Local Hero by Catherine Macaulay
He went by the names Burt, Buddy and Bo, depending upon how close you were to him and how far south of the Mason-Dixon line you lived. The world knew him as Burt Reynolds, a top ten Hollywood box office draw from 1973 to 1984.
To me, he was my future husband, though he hadn’t a clue of my aspirations given that we had yet to meet. Still, I had hopes of riding off into the sunset with my handsome leading man. But then, I’d thought the same thing about Prince Charles.
As luck would have it, I met up with my not-so-future husband at a press conference I was covering for the Fort Pierce News Tribune back in the late ‘70s. Following the event, I asked Burt if I might write a story on his horse ranch in Jupiter, Florida. He said yes and I promptly found myself touring his breeding and training operation alongside his ranch manager, Logan Fleming, who was busy trying to elevate the 153-acre spread from the fanciful into the respectable, being formerly owned by the family of Chicago gangster Al Capone.
Admittedly, the mini-petting zoo and the tack shop peddling movie-star memorabilia was a tad kitsch, but this was, after all, sand country, a place where cattle grazed under the palms, egrets at their feet. Open space was abundant here. Youngsters could hop on their horses and ride 11 miles east to the ocean as easily as they could hoof it west to Indiantown where the Kentucky Thoroughbreds were being trained at Payson Park each winter. Burt was part of that culture. It formed his identity.
“Horses are amazing,” he said in an interview to People. “They have their own personality and their own way of doing things. They make up their mind whether they like you or don’t like you, and I got along terrific with almost all the horses I’ve ever had.”
Burt was proud of his ranch and took an active interest in the breeding and training of his Appaloosas, much as he did with his Arabians and Thoroughbreds.
Living large, he was hitting his mark in movies like Deliverance, Semi-Tough and The Longest Yard. He’d grown into a star, a cinematic amalgam of fame, power, money and success. One had only to look at him to see why—the self-deprecating manner, his impish smile and southern charm. Nobody wore a mustache quite like him. The football jock from South Florida, son of a former sheriff of Riviera Beach and a Native American mother, had connected to that genuine part of himself and the camera loved it. When Burt tossed back his head and let loose that laugh he became what life looked like when you were lighter than air and the absurdity of it all tickled your funny bone.
What woman didn’t want to lose herself in his eyes, at once sensitive and full of wink. It was as though he could see beyond life’s charade and didn’t give a damn about playing along. He was having fun, throttle up, pedal down, while righting some of life’s injustices along the way. We women were along for the ride, our band of sisterhood cheering as he scored the winning touchdown, outran the law or outwitted the prison warden. He defied a system everyone knew was rigged, always getting the girl and making it look like child’s play.
Behind the scenes Burt was cranking out movie after movie, working to find enough time to return to Florida, connect with his family and friends. Immersed in the equestrian scene, he helped organize the Jupiter Horsemen’s Association and sponsored many scholarships at Florida State University, having attended there in 1954 through his own football scholarship. Generous with local organizations and causes, Burt was always opening his ranch to some fundraiser or another. This was home. He wanted to give back.
Yet, it was LA floating his growing assets. He’d bought a house in fashionable Holmby Hills and furnished it with Native American art, bronzes by Remington and People’s Choice awards. Burt quipped in the photo spread that appeared in a 1983 issue of Architectural Digest that the décor was “nouveau macho…It's unpretentious in a pretentious way…you can put your feet up on all the furniture."
Still, Florida kept drawing him back to his roots. He began inviting fellow thespians down to the ranch to relax and share some laughs, maybe chat with his parents who lived on the grounds. If they chose they could helicopter over to the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater not far away, or tour his red painted horse barns, inspect the foals he often named after them. Maybe they’d visit the wild Burros he’d adopted or tack up an Appaloosa and hack over to Lake Okeechobee, enjoy the Savanna; there was still plenty of open space, and native wildlife abounded. Just watch out for alligators.
Burt immersed himself heavily into the Florida he loved. He bought a 4-acre estate on the coast of Hobe Sound, a place he called Valhalla, invested in the Tampa Bay Bandits football team and a chain of restaurants across the south. But seducing the camera was growing harder, his irreverence fading into irrelevance under the emergence of gender equality, political correctness and the rising levels of greed and corruption permeating our society, leaving him a rebel without a cause, his Quixote attitude naïve at best amid all the complication and con. Besides, a new definition of womanhood was emerging, the unimaginable concept of self-reliance growing into a campaign that became a personal awareness about living in the world in an honest and meaningful way, no longer cast in supporting roles dreaming of womanly happiness.
