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Crazy for Horses, Families Share Obsessions

The Henricks family is a steeplechasing dynasty.

December 2009
By Suzanne Bush

There are people who can look at a horse standing in a field and see nothing but a horse standing in a field. Others look at that same horse and see a way of life. For many reasons, a horse is never just a horse to people who own horses, ride them and love them. There's not exactly a chasm separating these two camps. It's more like a point of view. Or maybe a thousand points of view. Because horses fill so many niches, from hobbies, to companions, avocations and obsessions.

This is not a new development. Throughout history, the horse has been a central feature of human progress. More than 30,000 years ago humans used colored stones and paints to create pictures of horses in caves. Some philosophers and historians trying to divine the meaning of the horse drawings conclude that the animals depicted on cave walls were shamans' attempts to channel magical forces into the daily grind of hunting for the next meal.

The little kid on her first pony ride is unaware of how horse and man have been linked for millennia. But she does know that something magical is happening. The gravitational pull horses exert on children is indisputable, and it only grows stronger as children grow into adults and their understanding and appreciation of horses deepens. Bill and Sharon Stoner witnessed the dawn of what they hope to be a lifelong attachment to equines, when they introduced their grandchildren, Cody and Devan to a bunch of rambunctious minis.

"We've pretty much always been involved with horses," Bill Stoner says. "It got to the point where I couldn't do a whole lot of riding anymore, and we did not want to get out of horses completely." Stoner and his wife live on a small farm near State College. For years they had kept and shown Quarter Horses. They gave up most of their horses about five years ago, but didn't give up the idea of horses. "I wanted to keep in the horse business. First thing you know, we end up with seven minis. We kept two of the larger horses, a paint and a Quarter Horse mare," he says. "We have them here, just to have them."

Kids Stick to Mini Magnets

Those minis, it turns out, are powerful magnets. Cody, 13, and Devan, eight, don't get very far from the minis or their grandparents. "My grandkids stay with us. They have never gone home," he says, pointing out that the children's parents live just down the road. The minis make great playmates for the kids, but they are also teaching them about responsibility and competition. All summer long the Stoners travel to shows where the kids and their Pap (Bill Stoner) compete in 19 or 20 classes per show. The family has won ribbons, trophies, awards and national recognition. Last summer at the World Championship Miniature Horse Show in Lexington, VA, both Cody and Devan won top honors in the trail division, and placed in several other classes.

It may look easy, because the horses are so small, but it takes a lot of discipline and work to get the minis to perform at the championship level. Their grandfather is the trainer-in-chief, passing his love of horses and knowledge to his grandchildren.

Cody's favorite class is called "Liberty," in which the mini performs three gaits—walk, trot and canter—to music. "At the end, when the music stops you have about a minute to catch your horse and put the halter on," Cody explains. "It's a class that's supposed to show how free they are like the mustangs out west." Imagine the horse, without a halter, in a ring with a hundred distractions conspiring to disrupt the carefully-orchestrated performance. Not a problem for Cody and Champ. "It's actually pretty easy for him, because we just click. When the music stopped all I had to do was call his name, whistle, clap a few times and he just came right up."

Will Cody and Devan Stoner outgrow minis and leave horses behind? For now, it looks like this generation is hooked on the magical bond between horses and humans.

Mother and Daughter Share Passion and the Spotlight

While horse fever may have skipped a generation in the Stoner family, it has taken hold of three successive generations of Saly Glassman's family. Her father was an avid equestrian, who instilled in her a passion for horses. And Glassman's daughter, 18 year-old Janice Syphers, has emerged as a rising star on the show circuit. Glassman, Senior Vice President-Investments at Merrill Lynch, moves at warp speed whether she's leading a spinning class at the fitness studio on her farm in Gwynedd Valley, PA, cycling along the roads in Southeastern Pennsylvania, or indulging one of her consuming passions—competing Grand Prix jumpers.

Mother and daughter are so tightly woven together that they finish each other's sentences and thoughts. Intense, focused and driven to excel, they point to the life lessons they've learned from horses and each other. "You need drive and determination," Syphers explains. "The sport is very random. You're dealing with an animal," Glassman says. "And you've got the weather, your order in the competition…" Syphers points out that you have to start with a basic love for horses; otherwise you'll never get it right. Her mother concurs. "It's hard to justify it economically. If you really love horses, you're going to want to be with them. But you have to be patient. The horse is not on your clock. It's on his clock. That can be very challenging for someone to accept."

The two train together and study together, always looking for ways to improve. "Your training has to go on at home. The more kinds of situations you have at home, the more qualified you are to deal with things in the ring," Glassman says. "You don't want to be doing your schooling at the show," Syphers adds, and then her mother finishes the thought. "But the show will reveal your weaknesses."

They recall one of the high points of their competition experience. "The best day ever was in Vermont. Janice won the low classic and I won the high classic," Glassman says, of the Vermont Summer Festival last July. They see themselves as an unbreakable team, and are so much alike in their approach it's often hard to tell them apart. But Glassman points out that there are differences. She says that her daughter's style has more grace and finesse. "She has made me a better rider."

