Man o’ War’s 100th Birthday – Let’s Celebrate!

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Man o’ War. Foaled March 29, 1917, this large chestnut horse was dubbed the Horse of the Century, that’s the 20th Century, with his incredible 20 wins out of 21 starts. Man o’ War was bred by August Belmont, Jr. and sold at auction as a yearling for $5,000 to Samuel D. Riddle. His name originally was My Man o’ War, named by Belmont’s wife since her husband had gone off to serve in World War I. The auctioneer dropped the “My” and his name became Man o’War.

mano27war

His two-year-old race year in 1919  started out with 6 consecutive wins. Here’s an example of the grueling pace race horses of the early 20th century faced. He started his career at Belmont Park with wins on June 6th, 9th, then another win on June 21st at Jamaica Racetrack followed by two wins at Aqueduct on June 23rd and July 5th. He had a short break before heading up to the Saratoga Race Course, then the premier racetrack in the nation, for four races on August 2nd, 13th, 20th and 23rd.

SaratogaSign

Man O’ War’s only defeat  

It was during his Saratoga appearance that he met his only defeat by a horse named “Upset” during the Sanford Memorial on August 13th. In 1919, there were no starting gates. Horses lined up at a wide ribbon, they would turn around once to line up and then the ribbon would rise up. At this race, Man o’ War’s first jockey Johnny Loftus was late in turning the 16.2 hand horse around in time for the start. He was not off to a good start, back by four lengths. It was a short race, just 6 furlongs, and by the time Man o’ War caught up, he managed to pass every horse but one. He came in second only by a neck’s length. Had the race been another furlong, he would have won.

The 1920 race season was the start of his undefeated 3-year-old career. By now carrying 138 pounds, more than any other horse he competed against, and a new jockey Clarence Kummer, his first race was the Preakness Stakes. His owner did not enter him in the Kentucky Derby because he thought a mile and a quarter was too long a race to start off the season.  Back then the term “Triple Crown”  had not been formally coined or commercialized.  Big Red’s next win came at Belmont Park on May 29th in the one mile Withers Stakes. It’s amazing that Riddle entered him in a race between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. But then again the Belmont Stakes was only a mile and 3/8th, not the marathon mile and half of today.

But it didn’t matter, Man o’ War went on to win the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths. A record not broken for 53 years until Secretariat came along in 1973 with a 31-length victory. Big Red had 11 races in 1920, including big stakes races such as the Travers Stakes and the Jockey Gold Cup. He also broke the record for the longest win in a race of 100 lengths in the Lawrence Realization Stakes at Belmont Park just a week before the Jockey Gold Cup. By the end of the season nobody wanted to race against him, and his record-breaking 28-foot stride, so a match race was set up with the 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in Canada on Oct. 12th. It wasn’t much of a race as Man o’ War led from the start, won by 17 lengths, and took 6 seconds off the track record. And that’s with iron horseshoes! It was the first time a horse race was filmed in its entirety.

Racing Retirement

As with all great racehorses, Man o’ War went off to stud in Kentucky. But his retirement was different. He had become a national sports hero. All his races were broadcast on the growing medium of radio.  Everyone in America knew about this horse. He was so famous people traveled to see him. He had an African-American groom Will Harbut who cared for the horse and coined the term, “De mostest hoss that ever was.” He sired 64 Stakes winners, including War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner. By 1926 he was named the top sire. In 22 seasons at stud he produced 379 live foals. Even American Pharoah has Man o’ War in his pedigree 17 times.

33

Man o’ War and his longtime groom Will Harbut

When Man o’ War passed away on November 1, 1947 at the age of 30, the country mourned. When he died, Faraway Farm called the Associated Press to announce, “Our big horse just died.” He died of a heart attack, but his longtime groom Harbut had suddenly passed away one month earlier, and many said that Man o’ War died of a broken heart. He was embalmed and lay in state for two days so all his fans could come and visit him one last time as he lay in a custom made coffin lined with black and yellow silk, Riddle’s racing colors. His funeral was broadcast on the radio.

He was laid to rest near a life-size bronze statue of him on Faraway Farm. Over the years, fans flocked to pay their respects. In the 1970’s the grave and statue were moved to the newly opened Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington where fans still come to visit. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest horse ever, the park has restored the bronze statue and planned yearlong events around history’s most famous racehorse.