Somewhere in between his cash cow bombs I married a fellow journalist and writer, and found that love, far from being consumed, reaches outward and connects, like musical notes to a score. Still, I kept a small bit of wood on the hearth for Burt over the years, never forgetting the man who’d gallantly ushered me through the loneliness of those earlier, unopened years, grateful to the actor who had lived out his life alongside mine. I forgave him for dumping Dinah Shore as he did, for treating Sally Field “like a housewife,” as she later claimed, for his string of financial mismanagements, I forgave him for the drugs, for his ugly public divorce, his temper flares, for his bad hairpiece and vain plastic surgeries. He was Burt, the secret friend to whom I had poured out my heart, the shoulder I cried on whenever life went terribly wrong. He wasn’t some hand-crafted, Hollywood leading man. The cowboy hat he wore was the property of a fun-loving, wise-cracking kid from South Florida who rocketed to stardom and found himself caught up in the business of selling dreams, emerging on the other side surrendered but wizened, both to life’s harsh realities and to his own flawed nature.
In his 2015 memoir, But Enough About Me, Burt wrote: "I didn't open myself to new writers or risky parts because I wasn't interested in challenging myself as an actor. I was interested in having a good time. As a result, I missed a lot of opportunities to show I could play serious roles. By the time I finally woke up and tried to get it right, nobody would give me a chance."
Today, the BR Ranch is gone, sold out of debt, the land rezoned for residential use, newly morphed into Reynolds Ranch, a gated 150-acre “equestrian style community” of 30 luxury homes built on 1.5-acre lots that offer access to both private and public trails. Sadly, too few Hollywood actors tweeted their condolences over Burt’s death. Those who did were mostly B-list names offering thin sympathies. Hollywood is full of dark insecurities and Burt Reynolds had grown too old and undone to hold much cache to anyone. The king of cool had already wrung the good ol’ boy out of himself.
My feature on the BR Ranch appeared in a regional Florida magazine. It took far too long to write, me being in an altogether infatuated state of mind. I doubt Burt ever saw it, though I feel certain he would have enjoyed both the read and myself had we ever gotten to know one another. How could he otherwise when I understood the best part of him so intrinsically? To me, he was Burt, Buddy, Bo—my one and only hero, the man who took on life, rebelled against its tedium and, in the process, made the journey seem like one glorious and sublime adventure. It cost him dearly, but my handsome prophet kept his covenant with the fantasy and I am grateful.
Still, I can’t help but miss him. In his passing, he took with him a world that was a far grander place than could ever exist outside an innocent dream.
This Christmas, I Wish You Teddy Love
Even after Teddy learned to live inside he preferred to still drink outside.
by Catherine Macaulay
Weeks go by without me thinking of Teddy and then a gray ghost of a day will settle over my thoughts and that old longing will come back to haunt me. I suspect that’s the way it runs with feelings of bereavement. Sooner or later, the grieving begins to evaporate under the drying agent of time and what you thought would last forever starts to dissipate, except for those days when memories stab at you fresh.
Teddy and I were devoted to one another for good reason. I was his meal ticket and he’d managed to wedge himself into my heart like some old shoe—worn in just the right spots. Aptly named Teddy Bear by his previous keeper, the comparison to the iconic plushy toy became apparent the moment I saw him. Likely a Maine Coon cat, he had round, expressive eyes that were patently endearing. But there was something else, a certain largess of spirit, a genuine joie de vivre, his curiosity of the woods he roamed ever in bloom.
Cared for by a neighbor, he’d been neutered, fed and given shelter in her garage, along with a dozen other feral cats. Aware that Teddy was an exceptional individual, the woman had understandably tried to make him her indoor forever cat. But he’d flatly refused the gesture, preferring to wander the woodlands between our homes, curbing his freedom for a bit of food and lodging every now and then.
That all changed the moment he spotted me weeding between the hostas. Zeroing in on me like a dart to a bulls eye, he jumped down off the three-board fence that separated my garden from the woods and came trotting over. I gave him a pet, then complimented him on his fine coat of hair before heading back inside, my task finished. To my surprise, he jogged up behind me, forcing me to nearly shut the door in his face, aware that my indoor cats would fail to be amused by his sudden intrusion into their world. We were a tribe. It had been us versus them for the longest time now. Interlopers were not to be taken lightly.
Teddy stood outside the sunroom door, looking up at me through the glass, a quizzical expression on his face.
