Equine Escape Into Isolation

Beyond binging on comfort food during this pandemic, today I need a comfort horseback ride after yet another zoom meeting and another masked supermarket trip. My ride begins with a meditation of sorts—grooming the horse. Big Bea loves to roll in the manure pile, I believe to spite me so I will groom her more. When I give her this “spa treatment” her pendulous lower lip quivers. Before I sling my saddle on her back, I clean the savage beast of dirt and debris. Each flick of the brush dispatches dust and dung. A final pull of the comb through her mane and tail finishes the routine. 

            When I settle into my buff-colored saddle and pick up the reins to her gleaming copper bit, Big Bea perks up, ears prick forward. This 18-year-old, mighty Percheron “flea-bitten” gray draft, sparkles brilliantly white in the dark landscape. She is covered in tiny smudge marks, like someone took a charcoal pencil and drew dashes all over her coat. Her round, powerful rump devoid of this artistry, propels us deeper into the woods. 

            Astride I scan for flora and fauna. I spot a cacophony of chipmunks, and fortunately, I don’t see the brown bear spotted in the neighborhood last week. As we advance, Bea breathing heavy as she moves her 1,800 pounds up a steep incline, I spot the flora I’ve been waiting years to see—Mountain Laurel in bloom. 

Tiny white cups perched on shiny, dark green, almond-shaped leaves, precariously dangling off twisted, woody branches. I reach out to touch the delicate blooms, its insides filled with fine lines of pink and red dots dancing inside the pentagonal design. My gloved hand prevents the tactile thrill of petal touching I yearn for. We move along the ferns, a deep, lacy carpet Big Bea’s legs gingerly move out of the way as she trots along. Swish, swish, swish, like an equine metronome keeping the rhythm of exploration. 

            Riding alone in the dense forest through thick underbrush, across clear streams, and into lush meadows comforts me, ironically, from the isolation of staying home. There are no sounds of humanity, or email alerts, just nature. I see not a traffic sign nor hear a car, the stillness only broken by the screech of an owl, the caw of a crow, or the lyrics of songbirds. 

When we exit the woods into an acres-wide great meadow on my way home, I am thrust into a riot of sunshine, vibrating grasses, and scattering red-winged blackbirds. If I am lucky, I see the jet-black Swifts darting across a blue sky in a feeding frenzy. It’s here Big Bea stops to graze. She lowers her head to snatch long clumps of moist grass, her comfort food. Her molars grinding the stalks root me in a horse’s purpose in the landscape. Eat grass, poop to fertilize, grow more grass. A shifting wind gathers across the field, tall grasses sashaying, waving to us. I inhale the scenery of calm.  


Regina Brown Last Seen Alive ~ March 26, 1987

Regina Brown was last seen alive 29 years ago today — March 26, 1987.


Regina Brown, right, with her mother Ernestine Fontenot during happier times

Two weeks prior to her disappearance,  Regina Brown, an American Airlines flight attendant, was reading about the disappearance of Helle Crafts, another Newtown flight attendant whose pilot husband had recently been arrested for her murder. In Danbury Superior Court, a three-day probable cause hearing from March 10th to the 12th, was held to determine if the state had enough evidence to proceed with the prosecution of Richard Crafts for the murder of Helle.

As a reporter for The Newtown Bee I wrote on March 13, 1987:

“Helle Crafts told her attorney that if anything was to happen to her during her divorce proceedings from her husband Richard, not to assume that it was an accident, Attorney Dianne Anderson testified in the probable cause hearing, in which Mr Crafts is charged with the murder of his wife.” 

Many of those close to Regina said she followed the Crafts case closely, even keeping newspaper clippings about the case in her kitchen drawer. She began to tell friends, most notably Hope Lambert, what Helle Crafts told her divorce attorney, if anything should happen to her not to assume it was an accident. Regina’s words to Hope: “If you don’t here from me after I send the children to Texas, than Willis will have done to me what he promised to do.”

