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Alumni share fond memories of Melville riding academy, summer camp

At a reunion of the Thomas School of

At a reunion of the Thomas School of Horsemanship in Melville on Saturday, May 30, 2015, dozens of former camp counselors and students turned out to honor long time camp director Nancy Thomas, shown here at lower left, for her 40 years of work with the school. Credit: Johnny Milano

Some of the former students and instructors who visited Long Island's Thomas School of Horsemanship Saturday hadn't been there for more than 20 years.

Nancy Thomas instantly recognized them all, rushing over to give each a hug.

Thomas celebrated 40 years of running the lesson barn with an alumni reunion that drew dozens. The 33-acre Melville summer camp and riding academy school started 72 years ago with her parents at the helm.

"I totally knew from the time I was a kid . . . that's what I want to do," said Thomas, 62. "I say every day how fortunate I am that I knew that right away, and that I get to live my dream my whole life."

During her tenure, she estimates that 20,000 students have attended the camp, which goes beyond horseback riding to feature other sports and activities, including lacrosse, swimming and Pilates.

Many Long Island children began taking riding lessons at the age of 3 and continued into high school, then became camp counselors and instructors.

Others made working at the school their career and were happy to see the cycle start over with their own children.

It's a "family," Thomas said before kicking off a slideshow featuring camp pictures dating to the 1940s.

The first photo showed her mother, Fran Thomas, clearing a 5-foot fence on her palomino horse Jumping Jive. Another slide showed famous alumnus Don Sachey, who won Olympic gold as an equestrian in 1974.

"Putting all these pictures together reminded me of every one of you, how blessed I've been to have all of you in my life," she told the crowd. "I've been so excited to have the second generation -- and then three generations -- to see how you've grown up."

Andrea Neugebauer hadn't been to the barn in years, but the familiar smell that greeted her -- a mix of hay, horse and a hint of manure -- released a wave of nostalgia.

Neugebauer, 36, a Huntington high school teacher, was a riding instructor and counselor in the late 1990s. Saturday, she and two of her best friends from that time reminisced about summers spent on horseback, chasing down the occasional runaway pony and splashing in the pool after a long, hot day.

"When camp was over, we still stayed. It wasn't time to go home," she said. "It's always just a happy memory. It makes my heart flutter when I think about it."

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