At Wonderland Farm in Leland, Karen Mealey shares her love of horses
“Whoa!” A young girl riding a small, gray pony calls out as she and her mount trot past the arena where Wonderland Farm owner Karen Mealey is instructing a student. The frisky pony, Alice, is as eager to practice today as her rider. The weather on this early Saturday morning is brisk, but the bright sun holds the promise of a gorgeous day for riding.
Horses have been a lifelong passion for Mealey. She began her riding career at age 8, taking lessons in her home state of Connecticut. She quickly fell in love with the sport and the animals and continued to ride throughout her childhood. Mealey laments that she did not have a horse of her own until she was an adult, although her parents paid for her to lease horses. She claims that it is because of this that she now has a problem with buying too many horses.
“I need a cheaper habit like buying shoes,” Mealey jokes. She is not joking, however, about having a lot of horses. Mealey currently owns 22 of them. Some of the horses are designated for the farm’s lesson program, while others are in the process of training for resale. To add even more to Mealey’s full plate, the horses share the property with two cats, six Berkshire heritage breed pigs, several chickens and four dogs, one or two of which can usually be found enthusiastically greeting visitors to the farm.
Mealey did not initially plan on making a living through horses. She began college at the Massachusetts College of Art, with the intention of going into the field of graphic design, but a comment from her father made her rethink her career aspirations. He remarked that when she came home from school to visit, she never spent time doing her art, but always rode horses.
“If he had not pointed that out to me,” Mealey says, “I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
After completing two years at the Massachusetts College of Art, Mealey transferred to Virginia Intermont College to major in equine studies, a move that she describes as a “huge change.” Throughout the rest of her academic career, Mealey studied horses and equitation in the classroom while also getting a thorough education in the saddle. Her studies included hands-on practice with the college’s horses, and she was also able to compete with her classmates in jumper competitions on a regular basis.
After graduating and finally purchasing a horse of her own, Mealey worked at different barns before deciding to open her own facility. She purchased the property that is now Wonderland Farm 15 years ago, back when there was very little development in Leland. The Farm sits on 106 acres, and when she bought the tract it was completely wooded. Mealey had to clear the land for the pastures, barns and other buildings that exist today.
She began the lesson program at Wonderland with just three horses, and one of them, Ivan, a chestnut and white Paint, is still a resident. Mealey explains that Ivan has become somewhat of an icon at the farm and is beloved by present and past students alike.
Currently, Mealey teaches all lessons at the farm. She offers private and group lessons in English hunt seat and encourages both beginners and skilled riders to sign up. Wonderland’s lesson program has about a 50-50 ratio of adult riders and child riders. Right now, the youngest rider she teaches is age 3 and the oldest is in her 60s.
Mealey is a busy woman. She describes her schedule as “nonstop, all day,” but, despite the work, she is quick to joke and laugh with her students and visitors to the farm. A typical day for Mealey begins around 9 a.m. and doesn’t end until after 7 p.m. In addition to teaching lessons, she also holds horse shows on the property, attends shows with her students and even rides in shows herself occasionally. She offers training services for other people’s horses and breaks and trains horses that she plans on reselling. She does get help from her barn manager, Roger Ward, and her assistant, Mackenzie Ring.
“It’s a labor of love,” she says. “We are always making improvements and investing everything back into the farm.”
Wonderland is host to a great number of activities for younger riders. Mealey plans a farm sleepover twice a year in the fall and spring. The kids take part in a cookout at the farm, get to ride in the arena, play games on horseback, do a big trail ride around the property and then have a sleepover in the barn.
In June and July Mealey holds an eight-week summer camp program in which campers learn the basics of riding, get to go on trail rides, learn some horse anatomy and fundamentals of grooming, and even do some art projects in the barn. The camp is open to what they call “Tiny Riders,” or children from ages 4 to 12. The camp is a popular offering, and registration usually begins in early spring.
Periodically throughout the year, Wonderland hosts its Saddle Club, which is open to groups of eight to ten kids. Mealey describes it as a sort of “mini-camp” that runs on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saddle Club kids learn riding instruction, grooming, trail riding and a host of other activities. For the holidays, Wonderland holds a two-day long Christmas Camp that coincides with the breaks at local schools and has a similar curriculum to the Saddle Club.
On this particular day, Mealey has a full plate, as usual, and tools around the farm in her Kubota ATV, checking on horses and fences. Her job is clearly demanding, but it is easy to see that she is passionate about what she does and finds teaching both the horses and the students very rewarding.
“I like seeing the impact I have,” she says. “It’s great to watch them get better and better.”
Wonderland Farm, 7453 Radio Road NE, Leland; (910) 655-5735; wonderlandfarm.net