Life by the Reins: Running a Saddle Barn

Deena Coleman was born with an unbridled passion for horses—and she’s managed to find a day job that allows her to share that love with others.

By Sabra Morris | Photos By Christy Couch Lee

Deanna and Larry at the "office."

Deena and Larry at the “office.”

On a breezy midsummer day, the staff at Pokagon State Park Saddle Barn readies a group of horses for a trail ride. Several families stand by, each member eagerly awaiting a turn to get into the saddle here in this lovely park near Angola, Ind.

The kids are transfixed. One young boy looks up in fascination as an employee saddles up his match for the next hour, a white gelding named Shadow. “This one is beautiful,” he says.

As the barn’s staffers help the kids and adults onto the horses, everyone snaps pictures on their smartphones. As soon as the group begins to move, however, high-tech gadgets are relegated to pockets and nature takes over. That’s when concessionaire Deena Coleman, who has run the Saddle Barn for the past 25 years, knows she has done her job—introducing the power of horses and their connection to nature to yet another group of riders.

“Growing up, my childhood was filled with these types of experiences,” Deena says. “I feel bad that a lot of kids never get a chance to do it at all. I think that’s why I feel good about this.”

Born To Ride

Sporting a blonde bob, jeans and a grin that makes the corner of her eyes crinkle ever so slightly, Deena describes herself as “5-foot-nothing” and as someone who’s had a love of horses for as long as she can remember. “I can’t think of a time in my life that I’ve really been without horses,” she says.

Though there was no room for the animals at her childhood home in Niles, Mich., Deena’s grandparents had a dairy farm about an hour away. She visited the farm every chance she got, and when Deena was still quite young, her grandparents, she says, “got tired of me trying to ride their dairy cows, so they bought me a pony. It’s kind of gone on from there,” she explains, still grinning.

Set on learning how to ride her pony, Deena decided to train it on her own. “Ponies will teach you a lot about riding horses,” she says. “They’re pretty strong-willed, and if you want them to do something, you have to really make them do it. I guess I’m strong-willed enough that I was determined to do that, and it just worked.”

Horses At Home—and At Work

One of what is an average of eight trail rides a day.

One of what is an average of eight trail rides a day.

From her first stint training a stubborn pony to her current job working with customers at the Saddle Barn, Deena’s love for horses has proved infectious. Most notably 32 years ago, when she won over a very special guy named Larry, the man who would be her husband. “About two months after I met him, he bought a horse,” Deena says.

Throughout their marriage, the two continued to keep and raise horses, no matter where their day jobs required them to relocate or even when, in 1985, the Colemans had a daughter, Kelly. One of those relocations was to Fremont, Ind., where they bought a home with acreage. “Really the reason we moved out here was because we found this place. It had 5 acres and we could keep our horses,” says Deena.

Then came an unexpected opportunity. Already with several years’ experience in restaurant management, Deena began working in the dining room at the inn at nearby Pokagon State Park. “The [Saddle] Barn was closed at the time, but I saw that they were going to reopen it and I applied there,” she says.

Deena got the job and began taking families on trail rides, caring for the horses, running hayrides and handling administrative tasks in the office. She’d found her place at last. “I knew it wasn’t ever going to end,” she says.

So, when the lease for the Saddle Barn came up for contract bid three years later, Deena was ready. With help from her father, Eldon Leedy, she bid on the operation and won the rights to lease the property and run the Saddle Barn with her own team of horses and employees.

As the new proprietors of the Saddle Barn, the Colemans settled into family life and a busy schedule. With Kelly by her side, Deena devoted all her time to family life and the barn, while Larry maintained a job during the day and worked the barn at night and on the weekends. The family continued to acquire more horses, which they brought home to their property in Fremont to rest, roam and graze during the off-season—fall and winter—each year.

Still in the Saddle

The Colemans’ MF1742 takes guests on a hayride.

The Colemans’ MF1742 takes guests on a hayride.

Like her dad before her, Kelly learned to love horses thanks in large part to Deena. Kelly began riding when she was 3, and later competed seriously in dressage, an equestrian sport designed to bring out a horse’s natural athletic ability, style and grace.

Though Kelly has grown up and moved away, she doesn’t let distance get in the way of her love of horses. Instead, she boards a German Warmblood with a trainer in Adrian, Mich., and visits every chance she gets.

Meanwhile, Larry and Deena maintain day jobs at the local post office while running the Saddle Barn. The hours are still long and the work is hard. Deena’s dad, Eldon, still helps, doing payroll and even comes by for the occasional visit. The Saddle Barn has become a hub for three generations of family.

“My parents moved up here a year after we started the Saddle Barn,” Deena explains. “My dad got a job over at the Pokagon Nature Center and he was [there] for years. He used to run the office for us once in a while, and he did a lot of pony rides. He’s probably in hundreds of pictures in our albums with kids, leading the ponies.”

When asked if she thinks about slowing down, Deena admits she contemplates it from time to time. Yet, every time the lease for the Saddle Barn comes back up for auction, the dynamo in her just can’t help but re-bid.

“People tell me I’m nuts all the time. But I think everybody who knows me really understands why I do this. The horses themselves are why I’m here. They’re such beautiful animals. I feel privileged to be able to help other people ride. That’s what it’s all about, really.”