Devon 2014. My stomach is in a knot and I feel like I’m going to cry while packing my trailer. Bows—check, garters—check, new saddle pad—check. I hit everything on my list.
“Don’t forget the pony, don’t forget your kid.” I have turned into a pony mom, but Devon 2014 Lead Line is so much more than the bows and lollipop, and not because it is our last year in lead line.
34 years ago, when I was around the age of my daughter now, I showed up in the driveway of Ray and Cheryle Francis and the future home of Offington Stables in Doylestown, Pa. The barn wasn’t even finished yet, but I was excited a riding stable was 2 miles down the road.
“Come back in a few weeks and we’ll be ready,” they told me. I’ve been coming back for 34 years.
That year, my dad took me out of school (not an easy task with a mother who is a teacher) to go to Devon on Breeding Day. I saw Ray in the ring. “Hi Mr. Francis!” I piped up and got a little wave from him in return.
I was hooked. So began my love affair with horses and the new definition of hero worship.
Ray and Cheryle taught me everything I know about horses, especially the babies. They have forgotten more than I’ll even remember. “Be firm,” followed quickly by “Be kind.” Cheryle taught my disorganized self the value in making lists for packing for away shows.
Ray found me my broodmare in 2006, who then gave me three beautiful foals. One foal went on to win the zone in Pennsylvania with me handling him. “We are very proud of you,” they told me. Let me give you sunglasses for how brightly I beamed.
Excluding the last two years when I had to relocate 600 miles away for work, I groomed for Offington during the hunter breeding season. Now I have to stay in touch through Facebook and texts with Cheryle, dying for updates. I loved the babies and I loved working for Ray and Cheryle. I’d take vacation days just to go to Kimberton. I’d sit in the truck on the way to Warrenton and interrogate Ray about his life in England before coming to America, question him on conformation and judging hunters and equitation. To him, idle conversation to break up the five-hour drive. Me, I absorbed every word.
In 2008, after telling him I was having a baby, I called after the delivery. “Don’t worry, everything went fine. I’ll be ready for baby season,” I said.
“OK. What color is she?” Ray asked.
“Um.. white? Caucasian….” I replied.
“OK. Very well then, talk to you soon,” Ray said.
I hung up a bit confused until the phone rang five minutes later. “Don’t EVER tell Raymond anything important! He thought you bred your mare again and had another foal!” laughed Cheryle.
I dreamed of leadline. In 2011 my daughter had a viral infection that crossed the blood-brain barrier making her unable to stand and walk so we had to wait until 2012 for Devon leadline with Ray, or “Mr. Francis,” as she calls him.
It was so special to me. All of my family and horse friends came out to see them, Magic Hill let us prep in their barn so my daughter wouldn’t have to walk all over the showgrounds. “Go away, mother hens,” we were told, Ray shooing us away. She got a sixth-place ribbon but I have pictures and memories burned into my head.
For leadline 2013, my daughter was on her own pony and on her game. “Where is Mr. Francis?” she requested. I was in charge of bows, braids and garters but all she wanted was him to tell her what to do.
A third place ribbon and more precious memories, and a kitten we captured at his barn, immediately dubbed “Mr. Francis” by Mini-Me.
Devon 2014 will be our last appearance in lead line. Maybe we’ll be back in a few years in the performance divisions. Ray will be walking her in for her last year. It’s all she’s talked about since Devon 2013. Hero worship. I guess she gets that from her mother.
Check back at the Chronicle's online coverage of Devon for a photo gallery of the leadline!