One seems made for little people—it’s small, playful, mischievous, and safe for a child to groom. The other is large, strong, calm, and good-natured, a strikingly handsome horse that seems well aware that its ancestors carried knights into battle.
Each is equally at home with either a rider on its back or pulling a fancy carriage. One is the spirited Hackney; the other the noble Friesian.
Karen Waldron fell in love with Friesian horses 16 years ago and purchased a pair of them for her Bent Tree Farm, an 880-acre estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Roanoke, Virginia. There in the pastoral beauty fronting the Roanoke River she was already breeding and showing prize Hackney ponies and horses.
But Bent Tree Farm is best known for its Hackney horses and ponies, smaller and snappier than Friesians, a totally different breed of horse. Hackneys over 14.2 hands tall at the shoulders are horses. Smaller than that they are called ponies. Larger than a Shetland pony, Hackney ponies are a good fit for children who continue to grow each year. The taller Hackney horses can be ridden by many adults.
After years of limited breeding, Waldron is ready to get serious about breeding only because Bent Tree Farm now has the bloodlines to create great horses. In 2007, their Hackney stallion Vindicator won the Grand Slam of harness pony competitions, winning multiple World Championships and Pony-of-the-Year awards, plus the Reader’s Choice award in Horse World magazine.
At a remarkable 22 years of age, Vindicator still loves to show. Karen has re-purchased some of Vindicator’s offspring, too, increasing the good genetics available at Bent Tree. With incredible facilities for raising foals (baby horses) and proximity to Virginia Tech’s veterinary college, the horse farm is ready to create a stallion station at the farm.
Some may recall a big black horse running majestically across the screen in the popular 1985 movie Lady Hawke (Michelle Pfeiffer). The handsome animal that steals this movie from the human actors is a Friesian horse, poetry in motion.
An ancient breed originating in Holland, Friesians are a light-draft horse, a muscular animal, all black, with a long heavy mane and tail and feathery hair gracing their lower legs. A bit of forelock falls between expressive eyes on a long face.
“The Friesians are a good thinking horse. They are almost a magical horse,” Waldron said, explaining that she bought her first Friesian team in 1992. “You will see them used in a lot of movies. There’s a reason for that. Number one, they are beautiful and number two, they are very, very agreeable and easy to work around.” People seem to form emotional and spiritual bonds with these horses.
The Friesian Horse Association of North America estimates there are 8,000 Friesians in North America.
Bent Tree Farm started out with American Saddlebreds, and the farm has not changed its basic mission, even though they have changed horse breeds. They still train, show, buy and sell good to excellent horses, with some breeding on the side.
For help, Karen counts on her employees, notably long-time trainer Lee Hudson, and colleagues on other farms who sometimes train their horses. Over the years, their horses have competed in state, national and international horse shows with increasing success.
“That did not happen quickly. We were not on a fast track,” Waldron said of the farm’s slow rise to prominence. “Even though my business has been wildly successful, it has not been wildly successful as a financial business.”
She cautions people about getting into horses to make big money. “Every time I had a client or customer come here with this vision that getting into horses was going to be a real money maker, I stopped them quickly,” she said, laughing a little. Showing horses may be an expensive way to advertise your horses for sale, but in the long run the strategy has worked for Bent Tree Farm. According to Karen, their farm isn’t in the center of horse country so they must get their horses in front of prospective buyers at shows in Virginia, Kentucky and Toronto.
Karen’s husband, Shawn Ricci, passionately pursues another avenue of horsemanship as a vaulter, an equestrian event that is basically gymnastics on a horse as it canters around a 20-meter circle on a long lead rope. His professional background is in ballet and ballroom dance.
“Be prepared” is Karen’s motto for showing horses on the road. She recommends that young people get involved with 4-H or other youth programs to learn all the nuances of horse ownership and competition, not just riding lessons. For example, horse shows in different states and regions demand different inoculations and tests from entrants. You need to do your homework first.
Karen related a very close call. “I got to a show in New York years ago and they asked me where my rabies certificates were and I went, ‘Dear God, we don’t do that in Virginia.’ Luckily there was a vet on the grounds and he did this. We just barely got by because it would have been a disaster. I had a huge staff and a large number of horses. Boy, did I feel foolish. I learned my lesson. Read the prize list from top to bottom or you may not get to show.”
