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May 31, 2005

A Very Young Rider Grows Up

It's hard to fathom the number of girls who've paged through the book A Very Young Rider, published in 1977, and dreamed of living the life of Vivi Malloy.

Even now, with the book out of print for many years, it's still a hot commodity on eBay and considered a classic horse book for children.

In the photographically rich book published by Alfred A. Knopf, written and photographed by Jill Krementz, the reader tags along with 10-year-old Vivi on her daily life on the A-rated horse show circuit as she trains, prepares and shows her medium pony, Ready Penny. Her coach, Jonathan Devine, a prot駩 of George Morris, and her older sister, Debby, who also rides out of Hunterdon, are integral parts of the story too.

I remember spending hours poring over the text and photos when I was a child. I'd just started showing at the rated shows in the children's hunter division and was mesmerized by Vivi's story. I'd heard of many places mentioned in the book, such as New York City's Madison Square Garden, the ASPCA Maclay Finals and the Devon Horse Show (Pa.), but until I picked up this book, I'd never seen them.

Three years later, when I went to the Garden for the first time, it looked so much like the photographs in the book.

So as the children of the '70s and '80s grew up, went to college, started careers and married, many may have stumbled across the book again at the library or even have saved it for their own children. Some have probably wondered, as I have, "What ever happened to Vivi Malloy?"

Well, at the close of the book, Vivi outgrows and sells "Penny" and receives a surprise pony for Christmas named Fresh Paint. She says on the last page, "I hope we'll have as many good times together as Penny and I did."

And, she did, with many more horses playing starring roles in her life too.

A Child's Life

I caught up with Vivi by telephone as she vacationed with her family in Barbados in late March. She's 39 now, married to an attorney named Rich Hanson, and lives in Chicago. Her two children, Owen, 31³2, and Julia, 21 months, chirped in the background as we spoke about her life after A Very Young Rider was published.

"It's been amazing," she said of the book. "There are still little girls who write to me about the book--just every once in awhile, but it's wonderful. The book still speaks to kids. I like that it's timeless."

Vivi was 9 when Krementz started the project. They met at a horse show, where Krementz was searching for the right child to star in the book. She wanted a young girl who cared for her own pony and found Vivi the perfect fit.

"I vaguely remember her taking photos of me at Boulder Brook [N.Y.] one day. She followed me back to the van and approached my mom then, and it went on from there. She came to our home and took lots of photos and really planted herself. That's her process. She gets into the whole routine and can write honestly and on a child's level," said Vivi.

Krementz interviewed Vivi regularly and photographed her at home, at shows, in hotels, and while schooling, showing, mucking stalls, holding Penny for the veterinarian and farrier, cleaning tack, and just about everything that goes along with caring for a pony.

"She was a true professional photographer and knew how to capture the nature of horses respectfully," said Vivi. "She knew where she needed to be."

Some have speculated over the years that the final few pages, where Vivi received Fresh Paint for Christmas, were fictionalized. But Vivi assured me that the story was absolutely true.

"It was the only part of the book that was recreated," she explained. "Jill didn't come over on Christmas morning. But I did wake up on Christmas and find a blanket at the foot of my bed and a new pony in the barn."

After the book was published, Vivi remembers it wasn't quite the same. "It felt strange to be the center of attention. I was serious and committed to riding, but I wasn't looking for people to pay attention to me. As a 10-year-old, I didn't understand the big deal. It was my life. I knew I was lucky to ride horses, but it was just my life. At the time I felt like, 'I'm not as good as so-and-so. Why me?'

"But as the years have gone by it's been gratifying. As I got older--and went off to college at a large university--I stopped riding and moved into another phase of my life. Then I understood why little girls responded. I've come to realize over the years how special it is. She chose me. She could have chosen someone else just as easily. It was just my story."

Vivi concluded her junior career aboard jumpers Reilly and Apple Core and concentrated on equitation, as her sister Debby had done. A highlight was third in the 1983 USET Medal Finals behind Karen McKelvy and Francesca Mazella.

She continued riding for pleasure during her college years while she focused on her education. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in art history. After a stint working in New York City in the publishing industry, Vivi returned to school and earned her master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago.

