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March 25, 2011

The Doctor Of Confidence Has The Right Prescription For The Show Ring

Woody Wade, aka The Doctor of Confidence, aka True Lies, provided Jody Jaffe with the courage to return to jumping in the show ring. Photo by Action Shots Photography.

There’s a hero in my story, and he’s a tall, redheaded gentleman with a missing front tooth. He’s a loud, slurpy eater, and that’s the only negative thing you will hear me say about him, assuming you think loud, slurpy eating is a bad thing. I don’t, at least when it pertains to this fellow and not my children.

He’s kind and generous. He knows when to listen to me and when to tune me out. Most of all, he’s patient and ridiculously tolerant of my mishegoss—what my peeps call craziness or senseless behavior.

This is starting to sound like a job description for the perfect husband, which for the record, I have. If you’ll recall, he was dubbed “The Saint” by the hospital staff attending to me after my horse launched me head-first into the ground last summer, knocking out my short-term memory. I kept asking the same question over and over; The Saint kept answering it, over and over.

But now there’s another man in my life whose mission, it seems, is to keep me safe and happy. Am I the luckiest woman on the planet or what?

I have Laura Lippman, the renowned mystery author, to thank for The Saint. She fixed us up on a blind date 13 years ago. For the second most wonderful man in my life, I have Peter Foley and Diane Wade to thank. They lent me this wonder horse who convinced me I could jump again.

His name is Woody Wade, and I call him The Doctor of Confidence.

“Everyone in Zone 3 will know who you’re talking about,” said owner, Diane Wade, 43, associate director and CFO of the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Woody, aka True Lies, took Diane from a self-proclaimed nervous beginner show rider to competing and winning in the amateur-owner hunter division at the top shows on the East Coast. She even competed against the pros in the green conformation division at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show.

“When they announced the riders on deck it was Louise Serio, Kelly Farmer, Holly Hays………..and Diane Wade,” recalled Diane’s trainer Peter Foley, a well-known hunter trainer, who co-owns Woodhall Farm in Aldie, Va., with Dale Crittenberger. “We like to kid her that it was all these famous hunter riders, and her.”

Barely Riding

It was Peter who offered up Woody to me. I’d just interviewed him for the column I was writing about how trainers can help riders restore confidence. Peter had been my trainer when I lived in the Washington D.C. area in the 80s and 90s.

He asked if I was showing. “Barely riding,” I told him. The clunk to my head—my second riding-related head injury in three years – had not just knocked out my short- term memory, but my confidence as well. Plus, even though I had six horses at the time (now it’s 10!), not one of them was suitable for a nervous rider.

“You should come take Woody,” he told me. “He’d be great for you.” Peter, like Woody and my husband, knows all about my mishegoss, when it comes to riding. I think he had a full head of hair when he started training me. If Peter thought I could ride this horse, that was good enough for me. He told me they put everyone on Woody, from the lady who’s in her “early 100s” to the relatives who’ve never been on a horse. Woody gives everyone confidence, Peter assured me, citing the horse’s history with Diane.

“She did her first 3’ course of her life on Woody; her first 3’6” course of her life on Woody; and her first indoors of her life on Woody,” Peter said.

Then there’s the story about the Middleburg Classic Horse Show and how Diane cried her way around the Great Meadows outside course.

“We had a terrible fall in the VHSA Adult Medal,” Diane told me. “Woody tripped, and to this day Peter doesn’t know how it happened. But Peter and Dale wanted me to finish up the day in the adults and said I had to do the outside course. Peter told me to get in two-point and say ‘I love you Woody Wade’ for five minutes. I cried the entire course, and I’ll be damned if that horse didn’t win the overall stakes class out of two sections of 35 each. He had NO help from me. I’m not sure I even told him what jumps to jump. He just knew.”

Kind of like he just knew to keep cantering at the Thoroughbred Celebration show in March when I returned to the show ring, jumping courses. The last time I’d tried that was more than 15 years ago, and it hadn’t gone nearly as well. At all.

“Jody, just jump the damned fence,” the judge, Joey Darby, called down from the judge’s stand as I tried for the third time to get my mare through the in-and-out. This was especially embarrassing because I’d trained with Joey on occasion years back when I lived in Charlotte, N.C. And it could be argued that I’d taught this mare how to refuse by circling in front of the jumps when I couldn’t see a distance. (Again, one of the contributing factors to Peter’s shiny head.) All in all, a disaster.

