By Judith Dunham
Even though I first started riding at age 10, I took many years away from the sport to pursue a career in television, and then to raise a family. At age 62, I decided it was time to yield to the horse crazy girl who still longed to have horses in her life, after all these years.
I started looking for a horse and discovered that I could not find one in my price range. I looked for six months and couldn’t find an affordable horse that wasn’t too old, too young, crippled, or crazy. I sought the guidance of a well-known hunter jumper professional from Ireland, who advised me to go over there and try some horses. The trouble was, he wasn’t specific and I knew nobody in the horse business over there.
I was browsing Facebook one night, as I had done many nights before, only this time I saw a horse for sale that made me stop and look, again and again. Although he wasn’t a typical warmblood or Thoroughbred, there was something about his presence that I was attracted to. That was in November, six years ago. I started communicating with the woman who owned him. Pretty soon she and I became Facebook friends. She sent me videos of him in the field with his buddies, as well as jumping and flatting at horse shows. Whenever I saw pictures of him, I just knew that there was something special about him. And it turned out he was in Northern Ireland.
The holidays came and went. Soon it was the end of January and the owner confided that she had taken him off the market for me but would have to put him back on if I didn’t come to see him soon. I arranged to go over to try him in the middle of February. I arrived and got settled into my B&B and awoke the next day, the day I was supposed to try Luke, to the most horrible weather. I’m not sure if they have hurricanes in Ireland, but this weather was akin to that. I got in the rental car, confronted once more with having to drive a stick shift car on the “other” side of the road, and broke down in tears. I second-guessed myself: Why did I come here all alone? How was I going to survive the pelting rain and terrible wind on a horse I didn’t know, in a world I was unfamiliar with? A voice inside my head told me that there was no way I was going to go home without trying this horse, so I summoned the courage and headed off to the owner’s “yard.”
When I got to the barn, Luke was waiting for me. My saddle, which I had brought with me, fit perfectly. I mounted and noticed that his entire mane and forelock had been hogged, or roached, as we refer to it. He also had leg “feathers”. All I knew of his breeding was that he was an Irish Maxi Show Cob; I had never heard of this type of horse before.
The British Show Horse Association offers the following description of the ideal Show Cob:
“Cobs are one of the most popular riding horses in the UK. They are hardy, versatile, able to turn their hoof to most things from dressage and eventing, to winning at the Horse of the Year Show, or to driving and hacking along roads and trails. The cob is not really a breed; technically, it’s a type. The cob should be well-mannered and ideal for nervous or elderly riders. Cobs should have sensible heads, a full, generous eye, shapely neck, well- muscled… and with a well-defined wither, low movement and a comfortable ride. It should be well mannered and a safe, balanced ride. It must be capable of carrying any member of the family on a good day’s hunting. A maxi cob is also a proper cob type, close to the ground with strong knees and hocks with a leg in each corner.”
“A show cob must have a mixture of substance and quality,” adds rider and judge Simon Reynolds. “They should have the head of a lady and the backside of a cook.”
Normally a Cob is 15.3 hands and under, whereas a Maxi Cob is over 15.3 hands. Luke stands at 16.1 hands.
After I got on Luke that day, I was informed by his owner that we would be hacking for about 2 miles before we would get to the outdoor ring where I would actually try him. As the owner, her best friend, and I trotted down a narrow country road, I noticed that it was now raining sideways. Suddenly a big, blue plastic tarp blew right by us, flapping in the wind and almost hitting Luke and me. It scared me, but Luke just kept trotting by, oblivious and unfazed. A few minutes later, we trotted past an enormous crane that was taking down a large tree on the side of the road. The two other horses spooked a bit but Luke just kept on going. If he was concerned about the crane he never made it known, and by the time we got to the ring that had its own share of scary challenges, I realized that I had never ridden a horse with so much character who made me feel so at ease, even under such remarkable weather challenges. His owner mentioned casually that he had started foxhunting at age 3 with The Galway Blazers and could easily jump the tall, wide hedges, the broad ditches, and the large stone walls with no trouble. But at this stage of my life I determined that Luke was destined for a different life as an older ladies’ horse.
I had a safe and fun ride in spite of the weather conditions…I was officially in love, and officially importing a horse, something I had never done before. Now the exciting part of getting him home was beginning! All Irish horses, by law, must be microchipped and have passports, and Luke’s were in order. His vetting included several necessary blood tests for international travel, which his knowledgeable vet knew all about. I had leg and back x-rays done, and he passed with flying colors. Luke was in impeccable health.