“Go away,” I said, fluttering him off with my hands. “Shoo, shoo.”
Proud by nature, he turned and headed back across the garden with a jaunty step. Then, slipping under the fence, he disappeared into the mass of mountain laurel that helped define the boundaries of my world. He would wait. He had time and the whole North Carolina woods to explore.
Nearly two years Teddy waited by that sunroom door, faithfully coming around in snowstorms, in rain, in biting cold weather, jauntily trotting up the ravine each spring, past the fence, riding the wings of hope, expectant that in time, my heart would open to him. I would choose Teddy love. He felt sure of it.
“He’s an old soul,” remarked a local cat whisperer. “The two of you have a special connection, no question.”
I’d asked a friend to read Teddy’s energy patterns along with those of my alpha male cat, hoping to alleviate the latter’s growing discontent over Teddy’s frequent visits, the sum of which were disrupting the dynamic of the household, causing feline behaviors to spiral out of control.
Who does he think he is?” telepathed my male, black alpha cat in response to the cat whisper’s inquiry. I talk to trees, you know. I dare Teddy to top that. I dare him.
“We are not getting another freeloader,” protested my husband, weighing in on the matter. “Teddy’s a feral cat, not a soul mate and we’ve got three already. One more and we’ll become…crazy people.”
It took time, patience and no small diplomacy, but eventually Teddy was coming and going at will through the sunroom door, having successfully navigated a course around our alpha cat’s territorial ego while simultaneously eroding my husband’s emotional battlements. Teddy was like that. He just wore you down with his abundant spirit and perseverance. You couldn’t get a proper grip against it.
Summers passed with me going from making arrangements for Teddy to be let in and out of the house while we were away to keeping him inside 24/7, Barry and I concerned over what potential trouble might befall him, what without us there to watch over him. That’s the thing about love. You instinctively want to protect it.
By now, Teddy’s keeper had died of brain cancer, her house next door put on the market, her garage closed to the neighborhood feral cats, making them all vulnerable to starvation and to the coyotes who hunted at night. Like it or not, Teddy was ours, under a sort of house arrest whenever we left for our summer bungalow in New York, our cramped confines already bulging with two large dogs and three cats. Besides, Teddy now had a companion.
I’d discovered Mini hiding out in the hayloft of the horse barn. She was a tiny thing and so eye-blinkingly quick that I’d barely managed to trap her. But, luckily I did and brought her into my office, convinced that I’d habituate her, adopt her out and congratulate myself for doing the right thing. Wrong. She was a wild child, alternately hissing then spitting at everyone. But I loved her fighting spirit and the resiliency that had kept her alive in an environment where just about everything outsized her.
Admittedly, I am predisposed toward liking felines, there being no species on Earth capable of holding my affections quite like the common cat. As a little girl, I couldn’t wait to visit my grandfather’s farm in spring, the season invariably bringing a new litter of kittens into the hayloft. Let sister ride the pony, I‘d head straight to the cow barn to find my heart’s content.
With the addition of Teddy and Mini our family of cats numbered five, their sum qualifying us as some sort of home feline rescue group. To my surprise, Barry never complained about adopting this miniature black spitter. Like me, he knew the grim future Mini faced without us. Besides, his resistance was already worn down by Teds. He merely shrugged his shoulders, called her Miniscule and tried not to take it personally whenever she’d run away from him, which she invariably did to everyone, save Teddy. She globbed onto him like bubblegum on a bedpost, adhering to his gentle orb for as long as he’d allow.
No sooner did Mini acclimate to our household then we moved from our 10-acre horse farm in Tryon, North Carolina to a suburban rancher with a lousy .04-acre backyard in Annandale, Virginia. I was inconsolate, but Teddy handled the offense with characteristic good nature, by ignoring it. Instead of his customary walk through the woods, he made do with a turn about a narrow, ivy-covered hillside, which, over the course of four years, I cultivated into a splendid garden that he enjoyed in all seasons. What Teddy lacked in personal freedom, he’d gained in being part of our everyday diversions, enjoying long naps atop the computer table in my office. By and large it was the good life. But mostly, I think he enjoyed being loved. When you are emotionally cared for and looked after there is nowhere else you want to be apart from in the thick of things, your own personal happiness being so completely meshed with another’s. And though he was bound to the group, he never tendered the free spiritedness that had defined him and combined, that was enough to keep him satisfied.
