OLD LYME – For decades, Morgan horses were the centerpiece of the McCulloch family farm, before significant portions of the property were deeded to open space for the town. Now, a couple from Essex are hoping to return horses to the farm, and are asking the town to allow some horseback riding to return to the trails on open space land.
Mike and Amanda Tevis intend to buy a piece of the farm owned by the Vasiloff family to keep horses on the property to ride.
The Vasiloffs told CT Examiner that they fully support the plan as a way to make sure the legacy of the farm, and Mary Jean Vasiloff, who kept Morgans on the property for decades, are protected.
The Tevises have offered to pay the town an annual fee so that they and their friends can ride on trails in the form of a 99-year, non-exclusive lease of 312 acres of open space.
The town’s Open Space Commission approved the idea of allowing horses on the open space in principle, and passed the proposal on to the Board of Selectmen to vote on the idea on Monday evening. The details of the arrangement would still need to be finalized before either the Open Space Commission or Selectmen approve a final agreement.
Commission members expressed some concerns that they wanted to see addressed in the final agreement – potentially requiring the Tevises to remove any horse manure from the trails, and not allowing horses on the “yellow” trail that comes to a dead end.
The commission also discussed adopting a memorandum of understanding with voluntary donations, rather than a lease, over concerns that accepting payment in a lease agreement could open the town to liability in the event a rider is hurt on the open space. Commission Chair Amanda Blair said a lease may also need to go to town meeting for approval.
The commission decided on Monday to let the town attorneys negotiate the agreement, and determine the best way to protect the town.
Speaking to the commission in April, Mike Tevis said there would not be any horses brought from outside on trailers, and that the only horses to ride on the trails would be kept on an adjacent property they intend to buy. He told commission members that they were trying to maintain the property in the way it was used by the McCulloch family.
Mike Tevis told the commission last month that they were asking for the limited lease in an effort to avoid making “global policy decisions” for the town. The idea wasn’t to open the trails to any horse, they want to keep five to ten horses on the property for the family and their friends to ride, with no horses brought in on trailers, according to Tevis.
Amanda Tevis assured the commission that horseback riding is compatible with the other uses of the trail, including walking and cycling, and they agreed to post signs at the trail entrances educating people on how to interact with riders, and would clean up any manure on the trail.
“We really want to do this, and be a neighbor, and be a part of the community,” Amanda Tevis told the commission at its April meeting.
Horses have been central to the farm and land for about 80 years, since Mary Jean Vasiloff got a horse named Duke – originating the Morgan breed line that Jean cultivated for decades.
“He was like the perfect horse,” Jean’s daughter-in-law Marsha Vasiloff said. “Maybe 80 percent of her bloodlines originated to that horse.”
According to Marsha Vasiloff, Jean McCulloch dedicated her life to horses, and the family has worked hard to preserve the land.
In 2019, David McCulloch sold his 300 acres to the town as open space.
But with the demands of full-time jobs, Shauna and Jesse Vasiloff say they no longer have the time and energy to care for horses.
“As a kid I could wake up, go do chores and get dropped off at the bus stop, and that was fine,” Shauna said. “Now it’s like, do I want to bust up ice buckets every morning before going to work? No, I don’t. We need to find somebody who can dedicate their focus and time, which the Tevises are not only promising to do, but they’re passionate about doing it.”
Ensuring horseback riding on that property was important to the family, according to Marsha Vasiloff, and a conservation easement for the property reserves the family’s right to “outdoor recreational activities” on it – specifically reserving the right to ride horses.
“Riding a horse through there, it takes you back centuries,” said Vasiloff.
The town considers the McCulloch Farm a “signature property,” and the 300-acre property David McCulloch sold to the town as open space in 2019 was hailed as a “missing link” – connecting the Ames Open Space and Lay Preserve into a continuous, 700-acre space with a network of trails.
“This time that we live in, we’re losing so many great resources,” Shauna Vasilof said. “I don’t think people necessarily understand what an amazing resource it is, and what it can contribute to younger people – the respect for the land. And that’s the reason that our family wanted to protect it is to make sure that it will be there for generations to come.”