As the University of South Carolina’s equestrian team preps for its 21st season, consider this: its varsity coach – homegrown Boo Major – used to gallop her horse through the breezeways of Bethel Hanberry Middle School in Blythewood.
So forget any notion that Major’s success as a varsity coach began in the hoity-toity world of high falutin’ horseflesh. Far from it, her beginnings in the sport hark back to an old-school start riding anything she could slap a saddle on and anywhere she could find to ride.
“I rode a horse named Pretty Boy out at my Uncle Mac McCrory’s farm in Blythewood,” Major said.
“I definitely had no fear of horses. We’d race up and down the dirt roads. We’d race each other. Oh yeah, we were wild. This was all before I was 10 years old. Mama took us to the J.J. Ranch in Blythewood. It was western riding, cowboys. It was just so much fun. There was a big old rodeo ring and they’d just put you on a horse and let you go. Mama told me I could ride by myself when I was three.”
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Major grew up in Columbia, one of four sisters and the daughter of Bob and Madge Major. Bob served as Richland County’s Clerk of Court for many years and Madge was an adored citizen who, upon her 75th birthday, was given a surprise, early-morning neighborhood parade in which she marched down Beltline Boulevard in her bath robe.
Speaking of giving, she gave her daughter a nickname that stuck.
“Boo came from Boo Boo Bear from Yogi Bear. My mom could only get me to do stuff as a toddler by talking like Yogi and saying stuff like, ‘Come along, Boo Boo.’ My real name is Frances and I am not a Frances.”
But Major is a horsewoman whose determination to be a part of the sport required a shovel at the outset.
“I think there are some things you are innately born to. My older sisters were in college so there wasn’t any money to throw around. I was cleaning stalls on the weekend. That’s how I got my knowledge of horses.”
From mucking stalls, Major continued to make her way in the horse world.
She took formal riding lessons at Belle Grove, a farm and riding school on the Bluff Road.
“I was the first one to fall off in my class. I was riding Pumpkin and she jumped like a rabbit. I didn’t give a rip. I really had no fear. None at all.”
Friend Margaret Clarkson rode with Major at the Bluff Road farm under the auspices of teacher Betty Belser.
“Mrs. Belser was always complimentary of Boo’s riding ability and always commented on how well she held her reins … At Belle Grove we had many sleepovers in the Clubhouse. We would sneak out in the fields at night (where the horses lived) and ride the horses without saddles or bridles. It was tremendous fun …We also rode countless hours in Blythewood, before Blythewood was cool …We were allowed to swim with the horses and play for hours on our own in the countryside …I can remember proudly galloping our horses on the breezeway of the local middle school, Hanberry.
“Little did we know that one day Boo would be managing One Wood Farm right down the road.”
‘A risk taker’
Major got her first horse – a big gray named Ajax – while still at Belle Grove, where horses typically cost about $300. When Belle Grove closed in the mid-1970s, Major rode at a farm on Sumter Highway called Hickory Top.
With foxhunting country of Camden close by, Major rode to the hounds but, she said, “Some of us wanted to go to horse shows. We loved to fox hunt, but we wanted to show.”
Major recalled an early horse show as the stuff of unpretentious spirit and determination.
“We rented a U-Haul horse trailer and went to a show in Blythewood. My horse had never jumped but I just took it in the ring and started jumping. I think we entered all 30 classes. We’d be jumping in the morning and barrel racing and pole bending in the afternoon. Needless to say, I didn’t win any classes.”
Accolades would come. More and more horse shows. Three-day eventing. Dressage. Riding with the highly regarded equestrian program at Sweetbriar College in Virginia before returning to the University of South Carolina her junior year.
All the while, the sport was keeping Major on the right track.
“I do believe horses kept me out of a lot more trouble that I could’ve gotten into because I am definitely a risk taker.”
And the sport was turning into her livelihood.
Major taught riding students. She bought, trained and sold horses. She was also paid to train and compete on others’ horses throughout South Carolina.
And then, when she was “37ish”, she was at a party in Columbia and heard someone say that USC’s equestrian program was being elevated to a varsity sport and the school was looking for a coach/farm combination to manage it.
At the time, Major was working with Bernadette Halpin Cogdill at a riding facility in Irmo.
