Gelding Pays Final Respects to His Doting Master
Hugh Wilder used to say that he and his 27-year-old saddlebred gelding, Mark, had made a pact. “One of us is going to go to the other’s funeral,” the 78-year-old retired geological chemist would tell bemused family and friends.
Last weekend, Hugh Wilder’s only son made good on his father’s last wish.
Greg Wilder is best known for helping the equine athletes of Moore County improve their flexibility and performance through intense, often laborious body work. Getting a horse to stand quietly through a funeral service was something Wilder had never attempted — nor even contemplated — before his father’s death on Aug. 5.
Last Sunday, Mark was vanned from Wilder’s farm in Ellerbe to Boles Funeral Home on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southern Pines for the 40-minute service. Boles allowed a small corral to be constructed under the building’s carport, and Mark was able to watch the service through an open door.
“He stuck his head through the door and was looking in the whole time,” Wilder said. “He just stood there, never did a thing. Never nickered, never threw his ears up.”
A native of Johnston County and member of the North Carolina Field Trial Association, Hugh Wilder was a rider and bird dog aficionado who won numerous ribbons and trophies competing with Mark (Mighty Mark), a Tennessee Walking Horse. Hugh was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 10 years ago, but was still riding in the afternoons with his son as recently as a year and a half ago.
“The old horse had gotten so fat,” Greg Wilder said, laughing. “Dad would put the saddle on and ride over to meet me after work, and every time the saddle would slide sideways and flop over Mark’s belly. It happened every day — it was like ‘Groundhog Day.’”
A 1960 graduate of N.C. State University, Hugh Wilder worked with the U.S. Geological Survey as a hydrologist testing water resources throughout North Carolina. But his passion was riding in “no kill” field trials with his saddlebreds and English Pointers. Greg Wilder rode with his father every morning before school and spent afternoons tending the young horses the elder Wilder was bringing along.
Despite his own affection for horses, Hugh Wilder tried to steer his son away from a career working with them.
“He came up in a farming background, and didn’t really want his son to have a ‘farm life’ because of the hard work involved,” Wilder said. “He chose to be a scientist with a government job that had all the benefits. I think he was skeptical (of my career choice) in the beginning but by the end he was very proud.”
When Wilder articulated his desire to work with sport horses, his father initially reserved judgment. But he wound up being an invaluable resource to Greg Wilder’s education.
“He was very much hands-on helping me when I was going to ‘people school’ and making the transition to working with horses,” Wilder said. “I would do the work on the horses, and then he’d get on and ride to see if it made a difference. He was there with an analytical, scientific mind to help. He made it a testing ground.”
Hugh Wilder acquired Mark as a 2-year-old colt, and the two were regular fixtures at local field trials.
“After seven or eight years, people started asking him, ‘You’re still showing that black horse?’” Wilder recalled. “These horses cover a lot of miles every day, and they have the speed and pace to be ridden at a walk for many hours.
“Their walk allows them to cover more ground faster. And Mark’s always had a great mind, a great work ethic.”
In his golden years, Mark has become a kind of yogi to young horses being raised at the Wilders’ farm.
“Every time he was turned out with one of our young horses he instantly and judiciously became the dominant horse,” Wilder said. “I never saw him kick or bite one. I sat for hours watching him with these colts, trying to figure out how he automatically got them to respect him. He at once calmed horses down and made them easier to manage.”
Hugh Wilder requested to have his ashes spread over the field trial grounds a quarter of a mile from the Wilders’ farm, where Mark will live out his remaining days.
“He’s been an excellent performance horse his entire life,” Wilder said. “And one you could put anybody on. Kids still get on him.”
Recalling his ailing father’s last rides with Mark, Wilder laughed.
“That horse would put up with him day after day,” he said fondly. “Dad would get so lost. But Mark would always bring him home.”
Memorial contributions in Hugh Wilder’s memory can be sent to the N.C. Field Trial Association, c/o Paul Gadd, P.O. Box 636, Hickory, NC, 28603.
Contact Stephanie Diaz at MediaPlan88@aol.com
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