Anything can happen at a show. In 2005, at the Lexington Junior League Show in Kentucky, just as their pony was hustled back from the show ring, a small tornado hit the show grounds. Karen described it. “Doors are flying, chairs are flying. Finally I jumped into the stall with this pony I had just bought. We literally got locked down in there, with the door slamming shut. I couldn’t push it back open, the winds were so wild. He and I just bonded very quickly. I stayed calm and he stayed calm.”
Karen’s mother started the whole bonding with Hackneys theme at Bent Tree in 1978 when, in her sixties, she bought a Hackney pony. Within weeks she had learned to drive the pony and was competing in horse shows. From that point on, Bent Tree Farm was hooked on Hackneys.
Hackneys vary in solid color from light tan to black. Waldron calls them Type-A personalities, animated and mischievous, with the kind of bright eyes you sometimes see on old merry-go-round ponies. Hackneys hold their heads high and move their legs with an extremely high-stepping circular motion characteristic of the breed, a very showy performance animal whether under saddle or driving. Hackneys were the basic driving machine in American and British cities in years before the automobile. They are amiable family companions and love to be groomed.
“There are many ways to get Hackneys and Friesians at reasonable prices,” Karen Waldron explained. “But before you jump into that, make sure you have somebody that you can turn that animal over to for training, especially while you are learning the ins and outs of whatever discipline, whether you want it to be just a pleasure-riding and driving pony or, if you want to show, at what level. I advise people to be really aware of what their goals are before they go and spend the money on some animal.”
Hackney ponies may be found for as little as $1,000 at an auction but expect to pay from $5,000 to $30,000 for private sales. Friesian prices range from $10,000 to $50,000. Given that equivalent horses of other breeds like Saddlebreds can easily be priced in six figures, Karen feels that these breeds can be purchased with good value. Entry fees for horse shows run from $20 for regional or state up to $1,000 for the World’s Grand Championship classes. Stalls range from $50 to $125 for the period of the show. Anyone employed on the horse owner’s behalf, trainers, grooms, horse-haulers, etc., also costs money.
It’s too bad, Karen laments, that all kids cannot grow up on horse farms. Horse knowledge can be hard to obtain. She sees the children of horse trainers halter foals before the professionals do. Otherwise, you must plan your horse education. Learn to ride horses before buying one. Learn from professionals whenever possible. “Working around large animals,” the horsewoman said, “half of it is common sense and half of it is listening and paying attention to those of us who have already made the same stupid mistakes, been kicked, been bit.” She continues her horse education to this day. Different trainers have worked at Bent Tree, including a Friesian specialist from South Africa and Friesian horse folk from Holland have visited the farm to share knowledge.
Waldron loves the “balance” of two breeds of horse. The Hackneys are lively, fun, the life of the party, while the Friesians are gentle souls that move with surprising athleticism given their size and strength.
Falling in love with a horse takes the same risks that all love does, the possibility of loss. Karen related the death of a special Friesian horse named Earl. The leader of a four-horse team, Earl suddenly fell ill and died unexpectedly. “I’m just sitting there in a state of shock because this truly, as far as horses go, was the love of my life, a horse that would go through hell and back for me.
“In my barn all the stalls have bars that open to each other. They touch and talk and know each other. I sat down and verbally told the boys what had happened.” One Friesian had tears streaming down its face and Earl’s closest horse buddy and partner is just now recovering emotionally two years later.
“They are such a tight-knit group,” Waldron said of her Friesians. “They love and respect each other. It sounds weird to say that animals feel that way about each other, but anybody that works here will tell you that Friesians are like nothing else they’ve ever been around.”
Waldron loves nothing more than driving a team of Friesians on a relaxing ride through the farm, away from their four stables, through horse pastures and hayfields, with the horses “into their rhythm.” Like a scene from a movie.
Article by Tina Wright
Photos courtesy of Bent Tree Farm
Bent Tree Farm: www.benttreefarm.net
The American Hackney Horse Society: www.hackneysociety.com
Friesian Horse Association of America: www.fhana.com