Plantation Equestrian Center taking horses to Oswego

Ken Stien’s Plantation Equestrian Center in Naperville has kept him busy for 32 years, but next month, he and his horses are moving to Oswego.

“Why now? Age,” said the 77-year-old ex-Marine who spent time as a baseball farm team outfielder and a semi-pro football quarterback. “Not me! The facility is antiquated. Everyone now wants ambiance — my facility doesn’t have ambiance.”

With its gutter-challenged 44-year-old house, “rustic” block barn and leaky indoor arena, that’s an understatement. But living on the land he bought in 1981 has been, Stien says, “a dream.”

“Every day is vacation. I like what I do,” he said.

So much so that he’s not retiring. He’ll keep teaching riding lessons at Oswego’s Camelot Farm.

“I like to teach; I look forward to it,” he says. “I enjoy the young people. I believe if you keep busy like I do, health issues seem to dissipate.”

His philosophy is simple.

“I look forward to waking up each morning, and I enjoy the day,” he says, even though the physical rigors of keeping up a seven-day-a-week equestrian center on 3 acres of property has caught up with him.

Camelot owner Sue Kovalik looks forward to having Stien and his clients at her scenic 18-acre farm. “Ken will be doing business as usual, just in a different place.”

He’ll come full circle, in a way. He bought the complex on Knoch Knolls Road after teaching at Oswego’s Maple Lane Farm during the mid-1970s.

But the first half of Stien’s life was something else entirely. Born Ken Stienhauser in the Bahamas, he ended up in an orphanage when his parents died. His grandparents brought him to their Kentucky farm where he learned to ride, jumping their thoroughbreds over logs as he escaped the adults after one misadventure or another.

“They couldn’t control me,” Stien said with a laugh. “I was incorrigible.”

At 16, he married his childhood sweetheart who lived nearby in Bowling Green. She cared for their five daughters on the military base in San Diego while Stien served in Vietnam. She died before he was discharged in 1970.

A job brought him to Illinois. After inheriting his veterinarian grandfather’s six broodmares, he got “back into the horse business” and became a horse show judge. He and his horses lived on the Kuhn’s Fairlane Farm on Hobson Road for a while. Then he worked and lived at Maple Lane Farm, where he and a staff of 11 taught 125 English and Western riding lessons a week. When the owner sold, Stien bought 27w371 Knoch Knolls Road.

He named it Plantation Equestrian Center after briefly considering “Moonshine Farms,” like his grandparents’ place.

“Plantation sounded much better. It’s from the south. I liked the name,” Stien said.

When he moved in, the Keller farm was next door, the “old tax assessor” was across the road, and Lenore McDonald’s farm was to the east.

A herd of Maple Lane students followed him. Over the years, Stein taught horse enthusiasts ages 5 to senior citizens from as far as Hinsdale and Oak Brook. At one point, he housed 45 horses.

Plantation probably never had much of what many consider ambiance. But it has always had a deeper beauty.

“Ken teaches students responsibility and a love and compassion for animals,” said Linda Sneed, whose daughter Amy rode there for more than 12 years. “It’s important to him that they do well in school — and he wants them to be good people: kind, responsible, trustworthy. He teaches them those traits through the animals and the riding.”

The horses’ well-being is another priority, and Stien’s students learn from day one how to groom and saddle them.

“They were never handed a horse to ride as at some other barns,” Sneed said.

Like the students, the horses know who’s boss. But they sometimes slow down when they pass Stien, hoping for one of the Necco Wafers or chocolate bars he keeps in his pockets.

Though gruff by reputation, with a tendency to bark orders like the Marine captain he was, his bright blue eyes are often as soft as his heart.

“I was tough on the kids, but it made them better,” said Stien, who admits his patience has grown with his age. “Tough love is good. I’ve watched them grow up to be wonderful ladies and gentlemen. That’s what I leave. I’m supposed to be a teacher. I taught more than riding instruction.”

Though Stien has two longtime barn employees and plenty of students and trainers who help with endless chores, he says he’s “a one-man team.” It’s one reason his daughters began encouraging him to move.

In a moment of rare sentimentality, Stien admits it won’t be easy to leave.

“I’ll miss the familiarity of home. The dogs that died, the cats,” said Stien, whose dog Keely is his virtual shadow and whose old cat Killer was recently sent to live with a friend. “I’ll miss a lot of the friends I made over here. The best part was all of the people I used to teach who knew where I was, they’d come to visit.”

Best guess is they’ll still find him. Most of his trainers were former students. Two of his boarders have been with him since Maple Lane. They’ll be in Oswego, where a lot of things will stay the same.

One big difference: Stien won’t be living on the same property as his horses.

As he pondered that change, a loud neigh could be heard nearby. Stien looked over and said quietly, “I’ll miss that.”

Joni Hirsch Blackman, author of “Downtown Naperville,” has ridden at Plantation for the past two years, and will follow Ken and Big Bailey to Oswego.

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