The Gray Goose

1970-June, 17 2000

 

Born in County Clare, Ireland, Gray’s early life was spent mistrusting everything and everybody. He died, however, an international symbol for courage and boldness.  His enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. Before electric fencing was available, he was renowned for jumping his pasture fences to go exploring. When he had satisfied his curiosity, he would simply jump back in! He once cleared the edge of an eight and a half foot roof to escape from a “monster” in the fog, and made a name for himself among the local Virginia farmers by jumping their cattle guards on his solo jaunts around the countryside.  

Photo by Mary Phelps
Photo by Mary Phelps
Photo by Mary Kaiser
Photo from Mary Phelps
I rode and trained Gray for a year before purchasing him.  He belonged to the brothers Burke at their riding stable near where we lived in County Clare, Ireland.  Everyone tried to talk me out of choosing him as my project, but he reminded me too much of my third horse, Hunraff.  Another steel grey rogue-y horse with squinty eyes that I’d bought by accident at an auction as a teenager, that horse and I ended up developing an incredible bond.

When I first began working with The Gray, he hated everything involved in being ridden and made it a practice to dump his riders (including me!) daily.  I would come home from the barn, and my husband would ask how it went, and I would always reply that I pitied the person who bought this horse.  Gray would either tuck his chin on his chest, open his mouth, and gallop off with you, or put his head straight up in the air, grab the bit, and gallop off with you.  Because of my experiences with Raffy, however, I persevered.  I knew that gaining his confidence was essential and that his aggression stemmed from fear.  He was afraid of everything!

 “Being positive takes courage. Kindness takes courage. Gentleness takes courage. “

— Cathy Burham Martin

The Gray had a devout love for baby creatures though, and my two-year-old daughter was the first human to earn his love. From there, he slowly began to transfer this new emotion to me. However, I would still have to have my tall strong husband with his long legs warm Gray up at the Irish show jumping events his owners wanted me to enter. Otherwise, the first horse that came towards him in the warmup arena would have him panicking, doing his famous 180 spin and bucking bolt, and soon I’d be on the ground with him flying loose around the grounds, leaping anything that was in his path.
Photo from Kim’s personal collection.
Gray with his beloved Andy
Photo by Elizabeth Preznikoff
Gradually we became a team, although many things could cause one of his panic attacks. One day, as I felt him gathering himself for my usual dumping, the image of a cowboy bucking bronco rider came into my head and I leaned back, shoved my feet in front of me, and “became the cowboy.” I stayed on! He was as shocked as I was. Months later, we were hacking on a dirt road bordered by woods on one side and pastures on the other. In those days, one of Gray’s mortal fears was cattle, and in this field were black and white dairy cows. They were fenced in electric wire, and the clicking battery box was right next to the road. He simply could not deal with two monsters, no matter how much I reassured him, and so he turned and bolted. I got him stopped and turned around, but he repeated the same maneuver. The third time, I was running out of strength and in desperation, turned him into the woods and literally ran him straight into a tree! That stopped him! Even then, though, I had to do it twice more in order to get him to go past the terrors, and after that he trusted, respected, and listened to me far more often.

Gradually we became a team. His dislike for being ridden persisted, however, until his first horse trial in the spring of 1976. We were still in Ireland, and while it was labeled Novice, the cross country course was really much more like our United States Preliminary. I think I walked it six times! While I may have left the box still filled with a bit of anxiety, by the time we had cleared the third obstacle, Gray made it clear that he was eagerly looking for flags, and he never lost this newfound love for the game. He adored running fast and soaring through the air.

We started our careers in Three Day Eventing together. He as a timid six-year-old, and me as a twenty-eight-year-old mother of a two-and-a-half year old daughter, Andrea. The hormones coursing through my body from being that mother made my body question what my heart so much desired, but Gray and I made it through that first event with sheer determination, and we beat our combined fear to come in first! Our trophy was a Waterford Crystal decanter.

Photo from Kim’s Personal Collectin
Photo by RH Frankenfeld
Needless to say, when we returned to the States later that year, The Gray Goose came home with us along with a half-sister of his. We steadily worked our way up through the Eventing ranks, despite living in the mountains of Virginia, no instruction (I read magazines and books voraciously, my husband helped, and I had a lot of good instincts), not having a lot of resources or money, and taking time off between Training Level and Preliminary to have our son, Brian. In 1979, Gray and I were the only team to make the time on the cross country course at Lexington Kentucky, over the same course (slightly modified and two inches lower), as the World Championships which were held just the year before. That winter saw us being invited to a Training Session with the United States Equestrian Team, and we went to compete in Europe with them in 1980. We continued to ride internationally for six years.
Photo by Unknown
Photo by Unknown
Photo by Robert Frankenfeld
We both still carried our fears, but totally trusted each other. He knew that I’d never ask him to jump anything I didn’t think he could do, and I knew that he’d somehow find a way to get us out of trouble if we found ourselves in a bad situation. When he put in one of his soaring leaps that left the crowd gasping in shock, I would genuinely feel like we were flying. I spoke verbally to him around every course, telling him the plan, and people all around the world fell in love with this horse who actually listened to his rider and seemed to slip the bonds of gravity.