ManOWarPrint

A print of this painting by Robert Amick of Man o’ War hung in my childhood bedroom and fostered my love of Thoroughbred horses

Polo Returns to Farmington Polo Grounds

It’s been nearly 40 years since the last polo pony dashed across the green field during a match at the Farmington Polo Grounds. On August 13th nearly 40 ponies returned to play on the historic grounds which includes 60 acres of beautiful land adjacent to the Farmington River. And why did the ponies come back? The newly formed Farmington Polo Club International Equestrian Center hosted its inaugural Dream Ride Polo Exhibition. The match benefitted the Hometown Foundation, a charity about inclusion by helping and unifying those less fortunate, in need, or physically and intellectually disabled. The Dream Ride Experience, held on the polo grounds each August, encompasses the entire mission of the foundation. The Dream Ride Experience is an annual fund raiser for the Special Olympics as it celebrates the special achievements of Special Olympians.

Polo Players Extraordinaire

Two teams of four mounted players each included international professional players, several married couples, and women players in this highly competitive, fast playing game. Tailgating spectators gathered at field side to enjoy four chukkers (7 1/2 minute  long periods of play) in the exhibition match. The recently renovated and upgraded Farmington Polo Grounds boosts a 50-stall barn, competition polo field, grass paddocks, beautiful new white fencing, and flags of many nations fluttering along the entrance on Town Farm Road in Farmington.

IMG_0275

Players get ready for their first chukker

During half-time the traditional “divot stomp” took place. Spectators came out on the field to replace the divots made by thundering horses’ hooves during the first half. This activity promotes safety for horses and players as well as socialization, not to mention fashion show-offs, for friends and family. My husband Ray and I went out there and stomped as many divots as we could find. There were many women dressed in lovely sundresses and fashionable hats that could have made the rounds at the Saratoga Race Course or even the Kentucky Derby.

IMG_0277

Ray stomps a mean divot!

Spectators also competed for the Best Tailgate Award based on the creativity, dedication, and decoration of the tailgate set up. (Full disclosure: Our Veuve Cliquot champagne inspired tailgate won the award). Following polo match play, we all enjoyed a Brazilian BBQ, in honor of the Rio Olympics and the international culture of the sport of polo.

IMG_2114

Lisa decorates a mean tailgate!

 

IMG_0272

Ray enjoying the tailgate at the Farmington Polo Grounds!

Farmington Polo Club Manager and Polo Instructor Jennifer Williams recently told me the club is, “Thrilled to bring polo back to the Farmington community after 40 years. We are continually upgrading the polo club grounds to make this a world-class venue for players, ponies and the public to enjoy the fun-filled, action-packed sport of polo.”

The History of Polo 

According to the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame (polomuseum.com) located in Florida, polo is arguably the oldest sport known to man. Its origins in Central Asia date back to around 600 B.C. to 100 A.D. where mounted nomads trained for sport and war on horseback as they migrated to Persia, recognized as the birthplace of polo. Modern polo began in India in 1859 between British military officers and locals on tea plantations. By 1876, New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennet brought polo to the United States after a visit to England where the game was thriving.

IMG_0286

Ray sitting field side with a classic polo spectator beverage

The Westchester Polo Club was the first organized club in the country in 1876. By the 1920’s polo was at its peak of popularity. The Farmington Polo Club was formed in 1929. During the 1920s and 1930s the Meadow Brook Club in Westbury, NY on Long Island was the center of the polo universe. Browsing through The New York Times archive online, one sees just how popular the sport was. Many times Meadow Brook and Farmington played each other. At the 1930 U.S. Open polo match there were 45,000 spectators who came out to support the sport. Can you imagine?

The sport even made it to the Olympics from 1900 to 1936. The last Olympic game played at the Berlin Summer Games in Germany gave the gold medal to Argentina who defeated Great Britain. Mexico captured the bronze.  Today, polo is thriving once again with the United States Polo Association recognizing 275 member clubs with 4,500 players.

Area Pony Clubs Make a Splash (Newtown Bee)

Wilton Pony Club Rocks!

Wilton Pony Club

Check out this wonderful article from the Newtown Bee about Beach Day:
http://newtownbee.com/lisa-unleashed-area-pony-clubs-make-a-splash/

beachday Wilton Pony Club Members at Jennings Beach

Lisa Unleashed: Area Pony Clubs Make a Splash

by Lisa Peterson, Newtown Bee

Scattered sunshine, a very low tide and a panoply of ponies populated Jennings Beach in Fairfield this past weekend. It’s rare to see more than one or two other horses out on the beach during a ride despite Jennings being one of the few beaches that allows horses (and dogs) access from October 1 to April 1 each year.

