Laura Smith is a native Virginian and lifelong equestrian who loves to share horses with others. She has competed in horse shows, events, dressage shows, and pony club rallies. In addition she has worked in marketing and education in the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry. She has re-trained several former racehorses for other sports after their racing careers have ended. Believing that horses are truly for everyone, she is also certified as a PATH Therapeutic Riding Instructor and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning. For fun Smith enjoys trail riding with her daughter and fox hunting.
Here in horse country about some 45 years ago, my older sister Jessica Dowdy and I showed ponies on the A-Circuit. Actually, she rode her pony Dr. Grabow in the Large Pony Hunter Division at many A-shows and as long as there was no round-top on the course, they typically finished in the top three (round-tops = auto refusal). They won the Large Pony Division at Upperville and I, the little sister, acted as her groom and sometimes, I got to compete in Leadline or other pony divisions. In my very first horse show aboard her lovely pony (whom she schooled herself with the careful guidance of Marlene Allen), I finished second. I received a red ribbon which I treasured—so much so that my father gave me the nickname “Red-ribbon Lolly”. He was proud of me despite the fact it was not a blue ribbon.
Just a few weeks ago, I rode in the Philomont Horse Show–I live very close to the show grounds and went not seeking the coveted blue ribbon by as a member of the local community who is interested in supporting the Philomont Volunteer Fire Department–who would be coming to my rescue should the need arise. My hunt horse Lucy had never been to a show and was puzzled as to why so many people dressed to hunt were going around in circles and why the lady in the hat was taking notes. After about 15 minutes warming up, she got used to the idea. I was clearly the elder statesman in the hack class, my age more than doubled most of my fellow riders. I focused on keeping my plodding horse calm and quiet and out of the way of the seasoned show horses—and lo and behold—we pinned. Never had I been so happy to be sixth!
So much of sport today focuses on who finishes first—but the class and the show would not go without the rest of the entries. I remember being told as a kid that horse showing was something we did for fun—but I do remember striving so hard to be perfect–my appearance, my horse, their gaits, spots before each fence, etc… to live up to some subjective standard and receive a “good” ribbon. Red was a good ribbon, but green is too!
As a rider, I ventured from showing into eventing–I loved cross-country and dressage was a necessary evil to get to the fun jumping (I have matured on this point and now enjoy dressage.) I remember competing at local Horse Trial and checking the score board after dressage and was pleased to find that I was 10th—but there was this guy–David O’Connor who had two horses and was in 2nd and 4th. At the time I had braces and was wearing my helmet—and I remember standing there dumbfounded–thinking–how is this guy so good? How does he have more than one horse going Novice? Anyway–ribbons are not a big motivator for eventers–otherwise they would get one after each phase. David O’Connor went on to being an Olympian and accomplish many great things at the USEF and beyond. But what about the rest of us? We go to college…get jobs, married, families….maybe bring up another generation of riders? Professionals need students. Events, shows need entries to go. We need to cultivate more amateurs. At the heart of Horsing Around Virginia is a desire to make good horsepeople accessible to those who want to learn and pass it on. If the horse industry is to survive in this changing world where we are addicted to our devices—we need to prompt people to move from their devices to their local stable and saddle up.
Foaling season is upon us and as cold as it is now, new horses are entering the world daily. The breeding decisions are done, the die is cast. As Forrest Gump so eloquently said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are gonna get.” That sure is the way it is with horses too. One horse is champion and a full sibling lacks the same ability. Yes all are differently abled and while some succeed at the races others may end up hacking with a local hunt (if they are lucky). Secretariat had a full sibling that ended up as a riding horse. Breeding is not an exact science.
Jumping ahead to March the 30th, Secretariat’s birthday party at the Meadow Event Park my mind turns to Virginia native Penny Chenery who loved to quote her farm manager Howard Gentry who reminded her “The mare done it.” Indeed, she did.
Often belittled by men in the Thoroughbred industry who referred to her as “just a housewife” Penny embraced the tall order of turning the farm around. She would have loved this “me too” movement prevalent in our culture today. Old habits die hard –but die they must. I am sorry for every woman who has endured suffering to be involved with horses—its far to prevalent in our modern world that embraces the timeless rhythms of horse care (or husbandry–even that word is sexist). Penny is my hero and her image gives me strength to preservere.
Penny Chenery lived by three precepts that she passed on to her Kate (who shared them with me in an interview): 1. Forget you are a woman, 2. Always do your best. 3. Never take “No” for an answer.
Well folks, its 2019, here we go. Great stories, horses and people abound–so far I have outlined about 30 episodes of Horsing Around Virginia. Finally, the time has come to press forward on getting Horsing Around Virginia on public television. Won’t take “No” for an answer, will do my best.
October has been an eventful month horsing around Virginia. On the farm the fillies were weaned and the yearlings left for training. The day they are weaned is the most traumatic day in a horse’s life. The first time the fillies were turned out they walked around utterly disillusioned. With relatively calm insistence they walked in circles all around their large field as if to ask—“I remember walking with her over here, surely she will find me….” Then they would look at each other as if to ask, “Your mom is gone too, do you think they are together? What are they doing? Do you think they will come back?” As days went by they walked less and grazed more resolved to the realization that they need to take care of themselves now and mom is not here to protect them anymore. The pecking order changed—the boss mare is not there. The fillies had to work out a new order, but seemed to enjoy the companionship of their shared grief.
Autumn is the season of change. Leaves have peaked. Their demise creates great beauty–as they wither, fade and fall. The fox hunters have been busy cubbing and the local fox has taken on a deep rich hue as his fall coat is coming in. Challenging sport abounds as October has provided cool and blustery days to watch horses give their best at local venues. A soggy day for the Middleburg Fall Races and Field Hunter Championship at Glenwood Park yielded good footing. The Virginia International Gold Cup at Great Meadow was windy but nice for spirited horses. The farm had two run and one came on very strong but did not overtake the winner—but second also pays well. Thrilling to watch. Two more runners started at Charles Town very late one Wednesday evening. The crew from the farm assembled to rally around the two fillies in the fifth and seventh races—they performed brilliantly. We cheered, spirits soared as each filly won her race by a margin of five or seven lengths. Entirely elated, with winning tickets in hand, we headed to the winner’s circle twice that night. Two starters, two winners the same night felt as though something divine and extraordinary had happened. The trainer did a wonderful job preparing and turning out the horses—they behaved well, looked great and ran with all they had. Each filly ran her personal best—their highest speed rating yet.
Last week I met many friends at the Washington International Horse Show and cheered on Virginia native Kama Godek as she cleared the Puissance wall at 6′. The Washington International Horse Show brings together horse people of all sorts. Some dear friends from therapeutic riding, others from pony club, hunters, jumpers and even barrel racers all came together to celebrate the best of equine sports in the nation. Kama’s horse Air Force One is nicknamed “The President” and as we brace ourselves in this season of change for the election of our new president, take comfort that while you may find yourself walking around disillusioned like the fillies just weaned. Change is inevitable, but we can take comfort in our horses—they care nothing for politics, and always give their best.
Virginia native Kama Godek aims high at the Washington International Horse Show as she clears the Puissance wall– how did she get this far? How does she choose her horses? Watch this insightful video to find out.
JO MOTION, matriarch of an equestrian dynasty, Middleburg proprietor, was the “lad” of the 1951 winner of Grand National, Nickel Coin.
By Laura W. Smith
Just before the World War II, on a beach in England on the South Coast outside the town of Wittering, a seven year old girl took a ride on a donkey that would change the course of her life. Her passion for horses was sparked and kindled by local stable owner Elizabeth Ferrand and the Surrey Union Hunt Pony Club. By 14, young Jo Wells (aka Jo Motion) competed in many gymkhanas (games on horseback) and was the amateur whippers in for the Surrey Union Hunt. She began riding thoroughbred horses and became enamored by their speed, agility and intelligence.
“I was personally very happy on a Thoroughbred. It was like driving a fancy powerful car,” commented Motion.
Before long, Jo left school and began working for steeplechase trainer Jack O’Donoghue as a “lad” in his racing “yard” including a former show jumping mare named Nickel Coin. For three years young Jo worked the mare over fences and galloped to keep her fit, often hunting her. Hacking out near the White Cliffs of Dover to Epsom Downs for a workout was a regular event. She cleaned up after her and groomed, bathed and cared for her every need along with two other horses in the yard.
Motion explained that in England, when working in a racing stable “You do your three” which means that a lad (or lass) is responsible for three horses—grooming, tacking, mucking, riding, bathing, wrapping, feeding, handwalking—whatever needs done. (This differs from typical racing stables in the U.S where each duty is performed by a different employee—exercise rider, groom, hot walker, etc.)
Initially purchased by the Royles to carry their son around local point to point races—Nickel Coin proved to be a phenomenal jumper —but not terribly fast by racing standards. In 1951, after winning many qualifying steeplechases, Nickel Coin and Jo Wells traveled to Aintree Race Course in Liverpool, England to face their ultimate challenge, the greatest horse race in the world, The Grand National. Young Jo rode Nickel Coin to stretch her legs around the grounds of Aintree and looked at the obstacles on the infamous course—some with a five foot hedge that was three feet wide with a five foot ditch in front.
She telephoned her mother that she had second thoughts about the race told her “I’d rather wished we hadn’t come.” She further explained, “You go with the idea of winning …but don’t think you can.”
The crowd at Aintree included over 250,000 people, and while initial odds had Nickel Coin at 40-1, she had been bet down to 10-1. The footing was soft for the course of 32 fences over 4 miles. The race began and the 36 horses approached the first fence—many fell. The announcer named them as best he could—and Nickel Coin was among them. Jo gathered up her grooming kit, halter and supplies and ventured out after the horse—but stopped when she heard a call that the mare was up and running—and did not fall after all. It was a gruesome race that is not for the faint of heart—35 of the 36 horses did fall that day, the yielding turf contributed to the spills but thankfully all of the horses returned unscathed. Twice around the course they traveled having to leap the infamous Beecher’s Brook, an enormous fence with a drop on the other side. After the first revolution of the course was complete, the field narrowed to four. Nickel Coin jumped flawlessly while others tumbled around her. Loose horses galloped along side until they realized that jumping was indeed optional without a jockey. Nickel Coin and jockey John Bullock managed to safely navigate the course and win the race. Jo met them and escorted the horse to winner’s circle to celebrate the victory and assess the condition of the horse.
Jo resists comparisons to National Velvet, the 1944 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney depicting a horse-crazy teenage girl winning the Grand National—“It is a delightful story but complete fiction,’”—but her story is not. When asked about being a female in the “yard” or “on the backside” (as they would say in the U.S.) she insists that she was treated equally and paid the same as the other “lads”. “While there were few girls working in racing stables in those days (1950’s), the work was equal and so was the pay. I never had any difficulty working in a man’s world,” explained Motion.
The equestrian world is really the only place where men and women compete and treated the same. Incidentally, the first woman to win the Grand National was Geraldine Rees in 1982—and the first woman to ride in the legendary race was Charlotte Brew in 1977. As for female trainers in the Grand National, Venetron Williams saddled the winner in 2009, Jenny Pittman was the first to train a winner. In 1951, Jo Motion may have the distinction as the first female “lad” or more appropriately called the first “lass” to win the Grand National.
It seems like only yesterday to Middleburg proprietor Jo Motion who owns the Middleburg Tack Exchange. Motion first came to Middleburg in the 1950’s after the Grand National making the trip across the pond and working for the Adams family as an assistant trainer at Belmont Park. The jumper string traveled south and Jo with them. She took lodging at the Red Fox Inn and dined across the street at what used to be the Pharmacy, because it had a lunch counter with reasonably priced food. Her training operation was head-quartered at Burrland (what is now Hickory Tree Farm) off The Plains Road. She returned to England to marry her childhood sweetheart and pony club comrade, Mike Motion in 1956 They raised their children and many horses, cows and pigs at their Herringswell Farm outside of Cambridge. Later they returned to the United States and had two daughters and after stints in New York and Kentucky, settled in Middleburg for good in 1986.
In 1992, Jo opened the Middleburg Tack Exchange and in just a year’s time, it outgrew its space. The store features consignment saddles, bridles, attire and equipment needed to ride/hunt/compete successfully. It’s the place to shop for boots that are already broken in—(makes you look like you have been at it awhile, even if it is your first time–hunting or showing).
Jo Motion is the matriarch of an equestrian dynasty. Her husband Mike has served as bloodstock agent for many fine thoroughbreds for a lifetime career and their son Andrew continues in that tradition right here in Middleburg. Andrew’s daughter Mary is pursuing a career in racing. Their son H. Graham Motion learned his trade from Jonathan Sheppard and has won some great races, including the Kentucky Derby along with several Breeder’s Cup races and the Dubai World Cup. Grand-daughter Lillibet competes in show jumping.
Beware parents—all it takes is a pony ride…and you are off to the races!