Requiem For a Friend
When I contacted Becky Holder late Tuesday, she thought she’d be able to talk about Ollie the following morning.
“Can we do it tomorrow when I have my emotions more in control?” Holder wrote in an e-mail Tuesday night. Of course, I wrote back, I understand completely.
It wasn’t until Friday morning that Holder could summon the strength to share her memories of Call Me Ollie, the 11-year-old gelding she first met in a snow-blanketed field during a Minnesota winter five years ago.
A registered Holsteiner/thoroughbred — though his silky, squeezable nose suggested a Velveteen Rabbit somewhere in his distant pedigree — Ollie was campaigned by Holder from Novice all the way up to Advanced before leaving her Atlanta barn to continue his career with Boyd Martin two months ago.
Of all the unspeakably sad details that came to light in the wake of Tuesday’s barn fire at True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa., which killed six event horses in Martin’s program, none was more heart-wrenching than the report of firefighters having to physically restrain three young event riders from running back into the burning barn in a vain attempt to save more horses.
There is no year-end award worthy of the type of bravery Lillian Heard, Caitlin Silliman and Ryan Wood displayed the early morning hours of May 31. Remember their names, because they are the answer to the oft-grumbled question, “What happened to real horsemen?”
The three riders, who lived in an apartment above the barn at True Prospect, managed to rescue five of the 11 horses in the barn. Silliman’s horse, Catch a Star, made it out but has burns covering most of her body.
Martin, and Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton, broke through a barricade and ran into the blazing barn to pull Martin’s longtime partner, Neville Bardos, out of his stall. The 12-year-old thoroughbred gelding, the highest-placed American horse at the World Equestrian Games, is being treated for smoke inhalation at the New Bolton Center.
Catch a Star, Ambassador’s Rose, Otis Barbotiere and Minotaure Du Passoir are also recovering at New Bolton.
Heard, who alerted the others to the fire, was unable to save her own horse, a lovely gray mare named Ariel.
A life with horses requires a modicum of fatalism. If we thought too long and hard about all the tragedies that can befall our beloved horses, we might never take them off the farm. “Those kinds of things just don’t bear thinking about,” a friend said. “It’s like trailer accidents. Or lightning. You just hope it never happens.”
The six horses that perished in the True Prospect fire were exceptional event horses, some just beginning their careers.
Ariel was ready to tackle her first one-star at Bromont next weekend. Charla had just completed the CIC * * at Fair Hill. Cagney Herself, a statuesque bay mare with a distinctive white blaze, had just won a division of Open Training at Fair Hill with Silliman. Summer Breeze won a division of Open Training with Martin at Southern Pines Horse Trials II in March. Phantom Pursuit was ridden by Martin up through Advanced, but had moved back down to Preliminary to teach young rider Abbie Golden the ropes.
Call Me Ollie arrived at True Prospect after Holder’s last ride with him at Southern Pines II. “I decided maybe Boyd should have a shot with him,” said Holder, who competed at both the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Equestrian Games with her popular gray thoroughbred gelding, Courageous Comet. “He was really too much horse for me … he was all of 17 hands and when he raised his neck up he seemed two hands taller. I was hoping Boyd could finish what I had started.”
One of the kindest and classiest riders on the eventing circuit, Holder’s voice broke as she recalled setting eyes on Ollie for the first time.
“He was a woolly mammoth,” Holder said of the gelding, then named “Ulysses.” “We brought him into the barn, clipped him up, and found an incredible horse under there. He already had an amazing presence.”
The farm’s small indoor arena was barely big enough to canter a circle. “We set some little poles on top of buckets to see if he’d jump,” Holder said. “He was so willing to do anything we wanted. He had a look in his eye that made me think he’d be the kind of horse I’d want to come out and ride every day.”
Ollie had never ventured beyond the tiny arena, but Holder took him through a snow-covered parking lot away from the barns and out into a big field, where several round bales were flapping loudly in the wind. “He stared at them for a minute, and then he took me toward them,” Holder said. “That told me he had an above average ability to face new things and be challenged. It really sealed the deal.”
Faye Woolf, a longtime supporter of Holder’s, was also smitten, and bought Ollie on the spot. “He was really pretty feral in the beginning,” Holder said with a laugh. “Shoeing, blanketing … it was all new to him. All the things that come with being a baby, he was learning at six.”
But Ollie proved to be a quick study under saddle. “He was always so eager to try to figure out what you wanted,” Holder said. “Sometimes he’d get a little anxious about it, and it was a fine balance keeping him challenged and pressing him physically while not overwhelming him mentally.”
Ollie’s immense galloping stride was almost intimidating to Holder. “I was never comfortable just letting him fly,” she said. “I often thought his feet went faster than his mind could handle.”
With the personality of a chocolate Lab, Ollie was a favorite among Holder’s students. “Faye always talked about how different Ollie was when she rode him,” said Hannah Williams, a college student who rides with Holder. “He didn’t get overly excited about jumping; he just took care of her. Faye loved him more than anyone could love a horse.”
In the barn, Ollie seemed to delight in his role as “good soldier” to Courageous Comet’s diva persona. “Ollie liked to groom on your back when you were scratching him,” Holder said fondly. “He never put his ears back at anyone. Comet will put his ears back if he sees you didn’t put lemon in his Perrier.”
Out in pasture, Ollie was a benevolent dictator who often refereed disputes between his best buddy, On The Rocks, and whatever new horse was being introduced to the herd. “Rocky is the meanest snake of a horse,” Holder said. “But he followed Ollie everywhere. Ollie would take the balls and cones over to the new horse and teach him how to play.”
Of all the horses she’s ridden — cover your ears, Comet — Holder says Ollie was the most trusting. “It didn’t matter what I asked him to do,” she said. “Whatever I asked, he was game for it. He put absolute trust in me.”
Ollie had competed in only two events with Martin. They were seventh in Open Preliminary at Fair Hill, the first time Martin had ever ridden him cross-country, and seventh in the CIC * * at Jersey Fresh three weeks ago.
“They were just starting their partnership and figuring each other out,” Holder said. “I’m heartbroken for Boyd, because it’s a tragedy that he only knew Ollie for such a short time. It’s hard not to let your dreams take hold a little.”
Holder hopes that one day she’ll be able to think about Ollie without shedding a tear. “I felt like he’d jump off a cliff if I asked him,” she said. “He really was larger than life.”
There are many ways to help those affected by the True Prospect fire. A list of donation sites can be found on The United States Eventing Association’s website at www.useventing.com.
Contact Stephanie Diaz at MediaPlan88@aol.com.
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