The dawn mist rises slowly off the hay fields as light breaks gently across the Upstate New York horizon. It’s an ideal scene, until the stillness is broken by the creak of a barn door, and a loud chorus of nickers from the building’s half-dozen inhabitants, eagerly awaiting their morning flake of hay.
When the morning alarm sounds on most people’s smartphones, it can be hard to fight the urge to hit the snooze button. Not so for Coerte Farm’s Gale Fox. For the former U.S. Eventing Team rider, another wake-up call means another chance to enjoy the best time of day in a most beloved place. “Being in the barn by myself in the morning is my favorite,” she says. “Feeding the horses, hearing them munching, seeing them happy to see me—I’m the bag of grain [coming down the aisle]!”
“It’s just a very quiet, peaceful time, and I really enjoy that.”
From the Olympics to the World Championships and the Pan American Games, there was rarely a major international three-day eventing team that Fox (né D’Amanda) was not shortlisted for in the decade spanning 1983 to 1993. Today, she still competes in dressage while working as a licensed USEF and FEI Level-3 Official for eventing, while also fulfilling her role as ‘Mom’ to now-grown triplets, and training for marathons (15 and counting!) in her spare time.
In other words, Fox isn’t one for sitting around. But the moments of serenity she finds during early morning chores at Coerte Farm aren’t just about time with her horses, whom she loves, or getting a jump on the day. It’s part of a larger calling: fulfilling a family legacy that began centuries ago on more than 100 of these same, rolling acres along the Genesee River near Rochester, NY. Against all odds and four generations later, Coerte Farm persists to this day.
“When I was in high school, I would think, I’ll never come back to Rochester—I’m going to see the world,” Fox recalls. “And yet, I think of how my life has gone, with all its twists and turns, and here I am, back again, and I just love it. I don’t ever want to leave.”
In the blood
Coerte Farm was named for the family’s first Dutch ancestor who arrived in New York during the 1600s, but it was Gale’s mother Allis D’Amanda who was the first member of her family to have pleasure horses there. Growing up, Allis remembers riding her horse to the Rochester Country Club and following the hounds at nearby Genesee Valley in Geneseo, one of the country’s most illustrious hunt clubs. When she later married and started a family, her daughter’s shared affinity was discovered early on.
One morning in the early 1960s, the D’Amanda family of six was just waking up in their rented Ithaca, NY home near Cornell University, where Gale Fox’s father Louis was attending law school. That day, her older sister Dorothy ran into her parents’ bedroom and breathlessly recounted a strange tale. “There’s a horse in the backyard, and Gale is under it!” Dorothy gasped.
Assuming their daughter had had a strange dream, Louis and Allis D’Amanda told her to go back to bed—that is, until Dorothy persisted, and they took a look out the window for themselves. “They got up and, sure enough, there was a [loose] horse in our backyard, and I was sitting there, hugging its leg!” says Fox, who was still in diapers at the time. “I’ve just always had a connection to these animals that I can’t explain.”
Fox’s riding career proper first began riding in Pony Club events alongside with her older brother, John, also an avid equestrian in his youth. The D’Amanda children eventually succeeded in convincing their parents to bring horses back to Coerte Farm in 1967 and—despite a premonition that one horse for four children would ultimately lead to more horses, a trailer, and weekend trips around the country to compete at shows—Louis D’Amanda ultimately conceded. He even caught the “horse bug” himself.
“My father was in his early 40s when he started riding. He rode in his first three-day event at age of 45,” explains Fox, adding that her parents hunted together at the Genesee Valley for decades. “When [Dad] was still practicing law, he was up, riding in the dark at 5:30 in morning to get his horse fit so he could still make it to the office on time.”
Despite his dedication to horse sport, Fox says her father prioritized education for his children first and foremost. It was a mentality she came face to face with while attending Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire. While there, Fox began training with eventing legend Denny Emerson, and was asked to compete on her first U.S. Team in 1983. Unfortunately, the honor would require her to take time off from school.
“I made a deal with [Dad] that if I could continue to go to school, and keep my grades up, he’d let me do it, and he gave me one semester to prove it,” says Fox, who made good on the promise, graduating Summa cum laude from Colby-Sawyer before leaving to work and ride for Emerson full-time. In 1984, her dedication paid off when she was named as the traveling reserve rider for the Los Angeles Olympic Games. The following year, Fox earned a spot at the U.S. Three-Day Team Training Center in Hamilton, Mass., where she trained alongside fellow eventer David O’Connor.
A storied career
Early rising might come easily to Fox, but there were periods of her life when falling asleep was a challenge. To cope, she developed her own, high-adrenaline version of counting sheep. “I would actually re-ride my favorite cross country runs in my mind from start to finish,” Fox says.