The Gray Goose was a very self-aware horse. He loved to thrill his Eventing fans by leaving the ground a stride away from the widest obstacle on the course and landing a full stride on the other side. He could jump a kitchen chair set in the middle of a field, hold a line like nobody’s business, and his ability to get out of trouble was uncanny. Gray was a true master of his sport, being excellent in all three phases and knowing full well the differences in style needed for jumping steeplechase, cross country, and show jumping. He could be compared to Clark Kent when in his stall, as well as while being warmed up on a loose rein. He certainly did not impress anyone with his long back, flat feet, and quiet manner. When those reins were picked up however, he became Superman, and there was absolutely no doubt about what he had been born to do.

Photo by Elizabeth Preznekoff
Photo by Mary Phelps
Photo by Leslie Vincent
In 1981 we finished second at the first official Rolex Three Day Event just behind three-time Olympic medalist James Wofford. In 1982 we returned to win Rolex, and this time became the National Champions. Later that same year, we came in third individually in the World Championships in Germany; the only horse and rider from the United States to bring home an individual medal in all the equestrian disciplines. We also anchored the bronze medal Team, winning those medals under extraordinary circumstances.

Six weeks before, I’d had a fall in our last show jumping school and broken two transverse processes on the left side of my spine. This left me in a lot of pain, as well as unable to support myself in a stirrup or use any pressure on the rein on that left side. I recovered sufficiently in time to compete, but as we were flying around the cross country fences, my efforts to follow a huge leap over a picnic table combination by Gray tore the bones apart again. I suddenly found myself–halfway through this course that had already severely challenged the best in the world—without any brakes and barely any steering. Worse, I couldn’t help Gray when he needed my leverage of body weight, and as fate would have it the big water complex was the second to last obstacle when he would be experiencing fatigue. A Swiss rider had already died there. This was a full Long Format Three Day Event—a true test of endurance—and in addition, The Gray was carrying over twenty pounds of lead in order for me to meet the weight requirements of those days. He knew exactly what was going on, however. I clung to his mane with both hands, steered him with my eyes, took all the shortcuts, and he carried me safely through to the finish line with only a few time penalties.

The next day, when we had to do show jumping, he cleared every fence to win those medals. Though I was in an extreme amount of pain, my tears that day were solely those of joy and gratitude to my amazing horse.

Photo from Kim’s Personal Collection.  
Photo from Kim’s Personal Collection

Badminton and Beyond

Photo by Fifi Coles
Photo by Mary Phelps
Photo by Hugo Czerny
In 1983 another dream of mine was realized when we raised the money to travel to England and compete at Badminton. Alas, it was a very muddy course, and Gray reached too far under himself setting up for a vertical wall at the bottom of a slope. A hind leg stepped on the pastern of his foreleg, preventing it from leaving the ground, and we had a rotational fall over the wall. He landed on his head, throwing me clear, but then his haunches fell on top of my head. We both suffered concussions, along with other injuries.
Photo by Michael Milne
We recovered, however, and came back to be second alternates for the Olympic Team in 1984. In 1985 we journeyed to Holland for the Boekelo three-star CCI where we placed second. 1986 was our grand adventure to Australia for the World Championships. Unfortunately, the weather in Gawler took a disastrous turn. Torrential rains fell on Friday after a long drought, which on the hardened red clay footing produced conditions for Saturday’s Endurance Phase much like an ice skating rink. We were one of the many pairs who were affected. Though we finished cross country with no jumping penalties, we had many time penalties due to Gray losing two shoes on diagonal hooves. I withdrew him before the last day due to sore feet.

Gray did his last Advanced Horse Trial in 1987, coming in third at Ship’s Quarters. He was sound and fit, but he showed me clearly that he was bored with the same old courses, and the joy was just not there for him anymore. It was time to retire him. He had a wonderful retirement ceremony in 1988 at Rolex Kentucky, being simultaneously spectacular, spooky, and silly—up to his old antics in front of all his adoring fans