In September 1986, the court had issued a restraining order against Willis Brown, to stay away from Regina, the house and the children, based on a documented history of domestic violence against Regina. Willis Brown also was reluctant to admit that the children were his, and by March 1987, the three children had been submitted for a total of six paternity tests, all requested by Willis Brown.

Regina had on March 21, placed her two older children, Nicholas and Reina, on a plane to Texas to stay with her parents, Emile and Ernestine Fontenot in Liberty, Texas.

According to Lambert, Regina called her on March 22 to say her husband threatened to kill her and the three children, who at the time were 4, 3 and less than 2 years old. On March 25, Regina called Lambert again and said that she was sending her last child, Ashley, and the baby sitter, Sharon Ryan, to her parents in Texas. She told Lambert that she should call Texas the next day to see if she had arrived and if Lambert did not here from Regina by March 27, to wait a few days until March 30th and if she still did not hear from Regina to call police.

Regina never did appear in Texas and she never contacted Hope Lambert either. But Lambert never called police in the wake of Regina’s disappearance either. It was her neighbor Linda Van Horn who notified Newtown Police on April 2, that Regina Brown had not been seen since March 26, 1987.

March 26, 1987

What exactly happened that day? At approximately 4 p.m. the Brown’s babysitter Sharon Ryan drove Regina and Ashley in Regina’s gold Honda Civic from their Newtown home to New York. First they stopped in Danbury before heading to La Guardia Airport. They drove down Route 6 from Newtown into Danbury and stopped at the Path Mark supermarket to buy a half gallon of Sealtest milk, a half gallon of Tropicana orange juice, and a plastic container of chili, which Regina ate partially en route to the airport. She cashed a $20 check at the supermarket.

The next stop was McDonalds, where Regina purchased a Happy Meal for Ashley. The same McDonalds where the Crafts nanny, Dawn Marie Thomas, worked the night of ‘Storm Carl’ on November 18, 1986, the last night that Helle Crafts was seen alive. This was the last meal Regina would provided for her youngest daughter.
After McDonalds, they stopped and used $8 of the $20 to fill the car up with gas at the Mobile gas station at Exit 8 off I-84. Then Ryan drove the car to La Guardia, where Regina was based as a flight attendant with American Airlines. Ryan noted that when driving Regina’s Honda she used Regina’s key ring which had 6 to 7 keys on it. Ryan later told police that prior to leaving for the airport, she overheard Regina on a telephone call at home telling someone to let themselves in to feed the dog.

Regina had gotten a mixed breed puppy named Sport, part Brittany Spaniel, just a few months earlier. By the time of her disappearance the puppy was approximately 9 months old. The puppy was in need of some shots and vaccinations, but Regina couldn’t afford them, as she told her divorce attorney. She said she struggled to pay for expenses for her children, since Willis, her estranged husband, was late paying her the court-ordered child support she needed. Willis Brown was a pilot with American Airlines and also owned and operated The Moped Man, a moped rental business on Block Island, Rhode Island.  Regina opted to pay for the needs of the children before the puppy.

Barking Dog 

When they arrived at La Guardia that night, Ryan and Ashely went into the American Airlines terminal while Regina parked the car in the employee parking lot. Later she joined them in the terminal, after picking up her most recent pay check. Then she left them again to make a few phone calls from a pay phone at the airport.

At 7:08 p.m. Regina calls Liberty, Texas, charges the call to her home phone, and speaks with her mother. It is the last time she speaks with her mother. Shortly thereafter, Regina Brown put her youngest child, Ashley, then 19-months-old, on a plane to Texas. She kissed her goodbye. It was the last time anyone saw her alive.

Based on evidence collected by local police, it appears Regina Brown did return to her home that night.  She had told friends and family that she planned to fix up the home, get things in order, and then join her children and parents in Texas in the coming days.

On March 27, 1987, at approximately 2:30 a.m. – Regina’s next door neighbor called the Brown residence to ask why the family’s dog was barking constantly and keeping the neighbors awake. There is no answer to the phone call at the Brown residence and the neighbors call the police.

At 2:41 a.m. the neighbors call the Newtown Police Department. According to the log book, filled in by the dispatcher, dated March 27, 1987 2:41 am, the neighbor “complains that Mr. Brown is not home and dog is barking.” It was noted that no cop was sent by the dispatcher on duty.

