Sunday, December 18, 2016



By Tom Gumbrecht

I'm not sure if I technically qualify as a beginner rider, but at age 63 with only 18 years of riding behind me, my experience pales to many my age who have been riding for a lifetime. My beginner experience is fresh enough in my mind that I can fully relate to other adult beginners and the unique challenges, fears and frustrations we all face. Moreover, I started my riding "career" at an age where I had all of the normal responsibilities, expenses and fears that elude those who learn riding at a young age.
One of the author's first times jumping OTTB Lola.
With trainer Laura Ruben.
I may further qualify for the title "beginner" since I have been a beginner at many different aspects of horsemanship along the way: Starting as a first-time-on-a-horse beginner at age 45, I have been a beginner basic student, a beginner lessee, and a beginner rough boarder. Then a beginner barrel racer, a beginner trail rider, a beginner jumper and a beginner eventer. I was a beginner at dressage and a beginner at horse showing. I was a beginner at trailering, both local and long distance when Samantha took her horse to college. I was a beginner horse owner, a beginner barn owner, a beginner facility designer and a beginner "trainer."

I have been a beginner to treating different injuries and illness in horses more times than I care to remember. I have been a beginner in dealing with the death of an equine companion.

By the time we reach middle age, I will hazard a guess that many of us Long Islanders in the position to consider riding as a hobby have become accustomed to being fairly good at what we do. Riding -riding well- as I quickly learned, involved (at least in my case) a willingness to be really bad at something I was totally drawn to, and doing so in public without knowing if and when I would ever "get good" at it. I was out of my comfort zone; frustrating to say the least.

I have met riders who have been riding nearly all of their lives, and even some "natural riders" who started as adult beginners who can't seem to relate to the level of frustration that many of us experience. I have had many times over the years when I have been frustrated in lessons and I think there were many different reasons..
Finding the right trainer goes a long way toward eliminating
frustration for the adult beginner. DannyBoy here with
trainer Laura Ruben.

A few that come to mind:

1) My first trainer told me, "Your problem is, in your world you're a boss; you want to THINK it, and for it to be done. That's not the way it is here. You have to do all of the work yourself."  I hated him for it at the time but his assessment was spot-on. Understanding the concept of something intellectually and putting in the work so that it eventually reverts to muscle memory are two very different things.

2) I needed to find the right trainer. I rode with quite a few before I "struck gold." The best trainers for me were the ones who had struggled to "get it" and could empathize with my struggles. Those who considered themselves "natural riders" usually didn't work out for me. Also, I needed a trainer who was not only an effective communicator but was able to communicate in a way that I could learn. I learn by visual images. A five minute detailed lecture on how tightly to hold my reins might as well be in Chinese. But tell me: "You're holding a small bird in your hand. You don't want it to get away, but you don't want to crush it to death either." That I get. Immediately.

3) Fear is a thing. When it takes hold, "just suck it up" doesn't always cut it. When my eventer was out of commission for over a year, I had my OTTB project waiting in the wings. She was very green and a little unpredictable. I was 56 when I started working with her and she dumped me at fences more than a few times. I found it hard to "throw my heart over the fence" and she definitely needed me to do that. We had to back down and do flat work, poles, little cross rails again-- for months! It's important to have a trainer who pushes you out of your comfort zone, but it's also important to have one who knows how much is too much. Pushing too hard or to far can let the paralysis of fear take over and that's a breeding ground for frustration. It's important to have a trainer who gets that, and also equally important for me to be able to leave my ego at the gate and not consider that "rebooting" to be a failure. I had gotten myself to the point that I was afraid to canter my own horse. And perhaps more afraid to admit it because in my mind I had developed a reputation as a fairly "fearless" rider. The only way I was able to get past it was to admit what I was going through, take a small step back to what I was still comfortable doing and build off of that. The obstacle was not in the arena; it was in my head.

When faith replaces fear, cool things can
happen. Faith in trainer, horse and self.
4) Goals are a good thing. I would accomplish little without them. But it was important that I keep my goals flexible. That applies to my goals for the year, for the show season, for the week, and even for the lesson or the ride. I had big goals for DannyBoy in eventing one year. It was going to be our move-up season. Then he got hurt and needed surgery. I allowed myself one day of "poor me" then brushed off my OTTB mare Lola, and called my trainer. I wanted her to train me to train the mare. It was a big undertaking for me because she knew almost nothing except how to run fast, and how to behave on the ground. My most cherished ribbon to this day was from her first show, an eventing dressage-only class. It was a second place ribbon, out of a class of two riders. But I cherish it because of the amount of dedication from Lola, my trainer and me that it represented.  Goals are great. Inflexible, unrealistic goals are an invitation to frustration.

