Thursday, November 10, 2011

Living the Dream?

Living the Dream?
Originally Published in Horse Directory, August 2011
By Tom Gumbrecht

I’m pretty sure that the first thing to come to mind, to someone rolling down the driveway
at my little backyard barn, would not be “This guy is really living the dream!”  There are no lush green paddocks, nor miles of pristine white fencing. What grass there is, quite possibly might be slightly overdue for mowing, and there may be a fence board or two that needs replacing. But, they would be wrong.

I began my riding “career” totally on a fluke. Skip Lauinger, then owner of Hunters Isle Show Stable in Old Brookville called me on a professional level, to rewire one of his barns. At that point, the only time I had been near a horse was about twenty years previous when I acquiesced and agreed to go trail riding so as to appear a “good sport” on a first date. I met with Skip and agreed to take on the job, not knowing that that particular small decision would change my life.

I realized very quickly that there was something different about that place than anything else I had ever experienced. The world of horses and horse people was already exerting its pull on me, although I didn’t know it yet. I was enraptured by everything around me when working there, but I never considered that I could actually fit in to that world. I was a working guy, and all of this, while fascinating and enjoyable, seemed a world apart from the one I lived in. But Skip and then-fiancé, (now wife) Elise Seely, took me into their world.

Apprehension aside, after about two weeks working there I couldn’t stand it any longer and asked Skip if he could teach me how to ride. “Probably”, he replied, in his usual dry fashion.
So began my journey. My first lesson horse was Circus, a chestnut Appendix gelding who had had a career with Ringling Brothers prior to arriving at Hunters Isle. I had it in my head at that point, that I would probably take lessons for a few weeks, then, knowing all there was to know, I would take Circus out to the vineyards across Hegeman’s Lane. Yeah.

Business circumstances on Skip’s end dictated that I would have to lease Circus if I wanted to continue riding him, which I did. First of all, I never even thought I would be learning to ride a horse at age 45, let alone leasing one. But Skip made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. And I was leasing a horse.

From the beginning, I was fascinated by the jumpers. Of course at that time I didn’t know the difference between Hunters, Jumpers, or Eventers. I just liked horses that jumped. I would volunteer, on Friday late afternoons, to help set up the jumps at the Hunters Isle shows, and others that Skip then managed, at their various venues. We had fun doing it and I found myself uncharacteristically devoted to assisting in all manner of horse competitions. Of course, I no more saw myself as a potential competitor at these events than I saw myself as a major league player when going to the ball park. I just continued taking my lessons with the hope that one day maybe I could get Circus to pick up a right lead canter.

Too soon, Skip and Elise sold their Brookville farm to buy a larger one in Northern Virginia. I thought my riding life was over, but actually it had only just begun. I continued my lessons with Jimmy Rice at Red Barn, who had taken over management of the Hunters Isle shows, and it was under his patient guidance that I went over my first jump. Within a year I was so overtaken by it all that my wife Mary and I sold our little beachfront- community house in Centerport for a much older home in Fort Salonga which needed work everywhere but had the property and the layout for a barn, paddocks, and riding ring. Eight months after we closed the deal, the property was ready for my first horse, Buddy (another chestnut Appendix) with a brand new barn in the back yard. At about that same time our niece, Samantha, then ten, came to live with us. That was ten years ago this summer.

Some wonderful horses and trainers have been part of our lives since then. We have seen some triumphs and some heartbreak. I was a “show dad” for many years as Samantha moved up the ranks. Around the time she went away to college, I started showing, myself. Eric Lamaze has nothing to worry about. But I think that my jubilation at just simply being a competitor at Hunters Isle, where I once set up jumps and watched the funky ballet of the jumpers, probably equaled his elation at winning Spruce Meadows.

I used to rent trail horses and ride by the backyard barns along the trails of West Hills Park dreaming of the day that that life could be ours. Sometimes when I’m riding in my back yard, usually toward evening when the sun hits the barn just right, I become overwhelmed with gratitude. I used to think that a life beyond my wildest dreams meant a life with things I had previously dreamed about, but just in larger quantities. Now I realize that “beyond my wildest dreams” means just that… a life I had never even considered, that I now find myself living.

It began with one friendly trainer and one sainted horse.

Buddy in his new digs. July, 2001

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