I interviewed those neighbors in 2006, who had since moved to another home in Newtown. They said, they actually went over to the house that night after the cops wouldn’t send any one. The husband said he saw the dog in the breezeway of the Brown home, tied up and barking. The breezeway was a hallway between the main residence and the detached garage at 18 Whipporwill Hill Road.

As I continued to research a Connecticut Magazine cover story I was writing, published in June 2007, a retired Newtown Police detective told me, “We should have sent someone to the house on the barking dog complaint, it might have made a huge difference.”

As it turned out, the event provided police with a first clue, a staring off point for the investigation into the disappearance of Regina Brown.

Reporter’s Notebook: Regina Brown on this date in history

March 1987 was a haunting month in Newtown, Connecticut.

On March 1, 1987, American Airlines flight attendant Regina Brown was in the midst of a divorce from her estranged husband Willis Brown, Jr. The 35-year-old Newtown resident was planning ahead for the safety of herself and her three children.


Regina Brown circa 1980s – Northeast Magazine 1990

She was planning on returning to work so she did not have to completely depend on her husband of four years. The 51-year-old American Airlines pilot was already two to three weeks late with weekly child support payments of $170, she told her attorney in a letter.


Willis Brown, Jr. on Block Island – August 2006

Based on a documented history of domestic violence against her, the state had recently awarded her temporary custody of her children and the Whippoorwill Hill Road house as well as issued a restraining order against Willis. Regina told friends she was planning an Easter party with her children the following month.

But no one in Newtown escaped the growing media coverage surrounding the so-called woodchipper murder case. Eastern Airlines pilot Richard Crafts was arrested on January 13, 1987 for the murder of his wife, Helle Crafts.


Richard Crafts Perp Walk at Danbury Superior Court – January 13, 1987

Just like Regina, she too was a Newtown flight attendant, married to a pilot, with three children in the midst of a divorce. The probable cause hearing — which would detail the state’s case to proceed to trial — was scheduled to start on March 10 in Danbury Superior Court. The same court Regina’s divorce case was being heard.

For the first time the public would learn the gruesome details of how Richard Crafts carried out the murder of his lovely Danish wife.


Helle Crafts circa 1986 ~ Newtown Police Department photo

How he killed her at their home on Newfield Lane on November 19, 1986. How he disposed of the mother of his children using a rented commercial woodchipper into Lake Zoar. Everyone would read in the newspapers how Richard Crafts almost got away with the perfect crime.


Reporter’s Notebook: Storm Carl ~ On this date in history  

When I walked in the door 30 years ago and took a look around at The Newtown Bee’s newsroom, it was the most curious newspaper I had ever seen. Among antiques, a wooden carousel horse, and bee memorabilia was a giant ball of tin foil in the publisher R. Scudder Smith’s office, marking decades of sandwiches for lunch.

The Bee’s offices on Church Hill Road building are just down the hill from the old congregational church on Main Street in Newtown, Connecticut. Folklore has it the holes in it’s rooster weathervane atop the steeple were made by bullets shot by Rochambeau’s army on his way to Danbury to fight the British in 1777. In front of the church, in the middle of the state highway, sits a 150-foot tall metal flagpole. Old glory waving at the passing motorists.

Cub Reporter

Fresh out of college, in my early 20s, this journalist was ready to take on the world, to be a member of the fourth estate, to probe government, to investigate for the public good. Hired on October 28, 1985 as a staff reporter for the police beat, I ended up writing about roaming sheep, flags stolen off the pole and dead people.


Juxtaposed with the vintage ephemera that surrounded my desk was the new computer monitor with its green glowing LED screen. It was cutting edge newspaper publishing in the 1980s. My editor Curtiss Clark sat in a small office whose window abutted my desk. Sometimes he peered through the window like he was looking through a two-way mirror watching the phone interrogations by his reporters on the townspeople of Newtown.


