Big Apple Farms Riding Academy

Cultivating Equestrian Sport in North Carolina

Recently we had the pleasure of visiting Big Apple Farms Riding Academy in Williamston, NC.

We went hoping to learn all about the farm and riding program. We came away with deep appreciation for (and excitement about!) what they are doing for our rural county, and for equestrians statewide.

Farm owners Jerry and Gail Cornwell, along with Riding Director Courtney Jo Wexler, and riding instructors Tiffany Rogers and Libbi West, have developed their own signature style and approach for the “education” of their riding academy students.

Jerry and Gail feel strongly that riding and handling horses is a “sport” much like baseball, softball, or basketball, and in turn, should be recognized and treated as such. “We are an academy where we teach the sport of equestrian,” explains Jerry.

Gail, Jerry and Courtney also share a strong sense of responsibility to Martin County. Their hope is that some of the programs they have nurtured and implemented will serve the community, help educate people about horses, and serve as models that can be emulated for other purposes.

With these concepts in mind, they have molded and shaped Big Apple Farms Riding Academy into a haven for young equestrians who show serious drive and desire to immerse themselves in their love of horses.

“It takes years to build a full riding program, and that’s what we’ve done.” says Jerry. “We’ve been very methodical. We’ve thought about everything that we do. And we’re still building.”

Giving Students an Education to Last a Lifetime

When we think of going to school, we imagine an institution of higher learning that injects a foundation of knowledge and instills discipline in us as students. You advance from one level to the next.

Big Apple Farms Riding Academy has developed their own “layered” system that truly teaches students the equestrian skills they need. The program has set levels of achievement to be mastered. They teach it all with an emphasis on

  • Discipline
  • Dedication
  • Determination

“Those three things are what it takes to be successful in our program,” explains Jerry.

“If you start our program today, you have a 25% chance of finishing the first year. It’s hard, it’s dirty, it’s grinding, it’s not what a lot of people think of as ‘fun.’ But what we’ve established is a solid, long term education that we’re giving these kids.”

“And if we do that,” says Jerry, “we know that the 25% group of kids that stick with it – they’ll have an education for life.”

Meet Riding Director Courtney Wexler

Courtney Jo Wexler is the Riding Director at Big Apple Farms Riding Academy. A lifelong equestrian and graduate of the Martin Community College Equine Program, she is a certified Level II Huntseat and Recreational Rider by the American Riding Instructor Association (ARIA).

Courtney has the view that there is no right or wrong in the equestrian world, and that everyone has their own ideas. She believes that you should seek out different ideas and concepts from other riders and trainers and blend them into your own technique.

“This isn’t a career for me. It’s my life.”

Courtney’s own instruction philosophy revolves around her desire to build the proper foundation in her students.  Courtney explains, “I love teaching kids; I love to see the sparkle in their eyes when something clicks.” She expands on that comment by stating that she wants her students to “be confident, be observant, have common sense, and be proud of themselves.”

She sees the impact that the academy has on her young charges daily. Instead of spending their time on the couch at home eating junk food, she sees her academy kids getting involved in an outdoor activity that they are passionate about. She thinks that being wrapped up in the equine sport helps young people to learn responsibility, and how to take control of their own lives.

“What I really want my students to learn is to be confident. Step outside your comfort zone, don’t hide behind your smartphone. Be observant. Pay attention to what is around you, know what your horse is doing, “feel” your horse. Develop confidence. That is something that is lacking in this generation.”

“These kids are so proud of what they have accomplished,” she relates. “They push through things that are a little hard, and instead of wasting precious days, these kids are out here doing things they’re passionate about.”

Stressing practice and routine to her young prodigies.

“I once had a band teacher in school who told me, ‘Practice does not make perfect because you are not perfect. Practice makes permanent.’ In other words,” she explains, “whatever you practice will become permanent.”

Her technique instills in the students that if they practice the correct thing all the time, then it will become second nature to them.

Setting Students Up for Success

When Courtney starts with a student, her aim is not for the student to get a horse right away. She encourages them in the beginning to use lesson horses available at the academy to expose them to a variety of different horses and disciplines.

After the young rider has been in the academy program for a few years, she will then help them locate a suitable mount to own, if that is their desire.

Courtney believes that setting a good foundation for young riders is the most important thing. Once they get that solid foundation – good seat, leg, hands, awareness – then it’s time to really explore a horse to match the rider.

Watching Courtney interact with her students during our visit, it is very clear that she shapes her students with love, patience, and knowledge. It is also clear they reciprocate with respect and love for her.

Giving to the Community, Building Programs

Jerry, Gail, and Big Apple Farms employees take their role of being responsible partners in the community very seriously. To this end they are striving to become “equal in purpose” to Martin Community College, and the Senator Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural Center.

Jerry feels that “Equestrian in Martin County is just sitting there ready to explode as a part of our economy.” He also senses that there is a need to help educate residents about the huge potential the equestrian presence in Martin County offers.

Big Apple Farms takes this responsibility to heart and is here for the long haul. This is one horse farm that truly drives multiple agendas, designed not only to interest their own patrons, but to excite and assist the community outside of the farm.

These programs include, but are not limited to:

1. Student housing for Equine Students attending Martin Community College

Jerry and Gail started a dialog with MCC years ago to help address the needs of the MCC Equine program, and to explore becoming a potential “pipeline” for the Big Apple Farms Riding Academy graduates looking to advance to higher learning in the equestrian field.

