Mane Passion

Windwood holds riding lessons, weddings and much more

Story By Grace Thornton

Photos By Dawn Harrison

Standing on the wrap-around porch at Windwood Equestrian, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that it was two small pieces of paper that put the striking property on the map.

A ticket to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

And then a piece of notebook paper.

William Upton grins when he talks about it.

With the exception of a couple of rides on an old farm horse when he was younger, he’d never been in the saddle before he watched the equestrian portion of the Olympics in Atlanta at 15 years old.

But after the Games, he came back to the Birmingham area and started taking lessons immediately.

“It was something that kind of consumed me,” he says.

And it wasn’t long before he was riding competitively, winning shows and eventually sketching out the plans for Windwood on a piece of notebook paper.

He started building it in 2002 just off highway 11 in Pelham, and now 14 years later, he and his wife Arden live right in the center of the sprawling equestrian center that looks more country club than country.

They host around 25 to 30 weddings a year. Arden says it’s a “pretty busy thing” for them that started because of their own wedding.

“William and I built all of the things we had hoped for our own wedding, and now we offer it to other people,” she says.

At night, the stone courtyard is “stunning” and “comes alive,” William says, lit by strings of café lights and lit-up cupolas and offering a live-music stage. They’ve hosted crowds of up to 600 people in the courtyard, which has an Italian fountain just in the center.

And it’s flanked by three luxury barns, rolling grass meadows and well-maintained outdoor riding facilities that are currently home to 37 horses.

“I started the riding school as a business when I was a freshman in college,” William says. “I drew the whole place on a piece of notebook paper, and we’ve just been working to finish that dream ever since. It’s just evolved and evolved.”

He’s taken pride in the way he’s put every detail together. His own office is made with wood beams from Andrew Jackson’s farm. The hay is shipped in by the 18-wheeler load from Kentucky. The footing in the riding rings is a specially made mixture of felt, sand and fiber.

Jill Dean, one of Windwood’s riding instructors, says that last detail alone makes such a difference.

“It’s spectacular footing — the ring can be under water and we can still ride on it. William knew that because he researched intensely and planned well,” she says. “We are fortunate that William had the dream of Windwood.”

Construction is one of Williams’ passions: Horseback riding is too. And it’s easy to see how the two passions met at Windwood.

“We love offering this as a place for people to come and fall in love with the sport,” William says. “Riding can be a lifelong venture.”

They’ve had riders from 4 years old to 70 years old, he adds.

“We build our lessons and classes in such a way that it’s personalized and fun for everyone involved,” he says.

Jill agreed and adds they see progress in the riders with every lesson.

“They work hard and have a lot of time in the saddle,” she says. “We have a system that works. We want your leg to be solid, deep and tight at the level where you are before we move you to the next one.”

Windwood’s riders who choose to compete consistently win ribbons, William says.

It’s also a sport that enhances riders’ lives. “Often when kids get involved with riding, it consumes them, and when you have something like that to be involved in, it keeps you out of trouble, teaches you responsibility and you get to interact with other people and learn teamwork.”

Riders from beginner to expert are welcome, he says, and prices are competitive with other riding schools in the area. Windwood offers lessons for dressage, hunters and jumpers.

“All of the riding is classically trained,” Arden says.

Windwood has horses for use in the riding school, but boarding and training is also available at the facilities.

“We want to be a quality riding school, but we are also down to earth and approachable,” he says. “We want this to be a place where people can come and enjoy being here.”

And they do, if you’re judging by the kids’ faces, Arden says.

“To me, the cutest, most adorable thing you’ll see on a daily basis is when the little girls come out and start lessons in a hunter style,” she says. “During their first lesson, their eyes are huge, and the grin on their face is the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen. They see the ponies, and they hug them. They love it. And we love making that possible.”

For more information, visit Windwoodequestrian.com.