By Kristina Lotz
Donna Pace was your typical horse-crazy girl. She collected Breyers (but wouldn’t share them with her younger sister) and dreamed of owning her own horse someday. And, like many of us, she did not come from a horse family.
“My parents were city kids,” the now-owner and trainer at Nautilus Farm in Redding, CT, tells The Plaid Horse. “They grew up in New York and knew nothing about horses and I just loved them.”
Being the daughter of “city kids” didn’t stop this future equestrian, and when she was 7, she finally got her chance. An acquaintance of the family owned a Shetland pony farm, and he told Pace she could pick one from his herd.
“Of course, we ended up with an unbroke stud pony,” Pace says with a laugh. “We didn’t have him long. But that was how it all started. Then I got into lessons when I was around 9 years old. I can remember being nervous and stuff like that, thinking that the ring was so big and that the horse was running away with me. And now, driving by it, I see there was probably only like five strides down the one side.”
That was the beginning. From there, Pace would continue to take lessons and ride whatever she could. She enjoyed jumping and started showing, first in-house and then her first away show to the Junior Essex Troop in New Jersey. They leased a few horses. When she was 15, she finally purchased her first horse. She picked a spicy little Thoroughbred, named Tashua, after the area in Connecticut he was from. She bought him off a classified ad in the newspaper for $500.
During that time, Pace gained more experience by riding horses for other people, and developed a love for the jumpers. Her trainer then was Paul Okolowicz, a Polish man with an affinity for imported Warmbloods at a time before they were popular. Pace did a bit of everything—Junior Jumpers, Junior Hunters, Equitation, Preliminary & Open Jumpers, and dressage shows. She went on to train with Anthony D’Ambrosio, Sr. and began teaching during her senior year of high school. Students included her own sister and her daughter, Cira.
“I always knew horses were my life,” says Pace, who went to the Potomac Horse Center in Gaithersburg, MD, for the Horse Masters Course they offered in the 1970s. There, she continued her training over fences, as well as in dressage with a trainer who’d competed in the Olympics.
“She was brutally tough on me, taught me a lot though in hindsight,” says Pace, adding that the trainer nicknamed her the ‘Hot Shot Show Jumper Rider from the Northeast.’ “I had a different trainer for the stadium jumping, and they gave me a green horse for eventing, so they taught all those phases. But what was really good was what we learned in the classroom— the veterinarian care and barn management.”
At Nautilus Farm, Pace puts horse and rider first, and approaches each partnership from a holistic standpoint. This includes a lot of focus on the basics in her lessons— being straight, balanced and focused on pace when flatting and jumping any size fence.
“Everything is individually tailored here, and my process is probably much slower because I don’t feel the need to push, especially when I am teaching the adult riders,” Pace says. “When they’re junior riders, they have a timeframe for goals, you know, and then once you get your adult riders that still want to partake, they don’t have to hurry in this lifelong sport.”
This means that no two rides are the same, no two lessons are the same. Rather than always sticking to a set lesson plan, Pace adapts to work on what needs to be worked on that day. Even if that means checking saddle fit on a horse that seems unhappy.
This is where the holistic aspect comes in. The horses at Nautilus Farm are spoiled and happy. They get ample turnout, which Pace thinks is vital to their wellbeing. “A horse needs to be a horse,” she says.
Each horse at Nautilus Farm has a team of professionals besides Pace to ensure that they are always feeling their best. Her veterinarian, chiropractor, and blacksmith all work together as a team to make sure her horses are always in top shape. Even over the course of this interview, the chiropractor came out to look at a horse who was acting grumpy. “We checked saddle fit, we got him a new, better girth with elastic in the middle,” says Pace. “He was a very sweet, happy horse, and he’s telling us something and we are trying to be aware of that.”
Pace adds that she does a lot of the body clipping herself, because it allows her to feel the horses and notice how they react to the pressure of the clippers. “You can know how the muscles are doing just by that,” she says. But she’s not the only one who’s hands-on at Nautilus Farm. She makes sure that her riders are also handling their horses: tacking up, bathing, and grooming.
“I’ve always been taught by my mom that the horses and ponies come first, no matter what,” adds Pace’s daughter, Cira Pace Malta, who trains with her mom and shows in the Amateur Owner hunters and is the subscription and podcast manager for The Plaid Horse.
“The amount of time that we spend in the saddle is so little compared to all of the other parts of being a rider and horse or pony owner. My mom is passionate about creating horsemen that care about their horses’ needs when they are riding and when they are taking care of them in the barn.”
What’s in a name?
Nautilus Farm was established in 2015. Next to horses, Donna Pace’s other love is the beach, and she appreciated the meaning of the nautilus shell. “It has a nice metaphor for the constant journey in life of growing and evolving, so the shell and the name have meaning for me,” she says.
Nautilus Farm Top Accomplishments
- The Devon Horse Show
- Pennsylvania National Horse Show
- Washington International Horse Show
- The National Horse Show
- USEF National Pony Hunter Finals
- USEF Junior Hunter Finals
- Zone 1 Finals
- Marshall and Sterling Finals
- Connecticut Hunter & Jumper Association Finals
*This story was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!