Saturday, June 15, 2013

Jim Rice: The Measure of a Man

Jim Rice: The Measure of a Man                                      

Originally published in Horse Directory July, 2013

By Tom Gumbrecht

Jimmy Rice was my onetime trainer, and my friend. His bio states that he was the first junior rider in history to win twenty USET medals. He trained with the legendary Jack LeGoff and the USET in Gladstone, riding in such acclaimed venues as Madison
Jim Rice in the prime of his show career.
Square Garden, Philadelphia Spectrum, and Harrisburg, in a successful hunter/ jumper show career.

His training career was an illustrious one as well. Jim trained many winning horses and riders to the highest levels of competition, as well as being a respected horse show judge and the manager of the Hunters Isle and Winner’s Circle USEF- licensed horse show series.

Jim Rice was one who gave back to his sport, volunteering his time in local as well as national equestrian organizations. He received many honors, which included the 2011 Hampton Classic Horseman of the Year and the USHJA President’s Distinguished Service Award the same year. He was an accomplished professional.

But that’s not the man I knew.

In 1999 I was a fledgling adult student who had been forced to leave his comfort zone. I had begun riding at my first barn (a stable around the corner from Red Barn) a year earlier, and had become acclimated to the trainer, the horses and the other riders there. After my first year, the farm was sold; trainer, riders and horses all went their
A tough man who lived by a
code of kindness
separate ways and I thought my “equestrian” life was over. Then I met Jim Rice.

The first thing I noticed about Jim was that I was getting something I wasn’t used to, as a rank beginner, getting from trainers: respect. Jim didn’t feel the need to focus on or point out my myriad shortcomings as a rider. Instead, he searched for the positive and used that as a base from which to proceed. I was not at all accomplished, and frequently not even coordinated. I had, though, developed a secure enough seat that I could stay with a fresh horse, and I had found within myself a love of horses that carried me through many of the frustrations that an older rider faces. Lastly, I was dedicated. I always suited up, and I always showed up, no matter what. That was the sum total of my qualities as a horseman.

For Jim, that was enough. Wherever I was in my training level was fine; we worked from there, upward. Jim inherently realized that an adult rider faces different challenges, one of which is ego. Many adult riding students have positions with a high level of expertise outside the riding arena. In learning horsemanship, we have to begin by being bad at what we do, and that can be tough on the ego. Jim knew that, and his own ego was small enough that he never felt the need to make himself appear better by demeaning his student.  I was an inexperienced, overweight, sometimes fearful rider with two left feet.  All I wanted to do was ride horses, and perhaps one day jump one over a crossrail. That was my goal.

Jimmy combated my frustration with his kindness. He gave me respect I hadn’t earned, and instilled in me a confidence I didn’t deserve. He got me over that crossrail, and then a vertical, and eventually a whole jumper course.  More importantly, he set the standard by which I would judge all future trainers.

Some years later, when I had my own barn and had done a long stint as a horse show
Laura Ruben guides CarynEve Murray down the road
Jim Rice paved with the perfect balance of
toughness and kindness.
dad, I started training again with young trainer Laura Ruben who had adopted, perhaps unconsciously, many of Jim’s training methods and way of being. One of my most treasured moments as a horseman was when we competed at Hunter’s Isle one Sunday, and we managed to get around just a little quicker than the others in the jumper ring. We were handed a ribbon and it was blue. Jimmy happened to be at his frequent post outside the show secretary’s office, and caught a glimpse. He stopped his busy horse show manager’s activity for just a moment and looked right at me. His eyes lit up and a smile cracked; he said nothing because he didn’t have to. His eyes said it all.

Laura’s reflections on Jim’s passing:

“As I was on my way to mourn the loss of one of the best people I ever had the privilege of knowing, I kept replaying how we met in my head. We had just moved to Red Barn and I was extremely intimidated by the big, quiet man that sat on the same spot on the fence and drank Diet Coke no matter of the time, with his adorable dog beside him. It took a week or so and I finally decided he wasn't so intimidating after all and shortly after I realized that this man was someone who would impact me for life. From Roxy sitting to job references, JR (as I always called him) taught me what it really meant to be kind for no reason other than to be kind, respect, to work for what you want, and how to handle those who cannot communicate with words. He always told me "to toughen up" and he lived out those very words until the end. JR you will continue to shine through all the lives that you have truly touched and we are all incredibly blessed to have had you as a part of our lives.”
A proud moment for the author:
Winning our first blue at Hunters Isle with Jim Rice
smiling his approval.

On the afternoon of the day that Jimmy Rice was laid to rest, a friend and fellow adult student was taking a guest lesson at our barn with Laura. The lesson proved to be a challenging one, taking her just outside of her comfort zone. With just the perfect blend of toughness and kindness, horse and rider were coached into sailing over the barriers, both the physical ones as well as the sometimes tougher mental ones. It was a “light bulb” experience for the rider, and that was all the evidence I needed to be aware that Jimmy Rice lives on through his influence on the lives he had touched.

 JR, your kindness is truly immortal.

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  1. This adult student has a lump in her throat. It is a privilege to have been a recipient of that JR kindness in absentia.....and I remember that recent day's lesson well. It came in the hours following that well-attended memorial. No, I did not have the privilege of knowing Jimmy Rice but I am grateful to be able to celebrate and appreciate his life, his legacy and his spirit, through everyone who has been touched by his influence and now passes it on.

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  4. I was out of the loop, what caused Jimmy's demise?