Model HorsewomanSep 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Judith Sornberger
As a girl, Michelle Sepiol always envied her brother who received model ships and airplanes as gifts. She wished she was given “something to put together, glue, and paint,” too. Instead, her gifts were model horses, which were nice enough, “but you couldn’t do anything with them.”
Years later, as an adult in 2000 and the leader of her daughters’ 4-H club, the Tioga County, Pennsylvania, native discovered there was something you could do with model horses.
Designing and creating saddles, bridles, reins, and harnesses for Breyer horses (eight and a half inches tall at the ears and about ten inches long) was a project 4-H had developed for “inner city kids who couldn’t have a horse.” Although Michelle’s family had had horses when she was growing up, and she had them as an adult, she thought the project would be good for her 4-Hers. Each year, as they worked on a different aspect of their model horses’ tack, they learned about live horses, practiced dexterity, exercised their creativity, honed research skills, and gained historical knowledge.
In 2019, Michelle got back into the model horse-creating saddle on her own, making the horses’ tack as well as creating dolls to ride them. The lower level of her home is both her workshop and a display space for her creations, one entire wall dedicated to glassed-in shelves holding all manner of horses and riders. Crocheted afghans and colorful quilts decorate the room, evidence that, long before engaging in horse artistry, Michelle couldn’t keep her hands still or her creativity reined in. She says she takes after her grandfather, Peter Conte, who was literally “a busy body”—trapping, hunting, fishing, and making model airplanes.
“He had something going all the time. I kind of know the feeling,” she says, chuckling, since she’s always teaching herself how to do something new. For instance, she recently started making vehicles to go with the harness horses and crafting other animals to fit in vignettes.
Michelle is proud of the fact that, except for the horses, she constructs each piece of her artworks by hand, which is not the case for everyone competing in model horse shows. Some of the pieces take weeks to produce. She purchases eight-inch manufactured doll bodies in bulk and customizes them, using her Dremel tool to sculpt them, including creating space in the inner thighs so the legs fit around the horse. The dolls are multi-articulated, making them poseable, and can be taken apart and reassembled to suit the situation Michelle is creating. She removes their hair and uses acetone to remove their factory painted faces.
“Then I create my own little people. I paint on new faces, re-hair them with a natural fiber called viscose, and create clothing for them.”
Depending on the character she is creating, the hairstyles can be nearly as intricate as the riders’ costumes. Her display Performing the Marinera Cabello de Paso Peruano, based on the national dance of Peru, includes a horse, a male rider, and a female dancing barefoot as the horse and rider circle her. As with all her pieces, Michelle conducted extensive research on the dancer’s costume, since “this flirtatious and romantic dance is done in the native costume of Peru.” A stickler for detail, she fashioned the doll’s hair in a bun at the nape of her neck and twisted narrow braids around it.
On the wall opposite the displayed horses and riders, a large bulletin board is loaded with ribbons Michelle has won at competitions called live shows (versus photo shows). Horses and dolls that depict particular riders or kinds of riders and their horses are entered with detailed descriptions. One of the most embellished horse and rider combinations is an American Indian woman of the Crow Nation who, Michelle explains on her entry card, is participating in the Crow Fair Parade near Billings, Montana, where riders wear traditional tack and dresses adorned with elk teeth. Michelle’s rider wears beaded leather moccasins and a bone choker. Her hair is “plaited with otter fur,” and hanging at her side is a papoose in a cradle board. It is almost unthinkable that all these tiny items were made by hand, the overall effect being jaw-droppingly exquisite.
Lady Mary Crawley, one of the main characters in the PBS television series Downton Abbey, set in Yorkshire between 1912 and 1926, is quite a departure from Michelle’s Western-style riders. Michelle has written that “since [the series’] debut in 2010, there has been a revival in the art of riding sidesaddle.” The artist has depicted the glamorous young woman heading out to a fox hunt in a silk top hat with veil, a close-fitting jacket, and a riding skirt.
In a tribute to one of her heroes, Michelle created the display she calls Barrel Racing, without Legs, depicting Amberley Snyder and her horse Power. In 2010, the champion rider was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident; nevertheless, she later returned to competition, winning several major prizes.
One of Michelle’s favorite displays is Mountain Man. Based loosely on the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson, with Robert Redford in the title role, Michelle points out special details: his powder horn she made from a rooster spur and his hat made of chipmunk fur. She had to get a special permit from the Pennsylvania Game Commission to use the fur from an animal her cat killed. Although Michelle alludes to the character Redford portrays, you can’t help wondering if he isn’t also a nod to her hunting, trapping, and fishing grandfather.
On September 9, Michelle will be hosting the Tioga County Model Horse Show at the Tioga County Fairgrounds in Whitneyville. The show, which runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., is open to the public, and admission is free.