July 20, 2005 — Growing up in the 1950s at Sprat Hall Plantation, just a few miles north of Frederiksted, Jill Hurd never had a doubt about what she wanted to do.
Guests at her parents' great house-turned resort, often wanted to take horseback rides into the rain forest. (See "@Work: Sprat Hall Plantation".)
There were no organized tours then, but Jill, as young as five years old, would be on horseback showing guests the trails. She said recently that sometimes she would take guests on much longer trips than they were prepared for, but which she always enjoyed.
Her passion has always been for horses. When she was nine, she bought her third horse for $16. Her father told her that if she was going to keep all those horses, she had to figure out how to pay for them.
She did. She started offering horseback riding lessons for $5 a lesson. Soon, she was not only buying "the feed bags," she was putting money in the bank.
The only times she has been away from horses and the trails at the west end of the island were in the early 70s when she attended college in Connecticut. However, then came the Fountain Valley Massacre, where five masked men wielding shotguns, handguns and automatic weapons invaded Fountain Valley Golf Course on the afternoon of Sept. 6, 1972. Within a few minutes, eight people — including four tourists — lay dead. Another casualty from the whole affair was St. Croix's tourism industry, which was crippled by the bad publicity. She said, "My family lost the means to keep me in school." (See "Fountain Valley Put V.I. in Unwanted Spotlight").
With tourism virtually gone from the island, she found a job cutting meat at Annalay Farms. She did that for a couple years. She said she then realized, "That if I took a couple tourists out for a ride each day, I could make as much money as I was making staying at that boring job, and I was also on the trails all day."
Consequently, Jill's Equestrian Stables was born in 1976.
Paul Wojciechowski entered the picture in 1990, not too long after Hurricane Hugo had struck. He was from Chicago and looking for a place to stay. He wandered up to Sprat Hall and asked about staying there. He said he was told they had no power, no water and no roof. But Paul did stay on St. Croix, and now his roots are firmly planted here, too.
The couple has an orchard with a profusion of tropical fruit trees next to their stables and in front of their home. The lucky customer, riding on a day when the fruits are abundant, might find themselves returning home with a couple in a sack. That is, of course, if the horses have not eaten them all. All the horses appear to love mangos and carambolas.
Jill said, "We are responsible for 41 horses, however, that is not how many earn their keep." About 15 horses are used to take riders out. The other horses are retired or just have not been trained yet.
As Jill leads a ride she also trims back green growth where the rain forest is trying to take back the trail. This seems to be an immense job during the rainy season, but it's worth it. Her trails take island visitors and residents to places they could never see any other way.
Naturally, there are the trees, butterflies, spiders and plants that Jill enjoys pointing out along with the mangos that the horses will stop and gobble all day if you let them. Paul says, "These guys eat like horses."
The trail also goes by an overgrown great house built in the 1790s. The slave quarters built in that area are one of the most interesting historical sites on St. Croix.
Hurd says the natural beauty of this part of the island and many of these trails will disappear if the proposed William and Punch Casino and Resort development is built.
For more information, call 772-2880 or visit their Web site at www.paulandjills.com
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