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Story and photos by Art Petrosemolo ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – It’s early September at Highland Farm. Shannon Cunneff, the Farm’s manager and head instructor works with 9-year old Winter Tietjen and her new pony named Poker.From the other side of the outdoor riding ring, she offered encouragement to Winter.“Eyes up! Shoulders back! Shorten you reins, close your knees,” Cunneff said.Winter moved Poker from a walk to a trot and into a canter following her instructor’s urging and then confidently over two jumps, breaking into a big smile as she heard Cunneff’s generous praise.Highland Farm was buzzing on this Saturday as youngsters caught up on lessons at the start of the fall riding and show season, with Cunneff and instructor Grace Smith scheduled to work with several students. Close to 20 ponies and horses, some owned by the farm and many personally owned, call the Highland Farm home.Highland’s riding facility includes grooming stalls, a tack room, feed and laundry room and an indoor wash stall with heat lamps plus large indoor and outdoor riding rings with jumps. It’s all part of a 70-acre tract with paddocks, fields, ponds and riding trails in the midst of Monmouth County, not far from Sandy Hook Bay.Winter Tietjen and Poker under the watchful eye of Shannon Cunneff.Instructors Cunneff and Smith have ridden and competed on show ponies and horses since they were children and relate to the pre-teens and teens under their care. They take riding seriously and help both novices and experienced young riders hone their skills. Along with years of experience, Cunneff is is certified through the United States Hunter Jumper Association as a professional trainer.Private lessons last about 30 minutes but students don’t just mount and ride. They are taught to tack their mounts (saddle and bridle their equine partner), under the watchful eye of an instructor and do so before every lesson prior to heading to the ring. Working with their pony teaches responsibility and helps create a strong bond between horse and rider, the instructors say.Cunneff and Smith give upwards of 50 lessons a week and coach their students at shows usually on Sundays in New Jersey and as far away as Florida and Vermont. Spring and fall are the busiest at Highland Farm, as it offers the best riding weather here at the Jersey shore.About half of the students are first-timers and some have family members who ride or who rode in the past. “Young girls outnumber the boys learning to ride,” Cunneff said, “and they gain great confidence in the process.”Youngsters start their riding adventure on a pony which is more “their size and much easier to control while you learn than mounting a big,1000-pound horse and being a long way from the ground,” she explained. Some riders stay with ponies throughout their riding and competition career. Highland Farm specializes in training its riders for hunter-jumper competition.Winter Tietjen gets saddle and tact in preparation for her riding less at Highland Farm.Many children get their first introduction to riding in one of Highland Farm’s several summer camps. “We can put a child on a pony at age six or seven,” Cunneff said, “although we have had five year olds who wanted to get on their first pony and take lessons.”Learning to care for the ponies they ride adds to the riding experience, the instructors believe. “We want to see a bond between horse and rider,” Cunneff said, and that comes with learning to tack the horse, walk it, and brush it down as part of their time here at the Farm. The bond happens quickly,” Cunneff smiled, “and it isn’t long before our serious students are talking to their parents about having their own pony.”Cunneff and Smith said learning to ride and competing in shows helps youngsters think and focus, and being responsible for a pony helps them mature. “Our kids compete in lots of shows,” Cunneff said, “and winning ribbons is fun and something we celebrate but not something we focus exclusively on. We encourage students ‘to ride for the ride and not for the ribbon’ and enjoy the experience.”The instructors and parents said that students develop very strong friendships with fellow riders at Highland Farm. “With a common focus and goals, there is very little pettiness here, all agree. The kids become friends and stay friends,” Cunneff stressed.Along with lessons, Cunneff overseas the care of the horses including visits from the veterinarian, farrier and equine dentist. A staff of grooms and stable hands works with her to keep equine residents happy, fit and healthy, and the facility a showplace for riders, their parents and visitors.“I’ve been riding since I was as old as my students,” Cunneff said, “and truly enjoy passing along the skills I’ve learned. I take great pride in watching these young riders progress. It’s a terrific career and I enjoy coming to work every day.” Cunneff smiled, as she turned and reminded Winter to keep her shoulders back as Poker glided over the fences a second time.