Next, I had to line up an equine transportation company. I chose Horse Flight, and they took incredible care of Luke all the way. At the time I imported Luke there were no equine flights leaving from Shannon Airport; he would have to leave from Belgium. This meant a lot of ground and sea travel before catching his flight to his new home.
For a set fee Horse Flight arranged to pick up Luke at his farm in Northern Ireland and he stayed overnight in Dublin the first night, then he crossed the Irish Sea and stayed on the coast of the English Channel the next night, then he crossed the English Channel into France and stayed in the Netherlands the third night, then he went on to Belgium where he stayed the fourth night, leaving the fifth night on an Iranian cargo jet for JFK Airport in the United States, where he spent three days in quarantine. Mares and stallions must quarantine longer than geldings. Once there, he underwent several blood tests before he was cleared to take one more ground transport to his new home in America. All in all, Luke spent eight days traveling and quarantining, but I was sent pictures and videos of him every day and evening showing him in transit or knee-deep in straw in huge, luxurious stalls where he laid over at night.
He came to Kristyn DeCaro’s beautiful Liberty Farm in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, in excellent shape and in perfect weight, and I could tell by his overall condition that he had been expertly cared for. Luke the Irish Maxi Cob arrived at Liberty Farm on St. Patrick’s Day.
I decorated the outside of his stall with shamrock garland of course. I still do it every St. Patrick’s Day. I realized when he arrived that there were things he just didn’t know about life as an American horse. He had never been mounted from a mounting block. He had never been on crossties, only ground tied. He had never experienced drying fans and had never been ridden in an indoor ring. And he had never been taught to carry himself properly.
I engaged Jessica Forliano to desensitize him and acclimate him to the nuances of how horses are trained here. She was patient and caring; he adapted easily and willingly. Then, Lisa Richter taught him how to jump like a show hunter, quiet and collected.
But I always felt that he could carry himself better, to be even more balanced and fine, and I engaged the skills of Wendy Garfinkel to teach him dressage. And so began his, and my, dressage career. Although Luke can do many things well, he really seems to have an affinity for life as a dressage horse. As an owner who just turned 68, I’ve had a few joint replacements, and dressage feels like the perfect form of riding for an aging adult. I have always told Luke that he can do dressage until he either doesn’t want to or doesn’t enjoy it anymore, and, to date he seems as though he is pleased with it. When he walks in the ring he has this presence, as if, like a true showman, he appreciates the attention and takes pleasure in performing. He should move to Third Level next season and he is learning some Fourth Level exercises as well.
This past April I suffered a traumatic brain injury, unrelated to riding, that caused a stroke. Suddenly my relationship with Luke changed. I couldn’t ride; at first, I could hardly walk or talk. After a few months my family took me to see Luke. He was so gentle and kind and patient with me, and I felt his welcoming demeanor. He became my motivation during rehab to get better so that I could ride him again.
Wendy continued to train Luke during my convalescence. The freestyle seems to be his favorite competition, and the music from his program this year was ”A Million Dreams” from “The Greatest Showman.” My husband took me to the Great American/USDF Regional Championships in Lexington, Virginia, and after his freestyle class, Luke saw me approaching from about 50 yards away. Wendy said that he recognized me immediately and seemed really happy and genuinely excited to see me. He was again very quiet and gentle with me. At regionals, Luke came in 6th place in the Second Level Freestyle, earning a spot at the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®.
Luke went on to compete at the US Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the end of his performance, he looked up and right at me as he exited the arena. He came in 9th place in the nation in the Second Level Freestyle at the 2021 US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® in Kentucky – as the only Irish Maxi Show Cob in the entire competition.
I had a DNA test done on Luke last year at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences because I wanted to gain some knowledge about Luke’s breeding. The testing involves sending in at least 30 strands of the horse’s mane including the root follicles. With his background largely unknown and Maxi Cob being just a type of horse, I was wondering what his breeding actually was. After almost three months, the results came back and I was so surprised by what they revealed: With not an ounce of draft in him, Luke is descended from the Fell Pony, a pony that lives to this day in the hills, or fells, or northern United Kingdom. Favorites of Queen Elizabeth, at 12.2 hands these ponies are known for their sure-footedness and kind disposition, and while not a pony of this stature, Luke is exactly a horse of this nature.
I never thought that a Facebook entry would lead me on a trail of discovery; of finding Luke, the amazing and perfect horse who is Once an Irishman, and of finding Wendy Garfinkel, who exposed me to a new world of dressage, a path that is opening new doors of learning at a time of my life when I thought they were beginning to close. And it took a very serious brain injury to take my relationship with Luke to a whole new level, where spoken words are not necessary and where a powerful connection can happen between a woman and a horse through their minds, and in their hearts.