She then began working with children and families in a community mental-health setting, dealing with issues like developmental delays and family stress and trauma.

"It was very rewarding to help kids whose development was compromised, to help them through it," she said.

Through her social-work connections she became a volunteer at Equi-Therapy, in Morton Grove, Ill., where she began working part-time. After the program's director stepped down, she took over temporarily, until she became pregnant with Owen.

"That was the most amazing experience," she said. "It was a perfect marriage between my professional training and what I was bred to do, being with the horses. It just felt so natural. The idea of horses and therapeutic healing worked. I'm planning to get back into it in the future."

A Life Of Horses

Vivi's mother, Vivien Malloy, has become even more immersed in horses since her five children--Andrew, Debby, Kenneth, Mark and Vivi--have grown up. She and husband Harry now run Edition Farm, in Hyde Park, N.Y., where they breed andrace New York-bred Thoroughbreds.

"When all of the children left to get married or go to college, I inherited Vivi's equitation horse. I did the adult equitation and showed, but I had always wanted to breed horses," Vivien said.

So Vivien asked a friend to help her find a broodmare, and that single mare, in foal with a foal at her side, helped propel Vivien into a business that typically includes 22 to 24 horses, from foals to racing age. She runs horses from Florida to New York with several trainers and is on the board of directors for the New York Breeders Association.

"It's my passion, and I love it," she said. "I'm also involved in open-space and conservation associations, which goes with the riding, breeding and hunting--it all goes together."

Vivien's oldest daughter, Debby, 17 when the book was written, went on to continue her riding career and still competes on the European show jumping circuit.

She married legendary German show jumper Hans-G?Winkler, who won four Olympic team gold medals, one individual Olympic gold and two consecutive World Championships (1954 and '55) with the legendary mare Halla.

Now 46, Debby Winkler is campaigning several horses at the grand prix level. Earlier this year, her Sakrus HG placed sixth in the qualifier for the grand prix at the Spangenburg (Germany) CSI***, and she also rode two other horses--San Orcano and Sunrise 46--to ribbons in the 1.40-meter classes there.

Debby specializes in starting young horses and often markets them to riders and trainer in North America, including Peter Wylde and Ian Millar. "They trust her because she knows the American scene so well and grew up on the circuit," said Vivien. "She knows what they need. Debbie loves bringing up the horses. She shows just about every weekend, just like she did growing up."

One of Debby's special finds became a top junior jumper in the United States. Vivien recalled the story: "This man called Hans and said, 'I have this horse you need to see.' Hans sent Debby up to Northern Germany, where she tried the horse. She didn't like it that much. Then the man said, 'I have another mare. She's had a couple foals and is well bred, and I think she can jump.'

"Debby got on and said, 'This one can jump.' So she took them on trial," added Vivien. "Hans said to her, 'What? Did you bring me a pony?' She did everything with Debby but couldn't make the top grade because she was small. So she contacted Peter, and he loved her. And the rest is history."

Wylde sold Lapeti to Sarah Willeman, who swept the 2000 Winter Equestrian Festival junior jumper classics, won the WEF Young Rider Championship Final and went on to earn other accolades.

Mark, the brother who rode, is now a professor of technology studies at Appalachian State University (N.C.), where he specializes in art and photography. Kenneth is married with four children and lives in Rye, N.Y., where he works for the investment firm Smith Barney. Andrew lives in Westchester, N.Y., and is a financial specialist in venture capital.

Back Home Again

Trainer Jonathan Devine also has a featured role in A Very Young Rider. He was 22 when Krementz photographed the book.

In the book Vivi explains their relationship: "About once a week I have a lesson with Jonathan Devine. He works as an assistant for George Morris, who is Debby's trainer. George is really famous and all the best riders train with him? He doesn't train ponies, though, so I'll have to wait until I'm older and bigger before I can train with him. But I really like training with Jonathan because he's teaching me the same system George teaches Debby."

After the book was finished, Devine confessed to Morris he was burned out and really wanted to try his hand at acting. "Having been through the same thing, George completely understood," he recalled. "So off I went to New York City to pound the pavement."