But upon arrival in the parking lot, we were greeted by several horse trailers, which was unusual. Once on the beach there were ponies and people everywhere! Large ponies, small ponies, and one very small pony with a flaxen mane and tail. Too cute for words! Where did this pony herd come from? A quick glance at one…

View original post 249 more words

The Fancy Ponies of Sweetbrier Farm

 

You never know who you are going to meet in the horse world! This week I interviewed a woman for an article I’d been assigned to cover for a horse magazine. As usual the first question is, “Where did you start riding?” And to my amazement she answered, “Sweetbrier Farm in Easton.” Here is where my jaw dropped, smile followed and my reply was, “So did I!” We checked our dates and thought we might have ridden there at the same time.

Then I started rattling off the names of school horses, Missy, Briggy, Worthington and Miller. Then she named some ponies, Bonnie, Sprite. And then I offered up the name of my favorite pony, the one who gave me my first blue ribbon — Marvel-Us.

Marvel-Us003

Marvel-Us and Me: Fall 1971 Sweetbriar Farm Schooling Horse Show, Reserve Champion

“Marvel-Us!” she quipped. She remembered that pony too. In fact, she had ridden her, once. As she recalled it, the pony would respond differently to each rider. Those who were nervous or tense, got the speedy treatment. Those who were calm and confident, got the dream ride.  She told the tale about how she watched as someone tried to ride Marvel-Us, getting the speedy treatment. Then she got to hop on during the lesson, and briefly got to experience the dream ride.

Missy and Marvel-Us

My memories of Marvel-Us, where just that, Marvelous! I first climbed aboard this little white pony mare as a 10-year-old. But I didn’t get to ride the dream pony at first. Fresh back from learning to ride at summer camp, I clearly remember my first lesson at Sweetbrier aboard this bay mare named Missy. I had mastered the walk-trot at camp, even showed in the lead line class at the camp show. But the wise instructor felt I was ready for that first canter. Missy obliged, a new riding thrill emerged and I was on my way.

Along that way, I learned to master the canter on an old horse named Miller, who was a retired racing trotter. There is nothing quite like trying to ask a horse to do something he was clearly trained not to do at any cost. But we persevered. Then we started tackling the cross rail jumps on those tried and true school masters, like Worthington and Briggy. As a child you are not quite aware of things like the horse’s age, but I do know that when I asked how old Briggy was, they told me, “Ancient.”

Fancy Ponies 

But then one day I got to ride Marvel-Us. I remember how effortless things seemed, like picking up the canter on her versus Miller, the king of trotting. Eventually, after another year I was able to join the advanced lesson on Saturday mornings. It was filled with fancy ponies like Dark ‘N Fancy, owned by the Humphrys, the farm’s owners. He was always ridden by a red-haired girl named Emily. This very cute large pony, was black with a speckled white blaze all the way down to his nose. His white stockings on his rear legs were matched up front by a near sock and what looked like a white splash on his remaining far leg just below the knee. His nickname was “Too Big” and I can still hear Emily call out to him as “Toooooooo Big.”

FCHThanksHunt1973001

Sweetbriar Farm Riders at the Fairfield County Hounds Thanksgiving Day Hunt at Greenfield Hill, circa 1973. From left: Lisa on Gingersnap, Emily on Dark & Fancy, Gerri on her horse, and Holly on Fleet Nancy

There was also Sprite, a dapple grey pony that loved to jump and occasionally stop! I do recall one of my worst spills coming off that pony, right on top of a very sturdy and hard vertical jump, landing on my back, like a gymnast performing a flip. But the first time I ever rode her, the barn let me tack her up myself. So proud was I as I entered the ring to mount up, before the instructor came over to explain I had put the saddle on backwards. Other ponies that joined us in that lesson were Bonnie, a cute bay pony mare, and BeBell, a rambunctious alibino pony, who was actually Marvel-Us’ daughter! Once I rode in a pairs class at a horse show on Marvel-Us with BeBell ridden by a girl named Diane.

And then Marvel-Us gave me the gift of our first few horse shows. Our first was a  schooling show at Sweetbrier, in the fall or winter, it was cold and the show was indoors. But bless you Marvel-Us as she took my novice seat around one of those egg roll jumping courses. It was my first blue ribbon. Later, next spring, took me to my first away show, a local recognized show, where we also garnered a blue ribbon in the pleasure pony class.

It was Marvel-Us who set me on the path of lifetime riding and a love of horse shows. Just like many, many other little girls who passed through the Sweetbrier gates in search of that dream ride. In fact, during my recent interview with the barn owner for that article, she admitted that seeing all those fancy ponies at Sweetbriar fueled her imagination to grow up and bred fancy ponies herself. Thanks Marvel-Us!

