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Businessman turns passion into opportunity

Amanda Paris, 5, watches from the arena fence as instructor Jeff Burnett demonstrates how to break in a young horse. Hannah, the 3-year-old horse he is riding, was broken in just last weekend.(The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN

[12/27/01]For an entrepreneur with a portfolio of businesses under his belt, Jeff Burnett has an odd way of spending his evenings.

“My dad grew up a cattle rancher,” said Burnett, 41, who just four years ago decided he wanted to buy a horse and learn how to ride. “It’s just something I always wanted to do.”

And like all he does, he’s gone into riding full force, said his wife, Penni, an entrepreneur and avid rider herself.

“Since then, he’s read every book he can get his hands on, and broke his first horse, Nippy, and trained her from scratch,” she said.

But beyond the enjoyment of training horses, Burnett has turned his passion into an opportunity. Four nights a week, after finishing his regular day’s work, he heads to the indoor arena he built next to his home in Bovina and passes on his knowledge to a younger generation children who want to learn to ride.

For the Little League baseball coach and former church youth director, the combination was perfect. “Just being able to put horses and kids together, it’s just something I enjoy doing,” Burnett said as he walked in the middle of the sandy ring in jeans, boots and a cowboy hat as two students circled him.

“My buddies all roped, team penned and rodeo’d, but that’s an every weekend thing,” he said. “I have a wife and kids. That’s not something I could participate in.”

Instead, he and his wife amassed a stable of six horses and opened Cut-N-Back farm, where they offer beginning Western riding lessons to kids who might not otherwise be exposed to the pleasures of riding.

She laughs at the irony of the name. “Because when we first moved here, we thought we were cutting back our lifestyle,” she said. “We lied. We’re working now more than we ever have.”

But the work is worth it, if they can allow children and horses to connect.

“My family had horses,” said Jane Paris, as she watched her two children, Wyly and Amanda, enjoying their evening class. “I wanted them to ride, but they didn’t have the opportunity I did growing up with them.” Thanks to Burnett, and his part-time instructor, Terra Jones, she may be rearing two future cowpokes.

Amanda, 5, has already declared she wants to be a cowgirl, sitting comfortably astride a Palomino named Goldie, her red ringlets falling from under her hat. Her brother agreed.

“I want to grow up to be a cowboy, or just be around horses,” said Wyly, 8, whose feet don’t yet meet his stirrups. “My dad said I can come over here on weekends and help Mr. Jeff clean stalls.”

But beyond the fun of learning to ride, the students also learn how to care for the horses, including how to groom and tack them despite the fact that some of his students can’t even reach the saddle. “They’re learning so much, and they’re having fun doing it,” said Jones, a long-time rider and instructor. “They’re learning responsibility and not even realizing it.”

For the students and their parents also come lessons of just how much is involved in horse ownership. Some have already changed their minds about purchasing a pony without the knowledge of just how to care for it.

“We told her she could have a horse when she was 5 until we found out how much work is involved,” said Robin McGee, whose daughter, Polly, is a regular student. “Now we tell her she can go ride Mr. Jeff’s horses.” For Polly, that is just fine. “This is the highlight of her week,” McGee said.

Burnett’s riding program lasts for 12 weeks, and costs $80 a month for one lesson each week. Class size is limited, and the next session will begin at the end of January. “More and more are coming back each semester, so that means we are doing our job,” Burnett said.

The program is sanctioned by the American Quarter Horse Association, and Burnett has earned his training certification with the American Riding Instructors Association and Certified Horsemanship Association illustrating that his passion is more than a part-time preoccupation. He hopes to begin judging horse shows later this year, and six of his older students have begun showing in competitions around the state. “This is not a hobby. It’s a way of life,” he said.

It’s also not a money-making endeavor.

“This is for fun, cause we sure don’t make any money at it,” said Penni, who assists by keeping a close eye on the students, and the horses.

“To 20 years from now, have one of these kids come back and say, Hey, Mr. Jeff is the one who taught me how to ride’ that’s why I do this,” he said.