Vermont’s equine tradition invokes memories of the work horses that cleared land and plowed fields, and more recently, leisurely rides on backcountry trails, but even longtime residents may not know high-level equine competition and training are also nearby.
The equine industry is well-established in Vermont, but the majority of shows and facilities are near Woodstock, Manchester and the Burlington area. In the Northeast Kingdom, year-round riding facilities and trainers can be hard to find.
Local talent Michelle Lemieux, barn manager and primary trainer at Northern Lights Stables in Danville, oversees the care and training of horses and teaches lessons to riders of all ages and abilities, as part of her business Lemieux Dressage.
In addition to teaching clients and training their horses, Michelle also competes at the international level herself, which requires substantial discipline and commitment, to meet the needs of her clients and their horses, as well as reach her own athletic goals. Many trainers are retired full-time riders, only a few do both.
Michelle grew up in St. Johnsbury, the daughter of Mike and Kimberly Lemieux, owners of M & K Lemieux Logging. She taught herself to ride her horse, Breeze, while cobbling together lessons from an impressive cast of coaches: Joe Forest, a premier trainer in Grantham, N.H. with a history of coaching riders to national championships, Suzi Gornall, a coach and trainer in South Woodstock and Aiken, S.C., Jane Hamlin, an Olympic-level coach at Pirouette Farm in Norwich, and Denny Emerson, a member of the United States Three Day Eventing Team that won the gold medal at the 1974 Eventing World Championships.
Eventing is a combined three-day competition of dressage, cross-country jumping and stadium jumping, and is the discipline where Michelle started competing.
During her eventing years, Michelle attended the University of New Hampshire and served as a substitute riding instructor. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Equine Management and returned to the Northeast Kingdom in 2005. She worked as an instructor in 2010 at the Danville Morgan Horse Farm, where she founded her own business, Danville Equestrian Center, teaching English-style riding.
One of Michelle’s clients, Dr. Ron Kubica, imported a horse named Laurie while working with Michelle, and he also brought in Sarah Hall, an Olympic-level rider to coach dressage riding specifically. Dressage involves precise guidance from the rider to cause the horse to execute precise movements in the arena and was originally developed to train horses for work on the battlefield. Michelle began to think about a change in focus in her riding goals, and a series of events changed her career path.
Breeze suffered a career-ending injury, according to Michelle. About the same time, Ron was going in for hernia surgery and agreed to let Michelle ride Laurie while he was recovering.
“That’s when I fell in love with Laurie and the sport of dressage,” she remembers.
When Ron moved across the country for a job change, he transferred ownership of Laurie to Michelle, and Michelle began riding Laurie in competitions, with significant success. She qualified for the Region 8 (New England region which includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont) championships three consecutive years. She also was awarded USDF (United States Dressage Federation) Bronze and Silver rider medals, which is a substantial achievement.
In 2017, Megan (Currier) Haygood opened Northern Lights Stables on Currier Road in Danville and Michelle moved her business there. Built on the Currier Family Farm property, a former dairy farm, the facility features regulation size indoor and outdoor arenas, eight miles of trails for riding, and an outdoor area for jumping.
The facility preserves the open working space from the farm’s earlier dairy and beef days. The barn has 24 stalls and multiple paddocks. Megan has two horses herself (GT and Ducky) and is also a nurse practitioner at the Women’s Wellness Center at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, and her husband, John Haygood, puts in many hours helping with chores and facility upkeep. This facility allows Michelle to continue moving forward with her riding goals, while teaching and helping others reach theirs.
A true Vermonter, Michelle breeds her own stock. Many high-level dressage riders import horses from Europe, but Michelle has successfully bred her own mare and produced two foals, one (Izzy) in 2014, with whom she is now competing, and Pie, who was born in 2020.
Of her horses, Michelle says, “Laurie allows me to make 10,000 mistakes and is the most amazing teacher. He has taught me everything I know about dressage. Izzy does not allow me to make mistakes and makes me be the best rider I can be. She is a lovely, talented challenge.”
Although the pandemic affected the 2020 show season, Michelle looks forward to competing both Laurie and Izzy in 2021 and demonstrating the expertise and quality of her Northeast Kingdom training and Vermont-bred stock as they compete at the international level.