I ran into Patrick Swayze one evening…

pats4aNo, seriously…I ran into Patrick Swayze.

Many years ago I trained Arabian horses, mostly young horses.  I would get them started under saddle, maybe take them to a few horse shows and then they’d go on to other trainers who showed nationally if they had the talent.  That was something I had neither the time, nor the desire to do.  One of the problems I would run into  was that where I trained I usually rode by myself, maybe with one other horse but never in a big arena full of horses.  Until I would get to a horse show.

So, here I was at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center in Katy, TX with one of my favorite young horses, “Shot in the Dark” a.k.a. “Houdini”.  He was an incredibly talented young horse and a really handsome one as well.  Back then Patrick Swayze owned and showed Arabian Horses and worked with a trainer in Tomball, TX so it wasn’t uncommon to see him at a show.  Patrick was really serious about showing horses and it was delightful to see him every time he won a ribbon because it obviously meant a great deal to him.  It wasn’t a given that he would do well and I think that made it all the more meaningful.

At this particular show the word had gotten out that Patrick would be there.  I felt bad for him.  Excited fans leaning over the rail while he was trying to warm up or show his Western Pleasure horse, a class in which the horse needs to be steady and obedient, wasn’t what he needed.  It was disruptive for everyone but especially for him when his horse would get spooked by some crazed fan. 

Things weren’t going particularly well for me either.  Houdini had never been in a ring with other horses; never been in an indoor arena and was so freaked out that I had people coming up to me and asking questions like, “Wow, how do you stay on him?”  Screaming fans with flailing arms weren’t helping.  After the first day I had pretty much decided that we wouldn’t be showing; we’d just stay there and work in the arena so he could get more accustomed to it.

The second evening of the show I was working Houdini in the warm-up ring and doing my level best to keep him from leaping into the air.  He was starting to settle in and stop seeing boogie-men everywhere.  Patrick was warming up his horse in preparation for a class.  Here I was going around off the rail in one direction; Patrick coming the opposite direction on the rail.  Everything was going OK until a rabid fan leaned out over the rail just as I was coming up even with him and his horse.  Houdini lost it.  He zigged one way and then wheeled around the opposite direction right smack dab into Patrick and his horse.  Wham!!  I was mortified.  Please, God, just let there be a giant hole open up and swallow me into the ground.  I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse if I had fallen off but I did manage to stay in the saddle.   I just wanted to disappear.  I have a vague recollection of mumbling an apology and slinking off.  

The good news is that Patrick was able to collect his horse before he had to go into the show ring.  I don’t remember for sure if he won anything but he put on a respectable showing and was none the worse for wear for having been body slammed five minutes before show time.  I mustered up the courage to offer a sheepish apology later on which he accepted graciously.  I didn’t know him well but he seemed like that kind of a guy.  He just wanted to fit in around the barns and be able to compete well and without a lot of fuss; difficult for a man as handsome as he was, much less for a movie star.

I can’t say that I’m grateful to Houdini for having attempted to do a tap-dance on Patrick Swayze’s head, but I have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to the opportunities, good times and good friends I met while training horses.  Houdini actually got his act together and went on to do pretty well in the show ring.  And I am very grateful for forgiving movie stars who get that things don’t always go perfectly, even when you’re rich and famous.

The little pony that could…

Sunny-Dressage

Sunny and I competing in our first Dressage competition

Sunny was one of the most fearless horses I ever had the opportunity to work with.  Okay, he wasn’t a horse…he was a pony, but his heart was huge.

Sunny actually belonged to my blacksmith who had trained him to pull a cart and he asked me if I might like to try my hand at Combined Driving with Sunny.  Combined Driving is an event similar to Three-Day Eventing only the horses (or ponies) are pulling carts.  There are levels for varying degrees of proficiency and for single horses pulling two-wheel carts all the way up to four-in-hands pulling large four-wheel carts.  They consist of three separate competitions, typically over a 2 or 3 day period; Dressage, Marathon and Obstacles/Cones.

I’ll never forget our first event.  Sunny and I had trained hard.  The Dressage competition, which is performed in an arena with the horse/pony completing a series of patterns at different gaits demonstrating polish and obedience.  This was our weakest of the three competitions.  Sunny had lots of go and sometimes had difficulty with a flat-footed walk.  Nevertheless, we got through with a decent score and it was on to the Marathon.

