Patty Miller – If You Love Your Job, It’s Not Work

BY Ann Jamieson

A Horse Crazy Family

Growing up in Pineville, Pennsylvania, Patty Miller’s first exposure to horses was the Saddlebreds her aunt owned. The aunt wanted Patty, along with her sisters and brothers, to ride them. 

But the farms around Patty’s home were hunter/jumper barns, so the kids learned to ride in those disciplines. Once they rode hunters and jumpers, they lost interest in the Saddlebreds.

Like every horse crazy kid, Patty wanted her own horse, and begged her parents to buy her a pony. She had one in mind, one that most kids would never have chosen. It had a wicked buck that landed most kids in the dirt. This behavior made it unsuitable for a lesson program, and the pony was headed to a very uncertain future at auction. 

Patty’s parents gave in; they bought the pony. 

“It proceeded to break my arm in the first two weeks I owned it,” she laughs.

The barn where Patty rode held horse shows, and one day at a show she noticed a man named Roy Evans, who rode Quarter Horses. 

“He didn’t show to win, but he trained them all. I was intrigued by how they were misbehaving and he got the horses to behave. He took me under his wing and I just loved that part of it. I loved getting to know each horse and what makes them tick. Then we bought two ponies together when I was 16. One pony went on and won the stake at Devon!”

At that point her parents, who were supporting a string of horses for their large family, decided to buy their own farm. It was far cheaper than boarding all their horses.

Roy Evans joined the farm, and Patty began teaching when she was 16. “I used to drive the kids to lessons with George Morris and then I would sit and watch.” While Patty didn’t have a horse competitive enough to train with George, she could learn from watching others.

She continued to learn by watching Roy, and frequent catch rides. “My boyfriend rode for Bernie Traurig. Can I say I was a famous junior rider?” she asks, laughing. “Absolutely not. I came up through the school of hard knocks.

“I learned how to fix horses that were misbehaving and that’s where my business has been ever since. I catch rode. When I did the Medal/Maclay, whatever horse didn’t go around the professionals would ask me to ride him. ‘Here Patty, make this one go around,'” they would instruct her.

In college Patty played a variety of sports, even trying out for the Olympic field hockey team.  Unfortunately she wasn’t fast enough to secure a spot on it. 

She loved teaching people, teaching them something and then watching them succeed. She knew that was what she wanted to do, although she wasn’t sure she would stay with horses. In college she double majored with a dream of being a physical therapist for a professional team. Sadly back then women were not particularly welcome in the field. 

On weekends she would come home and teach for her parents.  “I had no intention of being a trainer when I was in high school. I wanted to work on a sports team; I wanted to fix them when they were broke.

“Of course now all my friends are physical trainers,” she laughs.

A Farm of Their Own

After college, Patty married, and her husband was into Quarter Horses. “I stopped training, and we bought a farm in 1975. We had two children. I was going to be a low amateur rider. We bred horses and then I broke them to ride and show. 

“Gary Conover and I are like brother and sister, we ran the farm as a partnership. Her mom is my best friend.” Patty said about one of her top students – Kate Conover’s – parents.

“A lot of people started to bring me their ponies that wouldn’t go or horses that wouldn’t go…then I started taking on students and I was like yeah, I guess I’m going to do this.” 

Patty’s farm started out as an unassuming five-stall barn, but soon grew to 60 stalls. “It just kept growing. I could never say no to someone who needed help so I kept adding stalls, added to the length of the indoor. And it was great. I was a single mother with two kids so I could do something and be right there with them.” 

She hired someone to help her with the farm, and had a very busy lesson program with over 150 lessons a week, not including her boarders. “But I love to teach. I loved it. If you could teach one thing to one person that was my goal!”

Patty sold the barn in 2015 due to some health issues. “When you have your own place you always have to work; I started my days way before six a.m. and finished after 10 p.m., seven days a week. But I loved it. 

“I could be a farmer. I loved mowing the grass and taking care of the fields, I just loved all parts of it.

“I had my farm for 50 years.”

Love the Animal, Love the Sport

While Patty’s health issues caused her to cut down on her training, she didn’t plan to stop training, simply cut down. “But now I rent a place and I have 40 horses there. So much for cutting down!

“I do have a great girl that works for me and I actually have a day and a half off. I don’t work so hard any more. It was hard at the beginning but now I’m kind of used to it. But to me it’s not work. If you love your job it’s not work.”

Success to Patty means “Watching my students go on and still love the animal and love the sport. Like Katie Conover. She started from the time she was little and to see her having the success that she’s had this year I’m so happy for her and she looks so happy doing it and she’s finally getting the recognition that she should. She’s always been a great rider, a great catch rider as a kid. She rode many green ponies and green horses. She has a great eye for a horse or a pony.”

Katie recently scored a major success. Earlier this year she set a goal to qualify for and compete in the $25,000 USHJA World Championship Hunter Rider Professional Finals at the Capital Challenge Horse Show. She made that dream come true on October 6 at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Not only did she compete, she won. 

