BY JESS CLAWSON
Peg Seals got her start riding ponies at birthday parties, and is now one of the top professionals on the East Coast. She owns Freedom Farm in Smithfield, Virginia—a full service boarding and training facility serving the hunter/jumper crowd.
“When I was a little kid, I learned that it was possible to rent birthday party ponies for $8 a day. And then I realized it didn’t have to be my birthday to rent the ponies! So I would save up my $8 and rent a pony for a day. I probably rode the ponies’ legs off,” she laughed.
Her parents saw the love she had for horses, so when Seals was 11, her parents gave her riding lessons as a Christmas gift. She lived in Newport News at the time, and rode with the James River Hunt Club. One of her barn friends had her own pony, so Seals would go with her to visit the pony and watch her friend ride.
“There was a man next door to my friend who had horses and ponies for sale, and I identified one that I thought was really great. The man told me that pony was for sale, and my parents said when I could afford to buy the pony myself, they would let me buy him,” she recalled. “So I saved up money from Christmas and mowed lawns and did whatever I needed to do to buy that pony.”
Her parents were supportive of Seal, but not wealthy. She has two siblings, her mother stayed home with the children, and her father was a small business owner. Buying Seals an expensive pony was not in the cards, but they knew their daughter had found what she was passionate about.
“I saved $100 and asked the man how much the pony cost,” she said. “He told me $135, so I said I would keep saving. When he asked how much I had and I told him, he said he had just lowered the price of the pony to $100, and my parents knew they had to keep their end of the bargain.”
Serendipity struck when the man who trailered her pony to his new home turned out to own show ponies who needed riders. “I was small when he met me, and he asked if I was interested in riding his ponies in shows the next year. I said heck yes, I was willing to do anything to ride. My parents were watching their 11, 12 year old kid line up all of these things.”
The man did call the next year, and Seals started showing his ponies. As soon as she started showing, she knew that was the life for her. She decided to sell her first pony and buy one she could show, but without the budget for a made pony, she would have to do it herself. The man whose ponies she showed took her and her parents to a field of untouched two- and three-year old Welsh ponies. “They were basically untouched by human hand,” Seals recalled. “We had to wrangle one into the barn and into the trailer, but then I got her home and broke her. I showed her until I outgrew her and moved up to a larger pony.”
Seals worked her way up through the ranks, and at 16 went to work for Marguerite Taylor. “I owe a lot to her,” Seals said. “She taught me so much about conformation and horse care, how to really condition and feed them. Many people think that grooming is what makes a beautiful coat, but she was a firm believer that a beautiful coat on a horse came from within.”
Seals worked for Taylor seven days a week for $55 a week and board on her horse until she was 25 years old. At that time, Taylor had developed more of an interest in breeding horses, but Seals wanted to continue riding competitively. Her parents and friends encouraged her to go into business for herself. “I decided to become a professional because of my love for the horse and the competitive sport,” she said.
Over her 40 years as a professional, she and her students have won numerous awards, including top ribbons at Devon, Pennsylvania National, and Washington International Horse Shows. “I have been fortunate to have several special horses in my career,” she said. “Every horse I have ridden has taught me to be the rider I am today.”
Seals was trainer of the NAL Hunter Finals Champion at the Pennsylvania National two years running–first in the 2013 children’s finals and then in the 2014 adult finals.
Her involvement in the sport goes beyond riding and training. She gives back through her service on the Virginia Horse Shows Association Board of Directors and is a USEF “R” hunter and equitation judge. She has received the Virginia Horseperson of the Year Award and has three times won the Grand Champion Hunter of Virginia title. In 2018, she was inducted into the VHSA Hall of Fame.
Her philosophy is simple. “I believe in setting small, attainable goals for myself, my horses, and my students,” Seals said. “Once these are met, I set higher standards and never stop trying to better myself and others.”
Today, Seals arrives at the farm at 6am every morning, rides six to 10 horses and teaches a handful of lessons every day. She works very hard, putting in at least 12 hours in the barn every day. “It’s what I live for,” she said. “It’s my life.”
Seals cites building, owning, and running a quality farm that she is proud of as her biggest career accomplishment, and she finds that her clients help make it special. “They’re so supportive of each other,” she said. “They always go to the ring at shows to watch each other and root each other on, even if it means staying until the end of the day when they have finished showing themselves.”
She also appreciates how her clients take care of their own horses. In her program, riders tack up and care for their own mounts. “It gives them a good personal relationship with their horses,” she said.
This supportive environment is the sign of a well managed facility where everyone feels they belong, and is a credit to Seals’s kind approach.