A Bit of Scotland Lands In the Sandhills
Fiona Gunn-Russell has traveled a long and sometimes bumpy road from Scotland to the Sandhills of North Carolina. A thin, wiry woman with shoulder-length curly blonde hair, Gunn-Russell was born and raised in Scotland.
She grew up in the Scottish countryside where she competed at the advanced level in eventing and attained her British Horse Society Instructor's certificate before moving to the United States in her early 20s.
Her first riding teacher, she says in her still thick and luscious Scottish brogue, was Jane Crawford, a three-time winner at Badminton.
"My first pony was a 13.2 hand Welsh-Arab cross. I was only nine years old and he was a little up, so I rode him in a pelham," says Gunn-Russell, "Jane used to make me hack three miles down to her house for lessons. By the time I stopped working with her, I could ride that pony in a plain snaffle and I was ready for his nonsense as well.
"The lesson I learned with Jane was to stay relaxed and to develop an independent seat."
At the age of 18, Gunn-Russell went to work for Greer Henry to get her BHSI certification, which is required in order to teach anywhere in Great Britain.
She trained up to the instructor level while continuing to compete, and managed to foxhunt as well in order to keep her eventers in top condition.
In the meantime, her family had moved to the United States and she decided to follow a few years later.
"I wanted to see how things were done in the U.S.," she says, "so I went to Florida to work on the 'A' circuit for one season. That was very educational, but I missed my family and decided to join them in New Jersey."
Once settled in New Jersey, Gunn-Russell married and had two children.
For several years after that, she ran her own dog kennel, breeding and raising Jack Russell Terriers, staying close to home while also raising her kids.
She showed her dogs throughout the northeast, bringing home many championships, including more than one 'Best in Show'.
"My dogs were shown mostly in the northeast," she says, "but many found good homes all across the U.S. and were sought after by many Jack Russell enthusiasts over the years."
After a while, she missed the riding and went back to it when a friend asked Gunn-Russell to help her with her horses.
She sold her kennel and went to work for her friend for a few years. From there, she had the opportunity to work for Caroline Ashton for the next five years, grooming and schooling her Grand Prix dressage horses.
The road turned again for Gunn-Russell when she divorced. Now a single mother with two children, she went to work full-time as a farm manager.
Then, about two years ago, a riding accident put her out of commission. There was no riding and a lot of pain for a year or so, but now she is on the mend and ready for a new start. That new start included a move to this area.
"We were looking around at different places" she says, "but North Carolina seemed to have everything we were wanted. We came here for the weather, the schools and the peace and quiet no longer found in New Jersey these days."
Gunn-Russell arrived here with her 14-year-old daughter, Rebecca, two dogs, three cats and three horses. Her son, Neely, who is out of school and working, stayed behind in New Jersey for now.
Gunn-Russell smiles a half-smile and says wistfully that she hopes he will join Rebecca and her here soon.
On the other hand, Rebecca is here and helping her mom get settled on the farm. Becky, as her doting mom calls her, is a quiet, pretty girl, with long blonde hair, who is totally into eventing.
She attends Pinehurst High School and rides her large pony Dakota. Becky is outgrowing her pony, and she and her mom are on the lookout for her first horse.
Along side all the previous good reasons for relocating here, Gunn-Russell also came here to establish a farm and get back to doing what she loves the most -- working with horses.
"Horses love me, don't know why. I can usually win over any horse and I have the patience to do it", she says, with a broad smile and a twinkle in her eye.
Gunn-Russell is staying busy with her farm, Holly Hedge Stables.
She is also working with her fourth level dressage mount Tommy, a lovely chestnut Hanoverian gelding. The horse has also been out of work for a year as well, and she is looking forward to bringing him back.
Holly Hedge Stables is a small facility dedicated to quality, Gunn-Russell says. Opening soon for boarding and training, Gunn-Russell will carry a few school horses for those who do not have their own.
"I like to practice good, old fashioned, tried and true horse management and skills," she says, "without the use of gadgets and short cuts. I am interested in teaching the rider to bond with the horse, for the good of the horse, as well as the rider.
"I like to make it fun and build confidence in both horse and rider. A horse that trusts you will do anything for you."
Gunn-Russell's facility is located on 10 acres at the corner of Beulah Hill Church Road and Carthage Road, seven miles from Pinehurst. The facility is under construction and she hopes to have everything ready by the middle of November, if not before. Feel free to stop by to say hello, she says.
She will be happy to show you around her own little Scottish countryside right here in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
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