In summer, I set up my computer workstation out back on the patio so that he and the others might enjoy some extended time outdoors, dogs and cats lounging about the yard as though lions on the Serengeti, waves of heat stifling my breath as I clicked away on the keyboard, a sweat towel wrapped around my neck. What else could I do? We were a pride, of sorts. We took care of one another, understood each other’s idiosyncrasies, defended every individual needs. And when Teddy got throat cancer, we fought to keep him alive as long as possible just shy of giving him chemo. There I would not go. Poor Teddy would be facing too much pain and too lousy odds.
Then, one morning, just before dawn, there came the gurgled gasp that crept into my consciousness, its chilling tale awakening me from my sleep. Teddy was breathing his last. We lay him on the bed, helplessly watching the life seep out of him, his amber eyes beginning to stare vacantly at me, then through me, as though a day coming to a close. And then, he was gone, leaving me with an empty shell of a cat growing stiff in a wicker basket, a towel neatly tucked around him, and I was handing him over to some vet tech about to slide him into a body bag marked ‘Teddy’, to be re-processed and packaged, returned to me COD, his sanitized paw print embedded in modeled clay, his small hapless soul resting in peace on the other side of some rainbow bridge, according to the card I was sent by the crematorium, leaving me to mourn the past.
When I think of the paddling steps never to cross my hardwood floor, of the motorboat purr now silent in my ear and the great, tawny hulk that will be no more, part of me wants to push away all memories, their embodiment lost to me forever. I never gave Teddy permission to leave. And he did so on such a cold, gray morning, taking with him all that love of yesteryear.
There are good cats, there are okay cats, and occasionally, some downright nasty cats, and with rare exceptions, I’ve loved them all for as long as I can recall. But I never loved anyone like Teddy. There was about him an equanimity that seemed to flow through him like some Emmanuel current of peace. And sometimes, when he looked at me—really looked at me, I felt as though I were catching a glimpse of some grand secret.
Essay continues after the photos
The sign outside the white steeple church of the Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont (left), reads: “Welcome All Creeds. All Breeds. No Dogmas Allowed.” Above are the six living spirits of love in John Alan Lee's Color Wheel.
Coincidentally, not long after, while Barry and I were vacationing in Vermont, we happened upon a canine sanctuary called Dog Chapel, located in St. Johnsbury.
“I wanted to build a chapel, one that celebrated the spiritual bond we have with our dogs,” wrote its designer Stephen Huneck on his website. One “…that would be open to dogs and people. People of any faith or belief system.”
The white clapboard building, with its high-pitched steeple and stained-glass windows, is built on a 150-acre mountaintop farm, offering a peaceful country backdrop in which to pay ones respects to the animals who’ve so faithfully renewed our trust in love over the years. The chapel walls are smothered under thousands of handwritten notes, each expressing the sentiment that binds us to a universal constant that seems to be encoded in our DNA. But how to access that abiding love that surely must come from a source at once, deeper and more profound than any small mind can conceive?
The Greeks first defined the varying faces of love. Centuries later, the Canadian psychologist John Alan Lee took their observations a step further and coined six broad styles of the loving spirit in his book Colours of Love.
Today, neuroscientists are working to refine the science of love, noting its chemical effects on the different lobes of the brain, targeting its response centers, but they can no more determine the source of its appeal than could the ancient philosophers. That’s the thing about love. Thematically, it comes from a different state. Somewhere, in this vast theater of universe, transcendent of all assaults, there resides a kind of grace in whose peaceful current all things naturally seek to immerse themselves, as though returning to the womb. And whether one believes that yearning is the result of some evolutionary prompting or from a divine expression seeking to reflect itself across the miracle of time makes its beauty no less beguiling.
Odd that such an unwavering quality should be distorted so horrifically over the ages by a species so immensely endowed with its capacity. Yet love has been bound and gagged by our own flawed natures, its higher values manipulated, bastardized, challenged, thwarted, suffocated and cruelly maligned as we all
seek to survive and thrive, ego intact, in a world that disguises truth. Somehow still, we believe, if not in a common moral system that supports love thematically, then in the existence of some sublime inner connectedness that reveals its capacity even in the simple workings of a cat.
The mind’s job is to reason, to help us navigate the complexities and paradoxes of existence. But perhaps in the end, it is our willingness to endeavor upon love’s profound mysteries that best allow us to plumb the depths of what it means to be human—seeking love, finding it, defending its values, loss and rejection always barking at our heels as we plunge through wonderland, our hearts painfully aware that what touches us most is that which hurts us most deeply.