“Bernadette and I said, ‘Well, why not? Let’s try it.’ I mean, why not us? We had a riding program and we had the horses.
“I think that’s the first time I had ever been interviewed for a job. It was a little nerve-wracking. I’d never even done a resume. We had to present a package. And lo and behold, we got it. Bernadette and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, we got it.’ Then we said, ‘Now what?’ ”
‘Coaching is about just getting it done’
That was the late 1990s.
Fast forward to this fall.
The team is now based at One Wood Farm in Blythewood and Major is beginning her 21st season as head coach. Only a handful of head coaches have had longer tenures at USC than Major – among them Mark Berson (men’s soccer, 39 years); Todd Sherritt (diving, 24 years) and Curtis Frye (track & field, 21 years), according to the university.
“Twenty years is a very long time for any one head coach to stay in one place,” said USC’s Rob Walden, assistant media relations director of the school’s athletic department.
And no doubt, Major has made the most of that time.
Success is synonymous with USC’s equestrian team which, from year to year, consists of about 40 riders.
Three overall team national championships in 2005, 2007 and 2015. A hunt seat national championship in 2006. Two national runner-up finishes – 2006 and 2014. Two SEC championships in 2013 and 2014. Six SEC Riders of the Year since the award was begun in 2013. Thirty-eight riders named All-Americans since 2011.
As for Major, in the spring of 2014, she became the first USC head coach to win back-to-back SEC championships. A year later, she became the first USC head coach to win three national championships. She’s also received top SEC and national coaching honors.
The list of accolades goes on, but perhaps more important than all those honors is the impact Major has had upon individual riders.
“I knew that Boo was the only coach I wanted to ride for,” said Kristen Terebesi, a nationally recognized equestrian.
Terebesi rode for USC from 2004 to 2008. She led the team to its two national championships and won individual national championships along the way. Earlier this year, she accepted a position with the USC team as an assistant coach, managing the hunt seat riders.
“Boo has been my greatest facilitator,” Terebesi said.
“While on the team, I grew as a rider, learning to apply knowledge I had taken in over all my years leading up to Carolina. Boo has had a tremendous impact upon my life and I cherish her honesty and candidness.”
Major is, indeed, honest and candid about working with young women.
“Let me tell you something, when I got started I’d never coached or taught college girls. I’ve told plenty of them, ‘Your trainer may think you’re the greatest things since grits, but you’ve got some things to learn.’
“For me, coaching is about just getting it done. Just get it done and if you can’t, let’s figure out what we need to do to make it work. I’ve been known to yell. Yeah, I just expect people to do their job at the level they can do it. Most riders’ problems are mental. Riding is so mental. A rider will say, ‘I can’t’ and I’ll say, ‘Oh yes you can.’”
Assistant equestrian coach Ruth Sorrel, who manages the team’s western riders, credited Major with the success of USC’s riding program.
“She is the reason for all the successes here. She has high expectations … She is honest and wants what’s best for all the girls and the horses.”
And while Major called the team’s many accomplishments “amazing” – a trophy case at One Wood Farm is full of silver, plaques and fluttering ribbons – she said she still just likes “watching my students grow up.
“Watching them go from being a teenager to an adult. At some point during the four years, the light bulb goes on. You know, ‘I’ve got to learn to do the right thing.’ There was one student I thought I was going to have to kick off the team, but by her fourth year, she was doing great. You can always remember bringing home the national championships – that’s great – but the kids that turn around? Those are the real successes.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
USC’s varsity equestrian team
The University of South Carolina’s varsity equestrian team will open its 2017-18 season with a Sept. 22 scrimmage against Clemson University at One Wood Farm in Blythewood. The competition will begin at 2 p.m. and last about 3-1/2 hours. Riders will compete in western and hunt seat disciplines, including jumping and reining.
Admission and parking are free. One Wood Farm is in Blythewood, at 1201 Syrup Mill Road. To get to the farm, take I-77 north out of Columbia, get off at Exit 27, turn left and go over the bridge, then look for Syrup Mill Road on your right.
“Children are welcome to bring treats for the horses – carrots, apples or peppermints,” said Coach Boo Major, “but you must ask a team member or barn staff for help feeding the horses.”