Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Noble Steed: The Christmas Horse

Mrs. (Babs) Wells was my mentor, my neighbor, and my friend. I first met Babs when I was a young teen. My parents had bought a small lemon farm near her Welsh pony stable and she soon came over to meet us. Babs and I became instant friends from the moment we first starting talking horses, no matter that our age difference was over fifty years. Our love of horses, animals, and our similar perspectives on living the adventurous life were enough to keep us talking for hours at any time. She taught me more about horsemanship and class than anyone else ever did.

She loved her ponies and showed them in halter as well as roadster and could she ever move those little guys out! They were a joy to watch. Most were dappled grey, up-headed and had a lot of action. Mrs. Wells only drove, as she had a bad fall many years before that had damaged her hip.

However, her husband, Mr. David Wells, rode every year with the Rancheros Visitadores, a select group of men who spend a week riding in the backcountry of the Santa Ynez valley via wagon train. Some notable members of the Rancheros Vistadoeres of yesteryear include: Tom Mix, Leo Carrillo, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Slim Pickens, Edgar Bergenm, James Garner, Art Linkletter, Walt Disney, Bob Hope and President Ronald Reagan. Mr. David Wells was a member of this secretive and select organization and as such, he needed a fine horse to ride. Therein came my mount, “Guess Again, ” a Saddlebred, who for many a year was my main riding horse. As Mr. Wells only rode once a year on his Rancheros Visitadores adventure, this left me the horse of my dreams for the other fifty-one weeks of the year. When I was a young adult who no longer owned a horse, and was working my way through college, this was a dream come true.

My husband, Robert and I would sometimes be invited to dine at the Well's house. We would dress in our finest clothes and go hang out with “Mr. and Mrs. Wells.” They were the most sophisticated and fun “old” people we knew. We talked of horses and land and California history. She spoke of her youth growing up on the East Coast and the old horse drawn sled collection that she lost due to hard times, plus so many stories of her driving and riding adventures. Her family was old East coast elite and she had so many beautiful items in her house that reflected that heritage. I loved to walk around and admire her many horse show trophies and memorabilia, as she would tell stories of her past wins in the show ring.

She and I often would work the horses or I would ride and meet her later in her house. She would invite me in for sherry and there we would talk for hours. We spoke of her dogs, our horses, the animal behavioral research studies that I was involved in or of all sorts of things having to do with animals. It always came back to animals: that was our true connection: the animals. Not just the horses but also a love for all creatures.

As time went on, my husband's and my studies moved us farther and farther away from California. He got his medical degree, I started my PhD work, children came and our careers moved us even further away. But still we would come home every Christmas to visit my family and our dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Wells. On Christmas Eve in 1985, she came over to my folk's house with her usual homemade walnut pralines and a special gift for me.

It was wrapped in brown paper, nothing fancy. I opened up the wrapping and there was a wonderful antique, wooden black horse with jointed legs, tail and neck. He stands a full twenty inches high, with a proud head and docked tail. He was and is a noble steed. It was a wonderful gift from a truly giving person, a person with a heart of gold. I didn't think to ask her where it came from. All she said was that it was something she had owned for a very long time and that she wanted to give me something really special.

All I knew was that he was lovely and I treasure him. The horse toy became my favorite item, sitting on my bookshelf: dark and bold. That this horse represented a breed never occurred to me and being a west coast gal, I had never really thought much about Percherons. Besides the only Percheron I knew was the gray circus horse in Marguerite Henry's Album of Horses. So, it never occurred to me that the toy represented a specific breed of horse.

When Robert and I finally were able to buy a farm in Maryland, we knew we wanted to breed a horse that spoke to our hearts. We spent a lot of time researching breeds, looking for the right fit. I wanted something that was able to work the land and that I could drive as well as ride. A noble steed. My husband, who has a love of horses as deep as my own wanted an animal that spoke to his agrarian love. After much looking, analyzing and soul searching, we stumbled upon the Percheron breed.

We began our small breeding program with a mare and foal. Since then, it has grown to include another ten animals, including an amazing MG Prince Stallion son. Our driving skills have greatly improved and we now show in halter, harness and riding classes. Our horses are truly versatile and working with the Percheron breed has altered our whole way of thinking about farming, horses and life.

But I digress. It wasn't until a week after we had bought our first Percheron mare and foal at the Dover Auction, that Robert looked again at the old toy that was given to me fifteen years prior. He said in a wondering voice, “Did you know that is a Percheron?” I stopped in my tracks. I didn't know. I hadn't thought of it. But he was right. It is a Percheron. It had been starring me in the face for fifteen years and I had never really thought about just what breed that toy was. I just knew it was a noble steed.

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Some are seventy-year-old plus women; still active in the sport they love. I am proud to say that Mrs. Babs Wells was one of my greatest counselors and a true friend. I know she is long gone, but in this California girl's heart, she remains constant. Thank you, Mrs. Wells for all the gifts you gave me, including that noble steed.