Katie lost her brother unexpectedly at the beginning of this year, and his passing spurred her on in pursuit of her goal. Riding Small Friendship, owned by R and R Sport Horses, LLC, she surpassed her goal by not only competing, but winning, the event with an average score of 93 from the three judging panels. 

Kaitlin Campbell is another student Patty has helped reach the top of the sport. “She is out there doing the Grand Prix. That kid worked hard!” 

Patty is just as thrilled when she teaches a kid how to do a lead change on a green pony as to watch a rider achieve Grand Prix success. “And the first time they do it in the show ring I am thrilled! I don’t care if they chip eight jumps…you got that lead change. That’s my success.”

Most of her students are on green horses or ponies, tough ones that have had problems. “They have to learn how to ride.”

Many of her students just love the animal, perhaps not to compete but, “They have horses in their backyard and they just love them, that’s success too.”

Patty is very hands on, teaching the kids to tack up at the horse shows, how to take care of a cut. “That’s horsemanship, that’s what they should all learn to do and I think they learn to respect the animals.”

Parents that used to ride with Patty now bring their own kids to ride with her. They tell her, “I just want them to love it as much as I do.” 

“That to me,” says Patty, “is an accomplishment!”

Patty says she is often unaware of how her students pinned, because “to me it’s how they rode that matters.”

When asked what advice she would give riders who aspire to be trainers, she responded, “I hope you have a good work ethic!

“I always tell the kids who grew up with me who say ‘I want to be a horse trainer, just like you,’ come live with me for two weeks. Get up when I get up, eat when I eat, go to bed when I go to bed. And if you still want it after two weeks then go for it.

“And usually most of them say ‘no way!’ 

“My advice is, you’ve got to love it. If you don’t love it, don’t be a horse trainer.

It’s hard hours and it’s hard work.”

When asked if she has a favorite horse show, Patty responded, “One that’s run very nicely! When you walk in the office and people say ‘Good morning, how are you?’ that’s my favorite. It used to be Washington, because it was fun to be in the city. I was born and raised in the country so when we went to the city we would do the city tours.

“But now it’s whatever show is run smoothly. This year the Maryland Horse and Pony Show was the nicest show I was at. The exhibitors were nice, the management was nice, and the facility was beautiful.”

In 2015 Patty bought a place in the Florida Keys with the idea that she would spend a lot of time there.  “But that didn’t happen. I’ve probably been there about half a dozen times. I rent it more than I’m there!”

The state of the industry

When asked how Patty would like to see the horse industry improve, she said she wishes “that the people who are making the rules and deciding what’s going on in the Zones and other areas would take into consideration that it’s our business, it’s our livelihood.”

She was very disappointed in this year’s Zone Finals. Zone 2 had always been held at Harrisburg, making it a truly special occasion. But this year it was moved to another location.

“Our Zone Finals was always the hardest in the country. You had to qualify. You had to campaign and have a good horse to get into Zone 2 Finals. But it made kids work hard for that goal. We had to schedule, they had to do so many horse shows, just to get there was special. And when you were there, it was a final.

“But this year was disappointing for riders and trainers. Riders wondered why they had worked so hard to be there. It was nothing special; it was just another horse show.

“People making the decisions have to think of all levels of the sport. Because if we stop feeding the upper level you’re not going to have anybody to ride. Someone’s got to start the kids.”

She feels that it’s hard for the parents, as there are so many other sports which are run more efficiently. “Volleyball games and football games finish; at a horse show your eight a.m. class can go at four p.m.

“With the parents that just gets to be a major issue. And then it hurts the business because then the parents are like ‘That’s it, my kid is going to play soccer next week.'”  

Indoors

Patty’s riders at indoors this year were all first timers, and they knocked it out of the park. At the Pennsylvania National Horse Show Grace Taylor and Volare Con Me were third and sixth over fences and took second in the hack in the Children’s Hunters 15-17.

Ciriaco and Chelsea Koper won ribbons over fences and under saddle in the Adult Amateur Hunters 18-35 division, and were 6th in the $10,000 Penn National Adult Amateur Hunter Finals. Both horses and riders had scores in the 80’s!

Maddy Licata and Dreamsicle competed at the Washington International Horse Show in the large ponies, which Maddy had only been doing for a year, and were part of the winning hunt team (as the Pink Ladies From Grease).

Picture by Shawn McMillen Photography

Patty’s children’s hunter horse Emenen S, a young six year old who was ridden by Alexis Johnson “was very successful, we were very happy with him! To have them go and have that success, it was fun and what it’s all about.”  

Patty cautions about how important it is that people make sure they take care of the animals. “If they need time off, give them time off. It’s a grueling sport.” While
“there’s a lot of new medicine and treatments out there, don’t push them.” 

Patty’s love for horses and joy in her teaching are palpable. She takes as much pride in her students who win at indoors as she does in those that keep backyard horses. 

She lives by the same advice she gives all her students.

“Just love your animal.”