Flip, Red Sail, Charlie Brown, Whitey, Peanut Butter, Paul Brown, John Warner, Yahtzee . . . it took what seemed like hundreds of horses to teach me how to ride one. That batch there included some ponies of various shapes, sizes and dispositions, a couple of lesson horses at Mary Warner’s Derbydown Farm in Pennsylvania and a racetrack lead pony.
They eventually led to racehorses. I was not a great exercise rider. My father’s training logs frequently included the notation “Went too fast, Joey rode” next to horses I galloped on the racetrack. I did ride a few flat races at the steeplechase meets – winning two junior races aboard Ski Lift, a New Zealand import with enough flat form to compete (not successfully) at Keystone Racetrack (now Parx Racing) and a few other spots. I jogged and cantered stakes winner Money By Orleans at the farm one winter. He only bucked me off once and he would have destroyed me on a racetrack. Balkan Chief was a frequent galloping partner (went too fast). Joe Mac, a huge New Zealand-bred gelding, fit my 6-foot-1 frame just perfectly but he could get rolling too. I eventually figured out I could get him to relax by singing to him. That worked too well in our only race together, a too-late third at Fair Hill in 1984.
Editor's Note: This is an entry in the new book project The Magic of Horses, produced by ST Publishing, Inc. for owner/breeder Nina Gardner – whose simple mission was to assemble personal essays about meaningful horses from a variety of horse people. She received entries from Olympians, a Kentucky Derby winner, a Hall of Fame trainer and plenty more. Writers include eventers Phillip Dutton, Boyd Martin and Jennie Brannigan, racehorse trainers Michael Matz, Michael Dickinson and Jack Fisher, Maryland Hunt Cup winners Joe and Blythe Davies and plenty more. Proceeds from the book benefit the United States Eventing Association's Young Even Horse program. Order the book at the Lulu.com Bookstore.
I rode Assay Mark, perhaps the craziest horse in the barn, once in the shedrow at Delaware Park and almost hit my head on a water pipe in the ceiling. On The Side nearly killed me at Rappahannock Point-to-Point, bolting off a right-handed, hairpin, downhill-to-uphill turn into the stretch and colliding with an outrider’s horse while 10 lengths in front. That was March 5, 1983. Six days later, she won a maiden claimer at Penn National. Seven days after that, also at Penn, she won again. I like to think my bad point-to-point riding sharpened her up. I rode timber horse (and former eventer) Baythorne – the smoothest gallop I’ve ever experienced – on the farm in Pennsylvania one day. While doing a story for Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, I rode timber legend Saluter at Jack Fisher’s farm. The six-time Virginia Gold Cup winner dragged me all over the Maryland countryside and I was stiff for a week.
But those ponies, the Thoroughbreds, and others like them, couldn’t match Patches. He’s the first horse who convinced me I could actually ride and enjoy it. Competently, confidently. He was a Paint horse, maybe 15 hands, straight out of an Indian buffalo hunt – brown coat, white splotches looking like continents on a world map across his body, bushy black mane and bushier black tail. He was wide across the back, really wide. Fat? Maybe. A little swaybacked? Definitely. But he was fast and powerful. He didn’t like frivolous stuff, like sitting trots or any of the things riding teachers made you do. He wanted to go cross-country. He wanted to canter, to gallop, to jump.
He seemed to live forever. I remember taking him in a halter class at Carousel Farm in Delaware and getting a second-place ribbon. He stepped on my foot. I remember him at Delaware Park as my dad’s lead pony. I remember him on the farm in Pennsylvania. He was certainly alive in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
My father bought Patches at a sale at Derbydown, as a ride for his boss Donny Ross’ wife Susie to replace the “slow as molasses” Blue. “He came from out west somewhere,” my dad said of Patches in 2020. “Donny had heard about him, and sent me up there. I think I rode him, just to make sure Donny wasn’t getting stuck. There were two horses, I liked Patches the best.”
My dad also said the new horse cost $3,000, to which Ross replied “Oh, that’s fine.” The price tag was actually $300 (and Dad told the truth eventually). Susie Ross rode Patches a little at the Ross’ farm on Limestone Road in Delaware. My dad tried to teach Patches to jump.
“He was a leg-hanger and I said the horse would never make a jumper,” my dad said.
Susie Ross’ daughter Susanna Dent took Patches back to Derbydown for summer camp and riding lessons, where Warner worked her magic.
“The next time I saw him, he could really jump,” my dad said. “Anything.”
At this point in Patches’ life, while he was being groomed for show-ring glory, I was most likely flopping around on Red Sail, Whitey, Charlie Brown. Susanna eventually moved on to a better horse, and Patches came back to my dad’s barn at Brandywine Stable next to Delaware Park. The flashy paint became a lead pony, escorting horses to the track in the mornings for my dad, and toiling in the afternoon for Sonny Brevard.
With my dad aboard, Patches jumped single boards in and out of barn doors, saddle stands placed across the shedrow (on which people hung blinkers, lead shanks, saddles, whatever as challenges). I rode him sparingly, and poorly. But once I learned to control him (the gag bit helped) and to always use a breast plate (the saddle tried to slip backward no matter how tight you got the girth) he became my favorite.
I was in high school in Pennsylvania and would get to foxhunt Patches with Andrews Bridge and Cheshire, galloping across the fields and jumping whatever wound up in front of us. Patches would spot a fence from way back and lock on. I just put my hands down and kept my heels out of his sides. These were his decisions. We jumped a four-board fence near the old Walnut Green that we had no business jumping. Chip Miller was next to me on his pony Wind River and I think both horses’ bellies rubbed the top board, but we landed running, turned left before the road and kicked on as much of the field went out of their way to go around the fence. At Andrews Bridge, I remember galloping through a wide path in the woods that led to a clearing. At the edge, you could just barely see a barway with a small ditch on the takeoff side. Patches being Patches I was up near the front of the field and followed a few horses toward the fence. Patches being Patches, he saw the massive fence, leaned into the bit and accelerated right about the same time some other horses (and riders) slowed down to reassess their options. Patches quickened. I hung on. Next to us, a senior member of the field and his horse clipped the barway and fell in something that looked like those old Maryland Hunt Cup photos. With a horse sprawling all over the ground next to us, Patches didn’t touch a thing, landed and went right back to charging along. I swear he let out a grunt in satisfaction and a little buck afterward.
Patches was the first horse I would ride willingly, meaning without a, “You going to ride, today?” from my dad after school. I’d go to the barn in the afternoon, tack him up, laugh at how he took a deep breath to inflate himself while I tried to tighten the girth and then simply go for a ride. Sometimes, my father came along. Sometimes, I met Chip or Sanna Neilson or one of the other kids. Many times, I rode alone. Patches didn’t care. Neither did I.
Then what happened? I got tall. Patches got old. Yahtzee the Appaloosa became the stable lead pony. I started riding racehorses, playing ice hockey, driving, whatever. I didn’t ride Patches so much. He ultimately retired to the Ross’ farm in Chatham, Pennsylvania – now the home of Buddy and Kate Martin – living out his days in a field with retired steeplechasers Mod Man, Farmers Lot and Southern Duke. Patches helped me to love horses.
Excerpted from The Magic of Horses, a 2021 book project compiled and edited by Nina H. Gardner and Joe Clancy. Order online here.