A RIBBON FOR MARY
By Tom Gumbrecht
Originally published in Horse Directory, 2009
photo: Mary with Buddy
If there is one thing I like almost as much as riding, it is talking about riding. When I get the opportunity and the audience, my dissertations are regularly punctuated with the word,“I”. “I” learned to ride as an adult, “I” bought horse property and built a barn, “I” trained and eventually began to compete, etc., etc.
Occasionally I would throw a “we” in there, referencing my equine partner when I was attempting to appear humble. Aside from those sparse references, you would think I was quite the self-made horseman. It’s easy to think that way now, because at the moment our equestrian “infrastructure” has been in place for some time, and a lot of the family equestrian activities are centered on my horse, and my riding. Samantha went away to college with her mare, Bella, and Mary is a non-rider. But anyone who knows the real story, knows better. And they know Mary.
Mary is my wife, and the source of my moral, emotional, logistical, and every other kind of support as an adult amateur rider. When I was first exposed to the horse world a little over ten years ago, Mary, I suppose, thought it was “cute” for a middle aged man to take up riding, English riding at that. She indulged my little ‘interest du jour’, most likely thinking it would be another one of the many “phases” I had gone through in our then twelve years of marriage. I had started our niece, Samantha, in lessons a few weeks before starting my own, possibly thinking, in the process, that it made my own endeavor appear a little less self-indulgent. Then, a few months later when I came up with a plan to lease a horse, Mary may have gotten the idea that it was more than “just a phase”. That thought would be further reinforced another year and a half later when, having gone through a couple of occasions of suffering the agony of developing a relationship with a horse and having the horse be sold, relocated or otherwise unavailable, Mary beat me to my well planned-out plea and suggested that it might be time to buy my own horse. Of course, I had been thinking just that. But what I was also thinking, was, well….I wanted my horse to be a family member. Which meant purchasing a horse property. Which meant selling our beach-community house that we had recently finished making just the way we wanted. We loved it there and more or less assumed that, like our parents’ homes before us, it would be our first and last house.
Now things were getting serious. This was no longer a little fling, a weekend endeavor to be taken up and put down like a game golf or tennis. This was a life changing, long-term responsibility we were considering. I felt in every fiber of my being that this was the right course to take. Mary, however, an animal lover but a non-rider, had only, through me and Samantha, felt a trace of the joy that we knew horses can bring to your life. She supported us. She did it on faith and a belief in me, which made her the braver one, for sure.
We spent many months searching for the perfect horse property, and we settled on an older house, in Fort Salonga, where we basically had to start over again in terms of repairs and improvements. It had no horse facilities but had enough property to build a barn, some paddocks and a riding ring. We put our Centerport house on the market and spent a summer of sleepless nights when it didn’t sell as quickly as everyone told us it would. Eventually that perfect buyer did show up and we spent two months packing our lives of the past thirteen years into cardboard boxes and inventorying them into composition books. We moved in, and the preparations needed to create a barn site and riding ring turned out to be a bit more expensive than we had considered. Mary’s take on it was, “We’ll find a way to do it”. She didn’t know how these decisions would affect out lives in the years to come. It made me happy, and she supported it, that was all. Everything eventually came together and we had our very old house and a brand new barn, paddocks, and riding ring. And we had my first horse, Buddy, followed two months later by Magic, a mare we got for Samantha. I had promised Mary a new master bathroom, which remained as a sink and a toilet sitting in a gutted room of bare studs and rafters for about a year and a half while the barn was complete and the horses had everything you could imagine. The roof over that bathroom leaked in a heavy rain, but the barn roof was of course, brand new and water-tight. I never got any more of a complaint than the rolling of eyes when Mary’s mother asked, “So how’s the bathroom coming along?”
Why I felt the need to push to build this little horse farm, I don’t know. But I knew I had to. It was a little like the “Field of Dreams” thing, but a lot less spooky. No ghosts of old athletes walking out of the woods. But I did have the sense that this was the exact right thing to do, and I never really had any evidence to that effect except for a feeling. The sense of a bigger plan came two years later, when Samantha’s mother, Mary’s sister, died suddenly and we found ourselves first-time parents of a then twelve year old girl. Then slowly, and sometimes painfully, the plan began to make a little bit more sense, if ever any sense can be made of such a situation. Mary, a nurse by profession, is a natural-born nurturer. She fell into the parent role easily, or seemed to. I had to be taught. And the horses taught me, a middle aged guy who never thought that much about anything other than myself, how to care for another being, be responsible for another life, to put someone else’s welfare before my own. Skills I would need in my new role. It also gave me something to have in common with that little twelve year old girl that would bring us together, for better or worse. No matter how bad I may have made things in my clumsy, ham-handed attempts to be “parental”, Sam and I would still eventually have to work together, getting her horse ready for the weekend show, trailering, grooming, doing the emergency tack shop run for that one forgotten item. Our horses forced us to work together, even when we really wanted to be away from each other. After years of having adopted the role of parents, I’m sure that Mary could have done it under any circumstances but I’m also sure I couldn’t have without our horses as teachers, mentors, catalysts, competitors, and companions.
It seems now that a lot of those growing pains are behind us. I just returned from picking up Samantha and Bella, from Ohio after finishing their first year of college. Now I get to train and show sometimes on the weekends, and Mary helps me and wakes up at the crack of dawn and grooms for me at the shows. She beams when we win a ribbon, and encourages when we don’t. She…understands.
She understands that this isn’t a luxury for us, as many people might think. It’s a lifestyle. A lifestyle that we were predestined to live, I believe. It’s not what we do as a family, it’s who we are as a family. Made possible by the faith that Mary had, and continues to have, in me.
If you have a person in your life that has supported your horsey endeavors even if, or especially when, someone with an ounce of common sense would give up on it, someone who would wear old shoes when the horses need new ones, who would do all the dirty work on show day and then take a picture of you holding the ribbon, then you know what I am, quite inadequately, trying to say. I am trying to say thank you.