The Marathon was where Sunny shone.  This is a cross-country competition with a series of “hazards” set up along the way.     Distances are covered for the most part at a trot but once the hazard areas are entered speed is of the essence.  The driver is required to maneuver through “gates” in a specific direction and sequence and the horse and driver are timed while in the hazard area.   A volunteer is assigned to ride along to ensure that no infractions occur while on the course.

We were all allowed to walk the Marathon course the day before the event.   Going through and planning my route through each of the hazards I had made my mind up to be conservative.  This was our first event after all and we didn’t need any mishaps.

I’ll never forget the volunteer that rode with me that day.  She arrived decked out in a beautiful skirt and boots more appropriate for a day at the polo matches than for a ride cross-country in a cart.  I remember saying, “You do know we’re going to be driving through mud and water, don’t you?  Would you prefer to change in to something else?”  She said she was fine so off we went when our number was called.  The first trot section was uneventful and I remember my excitement as we approached the first hazard.  It involved maneuvering through and around trees, some with just barely enough room for the cart to fit through.  I was proceeding cautiously but still managed to hang a wheel up on a tree.  I stopped for a moment to try to figure the best way out of it but Sunny would have none of that.  He surged on ahead and the wheel went up the side of the trunk momentarily then over and safely through the gate.  It was as if he was telling me, “Nonsense!  Let me do my job…we can do this!!”

After that I confess that I threw all caution to the wind.  We negotiated the hazards at amazing speed, over railroad ties, through water that was up to Sunny’s belly, in and around trees — Sunny could do it all.  People watching us said that the look on my face as we flew through the hazards was a mixture of glee and that of a woman possessed.  At one point the woman riding with me said, “You’re really good at this; you must have been doing this a long time.”  The look on her face when I answered, “No, this is my first event!” was somewhat hysterical.  She looked slightly terrified and took a much firmer grip on the cart with each passing hazard.

That evening we had a dinner at which they announced the standings after the first two competitions.  I was thrilled to find out that Sunny and I were in first place in our level!! We just had to make a clean trip through the obstacles the next day and we’d be home free.

The Obstacles/Cones are the driving equivalent to the Show Jumping section of a Three-Day Event.  Each cart is measured and cones were placed with only 40 cm of clearance for our division.  Tennis balls are placed atop the cones and pony and driver must maneuver a specific course between cones with penalties for any balls knocked out of place.  Additional penalties are given for exceeding the time allowed for the course.  Sunny and I made it through with no penalties which was all we needed to secure our win!

Judi & Sunny
We went on to compete and do very well at several driving events over the next couple of years.  I will always remember with gratitude the great joy that driving Sunny gave me.  It was a true partnership and I loved every moment of driving the “little pony that could”.

About those horses…

Horse books
About half way through the school year I was forbidden by my second grade teacher to write one more book report on a horse story.  Yes, I was obsessed and to that point had not even been on the back of a horse outside of the occasional pony ride at the county fair.

We moved back to Bethesda, MD from Taiwan the summer before third grade.  After much begging my parents agreed to allow me to start horseback riding lessons.  Once a week I would anxiously await the bus from Camp Furman that would take me to Potomac to what for me, was heaven on earth.  From that time on I lived and breathed horses.  When I wasn’t riding I was reading about horses.  I could tell you the name of every winner of the Kentucky Derby from it’s inception in 1875.  We would set up jump courses in the backyard and gallop around on our imaginary horses pretending we were in some big international horse show.

By the time I was 11 or 12 I was working at the camp; cleaning stalls, feeding and watering horses, taking out trail rides.  I wasn’t getting paid a dime and I couldn’t have cared less.  I was around horses and soaking in every moment.  When we weren’t at the camp my friends Linda and Dale and I spent every extra moment we could manage on the phone talking about horses.

A year or so later we started hanging out at another barn.  Mr. Little would buy horses from the auction barn and get them ready as field hunters or show jumpers and then resell them.   This was a time when there were horse farms aplenty in Potomac and lots and lots of fields to ride through and fences to jump.  We were fearless…when I think of what we used to jump over without hesitation on horses that we didn’t really know all that well…there must have been guardian angels watching over us.

The hard part was hard seeing the horses that we had grown to love leave the farm for new homes.  To Mr. Little’s credit he put up with my sobbing as a horse would leave for a new home with grace and understanding.  It was a business for him but he was not unsympathetic.

Nevertheless, it was a magical time.  I learned so much about riding and caring for horses.  I also learned a lot about life.  I learned the value of hard work.  I made wonderful friends and worked with really good people.   I would leave the barn filthy and exhausted but full of joy every time.  I was living a young, horse crazy girl’s dream.