Like a whiff of perfume left on a favorite sweater, the essence of Virginia Downing Wiseman is everywhere at Wiseman Farms, from the snowdrops she planted to the impeccably raked riding arena.
When she died in 2013 at age 93, Virginia left a rich legacy and a lengthy list of accomplishments. If one imagines a lifetime as a suitcase, then Virginia packed it until the zipper could barely close and sat on it to cram in more.
“She was such an amazing, driven person to accomplish what she did by herself in her day and age,” says her daughter-in-law, Paige Wiseman.
After their father’s death, Virginia and her older sister Dorothy were sent from their New Jersey home to Chatham Hall, a boarding school for girls in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. It was there the young rider developed her skills, and eventually becoming the school’s riding instructor after graduation. As a graduation present, she received a Thoroughbred named Grenadier. In 1943 she married Ensign William Plumer Wiseman of Danville. To sidestep World War II gas rations, Virginia sometimes rode Grenadier the 20 miles from the school to Danville, where she stabled him at her in-law’s home on Main Street.
When her husband was discharged from the Navy, the couple bought a farm named Gren Acres in the Bachelors Hall community of Pittsylvania County. When people mistakenly called it “Green Acres,” Virginia changed the name to Grenadier.
While their two sons were growing, Virginia developed her own riding program on her farm. In its heyday, Grenadier was a thriving hunt-seat facility, with up to 60 horses and more than 200 students. The Averett University Equestrian Program began and was housed at Grenadier. In addition to her equine endeavors, Virginia also bred champion Dalmatians, beagles, and terriers. The farm’s sheep, chickens, pigs and cows kept the family fed.
Grenadier’s summer camps are fondly remembered by many women in Southside Virginia, who reminisce on Facebook. Paige (then Paige Collier) was one of those girls. She started participating in Grenadier’s summer camp when she was nine years old. She remembers having such fun she was sad to “age out” of the program, which only accepted girls up to 14 years old.
“I didn’t want to not go,” Paige says.
So, she adds, “At 15, my dad called Mrs. Wiseman and said, ‘Can she come and just be free labor for you?’”
At the age of 16 she became a camp counselor at Grenadier, cooking hot dogs, Brunswick stew and other simple fare for campers. At 19, she met Virginia’s son, Frank. Virginia initially expressed doubts that the two were good for one another, but the match stuck. Frank and Paige have been married for more than 30 years and have three children: sons William and Robert, and daughter Randall.
A New Generation
Like her mother and grandmother, 23-year-old Randall grew up a horse enthusiast. Instead of the show ring, she grew up riding around the farm and hunting. Virginia was an amateur whipper-in at the Sedgefield Hunt in Rockingham County, N.C., where Randall recently became a junior whipper-in.
At the age of 17, Randall attended a TaylorMade Horsemanship Clinic taught by Olympic gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor and horsemanship trainer Mindy Bower. This opened Randall and Paige’s eyes to the “natural horsemanship” methods pioneered by Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. Randall found her interest growing in training, and she soon would have a prospect to start: her mom’s young Holsteiner cross, Nothin’ But Net GKF “Swish”, named by Randall’s brothers in honor of North Carolina basketball. The pair trailered him to Iowa trainer Kip Fladland’s ranch, where Randall spent six weeks on a scholarship from the Legacy of Legends, doing primarily arena work. They were then invited to Bower’s Colorado ranch, where they rode on the open prairie.
“It was an amazing experience for Swish,” said Randall, whose face lights up when thinking of galloping in wide open spaces. She delights in the softness they achieved in their days working together.
“I didn’t know the feel he has was even possible,” she said.
Grenadier’s new chapter
Married in October, Randall and her husband, Clint Carty, have been settling into Virginia Wiseman’s white colonial house. They are working to make it their own. It was filled to the brim with her memories, including trinkets from students, dog trophies, and a massive seashell collection. Virginia liked to travel and donated a 10,000-piece, scientifically cataloged shell collection to the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville upon her death.
“The house is full of every horse thing you can think of,” Randall says. “We’ve been boxing up a lot of stuff.”