Photo by Leslie Vincent
Photo by Jennay Jack
Photo by Peter Gower

The Sylvester Experience

Photo by Mary Phelps
Gray and I had placed well in the 1984 Olympic Selection Trials, and we were chosen as the reserve combination for the Los Angeles Olympics. Though we were “on call” to go to California, we ended up staying home. There were politics involved, and I was crushed not to be going. However, where one door closed another certainly opened when I received a telephone call from an official of the movie Sylvester looking for a big grey Advanced-level event horse and his rider to double for Melissa Gilbert and the actual Sylvester during the shooting of the competition phase of the movie. Our daughter Andy was twelve that year, and they also wanted to hire her and her pony, Ebony, for many of the background shots. We had a family discussion and a few weeks later packed up the trailer to its full capacity and headed for Kentucky.
Riding the Lexington course for the movie shots was especially challenging, because we had to do those huge fences “cold”—without the adrenaline of competition coursing through our veins. We also needed to jump them repeatedly in order to accommodate the camera angles. I had to get creative in warming Gray up, finding a picnic table to jump or a people bench somewhere. Sometimes the lead cameraman would lie in the ditches on cross country, or between oxer poles in show jumping. I would always show the cameraman to Gray before heading him to that fence, and he without exception jumped more carefully.

The script called for me to “almost” fall off at the water complex, but I knew that if I did the duck down the side of his shoulder too often in our warmup and rehearsals for the camera, Gray would simply slow down and stop to protect me. As a result, we had just one chance to film it and get it right—and we did it in that one take. The water complex at Lexington is always tough—I’m probably the only rider who ever intended to almost fall off there! I was really proud of Gray for handling my strange, off-balance behavior, and for getting us through safely. The next year I had to gallop down to the same complex, and I was really wondering how he would react. Of course he knew the difference and sailed through with no hesitation whatsoever.

I am filled with gratitude at the volume of people who have let me know how much the movie has inspired them.

Photo from Kim’s Personal Collection
Photo from Kim’s Personal Collection
Photo from Kim’s Personal Collection
Photo by Mel Powell
As he mellowed through the years, The Gray Goose came to enjoy teaching students, but he always demanded respect from all who interacted with him. His refusal to be dominated taught many to seek ways of training that involved acknowledging a horse’s dignity and intelligence. He was known to play tricks on those who needed reminding and was quite capable of holding a grudge for years. The lessons he taught best though, were that dreams can indeed come true, where there is a will there is a way over any obstacle, and that trust can transmute fear into courage. He showed the world that heart, determination, and love will win out over conformation any day. And he allowed me to show housewives and mothers everywhere that they, too, could take their riding to their highest levels. He was my partner and best friend for twenty-five years, and in the process, he shaped my life. His legacy lives on his grand-nephew, Gideon Goodheart, whom he mentored in his retirement.

When Gray was twenty-six, I had a severe car accident that precluded my riding for over a year. Until that time, I had ridden him regularly. Unfortunately, during the time off, arthritis took over in his spine, and he made it clear when I began gently riding him again that it was too uncomfortable for him to continue. For the next few years, he ran mostly loose at the boarding facility where I kept both horses. I started Gideon under his watchful eye. Since Gideon has two crosses back to Gray’s sire, I kept him a stallion. Gray would appear every single time I would bring Gideon into the non-fenced arena, and would stand up on the overlooking bank, careful to always keep himself between the four-year-old lusty Gideon and the mare who was turned out there. When I began jumping Gid, Gray would come right down into the arena. If he was in the way of a jump, I would ask him to move to a certain spot, and he would go there. Needless to say, it amazed people that he would do as I verbally requested, but Eventing fans wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest! He did a lot to open people’s minds to interspecies communication. If I needed Gideon to jump differently, I would ask Gray to explain it to him, wait a few minutes while they looked at each other, and when I asked again Gideon’s technique would have changed. It was also quite obvious that Gray wanted to impress Gideon with how just important it was to take care of me, and Gideon has learned that lesson very well.

Gray would also play practical jokes on people. He would manage to sneak up on boarders (how does a 1,000 lb horse sneak up on someone with gravel underfoot?) and then startle the stuffing out of them. I had a hard time believing the stories people were telling me until he did it not only to me, but to Gideon as well! He could walk absolutely silently over gravel and concrete when he wished to. He would also turn on the barn lights at night, and then began to find ways to open the Senior feed can despite it being bungee corded shut. Obviously, after a while he lost his privilege of running loose.

Gray was still squealing with joy at the age of thirty. When a series of strokes came to claim him on June 17th, 2000, he died with dignity and grace, his head in my lap. I was able to have his body cremated, and his ashes were buried in a moving ceremony at the Rolex Three Day Event the following April. The Kentucky Horse Park was always his absolute favorite place to compete, and I know that he watches over every competitor at The Head of the Lake, which is just down the hill from his gravesite. There, I’m sure, his spirit still soars, and he will continue to inspire future generations.

The Gray was honored by The Chronicle of the Horse when they selected him as one of the Top 50 Horses of the Century in 2000, and he was inducted into the US Eventing Association Hall of Fame in 2012.

Learn from Kim

One of my greatest joys is passing along the vast array of knowledge I have received from amazing teachers in my life–both equine and human.

Photo by Marshall Thacker

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