Last summer, Barry and I moved again, this time to a home situated on a handsome wooded property, one Teddy would so have enjoyed ambling through. Yet, even as my mind accepts his loss as part of life, part of me still feels bereft of the love that came gift-wrapped inside of him, that deep, abiding spirit I saw secreted inside two amber eyes that seemed to reflect a divine spark flickering like a million stars over the darkest aspects of human behavior, lighting my way as I search for reasons to ascend toward an ever-elusive quality, engage in an inner dialogue of peace and beauty, remembering how it felt and looked—this sheer joyfulness of being alive, and sharing that with another.
In this country, we kill more than 1.5 million unwanted domestic animals each year. So many lives cut short, so much Teddy love squandered.
Equestrian humor at: www.CatherineMacaulay.com
Sign up for the VHC newsletter; It's free and time well spent
Confessions of a Weed Whacker
by Catherine Macaulay
I detest weeds, if only on principle. Employing an aggressiveness better suited to a hostile corporate takeover than to a tidy country farm where fruit trees line the drive, weeds spread their greed via rhizomes, stolons, tubers, bulbs, seeds and tentacle roots, shooting them across the subterranean landscape in numbers too vast to count. By nature, they want it all—soil, water, nutrients.
Unfortunately, upon arriving at my former home in Tryon, NC, I found every type of weed imaginable grubbing off my pastures—sedges, grasses, dicots, perennials, biennials and annuals. But then a brochure came in the mail from the Polk County Agriculture Extension Service,advertising an educational seminar on pasture management.
That morning, I arrived at the lecture hall ready to soak up all knowledge about ridding myself of these unsavory types. The woman seated behind the registration desk smiled at me, then politely inquired if I were licensed.
“For what?” I replied.
“To use the pesticide Grazon P&D.”
“No, I’ve been yanking up the bastards pretty much by hand,” I responded.
The woman looked at me blandly, then handed me a name card. Sticking it on my pink shirt, I proceeded across a crowded room dotted with a mixture of colored farmer’s caps. I took my seat in front, feeling certain that here at last I would find the arsenal of information I needed to keep my pastures weed free.
The din in the room settled as the lecturer took the podium and began his presentation. Hungry for every word, I opened my notepad and listened while he began outlining the latest control and suppression tactics. First off, he said, there is no eradicating the enemy. At best, one can only realistically expect to manage their numbers.
Secondly, it’s important to take a soil test and see what condition the soil is in. The poorer the soil, the greater the chance for weeds.
Right. First thing Monday, I’d go to the Polk County Extension Office and pick up my free soil sample kit. More valuable information was provided. Clover or buckhorn plantain meant the soil was highly alkaline, whereas broom sedge, Carolina geranium and red sorrel were indicative of very acidic soil.
All right. Tell me more.
When it comes to weeds, timing is everything. A pre-emergence herbicide must never be confused with a post-emergence herbicide as the former will prevent future generations of weeds from emerging and the latter will control those weeds that have already emerged.
I felt myself slipping behind, but I still kept writing furiously as the speaker explained the active ingredients in the top herbicides, outlining their uses and formulations. Pesticides have become very specific today, being similar to the broad spectrum of antibiotics. The basic 2,4-D is a good staple in the weed-killing category. A selective, systemic herbicide, it will control dandelions in fescue. But that doesn’t compare to Grazon P&D, which, according to the speaker, is the best spray available, having the capacity to control all broad leaf plants, as well as summer annuals, winter weeds, square stems and dead nettle. But it does require a license to use.
Growing increasingly daunted, I nonetheless kept taking notes. That is, until the lecturer began discussing the finer points of applying these chemicals via a tractor’s spray system. I closed my notebook and put down my pen. I’d been thinking more along the lines of a deer spray bottle.
Having failed advanced pasture management, I returned home, feeling dejected. There was only one thing left to do. Walking into the barn, I fired up the lawn mower and headed out into the paddock, having no delusions about the state of things. Despite my efforts, the weeds and the chaos they invariably brought would eventually have their way again. It was just the nature of things. I mean, every sixth grader knew that the earth was whirling around a sun that was slowly burning itself out while continuing its trajectory through a galaxy being sucked into the quantum folds of its more aggressive next-door neighbor. The universe itself seemed only an interlude between the fluctuating powers of dominance.
It’s just ashes to ashes, weeds to weeds, and we—poor souls—are just here in between.
I took off across the pastures, engine humming, my mower blades uniformly beheading a million seeds of greed sown in a moment’s neglect. I had to admit, glancing over my shoulder at the newly-restored expanse of green, my pleasure was nonetheless sweet.
