Horse girl memories of a special riding instructorI read the Cash Lovell Stables newsletter the other day. It was very long, packed full of information on the happenings in the barn, but the article that really caught my eye was the very first. It was a personal letter from Parker Lovell, announcing the loss of her childhood riding instructor — the woman who had taught her how to love horses all those years ago. It touched me very deeply because, as she talked about her childhood experiences, I remembered mine. I remembered summers at the barn, sleep-overs at my trainer’s house, getting up at 3 a.m. to pack the trailer for a horse show. How our trainer looked the other way when we decided to sneak a horse out for a midnight bareback ride. The day she told me nonchalantly to back the black truck up to the hay mow so we could load 10 bales. (I’d never backed any vehicle up to anything in my life … but you didn’t say no!) I recalled the friendships I’d made back then, most of which have lasted, and of course those wonderful horses who shaped us all. I asked permission to share the letter here because I doubt I’m the only one who can relate to it. Though Mrs. Wiseman must have been one-of-a-kind, there’s a little bit of her in most horse trainers and instructors … and there’s a little bit of that “pig-tailed, dirty little horse girl” in all of us.
My riding instructor died last week. Her name was Mrs. Wiseman. She was old when I was a little girl. Her skin looked like well-oiled saddle leather.
I took Cashlyn to the gathering that Mrs. Wiseman’s family held at that magnificent old farm where I grew up. The magic was everywhere, starting with the ancient horse show sign pointing the way into Grenadier Farm in Danville, Va. I got chills. My heart thumped. I was driving back in time to visit a little girl in pigtails who had lost her Daddy and healed her heart with a horse. And a crotchety, half-eccentric riding instructor who, when irritated, screamed “Sweetie!”
The riding ring was eerily the same. Among the first people I saw was Meredith, one of my best horsey friends, who like so many others became a lifelong friend. We walked with our own children down and around the gravel road of our childhoods to the main barn. The perfectly-shaped rock mounting block. Same place out front. The nameplates Mrs. Wiseman handpainted for every school horse. The names of horses I rode and showed and loved. Still hanging. I wanted to steal one of them just to have it. Massive hinges swinging massive oak stall doors. The tack room. The saddle racks. The smell.
As wonderful-but-hard as it was to walk in the barn, the Bunk House was harder. Still in my dreams, I hear the creaky wood floor, the thwack of the door, the rusty metal beds covered in the best-sleeping musty mattresses, the Corelle plates with tiny green flowers, the Horse Breeds picture on the wall. The footlockers overstuffed with dusty riding pants and stinky boots. The kiln where we cooked our ceramics.
Summer camp at Mrs. Wiseman’s was the best part of my childhood. Summer camp at Mrs. Wiseman’s was the best part of my teenhood too. On our recent visit, I held it together until I saw Cashlyn standing in front of the bunkhouse. Then the floodgates flew open. My baby girl will never experience Mrs. Wiseman’s brand of magic.
She was from a different era. Her persona was larger than life. Like my Cash, she could do things others wouldn’t dare. She hauled horses AND kids in her old horse van. Yes, actually inside the horse van, on the highway, going to horse shows. She led us kids on trail rides, in the pitch black of night, through the woods, at a full gallop. (There are literally hundreds of us who can testify to this. And we all lived!) She fox-hunted with us. She taught us to appreciate the smell of a good coffee lace at 4 a.m. She turned us loose to swim in that green gooey frog pond. She taught us to ride hard, and well. And to be the best we could be. No excuses. “And you better take good care of my horse,” she would holler, “Or I won’t let you ride him again.” Mrs. Wiseman was a horsewoman and a lady. She was the toughest old bird I’ve ever been privileged to love.
Cash Lovell Stables isn’t Grenadier Farm. Mrs. Wiseman was Grenadier Farm. I don’t have her talent or guts. But I have a commitment to my kids. My job is a little bit about horses, and a lot about the people – especially the children — who love and need them. I learned this from the best.
Some barns focus on ribbons. Some are hoity-toity and full of rich, out-of-touch trust fund babies or wanna-be’s. The owners of some barns need to win at all costs to satisfy their own egos – others need to satisfy their own feelings of inadequacy. It’s painful and embarrassing to watch that part of the horse business.
I am so incredibly lucky that my mentor ran a barn for horse-loving kids. Period. She taught me that the horse business is really about helping people. In her own sometimes gruff way, she loved each of us. We knew it. And we loved her back. Former Grenadier riders came from as far away as California, New Mexico and Ohio to attend Mrs. Wiseman’s memorial.
I hadn’t seen many of my old barn friends in 25 years or more. We picked right up where we left off. Our kids took off playing. We strolled the farm, “Do you remember the time . . .” laughing the truest, sweetest laughs.
The above photo is the sun setting over Grenadier Farm. As Cashlyn and I drove away, I stopped to take this picture. And to smile at the remembering of a pig-tailed, dirty little horse girl who, after all these years, is still Mrs. Wiseman’s.