Cub Reporter Lisa at her desk at the Newtown Bee ~ 1986

My first story was about a one million dollar property transfer from a doctor’s estate to Danbury Hospital for a new wing and a tower. It was to be named in Dr. Stroock’s memory. As part of the story, I toured his 300-acre Buckeye Farm on the corner of Cemetery and Flat Swamp roads, located in Newtown’s Poverty Hollow district. This part of town was dotted with dairy farms, rolling pastures and landscapes that screamed bucolic.

Missing Wives

Little did I know, that a year earlier, just down the road was a barn belonging to a young mother who was missing. In fact, her case kicked off a string of missing Newtown wives and suspect husbands — Elizabeth Heath, Helle Crafts and Regina Brown — all in the 1980s. These murder cases would embroil and devour the Newtown Police Department, for which I had just been hired to cover as my beat.

About a year after I started my Bee tenure  — on Nov. 19, 1986 — Storm “Carl” battered the small New England town. This late autumn snowstorm encased everything, including the power lines, in icy inches. A photographer from our rival daily newspaper, The News-Times in Danbury, had traveled to the top of Castle Hill. He captured one of the most iconic images, on one of most unforgettable days. White buildings, a gray steeple, snow-covered evergreens and the flagpole took on a silent blue hue. The only color in the photo was the American flag, the one frequently stolen, blowing in a stiff breeze.


Newtown, Connecticut ~ View From Castle Hill ~ November 19, 1986

There was no power. The town was cold. The Bee offices were closed that morning. I stayed home. To stay warm, I nestled in my bed with my dogs, since my electric heat would not work. Looking out my window, all I saw was my breathe and ice.


View from my bedroom window ~ After Storm Carl ~ November 19, 1986

Regina Brown, a 34-year-old American Airlines stewardess, was at her Whippoorwill Hill Road home that morning. In the middle of a divorce from her airline pilot husband, she felt vulnerable after the storm. Her house too was heated by electricity. There was a coal stove in the basement that would provide some warmth, but she needed help. Against her better judgment — she did have three young children to keep warm after all — she called her estranged husband, their father, to come over to the house. To the same house that the courts had barred him from entering with a restraining order just a month earlier based on a history of domestic violence. Storm Carl forced Willis Brown, Jr. back into Regina’s Brown’s life.

But what none of us knew that morning, is that another Newtown airline stewardess, Helle Crafts, with three young children, in the midst of a divorce from her airline pilot husband, who lived less than three miles away from Regina, had just been murdered.




Throwback Thursday Horses: Mother/Daughter Maclay Winners Redux

Last night I had the pleasure of interviewing the National Horse Show’s 2015 Maclay Equitation Champion McKayla Langmeier for an upcoming issue of Connecticut Horse Magazine. Before the interview when I learned that her mother Linda (Kossick) Langmeier had won the Maclay in 1983, making them the first-ever mother/daughter team to achieve this honor, it sparked a deja vu for me.

While making lunch it hit me. In 1983, I was a staff reporter at the New Haven Journal-Courier (the now-defunct morning paper of the New Haven Register) and I remember interviewing a Maclay winner from Connecticut. Anxious to confirm my suspicions, I raced to the basement and dug into boxes of my newspaper clippings I’ve hoarded for more than 35 years. Then I found it! The yellowing front page of the Family & Leisure section, with an article I penned under the headline State teen’s ride clinched a national title. Staring back at me was Linda Kossick’s smiling teenage face with her horse and dog.

Newspaper clipping - State teen's ride clinched a national title - from the New Haven Journal-Courier, November 25, 1983

Newspaper clipping – State teen’s ride clinched a national title – from the New Haven Journal-Courier, November 25, 1983

I had taken a few photos of Linda that day with her retired horses out in the paddock. I had such fun interviewing her as I had been one of those little girls – just like her – who loved horses and dreamed of riding and winning in Madison Square Garden at the National Horse Show. Here’s one of my favorite photos:

Linda Kossick Langmeier and her childhood horses

Linda Kossick Langmeier and her childhood horses in 1983 just after her Maclay victory

So this Throwback Thursday has come full circle. I’m proud to write about McKayla Langmeier’s accomplishment just as I was so many years ago for her mother. Does that make me the first-ever journalist to interview both the mother and the daughter right after their Maclay victories? Any other horse writers out there who did this too? Would love to hear from you!