Sign up for the VHC newsletter; It's free and time well spent
By Catherine Macaulay
I wasn’t born a horse lover. Growing up, it was my older sister who held that distinction. Right from the start, Mary had the gift. She understood their sacred language, found pleasure in their company and accepted them for the magnificent creatures they are.
I can still picture her astride that big, black thoroughbred who was her favorite, her innocent face beaming, covered in a smile. But then, horses and Mary were one world. For her, there was no better way to spend a day than climbing aboard her bicycle and peddling down the back roads to the local riding stable.
In contrast, I was content to rig twine about the handlebars of my bike in order to simulate reins and with crop in hand take off toward the lake, clearing imaginary verticals and double oxers along the way. I preferred cats, played with dolls, dressed prettily, attended her horse shows and climbed into the irons only occasionally, and only then aboard King—a sullen pony with no particular attributes save his naturally low clearance between the ground and me.
Things might have continued that way had Mary not urged me to scale greater heights, a suggestion to which I stupidly agreed, being the kid sister always tagging along for the ride. Before I knew it, I found myself perched atop a majestic-looking dapple gray horse named Sharman, struggling to hold onto my courage—that is until I caught sight of myself in the riding school mirror. It was then that I realized that I could look pretty good elevated in such a fashion, provided the horse was standing still.
Out came mother’s old, brown field boots accompanied by a new pair of forest green breeches of epic proportions. Having become a bonified clothes horse, I eagerly began peddling to the barn with my sister where, appropriately attired, I proceeded to flop around in the saddle like the proverbial dead fish.
But no matter. Each time the lesson was over, I’d proudly return the horse to his stall, the heels of mother’s boots clacking smartly against the cobblestone barn aisle, looking the part of an equestrienne—at least to anyone who hadn’t seen the lesson.
Like most siblings crossing over into adulthood, Mary and I went our own separate ways. She headed west, I moved east, then ultimately in all directions, both of us immersed in the overwhelming struggle to succeed. Gone were those carefree days when we rode out to the barn, pigtails flying, two kindred escapees heading toward a world at once peaceful and serene.
As adults, I had come to envy her six-figure salary. She envied me my artistic freedom. Horses alone remained the mutual dialogue of our ever-widening lives. But even that was changing. She switched to Western, I still rode English. She was innately talented, I spent thousands on lessons, the chasm between my riding skill and my aspirations bridged only by my capacity for self delusion.
Still, nothing could stop me from my enduring attentiveness to equine style, least of all any lack of income. Over the years, I indulged in country casual, cheval chick, equine hip and sport horse active wear, never tiring of dropping my street clothes and, like a matador preparing for the ring, enrolling myself in the latest fashions of an ancient sport.
My husband fails to share my enthusiasm for sport-horse fashion. He claims his riding helmet makes his head sweat, leather tack requires altogether too much cleaning, and bouncing around in a saddle with a narrow twist is nothing shy of sadomasochistic.
Instead, for sport, he plays men’s softball, pursing its attendant fashion styles with uncharacteristic vigor.
“How do I look?” he recently asked, standing before me attired in full softball regalia. Without waiting for an answer he turned on his heel muttering, “I bet this would look better with my maroon jersey.”
I watched mutely as he retreated down the hallway, feeling unaccustomed to such a swishy line of conversation. This was Barry, the guy who dropped his clothes onto the floor and waited for mold to develop. Now, suddenly, his closet was resembling a high-end sporting goods store?
“What do you think?” he asked, re-emerging from the bedroom.
He held himself inside a studied pose to better show off his new, maroon windbreak and matching cap, which corresponded to the band of color running the length of his stretchy softball pants.
“It’s great honey,” I responded bravely, much like I did when he brought home a 12-foot-tall metal windmill and parked it on the lawn.
Satisfied, Barry slung his color-coordinated duffle bag over his shoulder and headed out the door, confident that he was fashionably dressed according to the dictates of the sport. Watching him leave, I decided to sell his Hermes saddle that he only used a dozen times. Clearly, our sense of style was not in the same league.
My sister would find us both silly. To her, appearances count for nothing, not in sports, not in life. She loves horses because they are beautiful and kind. She loves the smell of their breath, their sense of humor.
Today, Mary and I reflect on our lives spent with those wonderful creatures who have endowed us with so much enjoyment, imparting as they have, many valuable life lessons along the way. We call it horse sense. To highlight a few:
Expect much, be happy with little.
