A Conversation with Gloria Austin, Equestrian and Philanthropist
(L-R) Eileen Merinakis, Chair, Bd. of Trustees Beacon College; Gloria Austin; Pres. George Hagerty, Beacon College
Gloria Austin founded a horse and carriage museum in Florida near Beacon College. Recently, the Beacon Board of Trustees had the privilege of dining in the lovely barn, riding the horses, traveling in the carriages and exploring the wonderful verdant countryside.
When did you first start riding horses?
I was born 85 miles south of Rochester and started riding a horse when I watched Saturday morning TV. Luckily I lived in the country and my father was a cattle dealer. At age twelve I begged my father for a horse and he complied. We bought an old, experienced bay horse who was on the show circuit. My father owned 1000 acres south of Rochester in which I could ride in Troopsburg, NY. I had a love of nature growing up in the country, as well as the ability and opportunity to ride horses. I oftentimes would ride to the local village where my grandmother had a house with a carriage barn in the backyard. I would put the horse in that old carriage barn and visit my cousins at the local soda shop.
Where did you go to school?
Eldridge University, State College at Rockport. I started out in math and science but ended up in public administration because I had a son who is mentally disabled, so my career turned in that direction. My first real career was to coordinate state, local, and federal planning in the area of developmental disability. Now I am working on a modern book. I define that as a book that has just as much space for pictures as it does for text. Because of the social media that has besieged us all, we operate a lot by pictures as much as words, and so the books we’re producing will have probably as much space for pictures as we do for text. Even as a young child reading my history books if a picture caught my interest I would then go and view the text. And I think this is still very true today. We will also use our website to impart information, as well as offering e-book versions.
What is your ultimate goal?
My long term wish would be that academic institutions would offer equine assisted education and therapy condition, using the horse to study history. I remember when I went to college we studied history by looking at major male leaders around the world. Well, I think we can study history by tracing the evolution of the horse in man’s culture and approaching history from a point of view that might be more interesting to young people. We’ve had 6,000 years of history with the horse and the wheel. Our museum shows that. It is located in central Florida. We have 165 carriages in four different galleries: European, American, South, and the New Vehicle room. The focus of the museum is to try to get people to understand the evolution of wheel transportation.
What did we lose by losing horses?
The commonality is that we’ve always had a need for speed. As we evolved to the modern automobile, we still have that need for speed. But the first thing was the horse, then the bicycle, then the train, and then the automobile. The difference is when we dealt with horses, we were dealing with a living, breathing creature that we had to develop a relationship with so that we could control the horse. With an automobile, yes, there’s skill involved—but we have to deal with hard material things rather than a relationship. So I think our interest now in small animals is because we’ve lost that sense of relationship with the animals we’ve depended so much on throughout history. We’ve replaced it by living in modern cities rather than farms, and using smaller animals rather than large ones. I guess it’s the need for speed—and as we see the race to get into space and all sorts of things, man seems to be traveling faster and faster—as does information and technology.
How can horses be used as therapy animals?
They can be not only for the developmentally disabled or emotionally challenged, but it can also be used for neurotypical people as well. We use the horse for recreation or sport—in fact the animal allows men and women to compete in the same event. The first way that women got their footings in the Olympics was to compete on horseback since the horse was the muscle power. By the same token socially the horse has allowed me to enter circles that have been dominated particularly by men. The horse is the same in America as it is in Afghanistan, China, Europe. For handicapped people yes, just the physical movement of a horse can help stimulate individuals with mobility problems, can give them a sense of not only movement but also of that of powering above other people. Horses are elevated in height and can tower over the crowd, which is why we see policemen on horseback: for visibility and crowd control. You don’t know what it is for someone who is in a wheelchair to all of a sudden be above their counterparts on the ground. The expression “looking down” comes from aristocrats looking down from their high carriages. So there are physical as well as social benefits. If a handicapped person can control a 1,200 pound animal, the sense of power and wellbeing one has of controlling something in their life, especially outdoors or in nature, can be empowering. Now they are in control and they can move through space with these large animals. There are physiological and sociological and all sorts of aspects of dealing with a horse that does not appear with smaller animals like cats and dogs. A horse is something that if you use it you will need to develop a relationship with it. It gives you a sense of power.
Where would you like to see the horse and carriage in ten or twenty years from now?
I’d like to see the horse incorporated more in academic institutions not only for their recreational and therapeutic value, but for their historic significance. Here we have a living artifact of history as well as these carriages which allowed people with handicapping conditions and those of us who are among the elderly to actually enjoy horses over their entire lifetime. In other words I gave up riding three or four years ago, but I am still capable of getting on a carriage and riding it. I’d like to see the horse in academia because when you are two or three generations away from practically using horses for transportation (from 1900-25, when we phased out the horse and carriage) it’s easy to forget how things were. I’d love to see the horse preserved through academic institutions.#