Monday, October 14, 2013

Secret Lives of Horses | 10/14/2013


By: Mary Jane Howell, Photography by: Gary Knoll

The dictionary defines the word "serendipity" as a gift for finding good things accidentally. Although it wasn't quite an accident that Gail Watson ended up owning a Thoroughbred mare with such a name, it is interesting that the mare changed hands a few times before finding the perfect owner at age 4 - an owner who understood her unique personality.

Serendipity started her life in Canada and was brought to New York as a show ring hunter prospect. The mare refused to do her flying changes (the first of many strong opinions) and thus found herself for sale. Gail was training with Bill McGuinness at his North Salem, New York barn at the time, and Bill was always on the lookout for prospective event horses. He saw that intangible "something" in Serendipity and at his urging Gail bought the mare. This was in the mid-1980s and it wasn't long until Bill had the mare (known as Maggie at this point) ready for her first event on Long Island.

The outcome of the trip to Long Island is lost in the haze of history, but one thing does stand out - it was then and there that Maggie fell in love with trucks and trailers. She was obviously one of those females who liked to be entertained, to be doing something, or at least thinking about doing something fun in the future.

"The sound of the truck meant action to Maggie - you get on, travel a bit, get off, and then get to go cross-country," says Gail. And she always leapt off the trailer, even when all the other horses politely stepped off. Perhaps she was doing her own warm-up for those cross-country drop jumps.

Besides Gail and Bill, Maggie was very fortunate to have Amy Struzzieri in her life. When Amy was in her teens, she started working for Bill, doing everything from grooming to driving the van to events. Now a dressage judge and trainer in Aiken, Amy became Maggie's caregiver upon the mare's retirement. When Amy moved here two and a half years ago, she brought Maggie with her.

"In the late 1980s and 90s, there was the most wonderful group of women who rode out of Bill's barn," recalls Amy. "When we shipped to an event we had the most incredible amount of fun. We stayed at beautiful bed and breakfasts, had great dinner, good wine, and the women had a blast at the event. Some women went Baby Novice, others went Training level, and if anyone fell off they had to buy Bill a case of wine!"

Maggie and Gail competed with this group throughout the Northeast, with favorite venues being Groton House in Massachusetts and Millbrook in New York. Maggie continued to be opinionated, and although she was not asked to do a flying change, she did have her reservations about the dressage test.

"She understood early on that dressage was like spinach - eat your spinach my dear child and you get to have a yummy dessert, which in her case was going cross-country," says Gail. "She would trot down the center line and halt at X and rear. It was not my fault - she was simply lodging a protest. I must say it was a very lady-like rear. She would then continue on with the rest of the test, sweet as pie. We could never break her of the habit."

While you could still count her age in the single digits, Maggie got the unglamorous nickname of Crabatha - must have been the pinned ears in the stall when her expectations were not met.

"The show barn life was basically all about spending most of the time in a stall, with a few hours of turn-out and then, of course, riding time," explains Amy. "She was definitely the queen bee of Bill's barn. Pampered -yes! Demanding - yes! If it started to rain, her groom would go running out to bring her in."

But for all her idiosyncrasies, Maggie was a balm for Gail, who was an attorney in her professional life, and who was also married to an attorney. While many professionals might escape from their New York offices and head to the Berkshires or the Hamptons for the weekend, Gail was more content to have adventures with Maggie.

"We competed at the Novice and Training Levels," says Gail. "And I'm proud to say we almost always got pinned in the top four. What I remember best about Maggie during our years together was that she loved the challenge, the change in routine, and all the different smells. I was just blessed to be along for the ride."

Maggie was bred one time and had a colt in 1997 who ended up doing the show hunter circuit in Florida. Obviously Maggie did not pass along her dislike of flying changes to her offspring.

When Maggie retired from competition a few years later, so did Gail. They were each other's yin and yang, and when it was time to stop, they stopped together. Maggie was turned over to Amy, who was overseeing several retirees in New York. Maggie had a large pasture and a friend to share it with. No more barns, although she did have a 20 X 20 stall that she could use as she pleased. Mostly it did not please her to be in, except when it rained and then Amy would only see Maggie's nose poking out the door.

Although life was good for Amy and her band of retirees, the New York winters were getting old. Amy had met Marshall and Betsy Lamb when the couple was in New York to judge the Golden's Bridge Hounds Hunter Trials, and an open invitation to visit Aiken was give.

"Like everyone else who visits here, I fell in love with the town," explains Amy. "When I moved here in 2011, what I remember most was that Maggie, after a 15-hour ride, leapt off the trailer in perfect form."

If Maggie thought she was getting to compete again after years of retirement, she had a surprise. What awaited her was a huge field and balmy weather. Instead of just one friend, she had seven and all the grass she could eat.
She also got a new nickname: Magpie.

"She's in her 30s now - although a real lady never tells her exact age," laughs Amy. "She is having an interesting life here. She is the adopted grandparent to several clutches of chicks at the Lamb's farm and she has to delegate her precious time to not one, but two boyfriends."

Her favorite food is soft bananas, which she can gum with her worn down teeth. She gets four quarts of senior feed morning and night, with the addition of electrolytes, MSM and a daily wormer. Although there is enough warm water in her grain to make it look like gruel and it takes he ages to eat, the results speak for themselves. She looks fabulous for a mare of her age.

"She definitely is still vain. She won't go back outside to 'her boys' until I've wiped the food off her face," said Amy. "She locks those knees and refuses to budge until she is cleaned up - simply amazing."

Although her black coat is now a rather unflattering shade of tan and her hearing is almost gone, she is still a princess. Visitors to her field must see and pet her first and she does everything but climb into your pocket. She would like to explain that her skin is rather delicate these days, so mind how hard you scratch those places where she itches. She loves living outside and hardly ever goes into the huge shed, even when the afternoon torrential rains hit on an almost daily basis. She probably laughs at the memory of her younger self - the demanding and pampered one!

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.