5) Accepting change. There were a few years where I was able to devote the time to training vigorously and I had a few pretty good seasons in local level eventing and jumpers. I have a bunch of ribbons that represent accomplishments that were beyond my wildest dreams. It's human nature to want more of something so rewarding. But... life is change. I have a lot of added business and family responsibilities now; that's reality. Horses are still a major part of my life but I'm not currently in training nor showing. Will I ever go back to it? I like to think so, at least the formal training if not the showing. But if not... that's ok. I still ride, and have my own training regimen and also love to be out in the woods with my horses. I help others, try to at least. I have learned to appreciate my horses for who they are as much as I used to for what they could do. I have been blessed with a grandson, now two years old, who seems to have the horse gene and a lot of my time is now spent introducing him to the joys of horses. Not embracing change is one of the quickest paths to frustration that I know.

The horse world is full of experts and I'm totally ok with saying that I'm not one of them. If I'm any
New beginnings. A life with horses isn't
exclusively about riding.
good at anything it could be that I've learned to see "pride" in a different light and lay out the challenges I've faced for other riders to see and maybe identity with.

So yeah.. I've been frustrated in my riding, but I no longer stay that way for very long. I hope to stay a beginner forever.  There's no shame in not being perfect. It would be a shame to give up on a passion because we thought we had to be.

The author and DannyBoy at Good Shepherd Horse Trials

Thursday, October 6, 2016



By Tom Gumbrecht

Is there a secret ingredient that exists in some barns which brings out the best in riders, boarders and even horses? I think there may be... and I think it may be unity, the pulling together as a team toward a common goal.

If we want to learn to live in harmony, we need look no
further than our horses. DannyBoy and Diesel
 This year especially, there seems to be a lot of disharmony in the air; I suspect it may stem from the unusually discordant political campaigns we've been subjected to. I'm not comfortable with it, but it has triggered some self-reflection. It's easy to recognize dissension in others, but what about myself? Do my words and actions foster unity, or are they sometimes divisive?

Most of us have been at barns where, upon arrival, some outgoing and seemingly friendly soul immediately begins to give us the low-down on everyone else in the barn. It seems comforting; we've made a connection with someone who is looking out for us, but I've found that it is generally an illusion. Gossip is not about exchanging information, it's about power. "I know what you don't, and I've chosen to let you in on it. No need to form your own opinion, I will do that for you, and claim you for my team." Environments such as this can leave us feeling suspicious, guarded and confused.

If we're lucky, we've also experienced barns where there is no trace of a judgmental undertone. People are accepting, helpful, and mainly discuss concepts, ideas and events rather than people. When we find ourselves at such a barn, we are refreshed, encouraged and hopeful. These environments do not exist by accident; what is tolerated is perpetuated. The embers of gossip die out without the oxygen of an interested audience.

In my life, I've been as guilty of these sins as anyone. My dad was a good man. He and I
Gossip has no place in a harmonious environment.
Bella and Flo breaking the rules here.
were both tradesmen, and there were times in his life that we couldn't relate on a lot of levels; gossiping about the different characters on the job was where we bonded. It was comforting, it was reassuring and it filled an uneasy silence. It took a long while to let go of that false sense of security, and realize that he was doing the best he could to connect, just like I was. But I no longer want to walk that path.

To keep myself on the path I would now hope to follow, I ask myself some pointed questions:

* Am I a healing, unifying person or am I divisive? Am I judgmental of others?

* Am I a peacemaker, or do I like to "stir the pot?"

* Am I tolerant of those who rub me the wrong way, or am I abrasive?

* Do my remarks carry an air of superiority about them, or to I remember where I came from?

* Do I put down some equestrian activities as if I were a cut above for not participating in this or that aspect of riding?

* Do I share my defeats as well as my accomplishments that others may identify and grow, or do I need to appear an expert?

Unity allows us to do together that which we cannot
do for ourselves.
I'm lucky that the very first barn I landed in radiated an attitude that was supportive, tolerant and patient, and not indulgent of those with other agendas. It was the beginning of my own transformation. Now I have my own barn and I have to always be conscious of the fact that it's me who sets the tone. Just as the barn requires constant maintenance, so does the environment we have created here.  It is maintenance of a more spiritual nature, and while our horses may create the need for much of the facility maintenance, it is they who provide us with maintenance for the soul.
A harmonious workplace doesn't just happen.
Just like the barn and fences, it requires work to build and maintain.

Sunday, July 24, 2016


By Tom Gumbrecht

Originally published in Horse Directory, August 2016

My horses are pleasure horses; being in their company gives me pleasure. There was a time when riding was everything, at first casual and then in local competitions. I may not have yet realized it but the picture I was attempting to paint was one of the human-horse relationship; combined training and jumpers were my medium. While I enjoyed the ribbons and still have a few hanging up, the real payoff for me was how completion validated the strength of our partnership and the effectiveness of our communication.