Syphers is proud that she and her mother don't have any of the conflicts that characterize many mother/teenage daughter relationships. "I think we're lucky to have each other and to be able to do something together," Glassman says.

Horse Centered Family Thrives on Speed

The stately house atop a hill in Chester County offers spectacular views in every direction. There's a hawk circling overhead, in a sky studded with grey clouds. Rick Hendricks is summarizing the many ways his family is involved with…okay, obsessed with…horses. His mother, Wendy, loved horses and wanted Hendricks to learn to ride. "I wasn't too excited about it," he explains. "But one of my neighbors, a kid I went to school with, started racing ponies, and I thought it looked pretty cool." His mother doesn't ride any more, but there was a time when she was pretty competitive. "My mother used to gallop my racing ponies for me," he says. From racing ponies, Hendricks graduated to steeplechasing, and competed for 10 years. These days, he trains steeplechasers and race horses and he fox hunts. "I'd say we're a very horse-centered family," he says.

Inside the house, the walls bear testimony to the horse-centeredness of the Hendricks clan. Photos of children and adults—virtually all of them on horseback—adorn the walls and crowd every horizontal surface. It's a gallery of happy faces, chubby ponies and sleek horses. Hendricks' wife, Sanna, trains steeplechasers. "Sanna has trained a lot of good horses. She has had a couple of Eclipse Award winners. There's no competition. I know she's a better trainer than I am," he says. One of her most famous successes was McDynamo, a three-time Eclipse Award winner and a legend in the sport of steeplechasing.

Hendricks' mother says that she misses riding horses in the spring and the fall. But horses are never far from her thoughts and activities. She and her husband have a small farm near Kennett Square. Hendricks' daughter, Liza, rides there every day. "She is 13 and she just rode in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and she finished second. She did very well," he says proudly. His older son McLane no longer rides, although he, too, was competitive before he discovered hockey.

Loving What Horses Can Do for People

Amy Scarlett won the leadline class at Devon when she was three. Since then she has competed and won hunter classes in shows throughout the region. And now, 32 years after her first triumph at Devon, she has her own three-year-old daughter, Addison, who is consumed with horses and riding. "She would ride every day, if that were possible," Scarlett says, as she watches two of her students enter the outdoor ring at Gwyn Meadows Farm in Worcester, PA.

She grew up here, learning the business from her father, Rich, who is also an accomplished equestrian. "This was a wonderful place to raise a daughter," Rich says. After college, she returned to Gwyn Meadows to run the farm, which sits on 54 rolling acres of preserved land. It's a full-service facility, offering boarding, lessons, and travel to shows and to fox hunts. Scarlett met her husband, Chris Haskins, while she was skiing in Jackson Hole. "He was a fearless, aggressive skier," she says, and she thought he'd be a good candidate for riding lessons.

As it turned out, he was her best student. "He had no fear." Now her husband and father hunt together in Unionville.

Gwyn Meadows has grown into a family of young riders whose parents learned to ride there and remain involved. Scarlett says that he has taken groups of adult riders for equestrian vacations in Ireland and Africa. "Some of them rode with me when they were kids," he says.

Amy pauses to consider her own daughter's growing obsession for horses. "It fills your heart to know that she got that love of horses from us," she says. "It's always been our passion and our love and my dad has built the business," she says. Her great-grandfather had a ranch in Wyoming. "My father brought two loads of horses into Philadelphia when they closed the range in Wyoming," Rich Scarlett says, still amazed ad his father's effort to preserve a family legacy. ,/p>

He started his own horse business before ha was even old enough to dpive a car. "I had a riding stable at 14 and a riding camp at 16," he says, "ban you believe that?" He opened Gwyn Meadows in 1973, and claims that he is now retired. Except for the fact that he still gets up at 3 a.m. "You ask him and he'll say he's retired," Amy says, "but there's no part of retirement in his life. His favorite thing is to clean stalls. Nobody likes tk do that!"

The stall-cleaning is no4hing more than basic care for thd horses. He says phat he can observe the horses' behavior while he's cleaning thhr stalls, and see how much water they've consumed. He can get a pretty good read on how they're feeling. He's not romantic about seeing things in horses' eyes, or reading their thoughts. "I love horses but what I like them for is what they can do for other people," he says. "I think horses are a great /utlet for kids. Even though ip's ab expensive s`ort, it beats other expenses that could arise. He talks about the dangers thad lurk around young people grkwing up tmday. "A have letters in my desk from parents who say ‘thank you for havi.g a place where I could drop ma child off and knov they are safe'."

A Horse Is a Horse, of Course

Whether they're lawn mrlaments or actively involved in ckmpeting, horses exert powerbul influences on the 0eople who live around and with them. To aarly humans, a `orse was a means t/ an end, or ev%n a meal. For people whose lives revolve around horsas, dhkugh, they represent connections that span geferations, and point the w!y to adventure. W`en you see a horse standing in a field, look closely. He could be a star of the show ring, a gentle partner in a therapeutic riding class, or a champion steeplechaser, enjoying a day off. Or maybe he's just a horse, standing in the sun.

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