Fortunately, she has a virtual library to choose from, having competed at top events from coast to coast across the U.S., and as far away as Boekelo, Holland. It was that particular event in the Netherlands 1983 when Team U.S.A. took home the bronze medal—a moment, Fox says, will live forever in her mind. Along with the prize giving’s applause and fanfare, the elegant coolers, flapping ribbons, and glittering trophies, there was one, quiet exchange with her longtime horse, Grottlesex, that Fox recalls as pure magic.
“With all that was going on, he was so alert, his ears were pricked up, and I remember looking down at his crest and thinking, I’m so glad I made it here with you,” Fox says. “We knew each other inside and out; he made up for my mistakes, and I made up for his mistakes. Unfortunately, a couple of times, we made the same mistakes [at the same time]!” she laughs. “But we learned a lot together.”
Grottlesex was one of a handful of Thoroughbreds Fox literally and figuratively “found in a field,” purchased, and trained up to the upper levels during her decade-long career at the top of the sport. “I had a lot of great horses, and a lot of great rides, and cross country was always a natural fit for me,” she says.
Then as now, buying horses is a responsibility Fox takes seriously, and she rarely buys from anyone she doesn’t know well.
“I try very hard to [get it right] because they’re very important to me, and once you bring them on, they’re your responsibility. It is easier to acquire them than to get rid of them,” says Fox, adding that tips from her friends and fellow competitors has always been the best way to find horses with potential. “In those days, eventing was a close-knit family, and everybody knew everybody. We were, in the real sense of the word, a ‘team,’ and we looked out for each other. The bonds we made then are still strong.”
By the early 1990s, Fox had married her husband Jeff and moved to Middleburg, Va., where they had a farm and training center of their own. Within a year, she found out that she was pregnant with triplets, and was forced to make the difficult decision to step back from the top levels. “I couldn’t risk [altering the lives of my children] for my pleasure,” says Fox, who says she eventually made peace with her decision to make her temporary hiatus from eventing a permanent one.
“The sport has changed a lot since I rode at the upper levels; different courses, different safety concerns and politics, more sponsorship. The three-day event, as we knew, it is gone; a major turning point happened in 2004, when the Roads & Tracks and Steeplechase [portions] were eliminated,” she says. “l’m still really glad to be a part of it as an official because I think that my [experience] helps. But that being said, I’m so lucky that I competed when I did. I think the sequence of my involvement with horses is just ideal. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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3 Things to Know About Protecting a Historic Home or Farm
Whether you’ve already made a historic house or farm your forever home or are considering making the jump, there are a few things you should know about owning and protecting these special properties.
Structures built in 1945 and earlier have handmade craftsmanship that many admire, but by merely being around longer, they have an increased susceptibility to worn out materials, outdated and unsafe mechanical systems and a need for grounds maintenance. AIG Private Client Group, a division of the member companies of American International Group, Inc. (AIG) and is the insurance provider for the home, barns, equipment, collections, and liability at Coerte Farm, and Historic Home and Equine Risk Management Specialist Rebecca Hunt has significant expertise and personal interest in this area.
Here, Hunt—who has a master’s degree in Historic Preservation and breeds Welsh ponies and warmbloods on her own farm in Pennsylvania—shares three ways to help you safeguard your older barn and home.
1. Carry the right coverage.
“Anyone who has an older home, and has done a project or repair, always knows that you’re going to uncover more things to fix than you expect. That’s why it’s really important to have a policy that includes guaranteed replacement cost,” explains Hunt. “That way, if it ends up costing more to repair after a claim, you aren’t limited to a capped amount.”
Often, with historic homes, Hunt explains, dwelling coverage limits are based on market value, and might not take into consideration the actual costs to repair, say, the original brick or stone walls of a 19th century building, or to replace original custom woodwork. “Our team at AIG has a deep understanding of these special properties, and we inspect each of them individually and calculate the actual replacement cost.” AIG also offers coverage that can be added to the home policy to help preserve the historic setting, such as outbuildings and large trees, as well as antique furnishings and breakables.
2. Fireproof your older barn.
“Most of the fires that occur in older barns are caused by electrical issues,” says Hunt. Electrical systems that aren’t up to current codes can be a major fire hazard. She also notes the importance of having all wiring in conduit, which is metal (preferred) or plastic tubing that contains the wires so rodents can’t chew them, cause a spark and start a fire. “I always cringe when I go in an older barn and that’s not done.” Another essential protocol is that all electrical work must be done by a licensed electrician.
Box fans can also be problematic. “The worry with box fans is that their motors aren’t encased, so you can get dust in them, and that’s what can start a fire,” Hunt explains. There are fans specifically made for barns and workshops with encased motors that are a much safer alternative. Ideally the barn should have an adequate number of electrical outlets, so you don’t have to use extension cords for fans, heated buckets or other electrical devices. Extension cords can be a fire hazard if they get worn and wires become exposed. They are also a trip and entanglement hazard for people and horses.
