives as well as respect for other people’s property — and to learn skills, from using wheelbarrows, pitchforks, hammers, and nails to driving a tractor with manure spreader. “Riding, but especially working around horses, builds a certain kind of confidence that just stays with you.”
As steady residential and commercial development took over the Wildewood area in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the polo and riding programs wound down.
Meanwhile, development had not overtaken a 60-acre property called Hickory Top Farm, just off the Sumter Highway.
Hickory Top Farm
After leaving Columbia and cresting a long hill on the Sumter Highway, you will see a blue, concrete building appear on the left. The Highway 378 Diner serves an all-day breakfast and on a recent Thursday, it was running a goulash dinner special.
A left turn here leads to Piney Branch Road and an old, wooden sign on the right — “Hickory Top” — with a jumping horse between the words “Hickory” and “Top.”
After Belle Grove’s closure, Betty was determined to keep teaching children how to ride. “Mrs. Belser was a giant in our lives,” says Jane Cox Childress. “We did it all at Hickory Top. Trail riding, mock hunts, field work, ring work, lessons, foxhunting with The Camden Hunt, pond swimming with the horses, competitions with each other on the farm and with others at horse shows. Boy did we play! We played games on horseback; we played football after Sykes Barbecue lunches on Saturdays. We took care of the horses, but mostly they took care of us. They taught us responsibility, patience and empathy, and with their enormous hearts, they taught us all about love.”
Betty, whom many lovingly called “Betty B,” died of cancer in 1979. Heyward kept the riding school going for several years. Some of Betty’s riding students, dating back to Belle Grove, managed the farm and taught riding there. Last fall, Hickory Top was purchased by a nonprofit therapeutic riding program led by Amanda Malanuk.
Ironically, a little boy named Ansel Bunch, III, who is a student in the therapeutic program and who learned to walk, in part, by feeling the motion of a horse underneath him, sometimes arrives at his lessons with his grandfather, Ansel Bunch, Sr., who learned to ride at Belle Grove.
Thus, the magic that began almost a hundred years ago at Webb’s, working its extraordinary way through Belle Grove and Wildewood, continues today at Hickory Top, where a sign on a fence appears upon leaving: “Happy Trails Until We Meet Again.”
Indeed, happy trails.