The author with Bella, who was once
considered aloof.
 The partnership was enhanced in the training arena and culminated in the show ring or the cross country field. But it was really created in the stable, in the day-to-day caring for my horses' basic needs and sometimes special needs as well. That's where we, human and horse alike, learned to trust one another and to develop enough faith in that trust to sometimes go against our instincts and rely totally on the other being. I found that a much harder quality to develop than some of the technical skills.

For better or worse, it seemed that the tightest bonds were created when I was caring for a horse that was ill or injured. I was actually able to feel an intense level of trust developing through the heightened level of daily handling involved in their care. It was that soul connection between friends of different species that I had sought; competition had been one means to that end, but it was becoming evident that it was not the only means.

Bella was not my horse, but I was always responsible for her. She belongs to Samantha, who had multiple successful seasons in jumpers with her when she was home in high school. Bella was a very talented horse, but she was a hot blooded Arabian mare who was concerned about everything. Samantha was one of only a few people who could ride her in competition effectively. They were both accepted at a prestigious Midwest horsey college, and Bella never really fit into their program. While the school touted the qualifications of their trainers, the reality was that these big name trainers only worked with the top human and equine athletes. The overwhelming majority was taught by other students, who in this case were well-meaning but  inexperienced in dealing with a horse like Bella. She became confused and seemed to be losing her spirit. I ended up bringing her back home before her fourth semester was finished, with a mysterious lameness that no one seemed to be able to pinpoint.

Bella had been the most aloof of all of our horses, and often resisted human attempts to show
The author learns that Bella's trust
needs to be earned and cannot be
affection. I noticed a subtle shift in attitude when I showed up at the college-town stable to bring her home, something hard to describe; a renewed intensity in her eyes perhaps, and a much more vocal greeting when she became aware of my presence. She associated me with home, it seemed, and she wanted to go home.

In the time that has passed since then, Bella retired from jumpers, but shockingly for such a hot blooded mare, became a rock solid trail mount; I could see the attentiveness in her ears and feel her confidence through reins and seat. She has had issues that sometimes affected her soundness, and at those times required a more intensive regimen of care than normal. As I have now grown to expect, during those times we have become noticeably closer. Recently she has had a few different issues which required a good bit of attention from me, and I actually became aware of an increased sense of trust and gratitude radiating from her. Bella actually is a very affectionate horse, but needs to be allowed to express it in her time and on her terms.

Nap time with Bella.
On a recent summer Sunday morning I lingered in the barn aisle after my chores were completed, drinking my coffee and reading the newspaper. I glanced up from my chair and didn't immediately see Bella, so I stood up and then realized that she had lay down in her stall in front of the fan and was taking a nap. I slid open her stall door to check on her and she raised her head up, looking slightly annoyed at the intrusion.

 Curious, I sat down next to her in the stall with my back against the wall and my legs stretched out in front of me. Her head was to my right, and to my left I kept the stall door open in case she decided to get up and I needed to quickly get out of her way. I made a couple of attempts to stroke her neck and each time she pinned her ears slightly and gave a swish of her tail. So I let her be; she was obviously not fully comfortable with the situation. I just sat there and watched her ears come forward slowly and her eyes lose some of their intensity. I sat still for five, then ten, and ultimately almost thirty minutes when she let out a low groan that might have been concerning had it not been accompanied by the lowering of her head onto my chest and her breathing her breath into mine. Before I was even able to process what had just happened, she let out a nicker that shocked me not only by its volume in my ear or the reverberation in my chest, but also by being totally unexpected.  Bella did not often nicker.

Bella enjoys helping us with our farm chores.

This horse had wanted to connect as much as I did; I needed to find the patience to let it be her idea, to earn her trust and not attempt to force it. My patience was rewarded with a clearer understanding of what it is that I seek from my relationship with our horses. I seek to connect at the heart, and once in a while if I'm ready to receive it, the gift is bestowed upon me.

Sunday, July 3, 2016


By Tom Gumbrecht

We've all had it drilled into us: "Don't stand behind that horse, don't walk too close to that horse, don't pass so near to that horse, you'll get kicked! We find ourselves repeating the same doctrine to novices and people whose horse sense we are unsure of.

Lola's racing days. Were there things from
her past that she couldn't tell me about?
We also develop a sixth sense about the horses under our care: we get a picture of a horse's emotional condition beginning at dawn when we flip on the barn lights and walk by his stall. Is he calm? Still groggy from sleep and not alert? Concerned? Agitated? Scared? A horse tells us with his ears, eyes, and body just which version of him we will be dealing with that day, and we gauge our interactions with him accordingly. 

But sometimes, complacency can set it. At least I've found that to be true, especially with a horse that we've known for a long time, and formed a close bond with. It might start out as a small transgression, such as crawling halfway under a horse to paint a hoof rather than getting up and walking around to the other side. If anyone else is in attendance, we might throw out a disclaimer, "You should never do what you see me doing right now," as our actions belie our words.