The family has been diversifying the farm. Sheep are back and beagles are yelping. Clint, whose family raises Speckle Park beef cattle (similar in quality to Kobe and Wagu beef), hopes to add them to the mix. They have rechristened the spread Wiseman Farms. Under that umbrella is Grenadier Equine, High Five Dog Training and the livestock.
Randall graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree in livestock science and management from Delaware Valley University, where she competed in dressage. Having rounded out her college courses with nearly enough graphic design classes to declare it a minor, she is handling the farm’s branding through logos, video and social media.
Grenadier Equine will focus on foundation horsemanship for green horses and problem-solving. “My goal is just to build a really solid foundation,” Randall said. She wants the horses she trains to be soft and well-rounded, able to go in any direction, English or western. Her mother Paige is doing most of the teaching. They are working out a system where Randall works with the horses, and Paige takes over with their human partners. Randall says the arrangement suits her more reserved personality well.
“I have enjoyed the teaching, but I always prefer to be working with the horses than the people,” Randall says.
“She has a lot of respect for me, and I for her,” adds Paige. It’s been really good.”
The farm has recently hosted clinics for Texan trainer Brent Graef.
Randall got her professional start sooner than expected at Graef’s nudging.
“Brent asked me, ‘Are you starting colts for the public?’” she recalls.
He wanted to recommend a client send her horse to Randall. Randall hadn’t yet worked a horse on a deadline, and was hesitant. However, Graef brought the horse to his next clinic at Grenadier, leaving Randall little choice, and the client gave Randall a relaxed deadline.
“Brent gave me the push I needed to get started,” she says.
With so many life changes having been in the works, Randall has been keeping her training load small.
“I still want to be selective about who I take,” she says.
At present, Grenadier Equine has three boarders, but they are working to accommodate more.
“I like the idea of encouraging Averett (University) students to board,” Randall says. That will free up the barns for other clients in the summer.
When they don’t have training horses, they focus on five-year-old Swish.
Despite their achievements, Randall says Swish has only had a combined 6 months of saddle time.
“I think people are doing too much too soon,” Paige says.
Randall agrees. That was something she kept in mind while judging October’s Colt Starting Challenge, sponsored by the SouthEastern Farriers and Horsemans Association. Instead of throwing her hat in the ring for the competition, she accepted an opportunity to judge. She would feel rushed if she had to do so much with a horse in such a short time frame, she says. Instead, she liked having the power to reward a trainer who respected their challenge partner’s limits.
“These horses have a lifetime,” she says. “It’s not everything in one day.”
A natural progression
Asked how their horsemanship differs from that of Virginia’s, the women say their methods are a natural progression.
“I don’t think it’s different,” Paige says. “It’s evolved. She wanted horses to be gentle and accepting.”
For example, she says, Virginia was against the use of standing martingales.
“Now we use no martingales,” Paige says.
She added, “If her time continued, I think she would end up where we are.”
That is a place where softness is achieved in a halter instead of restricting accessories. The women believe firmly that problems should be fixed at the source.
“Our way of solving something is not putting a Band-Aid on,” Paige says. “We cure the disease.”
Another thing being shared through the generations is their wish to make horsemanship more accessible.
“There’s an opportunity for the rebirth of horse stuff that’s affordable for people,” Paige says.
She and Randall say Grenadier Equine will be a place that focuses more on equine relationships than ribbons.
“It’s cheaper in the long run,” Paige says. “Our focus is on having opportunities that are more reasonable.”
That includes introducing clients to hunting at the Sedgefield Hunt, just as Virginia did for her students.
Randall still plans a limited show schedule, mostly local events and one or two “A” rated shows a year, to stay in the field of vision and show what her horses can do. One goal is to show Swish with the hunters at the 2017 Blowing Rock Charity Horse Show in North Carolina. They want to show the softness and feel that is possible with their training methods in any discipline.
“It would help if she could get to these shows … to prove that this is right,” says Paige.
Paige says Virginia would be proud of the farm today, and especially of her granddaughter.
“Now she (Randall) has carried it even further,” she says. “I think she’d be smiling.”