3. Check for ground hazards
“As we all know, horses can get loose, so it’s important to make sure there aren’t any hazards they could run over or into. Of chief concern are holes, but there can be other common things to protect them from,” says Hunt, who says “As we all know, horses can get loose, so it’s important to make sure there aren’t any hazards they could run over or into. Of chief concern are holes, but there can be other common things to protect them from,” says Hunt, who says manure areas with a hidden drop off can be particularly dangerous. “That was another scary situation I saw once, and it could have been tragic. Another consideration is to always cover or block-off the ring drag
s so a loose horse can’t run over it. Using hard-packed dirt or stone to fill holes and making sturdy covers and barriers will reduce these hazards.
Owning a historic home or barn is a unique opportunity and can be a rewarding experience. By always taking extra care to keep an eye out for risks and minimizing the potential for damage, you will be able to enjoy and protect your property and animals for generations to come.
Land before time
If you’re very lucky even today at Coerte Farm, you might stumble across an old horseshoe, embedded along the Genesee Riverbank at the farm’s far reaches. In the old days, horses were used to unload barges from the river, having come from Lake Ontario or beyond. In the 19th century, Coerte Farm’s early inhabitants flourished as a fruit and poultry farm, and Fox’s great-grandfather, Eugene Van Voorhis, was able to construct the 1892 farmhouse where his son was born (in what is now the dining room) and still remains today.
Having lived on this property for nearly a century, Allis D’Amanda has come to know the walking paths and fields like the back of her hand. She lovingly tends the greenhouse and perennial gardens herself, a pastime she has always enjoyed. And yet, when husband Louis passed away from complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2014, even the gardens couldn’t provide Allis with their usual solace.
“They had been 60 years together and they were each other’s partners,” Fox says. “After [Dad] died, Mom wasn’t interested in anything that had once brought her pleasure. She didn’t want to do the garden, plant her seedlings in the greenhouse, or [can her produce]. She had just lost all interest—all she wanted to do was go with him.”
Instead of flowers and vegetables, it would be Coerte Farm’s demanding yet affectionate four-legged inhabitants that ultimately provided Allis with the comfort she craved. “It took a couple of years, and while my mom still misses Dad, she [eventually] pulled out of her deep grief. We filled the barn with more horses and people, and we all started going to horse shows together to compete,” Fox says. “The barn was where my mother could become energized again. The place is in her bones.”
Now in her 90s, Allis still stows her walker and scooter in the horse trailer while traveling alongside her daughter to dressage shows around Upstate New York. In fact, the D’Amanda family matriarch has deemed herself “the sixth horse.” “She watches all our classes and her feedback [is crucial], because her eye is very, very educated,” says Fox.
A few years before her father passed, her parents’ financial advisor surprised Fox with an unexpected question. “He asked me where I saw the place going. [It took me aback because] I didn’t see it ‘going’ anywhere. I just saw it going on the way that it was forever.
“I didn’t really give him an answer at the time. But I look back on it now, and I’m thinking that’s the first time it crept into my head that somebody was going to have to take this place over.”
As it turned out, that person was Fox, herself, who returned to Coerte with her husband Jeff and their three children in 1993. After so many years, Fox’s teenage fears of having to uproot her life to return to Upstate New York proved unfounded. There was no thunderclap of obligation or niggling guilt, Fox says; in fact, it was much more peaceful than that.
“It’s a form of [belonging to the] property and the land, and still representing it for others in the past. That’s why it’s very important to keep it going,” Fox explains. “It felt natural coming home.”
In more recent generations, inherited tracts of Coerte’s 100-plus acres have been sold off, reducing the farm to around 15 acres. “It broke up, and got smaller and smaller, and now we’re in a suburb. But the farm still backs up to the river: the mouth of the Genesee joins Lake Ontario basically in our backyard, so there’s not a lot of building that could actually still happen here,” Fox explains.
Today, when Coerte’s residents discuss the day-to-day happenings on the farm—plans for the horses, the gardens, and the yardwork—they are interspersed with memories from days past. Allis recalls the place on the farm where the neighbor’s cows would constantly escape onto their land, or tells stories of Louis, digging potatoes in the back field until dark. “It’s funny, because it’s about the memories, but [at the same time], it’s not so much about the memories,” Fox reflects. “I love the sunsets. I love the sunrises; I love those moments where I can just stand and look out over the river. [When] all the busy work of the day is done, there is a feeling of peaceful satisfaction that comes from being a part of the land and the menagerie I share it with.
“It’s more important that after me is someone who loves it as much as I do, and those [before me have],” she continues. “I’m sure, when the time comes, someone who feels it in their fiber will appear.
“I really do feel as if we’re all ‘keepers’ of Coerte for the time that we can do it. That’s what I feel is my work is now.”
Protect Your Passion
AIG is proud to partner with the “keepers” of Coerte Farms in bringing their story of passion, provenance and preservation to life. At AIG, we share your passions…and we’ll help you protect them. Count on AIG’s world-class underwriting, risk management expertise, financial strength, and white-glove claim service to help mitigate the complex risks of your distinctive lifestyle. Insurance is underwritten by the member companies of AIG.