BY JESS CLAWSON
Ashley Holsinger’s Memory’s Hill Stables started with a vacant farm and a dream, but Holsinger’s equestrian career began long before her Virginia farm. For a horse-crazy kid, the next best thing to growing up on a horse farm is to have access to riding through family. Ashley Holsinger, now a professional hunter trainer in Waynesboro, Virginia, had an aunt and cousins who rode horses.
“They rode Arabians and saddlebreds,” she said. “I would come home from visiting them and beg for riding lessons nonstop.” Although her parents had no knowledge of or experience with horses, they signed her up for lessons at a local farm when she was just five years old. “I got lucky and had good instruction from the very beginning.”
Holsinger moved around a lot as a kid, but the moving had at least one positive side: she wound up riding at Hidden River Farm in Hillsborough, New Jersey, with Bob and Sharyn Cole. “I pretty much lived with them,” she recalled. She worked to keep her horse with them and in doing so, gained a great deal.
“That’s where I learned horsemanship and my love for it,” she said. “Bob Cole is a special human being and incredible horseman. He really instilled in me the love of the horses and the care of them. That was a fundamental part of my life.”
Holsinger went to college at Bridgewater in Virginia, where she rode on and was president of the IHSA team. “I had no intention of teaching or riding professionally,” she said. She was a sociology major who planned to go to law school and work in the field of juvenile justice. She wanted to influence the lives of young people. It turns out—she does, just not in the way she had originally planned.
Over the course of Holsinger’s college career, she saw the Bridgewater IHSA team grow from eight members to over 60. The coach at the time, Sarah Irvine, offered her a job as an assistant coach. “I tried in every way possible to say no,” Holsinger laughed. “I was ready to go to law school and move back up north, but she wasn’t having it.”
Holsinger found that she did love teaching young riders. She deferred law school for what she thought would be a year, but turned out to be forever and worked alongside her former coach for the rest of Irvine’s time there, for a total of 12 years.
In addition to some intercollegiate competition, the two also coached students at open shows. “Some of our students kept nice horses with us,” Holsinger recalled. She rode and trained horses and realized she was, in fact, improving the lives of young people every day.
“When Sarah retired, I felt out of place there,” she said. “I really loved working with her. I stayed another year or two, but it was time to move on.”
Holsinger happened to drive by a farm one day that had been vacant for awhile. “I pulled in the driveway and made up my mind that I was going to buy it and run my own business there,” she said. She had some young horses in work and wanted to develop a program that put horsemanship at the forefront, both in her ability to manage her own horses and to teach her students how to do it.
It took her a year to purchase the farm, but she is still there seven years later. Memory’s Hill is a special place. Not only is it convenient to Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Stanton, Lexington, and Blacksburg, it is the chance she wanted to help improve the lives of youth.
“That’s part of what I love about it, I feel like I can change the lives of those kids,” she said. “When they start riding horses, it’s not just teaching them about riding, it’s teaching them about life, time management, responsibility. It’s great to watch who those kids become. I can impact their lives beyond the horses.”
Memory’s Hill is a close-knit group of people, most of whom board horses with Holsinger. She focuses on teaching them how to take care of horses. “We have clients who come in and who have been riding for years but don’t know how to tack up,” she explained. “With the little kids, their first few lessons are in the barn, learning how to put a halter on, cross tie safely, tack up. If you don’t understand how a horse operates on the ground there’s no way you can understand how they operate on their back. We offer full service, but it’s important to us that even if they’re asking for that service, they could still do it if they needed to. Bob and Sharyn Cole instilled that in me: the care of the horses comes first.”
Good horsemanship means putting the horse first, always. “I’m always the horse’s advocate,” Holsinger said. “Happy horses make happy people. And we demand a lot from them, so if we do anything in our power to keep them comfortable and happy, they’ll perform better for us. That’s my philosophy on horses and I had that instilled in me from a very young age. I’m grateful because I don’t think everyone gets that. Today it’s all about competing, but there’s a whole lot more that has to come before that.”
Her horses respond well to her level of care. Holsinger talks with a great deal of affection about her horse, Emerald City, a gelding she leases to students. “I got him through Bob and Sharyn, and he’s been incredibly special to my program,” she said. “Lots of students have ridden him at Harrisburg and Washington. He has the heart to win more than any horse I’ve ever had, and he instills so much confidence in them. When a kid is nervous to go into the ring on him, I just tell them to follow the yellow brick road.”
Holsinger has followed her own yellow brick road. Memory’s Hill may not have been where she expected to land, but she has created a thriving and valuable community in the Virginia horse world. Her success shows that staying open to life’s possibilities while prioritizing the welfare of the vulnerable can lead to great things.