War was brewing in Yugoslavia back in early 1991. I hopped on one of the last trains from Belgrade to London, then a plane to JFK in New York City, then next day down to Asheville, NC. A week later, the war broke out. They were knocking on doors, looking for men of military age, putting them in uniform, giving them rifles and sending them to the front. I was 25, I had a little backpack, and there was no going back.
I worked for two months in a summer camp outside of Hendersonville, NC as a camp counselor, teaching kids to ride horses and taking care of the animals. When the camp ended, together with several other counselors, I got into an old Toyota station wagon and drove all the way up to upstate New York. There we stayed a couple of days, cleaning and degreasing the kitchen of another camp owned by the same organization. That was a nice way to earn a little extra money. I needed it. My travelers checks were OK, but running thin. My regular bank checks were useless – with the war on, the bank transfers were blocked.
One of the camp counselors was a student at Brandeis University, just north of Boston. He took me there and gave me food and shelter in his room. He was one of several guys living in a huge fraternity house which in its past life used to be a funeral home. Apparently, the crematorium equipment in the basement was still operational.
I stayed there for a couple of weeks, then went up north to New Hampshire to visit an old childhood friend of mine. We used to ride horses together and now she was a professional horse trainer up there. We have not seen each other for ten years, so she put me on one of her horses to see how my riding improved since the last time she saw me on a horse. I spent about two weeks there, with her trying hard to switch me from European, deep-seat, controlling style of riding to the more free-flowing, fluid American style – something I needed if I was going to stay in the country and work at a horse farm somewhere – probably the only solution for a person whose visa was about to expire and render him an illegal alien.
She opened the latest issue of the Chronicle of the Horse, the professional weekly magazine, and turned to the job ads. She called up about a dozen numbers. She narrowed them to three: “Now you call!”. I did. One job was in Virginia, paid almost nothing, and the owner did not care about my riding – he needed someone to muck stalls. The second one was with Ian Millar up in Canada, but he was just getting ready to go down to the Florida circuit and had no time to deal with my paperwork, passports, visas, etc.
The third one was Shep Welles, down in North Carolina which was familiar place already. He interviewed me for two hours over the phone, asking everything about my riding history, physique, current administrative and financial situation, and more. He was interested, but he had two girls coming to interview next day, so he told me to call again after a couple of days, in case he did not like their riding. I was nervous. My still very stiff European riding could not possibly compare to locally produced riders.
I went back to Boston, waited a couple of days, and called Shep again. He did not like the way the two girls rode (ooops, he has high standards, nervous, nervous!), so he was interested in seeing me. Again, he interviewed me over the phone for two hours, touching on many of the same topics. I had 20 years of experience with horses by then, riding, training, grooming, teaching riding to kids, and working as finish-line judge and assistant handicapper at the Belgrade racecourse. But I was still not confident that my Balkans-style riding would be something he’d like.
Shep was going to give me a chance. If he did not like my riding, I could stay at his place and clean the stalls and he’d find me a job in the area. If he did like me, he would help me with the visa, documents, finances etc. I borrowed some money from my Boston friend and bought Greyhound tickets to Raleigh.
Actually, it was not that easy. This was 1991, no Google Maps, Facebook, iPhones or Twitter. I wrote down the name of the town the way I heard Shep say it. Then I opened an old print map of USA, found North Carolina, and started looking for “Rowley”. Ooops! No such place. But also no town whatsoever that starts with R except Raleigh. So I risked it – I bought a ticket to Raleigh. If that was a wrong spot, at least I’d be in the right state and they could come and get me.
My bus pulled into the Raleigh Greyhound station. An old, dirty, beat-up truck pulled up right next to the bus. Yup, right there, on the platform. Out came a wiry old lady, Shep’s mother, the owner of the barn. But why not? After all, Mrs.Welles was a Mordecai – she was Raleigh before there was Raleigh, she owned the place, she could park wherever she wanted!
I was standing there with my backpack and she looked straight at me: “You must be Bow-rah!”. Yup, it was me. How did she guess?