Each fall off a horse is an opportunity to get back up.
Never reward bad behavior—it only worsens over time.
If you want a noble friend, always carry a carrot.
Ride the horse or you’ll likely be taken for a ride.
In the horse race of life, run fast and never ever give up.
Last week, Mary called me on her mobile to share an early morning hack she was enjoying through the wildflower-rich Arizona mountains, her Arab mare under saddle, her beloved hound at her side. As I sat by my desk, sandwich in hand, listening to her bubbly voice describing the beauty of her wanderings, I heard the echo of our childhood emerging from out of the darkness and for an instant I couldn’t imagine two luckier kids.
She wears jeans, I wear expensive breeches and she can still outride me any day of the week. Happily, in the end, some things never change.
Driven to Distraction
by Catherine Macaulay
Tryon, North Carolina—I faced Obstacle Two white-knuckling the handle bar on the back of the carriage, glancing down at the words inked onto the palm of my hand—“Stay right of A!”
Smeared by the steadily falling rains, my handy CliffsNotes were barely legible as I went charging across the countryside Ben Hur style during the marathon portion of the Carolina Driving Trials being held at FENCE, in Tryon, North Carolina.
I had studied for this day like a college student cramming for finals, knowing that it would fall to me to help driver Pat Belski of Aberdeen, NC, navigate all three phases of the carriage driving competition, which included dressage, cones obstacles and the marathon. Now, in the latter event, we were holding to a course marked by yellow and black directional arrows, blowing past 21 compulsory turning flags at a rate of one hazard per kilometer.
“Are we on course?” asked Pat, urging her matched pair of ponies up the hillside toward the second obstacle.
“You bet!” I replied, not having a clue, this being my first catch ride as a ‘gator’, which is short for ‘navigator’, which is just another way of saying ‘death wish.’
“What’s our time?” she asked.
I loosened my grip from around the handle bar just long enough to glance at the stopwatch bouncing about my neck, raindrops splattering my face. “Two minutes, twenty-four seconds,” I replied, desperately trying to navigate my way around the barrage of information being hurled at my brain.
We crested the top of the hill amid punishing hoofbeats, then wheeled sharply left, followed by an abrupt turn right as Pat negotiated the fastest way through the obstacle—a labyrinth of wooden posts constructed into a single, oversized, Rubik’s Cube from which there seemed no easy way out.
Straddling the back of the carriage, I leaned my weight to the inside of the corner, offering my body as ballast to the opposing, centrifugal forces threatening to send us wheeling off into the sky, employing the whole of my body to stick the turn lest I violate Rule Number One of navigating, namely: Be sure the carriage doesn’t roll over.
“You have to work the carriage from behind,” remarked Madeleine Miner, wife of DeWitt Miner III, one of the founding members of the Carolina Carriage Club, and herself a longtime navigator. “You have to be on the ball.”
…lest you get bounced off the back like one.
A rear wheel clipped the post as we rounded the turn, dislodging me momentarily from my stance. But the ponies went charging forward with barely a break in stride and we emerged from the hazard posting a solid time, leaving us free to back off the pace on our way down the hill, which, from the back of a galloping horse, or, ponies, as was the case here, seemed to fall off rather sharply.
“How’s our time?” asked Pat, seated before me, the reins steady in her hands.
Gripping the bar with my left hand, I checked my stopwatch. “One minute, forty-five,” I replied, still pretending I actually had a clue to what I was doing.
Time…always the time. Didn’t she know I was struggling to hang on here? What had ever possessed me to volunteer for this post, anyway? I already knew the score from veteran navigator Tom Bowers, who’d given me the real job description of what a navigator does during the clinic he’d staged earlier for others as foolish as myself.
“We ‘gators stand on to the back of the carriage and try not to get knocked off,” he’d announced, a broad grin across his face. As if to prove his point, he hopped onto the back of the carriage and began working the running board against a slew of imaginary hazards, contorting his body into positions I wouldn’t have tried twenty years ago.
“This is how the Eastern Europeans do it,” he said, literally hanging off the side of the rig by one arm in order to steady the rig through a make believe turn.
Good to know.
But there was more. A good navigator was expected to arrive at a carriage driving competition Boy Scout prepared. That meant carrying a Swiss Army knife in the off chance any rigging had to be cut from a horse, and making sure there were spare parts aboard the carriage in case something unexpectedly fell off, and never be without a wrench in the event the brakes locked up. Oh, and don’t forget bailing twine in case some quick fastening was needed—that, and a couple sticks of chewing gum.
