Memoir

A Ribbon for Mary

Mary grooming for me at our OTTB mare Lola's first horse show since her racing days.

Many of us have had to deal with a spouse or significant other in planning the allocation of time, money and resources to our equestrian passion.

I got lucky. Though not a rider herself, my partner has always seen the intangible rewards of being a horsey family, even when I was close to losing faith.

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. 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, but anyone who knows the real story, knows better—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 almost 20 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 12 years of marriage. I had started our niece Samantha, then eight years old, 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.

Mary with our first horse Buddy, a senior Appendix gelding. He was a gentleman and she loved him.

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 twice suffered 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 felt a trace of the joy that we knew horses can bring to your life through Samantha and myself. 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, where we basically had to start over again. It had no horse facilities but had enough property to build a barn, some paddocks and a riding ring. Mary 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 watertight. 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—no ghosts of old athletes were 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 12-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 parental role easily. 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 another’s welfare before my own.

These skills I would need in my new role.

It also gave me something to have in common with that little 12-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.

Samantha on DannyBoy: our horses were the catalyst which helped to make us a family.

Reflecting now on my accidental parenthood, 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, focal points and companions.

It seems now that a lot of those growing pains are behind us. Samantha is done with college, is working on her career and has blessed us with a budding horse crazy grandson. Durning Sam’s college years I got to train and work on my own amateur show “career.” Mary helped me and woke up at the crack of dawn to groom for me at the shows. She beamed when we won a ribbon, and encouraged us when we didn’t. She…understood.

She understood 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 in me.

We’ve had our little accomplishments but none of them would be possible without the support of our loved ones.

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.


About the Author

Thomas Gumbrecht began riding at age 45 and eventually was a competitor in lower level eventing and jumpers. Now a small farm owner, he spends his time working with his APHA eventer DannyBoy, his OTTB mare Lola, training her for a second career, and teaching his grandson about the joy of horses. He enjoys writing to share some of life’s breakthroughs toward which his horses have guided him.