Throwback Thursday: Catering To Mind Games' Quirks Was The Key To His Success

Nov 2, 2017 - 9:20 AM

His mother was blind, so for as long as Mind Games was at her side, he wore a bell around his neck so that she would know where he was at all times. Whether or not wearing the bell contributed to his insecurities and quirks no one really knows, but it is suspected.

Luckily for the seal brown Thoroughbred gelding, for almost all of his life, he was in the hands of great horsemen that knew how talented he was and learned to deal with his idiosyncrasies. They adapted to him and didn’t try to get him to adapt to their “program.” The name Mind Games suited him perfectly.

Tommy Serio showing Mind Games at the Keswick Horse Show in 1987. Photo by Buck

Bred near Richmond, Va., by Kathy Browning, Mind Games, born in 1978, was by Richard S. Reynolds’ imported English Thoroughbred stallion Bettered, out of a Thoroughbred show mare named Miss Jackie that had come from Neely Blair (she was also the dam of Gary Kunsman’s Miss Libby and Arbitrage that belonged to Wilson Dennehy). Mind Games was bred to show, so he was not registered with the Jockey Club.

Debra Hoffman, also of the Richmond area, bought the big brown colt as a yearling. She nicknamed him “Junior” because of his size. Junior was the barn name that stuck with Mind Games throughout his show career. With Jan Simpson doing the groundwork, Hoffman broke Junior as a 2-year-old, but because of his big size (by now he was 16.2), he was uncoordinated and couldn’t really figure out how to canter well. He was turned out in a field for another year. At 3, the same problem and the same solution—out in the field for another year. Same thing at 4. Finally, by the time he was 5, he was used to his own size and could advance in his training.

As a 6-year-old, it was time for Junior’s first horse show. By then, Hoffman had figured out some of the tricks for keeping him happy—mind games, if you will. There his show name was born. Hoffman showed him at his first show—a small schooling show near Richmond. In the pouring rain, Mind Games marched around the course with his ears up and won the class. After that, Hoffman got Eric Dierks to show him at some local shows. Kitty Beveridge (now Barker) then took over and showed him in one pre-green division, and then they went right into the first year green division the same year.

After Florida, when Mind Games was a second year horse, Barker became pregnant and stopped riding. Hoffman then made a decision that was the best for her horse—she got Tommy Serio to show Junior. Serio had been around great horsemen all of his life and learned from each of them. He had an uncanny ability to figure a horse out and a soft, easy, accurate way with each of them. Serio was the perfect rider for Mind Games.

Tommy Serio and Mind Games at Commonwealth Park (Va.) in 1985. Photo by Naimark

Some people might call Mind Games’ little idiosyncrasies “quirks,” but Serio called them “insecurities.” Quickly, Serio figured out how to deal with each of them. They never cantered a jump in the schooling ring and were known to trot a vertical as high as 4’6” with ease. After warming up, Serio would get off at the ring, adjust the saddle, and let Junior just stand and relax before going in the ring. He rode him in a double-twisted snaffle with no martingale. Serio said he just looped the reins and Mind Games would canter around the course and jump “impeccable” over every jump. It was a match made in heaven.

Serio didn’t start showing Mind Games until Upperville of his second year season, but the next year, 1985, they started in May at Keswick (Va.) in the regular working hunters, where they were champion. They showed at more shows that year in both the regular working and conformation divisions and were champion at many of the biggest shows, including Devon (Pa.), Upperville, and the Pennsylvania National. Mind Games was conformation champion at the Pennsylvania National and regular working reserve champion at Washington International (Md.), where he also won the hunter classic.

Tommy Serio and Mind Games at the 1985 National Horse Show.

 

By the end of 1985, Mind Games was American Horse Show Association Horse Of The Year in the regular working hunters and reserve Horse Of The Year in the regular conformation hunters. Mind Games was hurt early in 1986 so he sat out much of the year from showing.

Having shown for many years with much success, it was riding Mind Games that Serio said “broke the ice” and got him known widely as the great horseman and rider that he is. When Charlie Weaver left the riding position at Cismont Manor Farm in the fall of 1986, it was Serio who Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler hired to take over the reins of their successful stable of show hunters, including Two For One, Missouri, Super Flash, and many others. Mind Games, still owned by Hoffman, joined the Cismont Manor string for 1987 and won his fair share. 

Mind Games with Tommy Serio at the 1987 Keswick Horse Show.

In the fall of 1987, trainer Bill Schaub was looking for a horse to move his student, Courtney Kennedy, off of her large pony Chardonnay, and it was Mind Games that he picked. Courtney’s sister, Ashley, had won about all there was to win for the previous three years on her large junior horse, Lyrik, so soon after Courtney got Mind Games, the two sisters switched horses for the next year. It was Ashley’s last year as a junior in 1988. She showed Mind Games to much success, including large junior champion at Washington International (Courtney was reserve to Mind Games on Lyrik).

Like Serio, Schaub figured out ways to keep Mind Games happy. When he’d get nervous in his stall, they tied a bell on him. That must have brought back memories and security from the days when he was a foal at his mother’s side and he’d calm down. Schaub and the Kennedy girls did nothing in a hurry around Junior. Their trick to keep him calm at the ring and around the course was to wad up some grass and put it in his mouth with a tight noseband to hold it. He’d suck on the grass all around the course.

Courtney Kennedy riding Mind Games at Tampa (Fla.) in 1989.

By 1989, Courtney was showing Mind Games in the large junior division, as well as Lyrik. The two champion horses were best buddies and inseparable. Courtney learned right away that you couldn’t “make” Junior do anything. You had to ask nicely. He hated showing at night at Devon. Courtney said he went in the ring and just stood there until she left the ring. He also didn’t like big grass grand prix fields, so they avoided showing on them. Courtney said, “As long as we kept him relaxed and happy, he was just the greatest horse.” The highlight of their year together was at Pennsylvania National, where they won every over-fences class and ended up grand junior hunter champion.
After several happy years with Hoffman and Serio, then Schaub and the Kennedy girls, unfortunately Mind Games’ luck ran out. He was sold into a top stable that tried to make him conform to their routine. The horse that had won so much was now a shell of his past self—he was a nervous wreck. Finally, the owners sent Junior back to Serio.

Serio took his time and got Mind Games’ confidence and security back. After the pair proved themselves once again in the show ring in Florida, Junior was retired and given to Serio.

Mind Games lived out his life with the man that loved him so much at Springdale, the farm that Serio rented near Cismont Manor. One day, at the age of 26, Junior seemed a little colicky so Serio took him to the vet clinic. Serio said that he knew in his heart that was the last time he would see his old friend. Sure enough, later that night, the vets decided there was nothing more they could do for the grand ol’ horse and they called Serio with the recommendation to put him down. Serio sadly agreed.

Every horse is an individual. Some are easier than others. If not for Mind Games ending up in the hands of Debra Hoffman, Tommy Serio, Bill Schaub, and Ashley and Courtney Kennedy, he would have been just another great horse that slipped through the cracks. As it was, the sweet, insecure horse shone as one of the bright lights of the “hunters from the mid to late ‘80s.

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