So it was with Lola, the Thoroughbred mare we had acquired two weeks off of the
Lola, the sweetheart of the herd,
still feels her oats.
racetrack where an injury had ended her promising career. During her lengthy rehabilitation and recovery period, we formed a bond and mutual trust that was unbreakable. That trust was hard-won and very real, but I was probably just a little more conscious of my movements around Lola than with our other horses. Any quick hand or arm movement around her or over-zealous use of a manure fork in her stall had the potential of causing her lightening-quick reflexes to send her retreating smartly backwards into the stall wall. There were things in her past, it seemed, that she was unable to tell me about.

We knew a lot of things about each other, and made allowances for them; that's what enabled our relationship to work. I never thought of her as difficult, but she was very sensitive. Lola may not have been 100% trusting of anyone, but from what I observed in nine years caring for, training and riding her, there was no other human that she trusted more. She would give the boss mare, Bella, a very wide berth and back down in any situation that had even the potential of conflict, her strides being very tentative. With me by her side though, she would confidently prance right past her, ears forward, with a purposeful stride. Sometimes I would chuckle to myself that maybe she had a little too much faith in me; Bella could easily take us both out if she ever had the mind to.

Lola's stall, the scene of the crime.
Mine, not hers.
One recent evening after returning home at around 9:00 pm, I headed out to the barn to put the horses in for the night. I switched on the paddock lights, and Lola meandered over and made her way past me and into her still darkened stall, like she always does. As she passed, I noticed something on her underside, maybe a small burr, and instinctively reached out to touch it, forgetting for a moment that I had placed myself beyond the scope of her peripheral vision. My next recollection was of a wrenching pain in my gut, a blinding light as my eyes were looking straight up into the paddock floodlights and a sharp, hard thud that was my head hitting the ground. For the first time in eighteen years around horses, I had taken a kick! I next had a unique view of what a horse looks like when she is jumping, from the point of view of the jump. Lola bolted out of the stall and jumped over me in her hasty exit, being mercifully careful in where she placed her feet. Or lucky. I got myself up and tried to make sense of what had happened. There was blood all over my left hand and as the shock wore off I started to hurt everywhere. It took me a while to get the horses in after the commotion, especially Lola, who had retreated to the far corner of the paddock and needed to be coaxed and reassured that there would be no repercussions to her fear-based reaction. All of her movements were now very jerky and tentative as if she were waiting to be punished. I lingered by her stall door for a long while before turning away from her, and only then did she cautiously approach and put her head out and bury her nose in my chest. It's ok, girl. Your body reacted totally on instinct which is a part of your blood and bones. And I know better. No hard feelings.

After I had made my way up to the house to be checked over by my wife Mary, a nurse
Someday, young Daniel, I'll tell you all  about
your pal Lola, when she was known as
One Precious Gem.
by profession, I went to bed but although I was very tired, sleep would not come. What kept me awake was not the fear of playing out "what if" scenarios, but rather an intense feeling of gratitude. The last few months, I have been exposing my two year old grandson, Daniel, to the wonders of horses, to the delight of all humans and equines concerned. It occurred to me that I had at some point started thinking of our horses as big teddy bears, and perhaps unconsciously transmitting that attitude with the best of intentions but the carelessness of familiarity. I was very grateful that it was me that paid the price for that lapse in judgment, and not Daniel. It was a very small price to pay for an important and timely refresher course. They are not teddy bears. They are horses.

The fact is that I had frightened Lola and she responded the way frightened horses do. Then she laid low for awhile, then allowed me to walk her back to her stall, and when she thought it was safe, came and expressed affection. I am grateful because Lola teaches me how to be: there was an overreaction to stimulus, a retreat to regroup, then a making of amends. I had to wonder, if this had been a human-human interaction, would it have been resolved so quickly and amicably?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016



Originally published in Horse Directory, June 2016

By Tom Gumbrecht

The house I grew up in was a charming little Cape Cod in a post-war development of similar
homes in Glen Cove. It sat on a lot measuring 60' X 100', but it seemed much bigger to us. 
Behind the maple tree in the back yard, the terrain dropped off sharply to a flat, grass field of
about an acre's size, and around three feet lower than our property. It gave the visual
appearance of a much bigger property than we actually had, and we were allowed to use it to
play ball and frisbee and catch fireflies on summer evenings. We called the field "Perkins' Lot"
after the family who owned and maintained it, the same family that ran an old-time pharmacy 
in town.

