photographed by wynn myers
Standing in the barn at Sky Creek Farm with Quincy DeSpain Ellis is a bit like being on the set of a Ralph Lauren ad, except that everything about it wonderfully and unbelievably real. She straightens her black velvet hunt cap before feeding her white horse a carrot. “This one’s the sweetest soul you’ll ever know,” she says of Cracker, the ten year old horse she recently rode in the 2014 US Arabian Nationals. The two returned with the Reserve National Championship in Ladies English Side Saddle, another honor to add to Quincy’s formidable riding resumé. Her sister Kingsley unbraids the tail of a brown horse with a perfect white diamond on his nose. “And this one’s Joe,” she adds, “wait until you see this tail.” She casually loosens the braid to reveal a stunning floor-sweeping tail as Joe slowly walks slowly forward, shoes clicking on the floor.
Perfectly picturesque barns aside, I find myself in awe of the animals. At once intimidated and intrigued. Their perfect shape, graceful movements, and sheer power. It’s a feeling from childhood that’s been perfectly preserved, every bit as potent as it was the first time.
The doors of the barn open and sunlight pours in through the dust and hay. We’re ready to spend the day with Quincy and find out what it’s really like to have one of our all-time favorite dream jobs: to ride horses for a living (and to wear those amazing outfits.) Saddle up!
“They’re truly amazing creatures,” says equestrian Quincy DeSpain Ellis while leading her show horse, Cracker. “If you’ve ever looked deep into a horse’s eye you’ll be able to see how soulful they are.” With multiple National Championship titles under her belt, Quincy has truly shared her life with horses.
“Just like people, each one comes with very unique personalities, fears, preferences, and abilities,” she explains. “One of the greatest things about riding is that over time, if you can learn to listen carefully, you’ll be able unlock the secrets to each individual horse’s talents.”
The DeSpain family has lived at Sky Creek Farm, just outside of Austin, for the past 31 years. “We were so lucky to grow up here,” Quincy muses. “It’s really a magical place.”
The striking Texas blonde has been riding for as long as she can remember: “My parents had my sister and me on horses long before we could walk,” she says. Quincy’s parents, Joel and Robin DeSpain, have owned and bred horses for over 45 years. When asked how it all began, Quincy cites her mother:
“My mom began riding as a young girl, and has always been the driving force behind our family’s passion for the sport. She is an dauntless force and one of the smartest horsewomen you’ll ever meet. I could not be the equestrian I am today without her.”
Quincy leans in the doorway of the guest cabin on the family’s property, a 1700’s structure the DeSpains had moved from it’s original location in Pennsylvania.
“We had a Mennonite group from Waco take the cabin apart for us and put it back together,” says Joel. “They’re the only ones who know how to do it. We think it was built around 1725.”
The DeSpains had to add the staircase that leads to the second story loft space. It was originally built with a ladder that could be retracted once the owners were upstairs — a safety precaution from uncertain pioneer days.
Quincy feeds horses through the cabin’s dutch door in the kitchen.
She competes in several different styles of riding including Hunt Seat, Side Saddle, Driving, Show Hack, and her favorite style, English: “There’s just no bigger thrill than riding a high powered show horse,” she confesses.
Quincy’s career path has seamlessly developed through her love for riding:
“I work for a private estate in Austin that breeds and raises National Champion Purebred and Half-Arabian show horses. This allows me to incorporate my professional life into a sport that will always be a lifetime passion.”
Through the private estate she works for and other arenas, Quincy has trained and coached many riders over the years. When asked what she loves about teaching others to ride, she first pauses thoughtfully.
“The ability to pay forward all of the years of knowledge that so many people have passed on to me,” she states. “I always think of the countless hours that my mom or an instructor spent with me to help me learn all that I know now.”
She’s a strong believer in the therapeutic qualities offered students through riding and learning to work with the animals:
“Because of their size and power, horses can be naturally intimidating to many,” she explains. “This creates an opportunity for some to overcome fear and develop confidence. Working alongside a horse, in spite of those fears, creates self-assurance and provides wonderful insight when dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations in life. Like humans, horses are social animals, with defined roles within their herds. They have distinct personalities, attitudes and moods. An approach that works with one horse will not necessarily work with another. Horses require us to work, whether in caring for them or working with them. They require people to be engaged in physical and mental work to be successful, a valuable lesson in all aspects of life.”