Riding An Old Schoolmaster ~ Being in the Moment

The ancient word Yoga means to yoke or bind, or more literally the union of the body and the mind. Horseback riding is very much like yoga as it involves a union between horse and rider, proper breathing, and a variety of positions that bring physical strength and stamina, not to mention awareness, to our riding. As we ride our goal is to create balance and to be present in the moment with the horse.

In my mind, nothing forces you to be more present in the moment than riding a horse. It is nearly impossible to be thinking about work, shopping or cooking dinner while you are trying to navigate a 1,000-pound animal around a ring, down a steep path or over a three- foot jump.

210801_10150295461974657_604853_o

Mikey & Me at our first horse show in 2011

Riding involves channeling the horse’s energy and using your consciousness to communicate with him. You want the horse to direct his energy into a positive outcome, like flexing and bending or collecting and extending or even jumping! You want the rider to be communicating with the horse. When the flow of energy between horse and rider is at its best, you have balance. When you have a perfect ride, you know it because you know exactly what it is suppose to feel like. We’ve all had them and they all dwell in our subconscious memory.

Schoolmasters to the rescue 

At some point in a rider’s career, they have ridden a well-trained horse. Nothing is more enjoyable than effortless communication with a well-trained horse. Many a show horse, such as a Thoroughbred jumper I used to lease, can no longer handle the demands of  higher jumping divisions and has to take a step down to a lower level of riding. It happens to all horses as they age, they wind down their athletic abilities and with it comes the lower fences and eventually just flat work.

These equine teachers are called “schoolmasters” and they are worth their weight in gold. A pleasure to ride, they teach novice riders what perfect riding feels like for the first time. They give veteran riders a perfect ride, when they have forgotten what it’s like from riding horses of different schooling levels.

Mikey&Me2013

Mikey & Me getting ready for a jumping lesson in 2013

As riders our peak ability is determined by the horses we ride. I spent most of the year flat riding a young horse. I hadn’t been on a schoolmaster in about a year. Every rider benefits from taking a step back once and a while. Whether you are training young horses or just pleasure riding, it’s important to get on that schoolmaster that knows everything and can remind you where you need to be. Jumping a schoolmaster can really remind you of where your proper position should be and where it is in reality.

Being Mikey 

For me, that schoolmaster ride came last Sunday, on my former lease horse, a bay Thoroughbred named Mikey. Visiting Fox Hill Farms again and seeing Barb and Jane and all the horses was so much fun. It was pleasant outside, about 45 degrees and no wind, so we opted to have our jumping lesson outside.  At the posting trot I was instantly reminded about his ‘big bouncy trot’ and how I have to post lower to the saddle to keep my position and really use those calf and core muscles I’ve been ignoring lately. During walking breaks, I would ask him to do a laterally movement here, an outside bend there, just to keep him listening and active to my leg.

Mikey reminded me to sit tall with my shoulders back, keeping that straight line from my shoulders through my hip to my ankle. To me working at the walk is like yoga. You are putting yourself into the correct positions and holding them, building physical strength. As I held those correct positions, Mikey the schoolmaster obliged with supple movements and easy transitions.

In riding, just like in yoga, we should practice awareness over action. For example, a horse trots too fast, we post faster to keep up with him — that’s action. An external force upon us that we are reacting to. If we practiced awareness instead, then when a horse trots too fast, we would be aware – internally – that we need to slow the pace, and we would post slower and lower. Our schoolmaster is well-trained and knows this cue and would come back to the pace that is ideal. He has taught us, reminded us, how to have awareness on horseback.

Mikey2015

Mikey & Me enjoying the sun in 2015

We can also be caught up in doing rather than being. Jumping horses can be a lot of doing rather than being. Mikey excels at teaching me to be in the moment around the course. He teaches me to breathe, to relax, to clear my mind before we begin. As a schoolmaster he reminds me to set my pace, maintain it and leave it alone. Being not doing. To make proper turns and keep straight lines when jumping, Mikey teaches me to keep the proper position with eyes up, sitting lightly, hands soft and following. Being ready for the next jump, not doing the next jump. Just being Mikey brought me back into awareness, into that perfect position and gave me a much-needed perfect ride. Afterwards I gave this old schoolmaster two big carrots as a thank you!

Life’s A Beach! ~ Riding the East and West Coasts

It’s beach season for Connecticut horse and dog lovers! From October 1st to March 31st, horses and dogs are allowed on many local beaches to splash in the surf and kick up some sand. Fairfield’s Jennings Beach offers a superb swath of sandbars that during a super low tide give equestrians some awesome gallops. Recently, as I traveled to ride at Jennings, I thought back on my first two beach riding adventures, both on America’s West Coast.