Scence from the authors youth:
the barn at Perkins' Lot
 In the far left corner of Perkins' Lot stood a very old horse barn that by then served as a
somewhat precarious garage for one of the Perkins brothers' 1953 Plymouth Savoy. In the neat but somewhat cookie-cutter similarity of working-class tract housing, the view from our backyard was uniquely bucolic, even for that era. The field was separated from the nearby elementary school fields by a row of scrub trees, and even though it was neither fenced nor 
completely isolated, it was a rare day that any uninvited kids from the school grounds 
infiltrated "our" field. If I had to now choose a word to represent the memory of feelings I got from my days looking out over that field, it would be "serenity". We were uniquely privileged to grow up with that resource, but of course we didn't realize it. That was just the way things were.

Years later, as the owners of "our" lot successively passed away, the property was sold and 
developed into an assisted living facility. As young men do, I eventually moved away from that 
little house and yard and started my own life with my wife in a community of eclectic little 
houses in a beach community in Centerport. It was a charming place with little houses and 
bungalows terraced into hillsides, many converted to houses more adapted to raising families.
The old barn held secrets from the past.
The new barn holds promises for the future.

We had one of the enclave's newer houses, 25 years old as opposed to 60 years old, and the neighborhood included a small private beach, boat ramp and pavilion. We had no reason or desire to ever move; no reason at all. Then, I discovered horses.

As my interest and enthusiasm for horses and riding blossomed, I realized that I wanted more than riding and lessons and trail rides; I wanted horse property. I wanted my own horses and I wanted to live with them. I was lucky enough to have a wife who wanted me to be happy and sensed how happy I was in my new-found element, and so the search for horse property began.

Being somewhat impatient when I can clearly see the path in front of me, I naturally wanted a ready-made horse facility. I was amazed at how many horse properties existed on Long Island, and how varied they were in size, utility and character. Surely, I thought, I would have no problem finding the perfect fit. After looking at dozens of properties, I wasn't so sure.

Dreamcatcher Farm today.
"If you build it, they will come"
There was the one with a beautiful house, but a poorly situated barn with rocky and hilly paddocks. There were some that covered many of the requirements on my list but were too far from our jobs. There were a few that were good in many ways, but were located on busy roads, which for us was a deal breaker, and some with park access, but barely enough room for a round pen on the property. Some had beautiful barns but no natural privacy, it felt as if everything we would do would be on display. Nothing felt right; was I just being fussy, or did I
have no idea what I wanted? In desperation, I extended our search to include properties zoned for horses but with no existing horse facilities.

Armed with these new parameters, after a few false starts we found a place in an older section of Fort Salonga that seemed to cover all of the bases: the house was dated, but had potential. It had enough bedrooms and bathrooms and an office for my business, was on a quiet street and had a separate driveway leading to the back yard, which offered natural privacy and a buffer of un-developable property in the rear and left side. The site would require a lot of work to develop, including removing a huge, overgrown concrete in-ground pool, extensive tree removal and grading for the barn, paddocks, riding ring and roadway, as well as fencing, barn construction and utilities. A big undertaking, for sure, but one I felt was not only do-able, but it was the right thing to do. It felt right. We signed some papers, and jumped in with both feet.

In the ensuing year, with some money, luck, work, support and help, we created Dreamcatcher
Farm, home to our growing family of humans, dogs, cats and horses for more than fifteen years
now. When people would ask about the vision I had for this property, I used to wax on about
how we outlined our priorities, starting with the "must haves" and only when all of those had
been met, moved on to the "nice-to-haves". It was all about the list and about being logical and
not getting caught up in emotion. Do that, and you will end up with the perfect place, I said.
The author went shopping with a list of property
requirements. Was he really looking to recapture
the serenity of his youth?

I believed it when I said it. I really did. And it wasn't until several years later when I was sitting on the deck overlooking the property that I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. I looked past the maple tree, down to the gate where the property dropped down about three feet and leveled off. I looked around at the row of trees which screened without isolating, and at the woods to the left side and rear, which made the property appear bigger than it actually
was. A few hundred feet straight away from our back windows stood the horse barn, with the horses peacefully grazing in the evening shade. I realized then that what I had been looking for was serenity. I was looking for Perkins' Lot, and I found it.

Friday, May 6, 2016

MOMMA'S BOY - A Mother's Day Reflection

MOMMA'S BOY – A Mother’s Day Reflection

By Tom Gumbrecht

When I was growing up in the late 50s and 60s, being labeled a Momma's boy had a decidedly negative connotation to it. It meant you couldn't handle things on your own, that you were always dependent on someone else to fight your battles. I was called many things in my youth, but never a Momma's boy, and I was proud that I had avoided that moniker. 