I didn’t purposely quit jumping and showing as a result. Life got in the way. Raising two rambunctious boys; writing five novels; surviving a difficult divorce, a green horse, an injured horse, an injured rider. You get the picture. They all added up to me not having the time, money, horse and/or confidence to get back in the hunter ring, jumping fences.

Until the Doctor of Confidence showed up.

Woody Wade is an 18-year old, 16.3 chestnut Thoroughbred gelding who bears a striking resemblance to Secretariat in both looks and heart. He’s so "been-there, done-that, hang-on sweetheart, we’re going" that the announcer at the Thoroughbred Celebration Show renamed him “Steady Eddie” as we cantered around the courses.

Like Riding A Metronome

You know how trainers are always trying to convince riders that it’s not about the right spot, but the right pace? That if you develop a steady, rhythmic canter, the spot will be there? Woody is the living embodiment of this phenomenon. I’ve never had a horse who made this clearer to me. Even the late, great Brenda Starr—the star of my equine mystery series—was known to suck back before a fence a time or two. Or I was fiddling with my reins too much. Either way, it disrupted the pace, and we’d occasionally chip or fly. 

Woody is like riding a metronome, which does, to my surprise and delight, make the distances work out. Since my voodoo session with the Arizona medicine man, nerves haven’t seized control of the reins. That might be one of the reasons my current trainer, Gordon Reistrup, still has a full head of hair (though it is a bit grayer since I arrived in his life.) Still, there have been some times jumping Woody when I’ve shifted, half-halted or leaned forward in anticipation—those were things that would disrupt the pace of my previous horses. Woody, thankfully, ignores me and keeps cantering in his Steady Eddie-ness, delivering us to the appropriate take-off spot. Plus, he’s not one to refuse a jump, according to Peter and Diane. If that isn’t the definition of a confidence builder, nothing is.

“Woody completely changed my riding life,” said Laurie Bain, a 47-year-old personal assistant from the Middleburg, Va., area, who leased him for three years. “I was told he would take you over a fence even if you’re going backwards. I got him to a fence every way you could possibly imagine, and he would go. One time I landed on his neck, and I swear he caught me with it. I was heading toward the ground. He just stopped and put his neck out to catch me. He is an amazing horse.”

Diane bought Woody as a baby-green 5-year-old from Maryland hunter trainer Ralph Johnston, who’d bought him as a yearling. “Ralph asked his breeder what his canter was like,” recalled Diane. The breeder thought about it for a moment, then said, “I don’t know. We’ve never seen him canter.”

“There were five or seven kids around, and I mean little kids, 2 and 3 years old. They were all brushing Woody’s legs. He had a kid on each leg, and he did not move,” Diane said. “He was very sweet.”

Understatement. To say this horse is laid-back, is like saying warmbloods are getting to be popular in the hunter divisions. Woody is unflappable. “When we took him to Washington, we rode him down F street in a halter and lead shank,” Diane said.

A Representative For His Breed

Which also makes him the perfect ambassador for Thoroughbreds, who’ve been painted with too broad a brush as flighty and difficult to ride. Yes, they can be hot. But they can also be like Woody and Brenda Starr, my Sir Thomson Thoroughbred, who was equally quiet and unflappable.

There was a small irony in making my horse show re-debut at the Virginia Horse Center’s Thoroughbred Celebration show. Its mission is to provide a show venue for Thoroughbreds, who’ve all but been tossed by the wayside for European warmbloods. More than 30,000 Thoroughbreds are slaughtered each year, according to one of the Celebration show founders Anne Russek. Perhaps partly because they’re not as popular in the show rings anymore.

So this show was about rescuing horses, when in fact the real rescue in our case, was mine. We competed in the 2’3” division, but to me it was as monumental as if I’d been riding a grand prix jumper course. I never thought I’d be back in the show ring, jumping. But that was before The Doctor of Confidence arrived.

“I want a Woody in every color and size,” said my trainer Gordon Reistrup. “Where have you been all our lives, Woody Wade?”

Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.