Off Jennings Beach in Fairfield, CT

Off Jennings Beach in Fairfield, CT

See ya!

See ya!

Splashing in the Surf!

Splashing in the Surf!

California Beaches 

It all began at Pebble Beach when I was 12-years-old. My mother and I took one of those ‘nose-to-tail’ trail rides from the PB Equestrian Center nestled on the Monterey, California coast. We had to cross the 17-Mile Drive, with its stunning views of ragged coastline, wind-blown cypress trees and meandering sandy paths, to access the beach. Our horses, wearing large Western saddles with horns you could cling on to for dear life, were placid and practiced. No riding skills required here. Walking promoted sightseeing and discovery.

The horses’ hooves dusted aside white sand and crushed coastal grasses as we made our way towards the ocean. As we walked along the edge of the manicured golf course, there where green links on my left and the deep blue northern Pacific on my right. To this day, every time I watch the Pebble Beach Classic golf tournament on TV and they switch to the blimp view that pans the course from above, I am instantly brought back to that moment of wonder, when a horse connected me between the land and the sea in a seamless blue-green ribbon.

Pebble Beach Golf Course  in Monterey, CA ~ Great Pacific Ocean beach ride

Pebble Beach Golf Course in Monterey, CA ~ Great Pacific Ocean beach ride

My next Pacific Coast adventure unfolded during college. One day while at Pepperdine University’s Malibu campus, and missing my horse back home, I noticed a 3×5-inch index card on the student community bulletin board. Scribbled in blue ink was an invitation to go riding on the beach. This 19-year-old was game.

Malibu Beaches in Southern California

Malibu Beaches in Southern California

As we walked down a dirt path carved into the bottom of a clay canyon surrounded by shore pines, the aqua waves of Santa Monica Bay came into view and expanded as we reached the coast. We took a right turn, trotted some, and then from behind I heard the horses’ owner say, “Let’s Gallop!” And off we went. Up into my half-seat, my long hair flying behind me almost touching my chestnut-colored chaps which matched my horse’s coat. We galloped North up the beach and into the surf on the hard-packed wet sand. The best footing I’d ever felt. The horse loved it as he grabbed the ground with each lengthening stride. We spent several more hours of exploration among the scrubby brush and sandy cliffs of Malibu that day.

Connecticut Beaches

Fast forward several decades. Last month, the beach riding experience came alive for me on the East Coast as I used the park’s picnic table as a mounting block, which is probably against the rules! It was a bright afternoon, unseasonably warm for the end of October.  My horse and I headed straight for the surf. We took a right turn and trotted off.

Oz & I off on a beach adventure!

Oz & I off on a beach adventure!

The bright sun coming down at an angle across the water glimmered so brightly I was missing my sunglasses. Each ripple on the water shone like a million strobe lights spread out across the sound.

The sun in my eyes reflecting off the rippling water

The sun in my eyes reflecting off the rippling water

Then we came upon a flock of seagulls, but it was even bigger than a flock, whatever that might be called, a migration? Like little children spoiling a quiet gathering we raced at them. The gulls shot up towards the sky, and as we rode under them, they enveloped us in a squall, a snowfall of seagulls, swirling around us like a snow globe. While squawking in protest, gulls swooped past looking for a new landing place.

In a snow globe of seagulls

In a snow globe of seagulls

Then we met up with some other horses. They left early and we meandered around the farthest jetty before heading home, to beat the incoming tide. At slack tide we moved into the barely bubbling surf.

Slack Tide

Slack Tide

Then my riding partner yelled, “You ready? Let’s Boogey!” And off we went at a gallop. Up into my half-seat, smooth strides made rhythmic hoof falls on wet-packed sand.

Cantering on the beach - best footing ever!

Cantering on the beach – best footing ever!

Yes, I remember, best footing in the world for an awesome gallop! A huge smile spread across my face. The stone-colored sand on my left and the slate blue-grey water of Long Island Sound on my right. Once again, a horse had connected me to the land and the sea in a ribbon of happiness.

Between land and sea

Between land and sea

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!

Horses Parading Around ~ Including American Pharoah  

Horses and parades go together like peanut butter and jelly! This partnership began millennia ago when horses were paraded around to celebrate battle victories. More recently, the Horse Guard Parade, those beautiful black horses of the British monarchy stabled at the Royal Mews in London, codified the daily practice of ceremonial parades in 1745. There is even a type of horse in America called the Parade Horse. This breed is used in a sport the celebrates the Southwestern tradition where stylishly dressed ranch owners would ride into town on their high-stepping horses in saddles dripping with silver.

