Against a stunning backdrop of purple foothills under a cornflower blue sky at the Coachella Desert Circuit, Marcy Connelly Wehde adjusted her tack, smoothed her show coat and studied the course. She was embarking on her first Big Eq Adult Medal with her new mount Woodpecker de Villars (2002 Wandango x Joue Fleur de Lys), also known as Woody.
For Marcy, age 39, Vice President of Operations for California Receivership Group, this was a sublime moment.
She started riding when she was 7 years old on a Shetland pony. She and her sister spent hours jumping over makeshift jumps in their yard in Carmel, Calif. Cut to her first show pony and much success in the pony hunters, the junior hunters and big eq/medal classes, as well as the jumper ring. After graduating college, establishing her career and getting married, tragedy struck. Her husband passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly in 2014. Horses got her through.
“Seven days a week, I’d wake up and go ride a gentle schoolmaster of a horse. It gave me a reason to get up in the morning, and for the few hours that I was at the barn, I got a break from my grief,” she said.
Unfortunately a few months after her husband’s death, she suffered another tragedy, a severely herniated disc. She could not walk, much less ride. Her brother had to carry her to the car and drive her to doctor appointments. Doctors and physical therapists helped, but after two years of continuing pain and not being able to ride, she found out about a program at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, Mass. They have a cutting edge program aptly named “back boot camp,” where they put patients through a rigorous program of back strengthening. They work with athletes from many different sports and teams including the Boston Celtics, the Boston Ballet, various Olympic athletes, as well as non-athletes who are just looking to get out of pain.
Marcy spent a month in Boston under the care of Dr. Rainville and physical therapist Lisa Childs, who assured her that they could get her back on a horse. She spent 5 days a week in the gym getting her strength back, and came up with a plan to phase back into riding. Within a month of finishing their program, she was back on a horse and almost completely pain-free. Within two months, an old acquaintance, rider Zazou Hoffman, told her about a horse that might be a good fit for her. That horse was Woody. Zazou (winner of the 2009 ASPCA Maclay National Equitation Medal Final) rides and is the Assistant Trainer at Meadowgrove Farm.
“I jumped my first ever grand prix class on Woody and I love him for all he taught me. He was in great condition but it was starting to feel more difficult for him to jump the grand prix classes, so when it came time for him to step down I thought he would really enjoy a new career with Marcy,” said Zazou. “It has been a great match and it makes me really happy to see Woody still out there winning!”
Zazou was competing Woody in the grand prix while owner Saree Kayne was taking a break to plan her wedding. Saree had competed Woody in Europe on a summer tour with Olympian Lauren Hough. At one point, the horse had been long listed for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
“Woody had a great purpose for myself and Zazou in the higher level jumpers and it’s great to see him still fit and happy at a lower level job. He really loves people and it’s wonderful he has such a strong relationship with Marcy,” said Saree.
When I asked what the salient issues were in transitioning Woody to the equitation, Marcy said “it is actually a much faster process than I imagined. He definitely tends to be on the lazy side, so I didn’t have to worry too much about him getting fired up. Still, he could get a little quick in the lines, and when the jumps got a little bigger he could get a little excited. He also has such a massive stride, which definitely took some getting used to on my part. I’ve had to work a lot on keeping him in a frame both on the flat and jumping.”
Would Woody think he was back in the jumper ring and speed around the courses? He had likely never been in a flat class—would he get excited in a ring with a bunch of other horses? According to Marcy, “although he was quiet and calm at home, he’s spent years competing in grand prix all over the world-we didn’t know if he’d get to a show and think he was supposed to win by going fast! We went with the intention of just seeing what happens and ended up champion in both the hunter and equitation divisions at a local show. Woody never batted an eye.”
Along with trainer Kathy Megla, they decided to take Woody to HITS Thermal Week 2, where they won second in the Dover Adult Medal. They tried and learned pretty quickly that he went much better in a standing martingale, and hated the twisted snaffle. He kept opening his mouth and trying to spit it out. With the pelhams, Marcy had more control, and finally found the perfect one—a happy-mouth jointed pelham. Then the braiding!
Another experiment! When they got to the show, they realized that Woody had probably never been braided before, and certainly not his tail. Would this bother him? Would he try to rub out his tail braid? Would it bother him enough to cause a reaction in the ring? Per Marcy, “as is Woody’s way, it didn’t phase him.”
When asked about the reaction of her fellow competitors, Marcy said, “Hmmm, to be honest I’m not sure. What I can say is that he fits right in with the equitation horses. He doesn’t look out of place, like he’s a jumper in the equitation ring. He looks more and more like a seasoned equitation horse. We had to do a pretty hard work-off in the Dover medal— cantering in a line and trotting out, counter cantering a fence off a tight turn, and immediately walking back to line. Woody was one of only two horses in the class to actually complete the work off.”
Under well known Olympic Medalist and Thermal horse show judge Michael Page, the adult competitors were asked to drop their stirrups in the flat portion of the equitation class. “He did not go easy on us and made us do both a sitting and posting trot without irons,” said Marcy. “Luckily I practice this a lot at home!”
To end the week with a a Champion ribbon and cooler was achieving a dream like no other.
“Most days I still can’t believe that Woody is actually mine! He is truly the horse of a lifetime. Riding has always been super important to me, but when you lose what you love and then get it back, you appreciate it even more,” said Marcy, continuing on to say that horses and riding have always been her “biggest joy and passion in life, and in a time of much sorrow, it reminded me what happiness felt like.”
About the author: with a background in filmmaking , fashion and contemporary art, Winter Hoffman brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. A life long horsewoman, she helped her daughter, Zazou Hoffman, navigate her way to a successful Junior career culminating in 1st place in the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show and second in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final with East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan.