Horsing Around Virgina

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About horsingaroundvirginia

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.

Autumn Changes Horsing Around Virginia

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.

Laura Smith interviews Jo Motion (Horsewoman Extraordinaire)


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!

Sharing a stable view…

Laura Smith

Welcome to Horsing Around Virginia (HAV) and our first blog post.  Our tagline is “Sharing a stable view of horses and horse people in Virginia” is an appropriate place for us to start.

A “stable view” does indeed have several meanings.  The primary focus of this blog and accompanying videos is to share the perspective of those who actually spend time in the stable—horses and their people.  So often when equestrian events are covered in the media the focus is on the finished product–the winning round–the race–the competition.  But the more interesting story to me is how the horse and rider got to that point.  The real story is how many hours of dedicated preparation went into that few minutes  the rest of the horse world acknowledges and celebrates.  Horsing Around Virginia is dedicated to telling stories and meeting dedicated horse people behind the scenes–in their stables.

“Stable view” also represents HAV’s commitment to explore a deeper understanding of why horse people do what they do, in a segment called “Why I ride.”  Consider it the equine equivalent of Oprah’s question–“What I know for sure.” Horses are costly and can be dangerous but so many of us have become addicted to their presence.  What I know for sure is that horses do in fact heal people–inside and out.  In fact, I am not sure whether it was Ronald Reagan or Winston Churchill who said it–“there is nothing better for than the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.”

For me, I simply adore horses–their personalities, talents and overall positive and kind presence.  When I was in 8th grade, I was asked to write an autobiography for English class and of course wrote about all my family members —and every horse in the barn.  Mark Rashid wrote a wonderful book called Horses Don’t Lie and they don’t.  Presenting a “stable view” also means that HAV is committed to communicating a candid, frank and honest perspective.  HAV information is to help others do what is right by their horses and steer them from pitfalls wherever possible.   Horses are teachers, healers and friends — but they are also students, partners, investments, off-road animals and high performance athletes.

Oh, the places you can go–on horseback.  HAV will provide a stable view–literally the view from stables.  Recording and sharing video of the amazing vistas and venues seen best from the saddle is important to raise awareness about protecting the land in Virginia that makes keeping horses possible.  Our creator simply isn’t making more Virginia countryside resplendent with green rolling hills and mountain views.

It is fitting to begin this blog/conversation in the Christmas season–Jesus had the ultimate “Stable view.”  What a way to begin life — in a stable surrounded by animals!  What a wonderful blessing!  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Enjoy the ride!

–Laura Smith

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