She threw my backpack on some bales of straw in the back of the truck and motioned me to get in the cabin. I did. Within a microsecond, three Jack Russell terriers were in my face, barking their heads off. “This is Winston, this is Russell, and this one is Jester and aren’t they such good boys!” They kept barking in my face for another ten miles of the ride, until we got to the barn.
Ten miles does not seem such a long drive, but it did for me then. There was never a moment Mrs.Welles ever looked at the road! Why should she? The old truck knew the way by itself! By the time we got to the house, I heard the history of the family, the history of Camp Triton and Triton Stables. We were greeted at the house by two more dogs – huge, ancient Mildred, and tiny, blind Henry. I was shown my room, deposited my backpack there, and looked at all the cobwebs in the rafters – the life is at the barn, after all, so why clean the house when it’s just for sleeping!
Off we went to the barn across the road from the house. Shep was teaching his class – the group of best riders at the stables – so I had to wait until he had time to put me on a horse for an interview. I sat on a bench and watched. I was deeply impressed. Lots of horses in a relatively small ring, yet horses seemed calm and relaxed and happy, jumping with ease and appetite. This was obviously a top-notch establishment.
When the class was over, and the riders untacked, washed and turned out their horses, one of the riders from that class approached me at the bench: “Hi, I am Catharine, you must be the new guy, may I sit here with you?” Of course, of course, why not…. A year or so later, she became my wife. Triton magic!
Shep put me on a wonderful horse, named Time (I think the show name was ‘Time Maker’), a tall, handsome chestnut who was so easy to ride I managed to remember my New Hampshire lessons and ride him pretty smoothly and fluidly, pretending I was an American rider.
The late afternoon is a hectic time at a barn. Horses need to be brought in and fed. I did not know the horses yet, or even where the grain was. But there was something I could do to help – teach a new kid her first ever riding lesson on a pony. Mrs. Welles handed me an old dappled-grey pony (Rosie), and a tiny little child (Heidi) and told me to teach her to post in trot. Which I did. After all, I used to teach riding before and felt comfortable doing it. By the end of the hour, Heidi was posting like a pro.
Apparently, Shep liked my riding. Also apparently, Mrs. Welles liked my teaching. Some years later I heard that the two of them had a somewhat tense discussion over dinner that night – who will get me! In the end, they decided on a Solomon’s solution: to split me up in half. I spent next eighteen months riding young horses in the mornings and teaching beginner riders in the afternoons and on Saturdays.
The very next weekend, there was a horse show at Triton Stables. Everyone came up to me to introduce themselves. “Where are you from?” “Rowley”, I said, in my best imitation of Southern drawl.
And in a sense, that was true. That was my home now.
On occasion, I’d go with Shep to a horse show as a groom. Not to small local shows where he took bunches of ponies – kids and parents went along for those – but to the big shows where he’d take a few young hunters he hoped to show well – and sell – and his old Grand Prix show-jumper Amadeus. We had great times together at such shows, and I did my best to be a good groom, take good care of horses, and make sure that Penny Lane, Tiki Toy, French Horn, Crusader and others were well warmed up for him. And this was serious stuff – I learned so much just watching Shep warm up!
But afternoons were different. Shep was the boss. Yes, we were friends, we had fun, and my riding improved more during those eighteen months than the entire twenty years before it, but he was still The Boss. On the other hand, Mrs.Welles became a new mother to me. I was a stranger in a strange land. Not sure what tomorrow brings, except that there is no going home to the country that soon became seven countries over a decade of bloody wars.
She was a tough lady. Whenever I hear the phrase “tough as nails” I think of Mrs. Welles – she is the epitome of that saying.
But she also had endless love, for all of her family, all of her students, her horses, her dogs and her cats. With six grown kids, what’s a big deal about adding another one? One more or less, doesn’t matter, there was plenty of heart for all of us.