Today, I rode in my first parade, a mounted costume parade through the streets of downtown Danbury. Hosted by Happy Trails Farm, nearly 20 horses — and one donkey — ridden by a costumed clown, giraffe, queen of hearts, cowboy, ghost, Game of Throne’s winter, and even a pair of horseflies, paid homage to Halloween and horses. Dressed as Downtown Abbey’s Lady Mary out for a hunt my trusty steed Oz and I proudly marched across busy city intersections and bustling suburban woodlands with ease. He was such a good boy! And it was his first parade too.

Oz waits to head off on his first parade!

Oz waits to head off on his first parade!

But, the best part of the day was watching the spectators stare in awe at the horses. People came out of their apartments to wave. Others stopped their SUVs to watch the horses stroll down the cityscape. Dogs hung their heads out of car windows to get a glimpse, or bark a greeting. Many residents came to the curb to take photos of horses in their ‘hood. One man shouted, “You made my day!”

American Pharoah’s Post Parade

His remark reminded me how rare it is today to see a horse on any given day. On Halloween this year most people who saw horses, saw them in a different kind of parade, the iconic ‘post parade’ of Thoroughbred racing.The ‘post’ is the starting point of the race. It’s name comes from the early days of racing when only a post at the rail marked the beginning of the race. It’s why today, horses have ‘post’ positions, not starting gate positions. Before each race, the horses are called to the ‘post’ by a bugler playing some form of First Call. Once played, jockeys mount up, leave the paddock area and ‘parade to the post’ in front of the grandstand. It’s this pre-race parading that gives fans and bettors a good look at their favorite horses.

American Pharoah in the Post Parade at Saratoga Race Course

American Pharoah in the Post Parade at Saratoga Race Course

After his post parade, millions of TV viewers watched Triple Crown Champion American Pharaoh make history with his Breeder’s Cup Classic win at Keenland Race Course in Kentucky. A new achievement in America’s oldest sport was born, the racing grand slam — winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the Classic. As a huge AP fan, I cheered him on as he pulled away at 6 and half lengths. Announcer Larry Collum screamed,  “He’s a horse of a lifetime!” as he crossed the finish line in a track record of two minutes. Jockey Victor Espinoza turned and smiled for the finish line camera to mark the end of AP’s triumphant racing career.

For most viewers of this historic achievement, sadly, television or social media will be as close as they ever get to see, not only a horse of a lifetime, but a horse in their lifetime. American Pharoah reignited the sport of horse racing and I’m hoping that with it the preservation of the horse, all horses, has truly begun. No longer are horses the mainstay of transportation. No longer do they pull plows for farmers to create food. No longer do small stables offering riding lessons or backyard barns to keep a pony for the children dot the landscape. There just aren’t as many opportunities for people and horses to cross paths and connect in the modern world. In cities we may occasionally see carriage horses, mounted police officers, or those in parades! In the suburbs, apart from secluded private farms, horses are even harder to spot in daily life.

I don’t want the horse to disappear from the landscape. We need horses in our lives. If you have never been in the company of a horse, go find one today, bring them a carrot, and say hello. They will change your life. They are magnificent animals with a deep, historic bond with humans. Oz and I may have done our post parade while following a black horse ridden by a bumble bee, but we were happy to share the beauty of horses with others. AP’s trainer Bob Baffert said it best about his charge — and all horses — when he called him, “a gift from God.” Let’s cherish them all.

A Carriage Ride Brings Back History

From city livery stables to carriage houses on large estates, my great-grandfather was known to drive a four-in-hand team with skill. A career coachman, he came upon his vocation at the turn of the 20th century, when carriage popularity was waning.

My great-grandfather Oscar Nelson drives a well-matched pair on Cortland Street, Sleepy Hollow, NY circa 1910

My great-grandfather Oscar Nelson drives a well-matched pair on Cortland Street, Sleepy Hollow, New York circa 1910

Last year, a carriage horse and driver took me on a wonderful tour of New York City’s Central Park, which ignited a desire to learn more. And while I may carry coachman’s DNA, I have never taken over the reins from a driver until last week when a friend offered to take me for a drive around my neighborhood with one of her horses pulling a light, two-wheeled ‘buggy.’

Tyler and his carriage at New York City's Central Park

Tyler and his carriage at New York City’s Central Park

Carriages by Brewster & Co. 

Carriage making was a major 19th century industry. The Brewster family had vast showrooms filled with Landaus, Broughams and Lady’s Phaetons, with factories in New York City and New Haven dating back to 1810. Brewster & Co. produced beautiful hand-built carriages, even earning a gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1878. Business boomed for decades as they became known as the “Carriage Builder for the American Gentleman.” Among their customers were Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors and J.P. Morgan, each with their own colored coaches, not to be owned by anyone else. But steam-powered train transportation exploded between the1830s and 1860s and signaled the beginning of the end for the horse-drawn carriages. The end came with a new invention called the “horseless carriage” during the Gilded Age.