MTA Police Canine 2015 Graduates – New York’s Furriest

The most recent Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)  police graduates came heeling into Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall October 21st amid the Pomp And Circumstance Walking Commencement March and the MTA Pipe & Drum Band Ceremonial Unit presenting of the colors.

MTA Pipe & Drum Corps presents the colors at the MTA Police Canine Explosive Detection Graduation

MTA Pipe & Drum Band Ceremonial Unit presents the colors at the MTA Police Canine Explosive Detection Graduation

After bagpipe music filled the cavernous terminal, everyone fell silent when the Phantom of the Opera’s Marcus Lovett sang the National Anthem. A moment of national pride.

Only thing better than hearing bagpipes in Grand Central Terminal is Marcus Lovett singing the National Anthem

Only thing better than hearing bagpipes in Grand Central Terminal is Marcus Lovett singing the National Anthem

This ceremony was like none other.

Marcus Lovett during rehearsal. He sang the National Anthem after the presenting of colors and America The Beautiful during the recessional

Marcus Lovett, left, during rehearsal. He sang the National Anthem after the presenting of colors and America The Beautiful during the recessional

Among the 19 law enforcement canine graduates, there were 15 MTA police dogs and two from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. There were German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, several that were a mix of those two breeds, and two adorable yellow labs, hailing from the United States Park Police. The proud canine handlers and their partners walked forward, one-by-one, executed a sit, and received their new badges dangling from a collar hung around their necks.

Graduates received either the 12-week explosive detection training and / or the 16-week anti-terrorism training at the MTA’s 72-acre training facility in Stormville, NY. During the ceremony the canine unit’s executive officer Lt. John Kerwick, explained how these dogs are a valuable tool with, “four legs, a brain, keen instincts, good eyesight and a nose that is 3000 times stronger than humans. They can interrupt a threat to keep MTA customers and employees safe.” One dog can scan an unattended package in minutes versus calling in the bomb squad. The MTA Police Canine Unit, founded in 2002, is one of the largest explosives detection units in the country. They have approximately 50 dogs, which last year responded to 25,860 requests for service and inspected and cleared 2,584 unattended packages.

Each handler received a diploma, each canine received a badge, and each family of the dog's namesake received a plaque

Each handler received a diploma, each canine received a badge, and each family of the dog’s namesake received a plaque. Then all posed for a group photo to commemorate graduation

Connecticut MTA Police Canines 

And while these police canines are first responders to a dangerous threat, they also carry a tribute each time their handler calls their name. Each of them is named for a fallen hero or dedicated officer. As each graduate received his badge, the family members of the canine’s namesake were invited to come to the podium to share a moment of sacrifice and service that the dog’s name will carry on. Each family received a commemorative plaque with the dog’s photo, name and a description of the officer’s sacrifice and service. Three of the graduates live in Connecticut and these are their stories.

K-9 George and MTA Police Officer Allan Fong from Fairfield. George was named in honor of Police Officer George Wong of the NYPD, who died on May 24, 2011, from illnesses he contracted after inhaling toxic materials as he participated in the rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Fong said he wanted to name his dog after Wong, who helped him as a young NYPD officer.  He and George have been through months of training in tracking, article recovery, subject searching, wide field search, and handler protection. The 91-pound German Shepherd/Malinois mixed-breed is Fong’s first police dog.

K-9 George and MTA Police Officer Allan Fong after graduation

K-9 George and MTA Police Officer Allan Fong after graduation

“He has a very good temperament, is great at home, loves coming to work, loves being in the back of the truck,” Fong said. “He can’t get enough of coming to work!” And while his main purpose is to patrol MTA properties, he also assists other agencies in need of assistance, such as tracking down lost children. Each dog and handler develop a deep bond working so many hours together. “I’m with him like almost 24/7,” Fong said. “I spend more time with George than I do with my wife or kids.”