I got away with some things others could not. As a night owl, it was hard for me to get up in the morning. So I’d wake up at the last moment, run down to the barn to help bring in the horses from the paddocks, feed them, clean the stalls if Alvin and Albert had a day off, put the hay out in the fields. But then I’d run back up to the house for…breakfast break! Instead of working! But I needed my calories! I had my big bowl of cocoa puffs, cocoa crispies and coco pebbles (yes, all mixed in) with chocolate milk, perhaps also some toast and jam, I gulped that all fast and ran back down to the barn to ride. I needed the energy to work all day, walking miles taking horses in and out of the fields, riding several young spirited horses every morning and teaching (which means “running after the ponies non-stop”) two or three classes every afternoon. I actually gained weight! Mrs. Welles liked that – she wanted to see me put on some muscle on this skinny body!
I must have been doing something right. I started by teaching one afternoon class with five ponies: Peppy, Flopsie, Blue Eyes, Bella and Rosie. Within months, I was teaching two or even three classes every day, with a dozen horses in each, pulling the summer-camp ponies out of the fields and putting them to work every single day. Apparently, the kids liked it and kept coming back for more and more lessons. Soon we had to split the pre-short-stirrup show class into two, then three, then four divisions – A, B, C and D. Soon after, my students and Mrs.Welles’ students started battling for ribbons in the D class. Sometimes we fought over students – I wanted to keep my best for “just one more horse show” while she wanted to promote them to her more advanced classes. She even let me take one of my students to short-stirrup division before letting her move up to her classes.
And we talked. We talked so much. About horses. And dogs. And kids we taught. And my old life in former Yugoslavia. And the history of her family. And her pride in successes of her other son Jeffrey on the international circuit. And why I was so good with crazy fillies like Penny Lane, Dream Girl, Pharlap and especially the super-sensitive Con Tiki – the last ever horse she herself broke in, and probably my most favorite horse I rode there. And about my new love for Catharine. And so much more. And we laughed. We laughed a lot. And I felt at home.
I can’t believe it all lasted just eighteen months! Catharine and I got married. I was given a green card. Catharine sold her horse (Double Helix, but she called him Watson) so we could buy a car – a stick-shift Volvo station wagon in which I got my drivers license. The first winter, Catharine moved into my room at the Welles house, and we spent a couple of months battling an outbreak of strangles for many hours every day, from dawn late into the dark, trying to help all the poor horses feel better and get well. The second winter, we moved out to Catharine’s place across the street from NCSU. In the end, I quit and had a couple of boring manual jobs for a few months until I started graduate school at NCSU.
But I kept coming back for many years, judging the pre-short-stirrup classes at Triton shows, thus getting to see Mrs.Welles at least a few times a year. My own Jack Russell terrier, Gru (short for Grushenka – the lady of the night from Dostoyevsky novels), ended up living at Triton so I had to visit her every now and then. Our friend Betty Trustman bought a big thoroughbred, Quartermane, so I went to Triton to ride him on Sundays, to get his energy out so he does not buck her off on Mondays. That was about fifteen years ago – the last time I was on a horse.
As we moved farther away and my life got busier, and as Mrs.Welles gradually stopped teaching and got older and began to feel her age, we lost touch. Thanks to Facebook, I reconnected with several other people from Triton, so I could be informed about comings and goings there. So I knew when the barn moved out to Durham county. And I knew when various other things happened.
Several years ago, Mrs. Welles needed a hip replacement. Catharine and I went to visit her at the hospital right after the surgery. Barely out of anesthesia, Mrs.Welles pulled herself up with her own arms, lifted and moved herself from the trolley to the bed. The nurse kept coming and looking at the monitors, apparently not very happy. Catharine, a nurse herself, asked what was the worry. This is where we had to explain that the pulse will never go up as high as expected – Mrs.Welles, after all, was a top athlete in top form, even when she was in her 70s. She had an athlete’s heart.
A couple of months ago, we heard that Mrs.Welles had another stroke and was again in a hospital and not in a nursing home. We went to visit her. She could not speak. It took her a long time and lots of talking to recognize Catharine, and even longer to recognize me. She was squeezing a plush toy piebald pony – looking just like Marco Polo, or Oreo – with her right hand. Suddenly, she pulled herself up, and grabbed my hand. She pinched my hand so hard I thought she’d break my fingers. Decades of working with horses made her so strong that even this close to the end of her life she could still grip harder than I could. Tough as nails to the end…