Brewster Carriages, built in the 19th Century, were the finest in the world

Brewster Carriages, built in the 19th Century, were the finest in the world

By 1896, the first electric car was built by Brewster & Co, and by 1905 the company had ceased making horse-drawn carriages in favor of automobile bodies. But even then, the custom-made “coaches” couldn’t compete with mass-produced automobiles and in 1925 Brewster & Co. was sold to Rolls Royce of America.

William Brewster, Brewster & Co.s final president had a daughter named Barbara Brewster Taylor who lived in Southport, CT. Each year she would graciously open her estate – surrounded by natural jumping obstacles simulating a fox hunt – to host the Fairfield County Hounds annual hunter trials up until the late 1970s. I remember the gracious white-haired lady would come to watch occasionally. All I knew at the time as a teenager was that her father made “world-famous carriages and buggy whips.”

An 1887 Park Drag Brewster Carriage pulled by a team of fine bays

An 1887 Park Drag Brewster Carriage pulled by a team of fine carriage horses, possibly Cleveland Bays

Royal Coaches 

Despite progress, you can still find the world’s largest collection of working coaches and carriages at London’s Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace. Among them are the gilded, golden Coronation Carriage built for Catherine II and the sleek, black Glass Coach, my favorite when I visited the Mews, which carried Lady Diana Spencer to Westminster Abbey on her wedding day in 1981. Another popular open carriage, drawn by six of the Queen’s horses, is the 1902 State Landau which carried Kate and William, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, back to Buckingham Palace after their wedding in 2011.

The Glass Coach returns from Opening of Parliament

The Glass Coach returns from Opening of Parliament

Driving Versus Riding Horses 

Sitting in the two-wheeled buggy I felt like royalty as we headed down the road. “Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop,” sounded the hooves striking pavement. Feeling the motion of a small carriage is very different than horseback riding. A rhythmic bounce that can be softened by bracing your feet against the carriage floor and pushing your back into the seat. Before my friend turned over the reins, we had a safety lesson. “Always wear your seatbelt,” she told me. A little loop at the end of the reins placed over your pinkie finger. “The last thing you want to do is lose your reins while driving a carriage!” “Don’t stick your hands near the moving wheels or you will break your arm.” All valid points.

Walk on! My first drive!

Walk on! My first drive!

Carriage horses are trained by voice to “walk on,” “trot,” “walk,” “whoa,” “stand,” and my favorite, “come around.” This last maneuver moves a carriage on a turn, the horse executing a side-step, leg over leg turn on the haunches to turn a carriage left or right. Unlike riding where you have your seat and your legs, you only have a few aids left to control your horse: your hands, your voice and the fabled buggy whip.

Heading down the road

Heading down the road

Easily I got the hang of using my hands. The long reins held between the pointer and index fingers to drive a horse versus between the thumb and index finger while riding. The mechanics of steering, turning and stopping were executed with a stronger bit. And, just like riding, when you are on the road, and a big, loud, scary yellow school bus comes barreling down the road behind you, focusing your horse’s attention on anything but the school bus is paramount. You focus on the gait, “Walk on.” You point the horse’s head away from the impending confrontation. You hold your breath! And when the bus followed by eight cars passes, you tell the horse, “Good Boy!”

Good Boy Butter!

Good Boy Butter!

Despite the slow speed of a horse-drawn carriage compared to today’s cars, they can be dangerous places as horses can be unpredictable, and occasionally, will bolt despite being harnessed to a large wooden structure. “Always have an exit strategy,” was part of the safety lesson. If you don’t, you can get seriously injured, as evidenced by many carriage accidents with runaway horses recounted in The Bee’s ‘Way We Where’ from 100 years ago. This time, however, I got a delicious taste of a bygone era, when horses pulled carriages and people needed them to explore and discover their world, at a much slower pace. The sky, the fields, the trees, the flowers, the birds, all came into view on their own, just waiting for my discovery.

Heading back to the barn

Heading back to the barn

Riding London’s Rotten Row 

There’s nothing quite like urban horseback riding. Today equestrians can ride where kings once ruled and the city’s elite came out in livery carriages ‘to see and be seen’ along an historic path called Rotten Row in London’s Hyde Park. A plaque in the park tells us its story: Rotten Row The King’s Old Road Completed 1690 – This ride originally formed part of King William III’s carriage drive from Whitehall to Kensington Palace. It’s construction was supervised by the Surveyor of their majesties road, Captain Michael Studholme, and it was the first lamp-lit road in the kingdom. Designated as a public bridleway in the 1730’s, Rotten Row is one of the most famous urban riding grounds in the world.

