Some Tall Boots to Fill

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Margo (left) and your writer were Hunter Pace partners a decade ago with patient saints Amber and Missy (Photo by Lou Smith).

Margo (left) and your writer were Hunter Pace partners a decade ago with patient saints Amber and Missy (Photo by Lou Smith).

Written by Judy Heinrich

Photos submitted

In her almost 20 years as a Polk County resident, Margo Savage has been not just a volunteer, but a leader of volunteers, especially among the horse community and in animal welfare efforts. Which is somewhat ironic because she came to all three of those things – volunteering, horses and even pets – late in life.

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Now as Margo steps back from volunteering to focus on her family, we want to recognize the positive impact she has had on our community and – ulterior motive here! –  let people know where a few holes will need to be filled in some important local organizations.


Growing up in a military family with the requisite overseas travel, Margo says that her childhood pets were limited to goldfish and a parakeet. When she entered the working world she chose a career with Sears, Roebuck and Co., in Chicago. Margo was a buyer for Sears and her success in numerous areas led company management to make her a troubleshooter for departments that were under-performing. Her specialty was to analyze trends, change things up and sometimes give senior management the bad news that a given department simply wasn’t sustainable without major changes in direction.

One change in Margo’s personal direction was meeting and marrying Sears co-worker Terry Savage. Their lives changed again when they decided to leave big city living for the suburbs of Chicago, choosing a new neighborhood with homes connected to a dedicated green space. Because all of the property buyers there were going through the same home-building process, fast friendships were formed.

Once their houses were completed, Margo and a good friend were bored and thought it would be fun to take ballroom dancing lessons with their husbands. The husbands did not agree. Looking for a different hobby, the two women signed up for a series of eight beginner riding lessons at a barn just a half-mile from their homes. This was Margo’s first-ever experience with horses. And thus the die was cast.

Margo went to the barn every day after work, took hunter lessons, and did local shows with a group of other career women in their 30s. Of course she soon got a horse of her own, which Terry didn’t mind because it freed his weekends up for golf.

That worked well for a while until increasing development starting pushing out local horse farms and the Savages finally got their fill of the area’s brutal winters. They both decided to take early retirement and began looking for a location that combined warmer weather, less development and a horse-friendly community. They initially looked in Kentucky but the horse activities there didn’t click with Margo. Their next target – the Tryon area – definitely did. They bought a property with an existing house and barn, added an outdoor ring and covered arena, took on a few boarders, and have been there ever since.

When Margo’s father passed away, Margo and Terry invited her mother to leave Florida and live with them, adding a private suite to their home. “Mom” has now been there for 17 years, sharing her cooking talents along the way – something enjoyed by Margo, Terry, and the many area volunteers who have watched for her baked goodies in show offices.


Margo said she had been here about a week when Bertie Phayer suggested she volunteer at Foothills Humane Society (FHS). “I had always been interested in volunteering and admired people who did, but when I was working, I didn’t have any time. Now that I was retired I felt like it was time for me to pay back.” She got involved with FHS in the fall of the year, after horse show season, and the following spring she also began volunteering at the horse shows for what is now the Foothills Riding Club (FRC).

“I made some suggestions for how things could be done differently at the horse shows, so I was asked if I wanted to work in the office and make those kinds of changes. That was about 15 years ago. Then Wendy Cochran, who had been running FRC’s benefit shows, was about to move out west and told me I was ready to handle the shows myself. So I ran the FRC shows for about 14 years.” She has also served FRC as secretary, treasurer, president and newsletter editor.

Margo’s most recent show challenge was being the dressage steward for the area’s biggest equestrian competition to date, the American Eventing Championships held at Tryon International Equestrian Center in September. With Cathy Berlin as second in command, the pair was responsible for set up, recruiting and organizing more than 100 dressage volunteers, and doing the necessary paperwork for 600+ riders on 700+ horses over three days of dressage tests. They then spent two more days helping FRC officer Annie Lane-Maunder, who was volunteer organizer for the AEC’s show jumping.

Eye on Improvement

One thing that has remained the same in Margo’s life is her habit – honed during her Sears career – of looking for new and better ways to make something successful. It’s apparent in all of the organizations she’s volunteered for.

As president of Foothills Humane Society in 2005, Margo led the implementation of changes that took the organization from a substandard live release rate of just 15 percent toward a new goal of becoming a “guaranteed adoption center.” Working toward that goal years ago helped set FHS on the road to its current status as a no-kill shelter.

Margo also started a new arm of FHS, the Foothills Equine Rescue Assistance, or FERA. This group works with the Polk County Animal Control officer and Animal Cruelty Investigators to rescue and support neglected, abandoned and abused equines in the area.

When she was asked to serve on the board of what was then the Foothills Dressage and Combined Training Club, Margo recognized that the organization needed to broaden its membership to establish a pool of volunteers who could staff the shows at which its active dressage competed. The club was expanded beyond its core dressage competitions to attract new members in different riding disciplines. As the Foothills Riding Club, the organization is larger than ever at about 300 members, and hosts regular educational and recreational activities, clinics, a dressage schooling show series and XC schooling day. From proceeds raised throughout the year, FRC awards four scholarships and two annual donations to local non-profits (one animal-related and one general).

Time for a Break

Margo has now eased out of her volunteer work, although as recently as early December she took a six-hour training course for Animal Cruelty Investigators, a team she’s been on since 2009.

But her immediate focus will be on family and farm. Her mom will turn 93 in 2017 and, while she’s in great health and still tends her garden, she deserves some time to just relax and enjoy herself and her extended family.

Terry has shouldered many barn and farm responsibilities while Margo focused on volunteer activities that often bordered on full-time jobs. Although his doctor said the daily farm work got him in “the best shape he’d ever been in,” Terry, too, is ready for a little downtime.

And Margo is ready for some rides of her own rather than organizing and scheduling rides for others. She’ll soon be heading out on the local trail systems.

Asked if she thought she’d miss volunteering, Margo exclaimed, “I already do miss it – a lot! I used to say I’d go stark raving mad with nothing to do. But it’s the right time to focus on family.”

That said, we wouldn’t be surprised if another “right time” comes along for Margo to be back in the volunteer ranks, where she will surely be thinking up ways to make things better.

In the meantime if you’ve got some time to spend volunteering, no doubt the Foothills Riding Club, Foothills Humane Society, FERA, the Animal Cruelty Investigators – or any other local organization – would be happy to hear from you. •