Cinderella stories

25 Nov

It is The Holiday Season.

All over the world, from pagans through heathens through all kinds of religions, it is the time past Harvest, the time of renewal, rebirth, the frozen ground entreated to give forth the following Spring—and like the miracle that it is—Spring eventually comes forth.

In the horse world, spring means foals.  Breedings planned for years, or decided on over a cup of coffee. Or unplanned. Some foals will be anticipated, some will just be dropped, not  looked for until the following day, or not looked for at all.

At the high end, the nervous anticipation end, a few years down the line, a lucky breeder or two will walk off with over one million euros/dollars/currency.

At the low end, the foals will perhaps grow up, perhaps not, depending on whether their dams can forage, can produce milk, can survive whatever life has thrown their way. Or a few years down the road, they can be worth the price of their poundage.

Maybe a few will be Cinderella stories to warm the heart like these :

Hilda Keen


California schoolteacher Hilda Gurney went to the Mexico City Olympics and saw there the kind of horse needed for dressage. Returning home, she contacted various racehorse breeders, describing what she was looking for. And so she found a 17-hand plus horse with good bone, elastic gaits and what she hoped was talent for containment instead of running flat out. Lucky for her, the owner wanted  the $1500 to put towards a prize cow.

A few years later, German team coach Harry Boldt said Keen was “the best dressage horse of his time” and gave him a 2-page photo spread in his classic book, “Das Dressur Pferd.” Hilda and Keen helped the US gain a long-desired  (dry spell of 28 years) Team Bronze in 1976 at Bromont Olympics, and then after a terrible neurological illness which left him almost unable to move his head and neck, the duo returned as part of the 1984 dressage team.Keen was inducted into the U.S Dressage Federation Hall of Fame in 1997, Hilda Gurney inducted in 2007.

Magna Fortuna four footed photos

(Four Footed Photos)

Magna Fortuna

In 2009, Gail Vacca, head of the  Illinois Equine Humane Center, decided to pay a kill buyer $300 for a sad-looking Thoroughbred mare, in order to allow the animal a death with some dignity. After consulting with her veterinarian–and after the mare responded unbelievably to treatment–“Lulu” instead was sent to live at the rescue shelter. And then–she turned out to be pregnant. Great detective work uncovered the reality that the mare,Silver Option, was bred to an upcoming young sire. In 2010, Magna Fortuna was born,named and registered with the American Jockey Club. Three years later, in May 2013, he won his first race by over 9 lengths,earning his syndicate of shelter personnel/friends over US $16,000.


Neville Bardos

Named for a gangster, and too difficult at the track,let alone the other top sport riders who turned him down after a look or two, the gelding was bought byeventer Boyd Martin for $850 before the horse could be sent to slaughter.  Neville’s quirks and contrariness did not dim his athleticism or his partnership with Boyd Martin, a New Zealand native now riding for the United States.Together, they competed successfully at the Olympics and then WEG in 2010.

And then—fire. In May, 2011, trapped in a burning barn for 45 minutes, Neville Bardos made a miraculous recovery from injuries sustained in a fire that claimed the lives of six other . Smoke inhalation injuries, thanks to hyperbaric treatment, plus Neville’s own legendary toughness, saw him go on THAT YEAR to be top ten at Burghley. In 2012, Neville was voted USEF Horse of the Year.

snowman harry


Truly the stuff of which legends are made. A book, a filmed documentary (now being made), the dreams of countless horse-crazy kids, all believing that out there is their very own Snowman.

Snowman was a plough horse,used for farm work in Pennsylvania.. Age 8,  in 1956, he was sent to a meat auction and was being loaded on the trailer when Harry de Leyer made eye contact with him and thought that it was the kind of kind eye that would be good for his riding school as a lesson horse. De Leyer paid $ 80 –and the rest is truly the stuff of legends.

Sold to a neighbor, the horse kept jumping out of his paddock and eventually, de Leyer agreed to take him back. The horse could clear fences–but knocked down poles with total disregard. De Leyer was busy preparing another horse, Sinjon, for a shot at being a part of the U.S. Equestrian Team’s show jumping squad.

De Leyer did his job so well that the horse was bought for the US Team and given to a more established rider. Full of raging emotions, de Leyer went home –and decided to concentrate more on the white ex-plough horse.

The partnership grew and the pair went on not only to win the National Championship–beating every other jumper in the U.S., but far more–a TV celebrity, a Breyer horse model (twice!!) and a member of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.



In 1988, at the age of nearly 14, Jill  Henneberg got her parents’ permission to spend $600 on a horse whose photo was up on her tack shop bulletin board.  Jill had only been riding for about 2 years in Pony Club,, but  bought the 3 year old OTTB (off the track Thoroughbred) because she felt there was a bond. The mare, named Nirvana in honor of the family’s sail boat, proved tolerant and Jill fearless—the combination somehow worked. When Nirvana was 6, Jill’s trainer Jane Cory arranged to take them to Olympian Bruce Davidson’s for a jump school. The pair went over everything.

In 1994, the pair were 8th at Rolex. Injuries continued to plague the mare, but they returned to Rolex in 1996 for a top ten finish which was enough for them to be nominated to that year’s Olympic eventing team. Jill’s infamous fall on cross-country put an end to their hopes.

 “When you buy a horse at the age of 13 for $600 and go to the Olympics, and they give you their heart and soul—“ says Henneberg—that’s everything.

The price of horseflesh just keeps getting higher as the sport ‘globalizes’. But I like to think there are more stories like this,about to happen.

Happy Holidays!


2 Responses to “Cinderella stories”

  1. Weatherford November 26, 2013 at 5:27 am #

    Lovely blog of Cinderella stories. Snowman, however, was purchased in 1955, now 1965 – a typo, I presume!

  2. horsesportnews November 26, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    whoops, numbers got transposed. Fixed now!
    thank you

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