Rotten Row Rituals

Hyde Park Stables, on a quaint side street called Bathhurst Mews her the park, offers horse rentals. During one trip to London I mounted up. As we exited the lane, the sound of iron horseshoes landing on ancient cobblestones gave rhythm to our walk towards the park. Our group of eight waited briefly beneath the Archery Tavern pub sign before crossing heavy traffic on Bayswater Road to enter the park beneath Victoria Gate.

Waiting by London's  Archery Tavern on our way to Hyde Park

Waiting by London’s Archery Tavern on our way to Hyde Park

Sitting tall in the saddle, feeling the horse’s stride lengthen, we both relaxed with each stride as we walked along the West Carriage Drive. As we crossed a bridge over The Serpentine, the park’s biggest lake, we gathered up behind the Albert Memorial. Surrounded by greenery, tall trees and bushes brilliant in their fall colors, we stepped upon the famed Rotten Row.

“We are all going to wait, until I tell you to go, and take a canter, one at a time,” our instructor said. POW! A small bay pony burst forth down Rotten Row with a little boy astride. He was kicking his little legs, that barely reached below the saddle, and flapping his little arms like a bird trying to take off. Elbows pointed skyward came slamming against his sides in unison with his legs hitting the pony’s barrel side.

“Stooooop Him!… Stop Him!…” came the call from our leader. Little boy must have been deaf as the more he was yelled after, the faster his fluttering legs and arms moved. Now, the leader took off after him, making a daring grab of the reins to pull the pony to a stop. Many in our group were having a good chuckle. Then once all back in formation, one at a time — pony and boy sent to the end of the line — we did our own impressions of fluttering legs and arms to get our bridle-path weary horses to canter down Rotten Row.

Leaving the group to canter down Rotten Row on Sedrick, a handsome buckskin from Hyde Park Stables

Leaving the group to canter down Rotten Row on Sedrick, a handsome buckskin from Hyde Park Stables

Most were obliging, others needed more coaxing. The mile long canter down a 75-foot wide path of fluffy tan footing made for a nice ride. Compared to the hard packed cinders on Central Park’s bridle path, it was like floating on a cloud. The challenges in any park setting, waiting for something to dart out into your path that might spoke the old steed, were ever present. The scenarios were endless. Dogs, children, children chasing dogs, balls, children chasing balls, dogs chasing balls, children chasing dogs chasing balls, errant tourists, police on horseback in pursuit of suspects. You get the picture. After safely making it down Rotten Row to Queen Elizabeth’s Gate at Hyde Park Corner, we stopped to collect our breaths and release a sigh of relief. What a lovely calm ride.

‘Ware Traffic

Our group gathered near the Archilles Statue and made a left turn to head down Dorchester Ride, another fluffy lane to canter. Basically, we heading back home to the mews. One at a time, we were launched. Asking Sedrick for a canter this time was not even necessary. Like all good hack horses, he knew where to walk, trot, and canter. And canter he did. Full out this big buckskin boy began, having the time of his life. Nothing I did slowed his canter home. Quickly I realized it was time to enjoy the ride and not be in control (those who know me can chuckle here) but not before I saw the bus.

Heading towards Queen Elizabeth's Gate at Hyde Park Corner

Heading towards Queen Elizabeth’s Gate at Hyde Park Corner

I looked to my right and there at eye level was a red double decker bus speeding down Park Lane, a busy highway parallel to the park. Sedrick was in a race with the bus. It seemed like the bus was heading towards us. We got so close, I could the terror in the tourists’ eyes as they looked at us, seeing the terror in my eyes. As Sedrick passed the Joy of Life Fountain, with the bus getting closer, I thought for a moment it might turn into my personal End of Life Fountain. But the trail then veered left away from Park Lane and the bus.  Now, I started to breath, but still cantering while taking in the sights and sounds of London around me.

As Speaker’s Corner appeared I could see the Marble Arch in the distance. I could hear pigeons flapping and police activity. I could smell the diesel fumes from the traffic that swirled around the park. And then, as if on cue, bomb-proof Sedrick slowed to a walk, blew out his nostrils, lowered his head and headed home on the North Ride with the rest of our herd. I wore a smile from ear to ear. Cost of horse rental £85 – Cantering next to a double decker bus taking tourists to Harrods in Knightsbridge – priceless.

Next time you’re in London – book a ride at www.HydeParkStables.com