My current travel download on my Kindle is ?Eighty-Dollar Champion? about the famous jumper Snowman.? I was immediately struck by the first few pages where author Elizabeth Letts describes how Snowman’s owner and rider Harry de Leyer purchased him at the New Holland, Pa., horse auction back in 1956. The kindest, and maybe best, horse I ever rode came out of that auction in 1972.
Author Letts reminded me of how people who ran riding programs in nearby states used to go to the auction at New Holland and buy prospects for their stable there for a relatively small price, and by small that often meant just above what the horse might bring for meat.? Snowman, for example, was purchased by de Leyer for $80 since the meat price was around $60 at that time.
In 1971 I landed my first job out of graduate school, in Wilmington, Del., and I immediately found a riding stable where I could take lessons. The stable, Highland Stables, run by the Holcomb family, would often check out the auction at New Holland for prospects, often buying them on the grounds before the auction actually started.? That was how they bought EJ (named Elton John by the kids at the barn, but I never called him that).? He cost all of $100.? He was a 14.3 liver chestnut, with a very long mane, maybe a Morgan cross, and his age was guessed to be around 4.
We realized later that EJ was probably younger than 4, because he grew a couple more inches in the next year.? He was broken to saddle, but he didn’t have any idea what to do with a bridle or much else to do with equitation for that matter.? Since I went to work at noon and had my mornings free, I was offered a half-lease on EJ, which meant that I could do anything I wanted with him before afternoon lessons started.? Since EJ was so green, though, he was rarely used in lessons at that point.
EJ had a wonderful disposition. I started training him, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, he made me look like I knew what I was doing, not the other way around. I started riding him in the spring, and by the fall he was doing local schooling shows over 3-foot courses and together we both did our first combined training event, at the old Hill View Farm in Kemblesville, Pa.? After that, I lost the half lease because EJ was so useful that they needed to put him fully in the lesson program.? The next year he went on to be a stalwart at local dressage shows and even competed as a small junior hunter at Devon.
EJ turned out so well I thought I was a great trainer and then bought my own first horse, a 4yo mare that had been fox hunting.? The thing I learned the most from her was that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.? EJ had been the star, not me.
A couple decades later, I was chatting with Robin Brueckmann, a fellow “S” dressage judge. I knew Robin had also lived in Wilmington at one time.? She mentioned that she had ridden at Highland Stables when I had.? I was flabbergasted, because I just didn’t remember Robin there at all. We figured out that she rode mostly in the afternoon, while I rode mostly mornings, so our paths were unlikely to cross.? But, she said that if I didn’t know about her at Highland Stables, she certainly knew about me.? “Why'”? I asked.? “Because you got to ride EJ and I didn’t,” she grinned