My dad was stoic; cool. He never asked anyone for help that I can recall. He was a tradesman, and we took care of any and all repairs and improvements in our little post-war house in Glen Cove ourselves. I learned the basics of everything to do with construction from him, and lived for his very reserved nods of approval. Dad had artistic talents as well, but his painting, mostly realism, was a very private affair to him. He would create in private and then bestow his work on whomever he though might appreciate it most. 
Add caption

My mom’s name was Helen, and she was into the arts. She was a professional ballerina, and later a teacher of ballet in a small studio Dad built in the basement of our home. She was also a lover of animals, the importance of which was lost on me until much later in life. She had the heart of a rescuer, if not always the means and the opportunity. It was obvious that I was my father's son; I had learned a trade, was reasonably adept at it... and I did everything I could to avoid asking for help.

I always liked animals, but they were in the background. I would play with the neighbor's dog, fed my mother's cat, and occasionally dog-sat for an employer or a friend, but shied away from the responsibility of having a dog of my own. Then a niece with whom I was close offered me a puppy from the litter of her German Shepherd that I had developed a fondness for. We named the puppy Jessie, and in raising her our lives were changed forever. We lived then in a beachfront community in Centerport, with winding streets and charming little homes with pleasant families of which I had made the acquaintance of exactly two. Then Jessie came into our lives, and in walking those streets she made friends with everyone and took me along on her cuteness tour. The private beach that was formerly just a pretty view our our back window was now a place for Jessie to meet neighborhood kids, chase frisbees, catch a ball and learn to swim. I was 43 years old and felt like a kid myself.

Several years later a business project placed me at show stable for several weeks, and I found myself attracted to the horses so began to take lessons and ended up pursuing horsemanship with a passionHow did a woman who had never been involved with horses give me the gift of horsemanship? It was a randomincident a few years ago which helped to crystallize the images in my mind of the influence she has had on my life all along. I was sitting on the deck of a close friend who I had met through riding. Caryn is a wildlife lover and has rehabilitated many squirrels and prairie dogs over the years. To sit on her deck is to be immersed in a Disney movie with squirrels coming up on laps, looking over shoulders, hanging from screen doors: a real sensory overload for the uninitiated. On this afternoon, we were feeding them nuts, and I was in awe of the connection I felt to the wildlife. That's when it hit me: my mom had been totally immersed in the wildlife on our little 60' X 100' plot, feeding and caring for squirrels and birds of all description. She took care of a neighborhood cat who wandered in and never left, for 20 years, and she made our tiny yard into a botanical garden. We made fun of her squirrel stories as adolescents, but now the memory of them was pulling me closer as I reflect on my voyage of discovery into my own identity. 

With the clarity of hindsight, I can easily see how so much ofthe quiet shaping of the man I was to become, had come from my mom:

• I got my entrepreneurial spirit from Mom. Dad was a skilled and hard worker but it was Mom who hung her own shingle and put herself out there in the world at the ballet studio which inspired me to a self-employedcareer which allowed a horsey lifestyle for 30+ years. 

• My love of animals definitely came from my mom. Dad tolerated them and was never unkind, but they brought pure joy to Mom, as they have to me in later life. She saw responsibility as a gift, not a burden.

• Mom was a person of faith, whereas Dad was a little jaded by the sometimes harsh experience of inner city Catholic School life in the early twentieth century.  I went through the motions as a child, but fully embraced my spiritual side in later life. Mom never forced her beliefs on me, but possessed that quiet assurance that I wanted for myself and eventually accepted. She communed with her Creator in the quiet splendor of nature, and her example inspired me to do the same. She believed that the joy she got from her animals was evidence that her God loved her and wanted her to be happy. I find that I am closest to my Higher Power when in the company of my horses

• My mom had a spirit of adventure, and I definitely inherited that from her. Starting in my early twenties I flew small airplanes, sailed boats, did semi-extreme off-reading and rode horses. Mom supported and occasionally joined me in all of my hobbies, including riding one of my horses at age 84. Dad was the official photographer, offering support and interest but from a safe distance.

I grew up with two great parents, who both taught me life's important lessons, mostly with me never realizing I was being taught. While she was not a horsewoman per se, the horseman I became was as a direct result of the influence of my momMom has been gone for some time now, yet she is with me every day.She never did teach me to dance, but I think she would have been pleased to see me dance with my horses in the dressagering at our eventing competitions.

While I would have cringed at the thought of being a "Momma's Boy" in junior high, I now wear the title proudly.  

Saturday, March 12, 2016



Originally published in Horse Directory, March/ April 2016

By Tom Gumbrecht

Dave was an artist whose medium was music

Dave Jensen had a gift. He had the ability to take what was going on in his mind, heart and soul and put it into an art form to share with us. He was an artist whose medium was music. 

The first time I saw him perform it was at a coffeehouse on the South Shore of Long Island. I arranged to meet Samantha there, who was in her early twenties at the time, back from college, and we weren't always seeing eye to eye. She agreed, somewhat reluctantly, which was understandable for a child who felt obligated to be in the company of a parent whose attitude had not been endearing. 