K-9 Johnny and MTA Police Officer Kevin Pimpinelli of Naugatuck. Johnny is named in honor of Sergeant John Mullen of the MTA Police Department, who suffered a fatal heart attack while on duty on January 26, 2007. Mullen was Pimpinelli’s supervisor for many years. In fact, Pimpinelli’s first dog, Mullen was also named for the late MTA sergeant. There were 12 Mullen family members in attendance at Johnny’s graduation.

K-9 Johnny as he appears on his own trading card. Each of the MTA Police Canines have cards that handlers can share with children. On the back of the card Johnny says, "If you see something, say something."

K-9 Johnny as he appears on his own trading card. Each of the MTA Police Canines have cards that handlers can share with children. On the back of the card Johnny says, “If you see something, say something.”

K-9 Johnny had a blast at the graduation. “He’s a social dog, loves people petting him, little kids walk right up to him and even loves getting a belly rub,” Pimpinelli said. The two-year-old purebred German Shepherd was born in the Netherlands. He is fully trained for explosives detection and certified in NY and CT. K-9 Johnny can detect about 15 different explosive odors. “Once he finds one, he’ll sit and stare right at that item. Then I have to interpret what he is doing.” Pimpinelli explained. It’s this communication between dog and handler that creates a great team.

Pimpinelli said that his first dog Mullen is retired and lives as his home. He joked that Johnny and Mullen both vie for his attention. “They both sleep in the bedroom, one is on one side of the bed and one is on the other side of the bed. Sometimes, they both try to be on just one side.”

K-9 Vinny and MTA Sgt. William Finucane of Guildford. Vinny is named in honor of Sgt. Vincent J. Oliva of the Port Authority Police Department, who died on November 27, 2013, after a battle with cancer. Sergeant Oliva led the Port Authority Police Department’s Canine Unit. Today, Sgt. Finucane, is the head trainer for the MTA police canine unit. It was him and three assistant trainers — police officers John Brazil, Nelson Hernandez, and Allen Kirsch — that trained the 2015 graduating class.

Sgt. William Finucane asked K-9 Vinny to sit to receive his new badge at the MTA Police Canine graduation at Grand Central Terminal

Sgt. William Finucane asked K-9 Vinny to sit to receive his new badge at the MTA Police Canine graduation at Grand Central Terminal

K-9 Vinny, is Finucane’s fifth dog, and came to him serendipitously. “He wasn’t a planned dog. Vinny was going to replace another dog that was having problems, but he made it. So now I have a dog with no handler,” Finucane recalled. His dog was 12 years old and ready to retire, so Vinny became his.

Thanks to Lt. John Kerwick for inviting me to this very special occasion!

Lt. John Kerwick, his recent graduate K-9 Seabee, a German Shepherd, and me.

Lt. John Kerwick, his recent graduate K-9 Seabee, a German Shepherd, and me.

Trail Riding During Mad Dash at Fairfield Hills

Last time I rode on the grounds of Fairfield Hills it was the late 1990s for the Second Company Governor’s Horse Guard Judged Pleasure Ride. This annual event has obstacles to tackle, things to pull, gates to open and executing some pretty scary stuff that you’ve probably never done on your horse before that day. Aside from the mylar balloons that thwarted our team’s chances at glory that year (we came in second) its challenges are nothing compared to what I encountered this past Saturday trail riding during the Mad Dash Adventure Race, but more about that later.

Oz and me head out on a trial ride from the Fairfield Hills Campus

Oz and me are ready  to head out on a trial ride from the Fairfield Hills Campus. Photo Credit: Ray Peterson 

A Sea of Timothy Grasses

This past month, I’ve been blessed to return to ride the hills. A benevolent friend takes her horses and me out to enjoy this hidden beauty nestled in the center of town. I don’t know who or what organization mows those lovely paths around the perimeter of the fields, but thanks! It creates long ribbons of green velvet that cushions unshod hooves at the canter while riders can focus on the majesty around them. The tall grasses, crying to be turned into succulent bales, surround us so we look like floating upper bodies in a sea of timothy.  Unlike higher elevations in town, the sky opens up at these hills with clouds dusting the treetops, when the wind is just right.

