Making connections will be a priority
New Methow Valley Riding Unlimited (MVRU) Executive Director Liz Blackman says she doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t obsessed with horses. From lessons beginning at age 6, to camps, to model horse collections, to even an after-school play group she created called “Saddle Club,” Blackman steeped herself in horse culture from a very young age, and that passion never waned.
“I thought I might become a veterinarian one day,” says Blackman, “so that I could continue to immerse myself in the world of horses.” But while other Saddle Club friends went on to become vets, Blackman found greater fulfillment in merging a life of outdoor recreation, youth empowerment and, of course, horsemanship.
“My friends tell me that I’m the only person they know who lives every day like it’s camp,” Blackman says. “I guess I just have a childlike wonder and a spirit of play in me.”
This sense of life’s magic shepherded Blackman into a master’s degree in environmental education as well as professional satisfaction from the age of 15 onwards working with youth at camps, teaching canoeing, kayaking, archery and horsemanship, and volunteering for AmeriCorps fostering social and emotional development in youth through experiential education.
Later, Blackman continued to promote outdoor education and horsemanship for kids with larger leadership roles at organizations like the Girl Scouts of Western Washington and North Cascades Institute, an outdoor education nonprofit located on Diablo Lake in the North Cascades.
This 20-year career in various forms of outdoor experiences with youth, as well as a side hustle consulting with business startups, is just one of the things that drew MVRU’s board to Blackman. Blackman also possesses a background in professionalizing an organization through systems and strategic thinking, and an intuitive understanding that by “elevating and amplifying others into leadership roles,” an entire organization benefits.
“I love relationship building,” Blackman says. “I like finding creative ways to plug people into problem-solving, and into opportunities that challenge and reward them.”
It was Blackman’s interpersonal skills that clinched the deal for her new job leading MVRU. Says MVRU board member and equestrian Ashley Ahearn, “[Blackman] is a no-BS, genuine communicator who is excited to be a part of the greater Methow Valley community. Liz brings grit and a warm heart to the work of connecting horses with people to make us all stronger, more empathic creatures.”
MVRU board president Jasmine Minbashian echoes Ahearn’s enthusiasm for Blackman’s experience, skill set and character, saying that Blackman “has many tremendous leadership skills, but her compassionate nature will serve MVRU especially well.” Both Ahearn and Minbashian agree “We are so lucky to have someone of [Liz’s] caliber serving our community.”
Blackman, too, refers to an element of luck in her move to the Methow Valley job and community. She and her wife, Brooke Lukensmeyer, have spent considerable time in the Methow Valley, visiting friends and exploring the surrounding mountains. “The Methow is a sacred place for us,” Blackman says. “We started daring to say to ourselves, ‘wouldn’t it be magical to live here?’”
As Blackman and Lukensmeyer began considering in earnest a relocation, Blackman says that they realized “none of the roadblocks to moving here were real.” Once they got intentional about making the Methow Valley their home, pieces fell into place serendipitously. Lukensmeyer found a job working with Room One on behalf of homeless youth in Okanogan County, and soon after it was Lukensmeyer who spotted the MVRU job posting.
“It seemed like a dream job for me,” says Blackman, “and during the interview I felt alive and connected. We all went out and visited the horses. I thought to myself, ‘These people could feel like family.’”
Ready for the country
Blackman and Lukensmeyer have recently relocated from Tacoma, but they’re no starry-eyed city slickers. “I grew up consistently trying to get away from the city,” Blackman says. “We camp. We lived in a tree house in North Bend and in a tiny house in Seattle. We helped start a co-op farm in Concrete. We know how to chop wood and carry water.”
Additionally, Blackman’s job with the Girl Scouts had her managing eight big parcels of property and more than two dozen horses. “I’ve always been connected to the land,” she says.
And connected to horses, too, apparently. Ahearn notes that Blackman “truly understands how horses can help people through the various struggles we all face in our lives.” Grasping this connection is critical for the MVRU director, says Ahearn, since “MVRU is poised for big things.”
One of MVRU’s big goals is to expand its Let ’Em Ride program, which is its partnership with the Methow Valley School District. Let ’Em Ride fosters social and emotional development in an outdoor learning environment, interacting with horses. MVRU also wants to build out its therapeutic riding and horsemanship programs, says Ahearn, “to help people who have experienced trauma.”
On an operations level, Blackman will focus on organizational development, strategy, and leadership, while Annie Budiselich, “Annie B,” who is the founder and has been the face of MVRU for 25 years, will continue to direct programs, train horses and teach riding. Blackman emphasizes her interest in making horsemanship “accessible and affordable” for all who have interest. “It’s how I got into horses,” she says. “There was an accessible and affordable program where I grew up. Otherwise I never would have had the opportunity.”
When she’s not at holding the reins at MVRU, Blackman is learning to classic ski, enjoying her cat and two dogs, and reading. When the snow melts, she wants to play tennis and softball, hike and get out into the backcountry. She also plans to continue to explore her passion for theater and storytelling, helping individuals tell their stories and guiding organizations through articulating their missions in a compelling manner.
But for now, just a couple of weeks into her new job, Blackman is focused on talking to MVRU stakeholders, getting to know the community, welcoming visitors to MVRU at Moccasin Lake Ranch, and crafting her role as MVRU’s executive director. “The process is exciting,” she says, “and it also feels like coming home.”
For more information about Methow Valley Riding Unlimited, visit www.mvriding.org.