Part traveling mechanic, part rubber ball, I was beginning to wish I’d signed on for one of the other spots available to volunteers: cone setter, hazard timer, course observer, warm-up steward, scribe, score runner, their retinue of clipboards, stopwatches and two-way radios making the week-end’s event, possible.
The rain singlehandedly made it something of a challenge.
I’d already been driven to distraction during the dressage part of the driving competition after a sudden cloudburst began pummeling the roof of the covered arena just as we were crossing the diagonal. Finding the air throbbing with an intimidating percussion of rain upon metal, it looked as though one of Pat’s ponies might launch into an unscripted performance of airs above the ground and I into a wholesale disobedience of Rule Number Two: Keep a Level Head.
But, somewhere in that voice and reins, the mare found a confidence and obediently moved on, the pair completing the dressage test with a synchronized cadence and rhythm that carried them through the figures, both balanced and moving from behind, accurately transitioning between the gaits.
And then, it was on to the second phase of the competition, the cone driving phase where presently, a silver-haired lady was wheeling her buggy around the course as though she were a born-again Barbara Stanwick packing side shooters, her wide-brimmed hat festooned with ribbons that seemed to be flying sideways through the force of her own momentum. We waited our turn in the warm-up arena, Pat impeccably turned out in ladylike attire while I was dressed in the more, male-oriented uniform of blazer, khakis, paddock boots, hunt cap and brown gloves, feeling wholly miscast and completely inept in the part.
Like she had done earlier, she drove her pair around the course with a pedigreed precision, navigating between the cones, managing to accumulate few penalty faults despite my efforts, as I was still struggling to hang on. But then, a competitor this good wasn’t likely to depend on some newbie ‘gator to help her win, Pat having already developed her strategies for success following her diagnosis of Post Polio Syndrome, a degenerative condition that affects polio survivors.
Finding herself at a crossroad, the plucky 66-year-old pragmatist from Aberdeen sold off much of her blue chip bloodstock, knowing that the Warmbloods she and her husband had bred for years at their Ashemont Farm would ultimately become too much for her to handle.
Carriage driving would now take her where she wanted to go. It seemed to make sense. So did plunking down $600 to rescue a skinny, little 12.2-hand pony named Maggie, who came with a harness and pipe cart—the deal of a lifetime, it turns out, for both.
So began their journey across the backcountry, the two of them finding their way, preparing for a new life. Before long, Maggie had herself a running mate, a mirror image of her equine, ebony self. Side by side, Pat started building up their strength and developing their skills as a team, driving her ponies 10k a day, working them through simple courses before aiming for an ever-higher flag, an old discipline and determination kicking in. She began training with six-time national, four-in-hand champion Bill Long of Southern Pines, the first American ever to win the prestigious Royal Windsor Grand Prix Driving Championship in England, in l985. From his doorstep, Pat Belski never looked back.
Now, here she was at FENCE, flying over the valleys and rain soaked hills, still on course and holding to the allotted time. “We’re doing okay, she hollered to me, “we’ve got three minutes on Section E.”
“Terrific!” I shouted, grateful that she’d finally stopped asking me if we were still on track as I’d long ago broken the third rule of navigating: Learn the Hazards, despite having walked the course with Pat earlier.
The pressure off, I began to relax and have fun, leaning my weight enthusiastically into every turn, all apprehensions vanquished by the sheer thrill of a ride that was more exciting than a roller coaster, more fun than bumper cars, both of us accelerating and decelerating, abruptly shifting right, then left, the ponies taking Pat’s cues effortlessly as they went running the hills, charging across soggy terrain, racing down along woodland trails, their fitness and stamina fully up to the test.
A glorious wall of water sprayed up alongside the carriage as the ponies negotiated the water element, their full-out effort drenching Pat and I completely, putting smiles on both our faces as we went bumping and bouncing down river. Without a doubt, I was along for the ride. But, what a ride this was turning into. This was classic amusement.
The final portion of the competition finally over, I stood holding the ponies for the vet check, still wearing a smile. In a field of 38 competitors, Pat had managed to place first in the Preliminary Pony Pair Division and had won Best Marathon overall despite my having broken all three cardinal sins of navigating.
Back at the trailer, I toweled the rain off my face, comprehending at last, why it was that carriage driving still endures as the oldest, competitive equestrian sport in the world.
In hindsight, perhaps Madeline Miner put it best.
“It’s just fun, pure pleasure.”