By the end of Dave’s two sets, we were beginning to get back on track; we were connecting. 
My heart was becoming light and I felt it opening. Dave’s gift was bringing people together, 
and he did so with his music. He made a connection with every person in that room, and in 
doing so connected us all.

Dave had bipolar disorder. He was very open about it, and used it as neither an excuse nor a
Dave's personality brought out the best
in people and horses.

free pass but rather to attempt to get others similarly afflicted to identify with him. He spoke of his illness, and how he dealt with it, in a matter-of-fact way, like we riders might speak of a broken finger and how we adapted our riding to it. It wasn't a complaint; it was an exchange of 

Bipolar disorder is not curable, but its symptoms are treated with medication and therapy. After Dave and I became friends, we discovered another way: horses. He responded to them, and they responded to him. We know that mental illness can carry a stigma, and as humans we 
can become judgmental of those that suffer even if we don't want to. Horses don't respond to stigma because they don't know what it is. They respond to the soul of the person standing next to them, in Dave's case the soul of a person who had the ability to channel life's beauty 
into the language of the heart. That language is exactly what horses understand! We humans got to appreciate it through his music; the horses got it just by being around him. 

Bella is very choosy about her humans, and she
chose Dave.
Many of us are initially attracted to horses through their beauty and power; then if we pursue riding, by what they can do for us. Eventually if we work at it long enough and have it in our hearts, a partnership may evolve and we might be have the privilege of working as teammates toward a common goal. Ultimately, if we are lucky enough, a true relationship might evolve where we can appreciate our horses for who they are rather than what they can do for us.

Dave seemed to never have to evolve like that. From the first day, he appreciated our horses for who they were and was content with merely being in their presence. He immediately “got” what the horses had to offer, an awareness that had taken me years to develop. 

Dave passed away recently and left a hole in our close-knit barn family. Early one recent 
morning I was out in the barn in the company of our horses, making sure that they were fed 
and warm enough to brave the new year's first major snowstorm. Like many days since I got 
the sad news, I was thinking of Dave. He loved it here.

Without meaning any disrespect, that day in the barn I was sad but not devastated. As I 
attempt in my mind to explain myself... my feeling that although I am very sad, I feel he is still 
very much with us and the best parts of him will never leave this barn.... I picture Dave flashing 
a smile and waving me off: "I get it, bro... I get it!" That’s the thing: if you were a person whose 
life was touched by Dave, you know that he made it safe to be and to express exactly who you 
were and what you were feeling at that moment. It was a gift every bit as beautiful as his music.

The world was not always a safe place for Dave but he went out there and faced it anyway
DannyBoy was Dave's favorite horse. He
responded to horses and horses
 responded to him.

because that's what he had to do in order to share his gifts. By his unflinching acceptance, he made it a safer place for those of us who struggle with such things, to be ourselves.

What do we call a person who faces danger and in so doing makes things less dangerous for others? Around this barn we call him an inspiration. Dave Jensen will continue to be an inspiration here for as long we have challenges to face and need a beacon of hope. The fuel 
that warms this barn is love, and Dave left our tanks full. 

Explore Dave’s music at

Sunday, January 17, 2016


A BRIDGE BACK TO LIFE (Crossed on Horseback)                                                                       Originally published in Horse Directory,  Jan/Feb 2016

By Tom Gumbrecht

Have you ever experienced a phenomenon where a number of seemingly unrelated chunks of time and events conspire to fall together in place, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle? Sort of like standing too close to a heavily pixilated image and then all at once becoming aware of an awesome image upon viewing it from the correct distance and perspective. So it was with the story of how horses entered my life and how important a role they ended up playing in it.
Buddy was one of the first horses who helped me to put the pieces of
the puzzle that were my life, back together.

My life and career had been seemingly progressing pretty well when I was in my thirties. I was married to Mary, who was pretty, hardworking, fun and supportive. We bought a house in a neat, beachy community on the north shore of western Suffolk County, had good jobs, travelled and had a lot of cool stuff. As a self-employed trade contractor, I liked to work hard and I liked to play hard and the play time usually included alcohol.

It started out innocuously enough. Drinking was a way to put the worries of business and the responsibilities of being an adult on hold for periods of time in order to let go, have fun and not be consumed by the worries of life. And it worked. For some people, that’s as far as it goes; perhaps an occasional overindulgence at a social event, but nothing to elicit concern. But some of us are wired differently. For some of us, drinking progresses to the point where it no longer facilitates and enhances fun activities… it becomes the activity. When that happens, we might surround ourselves with like-minded people, and in so doing create a new normal- one where frequent overindulgence is not frowned upon nor regaled, it is just accepted.