A red barn, a brown barn, a ghostly metal pavilion dot the landscape as we bob along. We land at crumbling roads, now more gravel than tarmac, fallen prey to rainwater, erosion and neglect. We dive into open vistas, birds dart from the grassy depths as we gallop by, the good horses taking them in stride, not spooking at nature’s presence. Riding up the hills are especially joyous, faster and bolder, easier for them, more fun for us!  Sweat builds on their shoulders and haunches, signs that the day is getting hotter, and trails traversed longer. Another field, now plowed dark, waiting for seeds, fills the air with earthen scents. As we trot along the far side, silent stream to our left, fallow fields to our right, we slowly come to a walk as we met the long black driveway taking us far from where the cavalry horses and military dogs live. Ahead lies one final burst of pleasure called Yahoo Hill.

But first, we must cross Wasserman Way with rattling trucks and speeding cars, save but one, who slowed to a stop for the safe passage of the horses into the woods. A left turn, exploding up the hill, muscles rippling, hooves reaching, hocks pushing against the soft soil, trampling tall grasses down to the earth, slapping reeds echo as if cut in harvest. Atop the hill, nostrils flaring and heavy breathing from horse and rider, wide smiles all around. A great way to start the day in Newtown, still morning, not yet feeling the heat and hectic-ness of the day. Horses bow heads in agreement.

Oz & Bea plot their ride

Oz & Bea plot their ride! Photo Credit: Ray Peterson 

From Woodlands Into A Mad Dash

On Saturday, our trail ride grew to three gallant steeds and towards the end took us on a magical woodland journey. Blazing through fragrant pricker bush roses and other sweet-smelling native shrubs, disrupting bumble bees and scattering small birds, we came upon Deep Brook. Descending a rocky bank, a pause for an equine drink, up the muddy slope into soft pine needles soaking up splash and muffling footfalls.  Among majestic pines we meander along the river, up a steep incline into the cool forest. We turned right, across the Housatonic Railroad line onto a hidden, ancient trail. We walked along a former railroad bed, still clutching its old steel rails and rotting wooden ties. We weaved between strong maples disrupting the order and symmetry of the forgotten spur.  We emerged from behind the old storehouse at Fairfield Hills.

Mad Dash Race

Getting ready to load onto the trailer after the trail ride. Photo Credit: Rhonda Cullens

We ended at the intersection of Wasserman’s Way and Traders Lane. Waiting for the traffic light to turn to green, the Mad Dash Adventure Race was in full swing. Who knew? As we worked our way back to our respective horse trailers, fire engines sprayed water, tents and flags fluttered, runners scurried through mud pits, over tall wooden walls, and across slippery grass. This got the horses’ attention! As we neared our trailer, a big wave of children came crashing down on us — part of the Mini Dash for kids — dozens of them came barreling at us full speed with glowing t-shirts of orange, lime green and pink. Just before impact, they thinned into single file, banking right and away from us. The horses, prick eared, looking, thinking, moving sideways, waiting, then exhaling, relaxing, and head lowering as we ambled back to the trailer. I remarked to my friend, “Talk about distractions! We should get extra credit on our next judged pleasure ride for this performance.” The horses were great! And so was our ride!

