People still ride horses in December, at least in Lake in the Hills.
The temperature outside on a recent Thursday hovered around freezing, but inside a 200-foot-long stretch of sand on Pyott Road, Madison Haslow, age 9, sat astride a chestnut-colored pony named Shoes, circling the sparsely heated arena.
Madison wore glasses and a focused demeanor, unfazed by the obstacles before her: a series of wooden posts rising to form three-foot-high gates.
Within seconds, she brought Shoes to a canter. Madison and Shoes approached the first hurdle and leapt.
The girl and the pony glided together, airborne, and they landed on the other side, continuing to canter. They approached another gate and cleared it. And another, followed by more aerial effortlessness.
"I'm jealous," said an onlooker, 11-year-old Jamie Hanna, of Cary. "I really want to jump. Really bad."
Likely, she will. Because that's what Somerset Sporthorse does. The equestrian facility on Pyott specializes in taking the equine dreams of kids and adults – be it jumping gates or showing horses or just learning how to stay on a horse – and teaches people how to achieve them.
The riding stables and arenas have been around for more than three decades but were bought seven years ago by current owner Tammy McConnell. McConnell, 41, of Algonquin, is one of four instructors and named the facility Somerset Sporthorse because she had grown up in Barrington at a place her family had named Somerset Barn. To maintain the tradition, she carried the name over.
McConnell's sister, Tiffany Walker, 22, and her mother, Sandy Walker, 60, also instruct students and actually live at Somerset Sporthorse. Together, they lend authenticity to the image of Somerset as a family-run business.
McConnell said she currently keeps 58 horses at Somerset. Nearly half are owned by her and used for the riding school, and the others are horses that Somerset boards for others.
"It's pretty much like having kids," said McConnell of caring for the four-legged creatures. "They all have different personalities."
On the weekends, Somerset's instructors and students often travel to horse show competitions, as evidenced by the rainbow of ribbons covering its office walls. The facility is considered an "A" circuit hunter/jumper facility, meaning it participates in equestrian competitions at the highest levels.
But the heart of Somerset Sporthorse lies in its lessons, which can start with the basics of how to ride a horse and can go on to advanced gate jumping. It has about 75 students, most of whom take one to two lessons per week. They practice four arenas, two of which are indoors, meaning students can ride year-round.
The school rides English, as opposed to Western style, meaning all students wear helmets, ride with a smaller saddle than that of Western and usually learn how to jump. Teaching the skill of jumping gates, which start at ground level and can rise to five feet or more, varies with each student, said instructor Courtney Diebold, but most can usually start jumping within 9 months to one year of riding.
It's the prospect of jumping that lured Jamie, who was watching Madison clear gates with Shoes, to the facility, as well as a desire stirred up by the equestrian performers during an outing to Medieval Times.
"Oh, it's just amazing," said Jamie, who began lessons in July, of learning to ride. "It's a thrill."
Jumping may be the goal, but fun is the primary motivation. Madison, of Crystal Lake, said that's what's kept her riding at Somerset for the last three years: "It's just really fun to do!"
Jamie's mom, Kyle Susan Hanna, 49, said sees something else when she watches her daughter ride.
"She has this feeling," said Hanna. "Really, it's the look in her face. She looks totally free."