- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2016

SELMA, N.C. (AP) - The horse industry in Johnston County is booming, and a recovering economy should guarantee continued growth, stable owners and trainers say.

“It’s really taking off, and I think interest is growing, especially in Johnston County,” said Michael Hubbard of Clayton, who has opened Blue Skies Stables near Selma.

Some people in Johnston’s growing equine industry have ridden for decades. Among them is barn manager Lisa Thompson of Portofino Equestrian Center in Clayton. Other people simply enjoy being around horses.

“You don’t have to ride to be interested in them,” Hubbard said.

Norwood and Sandra Thompson are the developers behind Portofino, a residential community built with horse owners in mind. The equestrian center where Lisa Thompson works has a 22-stall barn and several riding arenas. Surrounding the center are acres of pasture and nature trails. Many of the homes in Portofino have private barns.

People from across the country have moved to Johnston County specifically to live in Portofino, Norwood Thompson said. “We’re trying to create a lifestyle,” he said.

The equestrian center, Mr. Thompson added, is the community’s crown jewel. “We call it the Ritz for horses,” he said.

Many horse owners apparently agree. The 22-stall barn has a waiting list, and the Thompsons routinely field inquiries about pasture boarding, all of which has prompted expansion plans.

“About 400 acres for more horse lots and arenas,” Norwood Thompson said of plans for newly acquired property. In addition to more custom homes with barns, he is considering a covered arena like the one at Blue Skies.

The Thompsons note that the equestrian center hosts events that are open to the public. “We want people to come out and see this,” Mr. Thompson said.

Portofino has plenty of company in Johnston County. A cursory internet search reveals nearly two dozen stables in Johnston, with many more either straddling county lines or just across the Johnston line in southern Wake County.

Blue Skies is a smaller undertaking than Portofino, with Hubbard saying he wanted to keep the focus on what lured him to the industry in the first place - his 12-year-old daughter, Haydn.

“I put her on a horse, and look at her now,” he said.

Hubbard and his wife Jen had no equine industry experience when they decided to launch Blue Skies Stable, but their horse sense was on target. Their 16-stall barn filled up with boarders soon after opening.

In addition to boarding, Blue Skies offers training, primarily in the hunter and jumper styles, and prides itself on being a safe, family-friendly environment for all to ride.

Hubbard said a family is forming among the Blue Skies riders. “We have a really great group here now, and we all get along really well,” he said.

The growing horse industry is good for Johnston County and its economy, Hubbard said. “We’re seeing such big, booming growth all over, and it’s also attracting ancillary businesses that serve equestrian centers and barns,” he said. “It’s becoming an economic engine, and we’re attracting talented people. It’s not just Johnston either. It’s really the whole Triangle. It’s blowing up.”

Portofino trains riders in eventing, jumping, dressage and other skills. And the training is at a high level, the Thompsons say, thanks to trainers like Holly Hudspeth, who was shortlisted for the 2004 Athens Olympics and has competed at the highest level in other competitions. Hudspeth is training several students at Portofino, including 15-year-old Mia Braundel who has aspirations to become an Olympian herself.

At Blue Skies, Sally Henry heads up the training. Henry was a member of the equestrian team at the University of South Carolina, where she helped her teammates to an SEC championship and brought home an MVP award for herself.

Hubbard and Lisa Thompson said the level of talent in students and trainers speaks well of the equine industry in Johnston County.

“I can’t believe the level of talent we have here now,” Lisa Thompson said. “And it’s just going to get better.”

“We’re getting bigger and bigger” as an industry, “so we’re going to keep seeing bigger and better talent relocate here,” Hubbard said. “And we’re also going to see bigger and better talent come out of Johnston County.”

That talent, by the way, can literally strut its stuff without ever leaving Johnston County.

The county has been home to horse shows for nearly two decades, but participation has increased, with events now held numerous times a year.

Toni Hall is owner of East Coast Equestrian and co-manager of Hillcrest Farms near Smithfield. She also oversees the Johnston County Horse Show Series, whose events are open to all skill levels and held either at the Johnston County Livestock Arena or the Hunt Horse Complex in Raleigh. Upcoming shows are slated for June, August, September and October.

Hall, who came to North Carolina from New York, taught at the Apex Equestrian Center before moving her horse, Rosie, to Hillcrest Farms.

She likes Johnston County for the quality and cost of its horse industry. “When my husband and I decided to move south, we wanted to move where we got more for our money,” she said. “This area is growing, and the horse industry in Johnston County is more affordable than most places.”

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Information from: The News & Observer, https://www.newsobserver.com


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