A General’s War Horse – Civil War Style

While today marks the 150th Anniversary of President Lincoln’s Assassination, it also reminds us of the Civil War’s other tragedies, including the loss of many lives, both human and animal. Unaware of the politics of war, a Union horse, born in Connecticut, was captured and became a Confederate General’s favorite mount. Unlike his General, Little Sorrel survived the war. Here is his story: 
One of the Civil War’s most colorful commanders was General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson of the Confederate Army. During the war between the states, many generals had a string of horses, some with a favorite mount used for riding into battle.
Jackson’s most popular horse was foaled around 1850 on the Noah Collins Farm in Somers, Connecticut. According to Charles Worman’s book, Civil War Animal Heroes, Mascots, Pets and War Horses (http://www.civilwar-books.com), “Collins sold him to an Army buyer and he was one of number of mounts on a Union Supply train captured by Jackson’s force at Harper’s Ferry in 1861. Then-Colonel Jackson took several horses, one of which was originally intended as a gift for his wife and initially given the name of Fancy. But Jackson was so taken with Fancy’s easy gait and steady temperament that he retained the animal for his own use.”
Little Sorrel 
At some point Fancy’s name was changed to Little Sorrel, most likely to match his color.  Sorrel being a deep red coloring, sometimes with a flaxen mane and tail. According to connecticuthistory.org, Little Sorrel was a Morgan horse, descended from the original horse owned by Justin Morgan and whelped in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1789. This truly American breed was favored by Southern soldiers and Western cowboys alike for its calm temperament, small size and good health.
According to Major Henry Douglas, who rode with Stonewall, Little Sorrel was a “plebeian-looking little beast, not a chestnut; he was stocky and well-made, round barreled, close coupled, good shoulder, excellent legs and feet, not fourteen hands high, of boundless endurance, good appetite, good but heavy head and neck, a natural pacer with little action and no style.”

Little Sorrel After General Jackson's Death

Little Sorrel After General Jackson’s Death 

Several times Little Sorrel was accosted for trinkets from the famed general. A Union prisoner, being held close to the rump of the animal as they waited for the General to come out of his tent to determine his fate, started to pull hairs from his tail. Upon discovery, the General asked him “Why are you tearing the hair out of my horse’s tail?” to which the bemused prisoner replied, “Ah, General, each one of these hairs is worth a dollar in New York.” Apparently the general found this so amusing that the prisoner was not questioned further for Union secrets.
During the Battle of Chancellorsville Jackson was astride his favorite mount when the general was accidentally shot by friendly fire in 1863. In the confusing aftermath a terrified Little Sorrel became lost. A few days later Jackson died of his wounds and his favorite horse was not accounted for yet to join the general’s funeral procession. Eventually, he was found in Virginia and sent to the general’s widow in North Carolina by the Governor.
Post-war Celebrity 
In his post-war years, Little Sorrel went to live with the general’s father-in-law, a preacher who rode him to church for many years. In 1884, he even made an appearance — at age 33 — at the Hagerstown Agricultural Fair in Lexington, VA. Again, he was approached by many fairgoers, who plucked his mane and tail hairs, almost to extinction.  In the day hair, both human and animal, where used to make jewelry by braiding little bits of hair into rings, bracelets and necklaces.
Eventually, Little Sorrel was cared for by the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) for the reminder of his life. In the end he broke his back in an accident and died shortly after in 1886. His obituary in the local papers said he died at the Confederate Soldiers Home in Richmond aged 36 years. His body was sent to a taxidermist before returning to Richmond. Apparently the bones of the horse were sent to the taxidermist for payment, but eventually they found their way back to VMI in the 1940s.

Little Sorrel mounted after death at the Virginia Military Institute

Little Sorrel mounted after death at the Virginia Military Institute

In 1950, the life-sized stuffed war horse went back to VMI for display in their museum. In 1997, rather than let the bones remain in a museum storeroom, they were cremated and buried with full military honors at the base of a life-sized bronze statue of Jackson at VMI, where the general had once taught. Today, the taxidermy horse still stands at the VMI museum. Learn more here: http://www.vmi.edu/MuseumSystem/.
Little Sorrel Lane 
In 1991 the town of Somers decided it needed its own tribute to the great horse foaled on its lands. And so “Little Sorrel Lane” was dedicated with a ceremony by the Somers Historical Society, complete with rifle salute. This story reminds us of the important contribution that horses made during the civil war. In honor of their role, why not make a donation to the last remaining unit of the U.S. Cavalry, the Second Company Governor’s Horse Guard, located in Newtown, Connecticut. They desperately need our help as state budget cuts loom. Let’s keep their tradition alive to honor the war horses of our past.  Make a donation at the GoFundMe site: http://www.gofundme.com/pblvg4. I’d hate to see the last remaining vestige of the U.S. Cavalry be reduced to nothing more than a street named  “2GHG Lane” at Fairfield Hills.