- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

Pumpkin’s got a little bit of the crazy eye. “You can see the white of her eye. It means she’s a little bit crazy,” says Stephanie Fontana, an assistant trainer at Meadowbrook Stables.

“But she’s a good girl,” Ms. Fontana says, running her hand over the pony’s brown coat as three young students groom the patient animal.

Pumpkin is really a gentle charge, with just a little crazy eye left from her younger days. Ms. Fontana chose the pony for a grooming and tacking lesson at Meadowbrook, a nonprofit stable tucked along Rock Creek where the waterway bends through Chevy Chase.

The stable was opened in 1934. The nonprofit Meadowbrook Foundation now leases the facility from the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission. About 40 full- and part-time staffers keep the place running.

Ms. Fontana, 30, coordinates the training for students — about 300 a week — who attend Meadowbrook.

She knows each of the students and each of the 50 or so horses at the stables, along with their quirks and capabilities. She knows which of the horses like to have their necks scratched.

On a rainy day this week, Ms. Fontana is showing three girls, 7, 8 and 9, the basics of caring for a horse. The beginners get a docile animal.

First the girls place a halter over Pumpkin’s head. Though the pony is calm, it is instinctively wary — horses are, after all, prey. So Ms. Fontana shows the students how to sidle up to the animal and slide the halter over her head so she isn’t spooked. A lead rope goes on and one of the students takes hold.

Then they brush her with a curry comb.

“Why is it so important to curry?” Ms. Fontana asks.

The answer proves a little elusive at first, but the girls quickly learn that the stiff bristles loosen dirt and comb out old hair. It’s also a pleasant massage for the pony, who responds by trying to groom with a gentle nibble whoever is standing by her mouth.

Step two is a hard brush that removes the dirt that was brought to the surface, and then a soft brush removes any remaining dust and gives Pumpkin a shiny coat.

Ms. Fontana next has each girl grab a leg and, using a hoof pick, clean out the dirt and debris that collects in the crevices of each hoof.

“You go all the way around the shoe,” says Ms. Fontana, who is wearing mud-splattered jeans and a New York Giants baseball hat pulled tight over a ponytail.

It’s not always a horse’s favorite procedure, so she advises the students to make sure Pumpkin doesn’t try to bite them.

The girls also equip Pumpkin with a saddle blanket and saddle.

After an hour standing in a stall and stamping around in the mud, this lesson ends with a thorough washing of boots.

Ms. Fontana offers hands-on lessons — from basic care to more advanced riding — Tuesday through Friday at Meadowbrook, and usually helps out at shows and competitions on weekends.

Before lessons can begin, there are a host of administrative tasks to attend to. This week Ms. Fontana is focusing on events at the Washington International Horse Show and next weekend’s Washington Bridle Trains Association hunter and jumper show.

The WBTA show is at Meadowbrook, one of the facility’s most popular events. Ms. Fontana is assigning riders to horses based on their skill level and the kind of event — from walking to trotting to jumping.

The paperwork is a necessary evil for the University of Maryland graduate. The real passion is for the horses. Ms. Fontana, a native of Connecticut, learned about the animals by working at a stable near her childhood home.

The barn cycled horses in and out, buying and selling quickly. Ms. Fontana’s job was to show the horses off to potential customers with a free-form ride.

“It was fun but some of the horses had no clue where their feet were. I feared for my life many a time,” she recalls.

Ms. Fontana left Connecticut to go to school in Maryland, but couldn’t stay away from the horses. In 1997 she took a job at Meadowbrook and, despite a degree in statistics and accounting, chose to stay at the stables.

“I could make money or I could be happy,” she says by way of explanation. “I really do love this facility. I got really lucky with it.”

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