For someone who wants to get into riding as an adult, Quincy recommends researching barns in your area that have beginner lessons.
“The best thing to is find out who the most successful trainer is in your area and interview them to see if they are a match with your personality and goals. Not everyone wants to show, and there’s nothing more relaxing than going on a trail ride,” she says.
“Riding will always give you back as much as you put into it,” says Quincy. “The challenge of learning to be patient with yourself, and with your horse, will carry you very far.”
Her time and patience paid off indeed — she’s competed in hundreds of shows since her first competition at age 5, and now has 14 National Championship titles in the United States and Canada. Her students are decorated as well:
“Many of the riders I’ve helped have gone on to become National Champion, which the highest honor in our sport. My sister, Kingsley DeSpain, is also a multi-National Champion. When we showed together we always worked as a team,” reflects Quincy on her younger sister, with whom she shares a special bond. Kingsley was on hand the day of our shoot, helping in every aspect from preparing the horses to helping Quincy keep every hair in place. There was a trust and teamwork between the two that only sisters can know.
Wynn goes in for a closeup with one of the eight horses who currently live at Sky Creek Farm.
Quincy has a dazzling array of riding outfits, most of which are custom made for show. Here she slips on a pair of tall black boots to complete her English riding uniform. It’s not unusual to see her sporting pieces from this look outside of the show ring as well. “Especially now with the equestrian look so en vogue,” she says.
“He has tons of personality,” gushes Quincy about her brown show horse, Joe. “We bought him when he was a two year old. He’s shown in Country Pleasure, Side Saddle, Hunt Seat, Native Costume, and Driving… We had him until he was five and then sold him to a wonderful young girl who loved and showed him until last year when Joe returned to our farm.”
Over his years at Sky Creek Farm, Joel DeSpain has taught his daughters by quiet example.
“He’s been the most amazing role model and pillar of strength through our life with horses,” says Quincy of her father. “He’s up at dawn to feed and clean stalls every day and is there in the evening to feed and tuck everyone in for the night. He is the gold standard for the proper way to care for these animals. He has taught me over the years the importance of treating every animal that comes into our supervision with the utmost respect and love. What he always likes to say is: ‘How would I want to be treated if I was a horse?'”
Quincy poses with Sergeant Pepper LOA, known affectionately as “Cracker.”
“This horse is one of the great loves in my life. He’ll turn eleven in January. He’s such a love and his personality is very expressive… oddly almost human. He’s a blast to show and he loves the show ring. He’s a big fan of special attention, naps, and will let you lay down with him for his siestas!” says Quincy.
In addition to the eight horses who live on the property, the DeSpains have had one miniature Sicilian donkey, Sammy DaveAss Jr., for over 18 years. The girls reminisce on the years that little Sammy had house privileges.
“He used to watch cartoons with them when they were kids!” adds Joel.
“Oh, he’s definitely in charge around here,” says Robin with a smile.
“Hold on, his ears aren’t standing up,” says Kingsley (just out of frame). With a few clicks of her tongue and the promise of a treat, Joe’s ears snapped to attention.
“There’s an enormous amount of fulfillment to train my horses at home, start them from the ground up, show them to a national level, and be successful,” says Quincy. “I really get to be a partner with these horses, since I’m the only one doing the schooling. It’s a bond of both love and respect that’s hard to match. It is not unlike having a well-practiced dance partner.”
“Owning and raising horses has always been the cornerstone of our family. Our love for each other is strengthened by having a shared passion for horses. Our favorite place on the farm is in the barn,” says Quincy.
The DeSpain’s recently expanded brood now includes Quincy’s husband, Zach Ellis. The two married in 2012.
An impromptu family portrait featuring Quincy, Zach, Cracker, and the couple’s miniature goldendoodle, Peaches.
When asked if he also rides Zach says cautiously, “Not yet,”
“We’ve been meaning to do that!” laughs Quincy. “Seriously. We need to get you a horse. Something you can cowboy around on,” she says.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “I think I’m ready.”
When the time comes, he’ll have a great teacher.
A big thank you to Quincy and the entire DeSpain family for welcoming us to Sky Creek Farm.