Through this dialog, they became aware of the need for safe, affordable housing for the MCC students. A rental trailer program was implemented on Big Apple Farms property to provide safe housing and a friendly living environment for the MCC enrollees. (They even have a pool!)

2. Bear Grass Charter School Equestrian Team

Big Apple Farms Riding Academy has been extremely instrumental in the formation of the Bear Grass Charter School Equestrian Team.

The team is run in conjunction with the U.S. Equestrian Lettering Program offered by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Participating youth record 100 hours of riding or training and three competitions of any level or discipline to meet requirements for that year.

Jerry, Gail, and Courtney believe the Bear Grass Charter School Equestrian Team can serve as a prototype to be implemented in other schools throughout North Carolina in the future.

Their sincere hope is that they are drawing the blueprint for equestrian endeavors to be recognized by schools statewide as a true “sport.”

3. Applebits 4-H

The Applebits 4-H group was a building block for the farm from the beginning even before the Riding Academy came into focus. From the start, the mission of the Applebits 4-H was centered on giving back to the community.

They visit disadvantaged children, elderly persons, and widows, just to name a few. They often take a therapeutic miniature horse with them on their visits. Applebits 4-H enables the children to develop their own character by providing service and comfort to the truly needy.

4. Star Rewards Program

The Star Rewards program has been designed as a way for instructors to be able to mark and reward distinct levels of achievement as each student progresses through the academy system at Big Apple Farms.

This reward arrangement is accomplished through five different “star reward” levels of proficiency. As each student advances from one level to the next, they receive a “star pin” for each step of accomplishment.

Higher level achievers are able to help lower level pupils advance through the ranks because each level is structured with consistency and repetition in mind. Each child learns the same lessons in the same exact way.

When an academy participant masters all the skills at a certain level, and passes a test proving they are proficient in those skills, they are then eligible for the star reward for that level.

The coveted star pins for each of the five levels are awarded in a ceremony held each year at Christmas time.

Through this advancement, Big Apple Farms Riding Academy hopes to develop young equestrians who have the knowledge base needed to be future Counselors in Training (CIT) and Instructors themselves.

5. Stronger Than a Horse

One concept that Riding Director Courtney Jo Wexler considers vital is the notion that her riding students need to be physically fit and healthy.

Courtney tells her kids “the stronger and healthier you are, the better you are for your horse.” She carries a strong belief that riding is a sport that must be practiced every day, even when riders cannot make it to the barn. She’s developed an exercise routine that incorporates very simple exercises geared towards creating a stronger core and legs for the riders. Participants are encouraged to do these exercises five days per week, and their progress is charted.

6. Ten Horse Camps

Big Apple Farms Riding Academy offers ten different camps for their youth riders to take part in. These camps cover many different subjects such as showmanship camp, fun camp, trot camp, and canter camp, just to name a few. These camps also mesh with the Star Rewards Program as integral parts of the instruction.

7. Parent Camps
In addition to camps geared towards young equestrians, Big Apple Farms Riding Academy also offers camps just for the parents. These camps are used as a vehicle for parents to learn about horses and safety around horses. This knowledge is key for parents to be able to help and support their children in reaching their goals in a safe manner. The parent camps also help parents and their children to have fun together!

8. Girl Scout Camps
The farm co-ordinates with the Girl Scouts to provide equine instruction and an avenue towards working on their Girl Scout equestrian badges. By working with the Girl Scouts, Big Apple Farms Riding Academy has even developed their own badge system for use by the girls.

9. Jump Club
Big Apple has designed a jump club to encourage equestrians to jump their horses safely and correctly. This club helps to develop riders with an eye towards the sport of jumping.

10. Start-Up Christian Ministry
Christian ministry in partnership with a local church is available for interested individuals and student housing participants. They meet twice per month for worship, good food, comradery and fun.

11. Giddy Up Program
Because community involvement is such a cornerstone of the Big Apple Farms Riding Academy mission, they seek to educate people outside of the farm about horses and the equestrian sport. Management periodically invites different groups (pre-schools, nursery schools, ball teams, etc.) to attend presentations centered around a fun, fact-filled introduction to the world of horses.

Big Apple Farms – Setting the Stage for Now and Future Equestrians

Life at the farm revolves around a structured routine for horses and equestrians, as well as a sense of responsibility that is encouraged in the young riders and handlers.

The motto at Big Apple Farms Riding Academy is “Putting our best foot forward, always positive, always safe, and always with love.”

This attitude is encouraged in all the instructors, students, and equine participants involved with the farm and academy.

Of equal importance to farm owners Gail and Jerry, is the atmosphere at the farm. The environment fostered at Big Apple is very family centered. Their aim is that everyone involved with their Riding Academy has a good experience, and that they carry that feeling with them forever.

They especially want the kids who go through the academy to remember their time at Big Apple with much fondness and warm memories. Proof that they are succeeding in their mission is found in the number of former students and participants who routinely come “home” to the farm to visit through the years.

Visit their official website:

Big Apple Farms on Facebook

 Big Apple Farms Riding Academy
Jerry & Gail Cornwell (Owners)
Courtney Jo Wexler (Riding Director)
1130 Big Farms Ln.
Williamston, NC 27892

North Carolina Horse Farms