That is exactly where I found myself at around age forty. The lifestyle was beginning to take its toll, and some incidents shined a light on the problem which I had no choice but to come face-to-face with. I had spent many years trying different methods to drink like a normal person, to no avail. It was confusing, because I was quite successful in dealing with other of life’s problems. The solution to this one, though, remained elusive. The problem was my insistence on finding a way to manage something that to my body, was unmanageable. The answer was a simple one, but not easy: avoid it entirely, a day at a time. That proved much easier said than done of course, because at a point the addiction to alcohol affects us on a physical, mental and spiritual level. When something that had become such a big part of life is removed, something has to take its place. It can be a bad thing or a good thing, but that void will be filled.  For me, that something ended up being horses.

On a day like any other, a few years into my newly sober lifestyle, my phone rang. On the other end was a well known LI Hunter/ Jumper trainer (a fact completely lost on me at the time) who needed a barn rewired. I took the job and found myself utterly fascinated with the horses, horse sports and horse people. Interestingly, during my drinking years I never really found out what made me tick, what I liked, what I was drawn to, where my passions lied. I engaged in hobbies and pursuits that I perceived were cool, or made me look cool, whether or not I was well suited to them. If that ever made me uncomfortable, the alcohol was there to smooth over the feelings.
In my world, horses were perhaps aesthetically pleasing and had a formidable presence and required some skill and courage to master, but they were not cool so I never had given them a second thought. In fact, I didn’t even know anyone who had taken up the pursuit seriously. But an interesting thing happened: In being around them over a period of time, I found a strong emotional attachment to horses, I loved being around them and I could not wait to learn how to ride. I brought my eight year old niece Sam with me and we set out to learn to ride as two green newbies at a barn full of mostly very experienced riders.

Very clumsily at first, I pursued my new riding career with a passion that quickly earned me some credibility in the ring, not due to accomplishments, aptitude or ability but by sheer dedication alone. In the process of learning the technical aspects of riding, I found myself the recipient of a totally unexpected gift: The physical manifestations of my drinking had not caused any permanent damage and were pretty much addressed by the act of stopping alone. The mental aspects required a little more work, which was addressed by learning as much as I could about alcoholism and allowing myself to be put into a position to be supported and to support others. It was the third component, the spiritual one, to which a solution seemed elusive. This was a soul sickness borne of the realization of the extent of the damage that had been done and the denial which had clouded my judgment for so long. It was toward that third, spiritual facet that horses began to fill the hole in my soul that alcohol never could. They held for me the keys to what I now think of as a new freedom and a new happiness.

So, stepping back once again from that fragmented mosaic, I could now see that an awesome plan had been laid out for me, and I had been in the right place at the right time with the willingness to follow it. Spiritual healing was important because as ex-problem drinkers, we find that people, especially those whose lives or the lives of those close to them have not been touched by alcoholism, can view us with suspicion, condescension, judgment and pity, none of which are how anyone wants to be treated. Horses, however, do not care about our past, nor do they care about our worries about the future. They live in the now, and we learn, if we are motivated enough, to live in their world and on their terms. It is from the “now” that we commence to heal, not from any point in the past or future, and a horse can be an ideal partner in the healing process. We learn to be honest because horses respond only to who we truly are and not to the person we pretend to be or think they need us to be. To be accepted simply for who we are creates a feeling of belonging and of having a place in the universe. It is an experience not to be missed.

That picture and the plan represented by it gained a more crystal clarity in the life events that followed in ensuing years. We became parents to our young niece Sam who I had brought to riding lessons with me, after her mother died at a young age. By that time our involvement with horses had increased to the point where we had our own small farm, and our horses were the catalyst which helped the relationship between middle-aged, first-time parents and a young girl who had her life turned upside down, to work.  A regular program of lessons and training led to competitions with Sam enjoying many successes in the jumper ring with her Arabian mare, Bella. Sam and Bella attended a horsey college in the Midwest and returned home with both having grown in their knowledge and abilities. As an empty nester, I entered the show ring with my APHA gelding DannyBoy, having reasonably successful seasons in the eventing field and the jumper ring. Sam has now presented us with a beautiful grandson named Daniel who is a new source of joy and is being raised on our farm with dogs, horses and love.

It was, and is, a beautiful plan which was invisible until my eyes had become clear enough to see and follow it. And it’s not finished yet. The key to happiness, I’ve found, is not creating a constant flow of stimulation and excitement that I once thought it was. The key, for me, is having something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. Horses have provided, and led me to, all three.

Alcohol can surely be used by many as it was intended to be. When we find that we are having trouble with control, my experience has shown me that by the time that level of awareness is reached, a problem usually exists. If you find that you or someone close to you wants to put some controls on their drinking and can’t, I’m telling you that you are not alone. If help is sought and accepted, no one has to drink who doesn’t want to. The thing is, most of us play with the illusion of control far too long, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Good luck and God bless.