Devine, who had changed his last name from Soresi during his early teenage years when his mother had remarried, returned to using Soresi and went to drama school in England to begin his acting career. "The agents felt Soresi was more marketable," he said. "I have dual citizenship, U.S. and Italian, so it made more sense."

After his stint in England, Soresi returned to California. He was cast in the first "Batman" film with Jack Nicholson, where he played a crooked cop. "I always seemed to be cast as the bad guy," said Soresi, laughing. "But in reality, I hope I'm a good guy!"

Through the years he worked in California, New York and London on stage, in films and on TV. And throughout the time he acted he also dabbled in horses.

"I always knew I'd play in the horse business," he said. "While I was in L.A. I did both. I had a small barn near the L.A. Equestrian Center, which is half-mile from Warner Brothers Studio. I had a lovely little A-show barn without the 'show' part."

For 14 years Soresi combined acting and horses, until gradually the horses took over. "In L.A. four horses turned into 12. One day I was called for an audition and I said I couldn't go. That's when I knew what I needed to do," he said.

He told me that was a difficult time in his life, when he was searching for his true passion. "I've always had a love-hate relationship with the horse business. What do you do when you have a talent in an arena but you hate the arena?" he asked.

One day during this tumultuous time, Soresi received some sage advice from his long-time friends, the Leone family. "Macella Leone and I were talking," he recalled. "She said, 'If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?' I thought, 'I'd have a little barn with a couple of scholarship students and a few horses.' It became crystal clear. It was an epiphany."

At that point Soresi realized that he had to make a choice. Acting and horses each required a 24/7 commitment, and to do one well would be the demise of the other.

So, he established his Soresi Show Stables and moved to New Jersey in 2004, where he opened his current business at the North Jersey Equestrian Center in Pompton Plains.

"In many respects my return to horses is to pass on to my students the wisdom so many others have given to me over the years," he said. "I love to teach."

Now that he's back on the East Coast, he plans to rekindle his relationship with the Malloys and hopes to keep in touch with those who were a part of the book. And looking back, Soresi sees how important the book was to his life.

"Shachine Belle walked up to me not long ago. She said, 'When I was kid I read this book every week.' People come up to me and say that all of the time. It really made me realize how important that book was to me at the time. Now, I give it to all my young riders because it's one thing that's inspiring--the book is about following your passion."

"I consider myself very blessed," added Soresi, now 49. "It's been a maturation process. I'll always be a horseman. But I'm grateful for the opportunity to leave, observe it, understand it, and come back. It took all this time to find out that this was home."

She Became A True Southern Belle

Ready Penny, 13.1-hand, chestnut Arabian-Welsh cross, was 12 years old when A Very Young Rider was published in 1977. Vivi Malloy had owned "Penny" for two years and competed in the medium pony hunter division on the A-rated circuit.

At the end of the book, Vivi outgrows Penny and a new rider named Muffy Pedersen comes out to try her. Vivi said in the book, "Afterwards we had a talk, and I told Muffy what Penny's feed is and the things she likes and doesn't like--such as how she loves to be scratched behind the ears. Penny will be perfect for her. They will give Penny lots of love and the best of care."

Then, in June 1978, the Nash family purchased Penny for their 6-year-old daughter Emily. Penny returned to the Malloys farm, where Emily boarded her for several years. With Emily, Penny showed lightly, but hoof and leg problems ultimately left her chronically lame, and in 1981 and '82 she was primarily confined to her stall.

In 1983, Eileen Beckman, a pony breeder in Bedford, Va., heard about Penny from her daughter, Laura, who was working in Connecticut at the time. She then received a call from a friend asking if she'd be interested in taking Penny for retirement.

Beckman remembered hesitating. Then, she recalled her friend said, "'You'll like her. She was in a book.' So, how could I say no?"

Penny arrived at Otteridge Farm with her leather halter reading Ready Penny, a blanket, the book and a letter from the Nash family.

In the letter, the Nashes wrote, "Here is Penny, who comes with our love, ready to be a Southern Belle."

The letter described Penny as a high-strung but sweet show pony with a heart of gold and a love for eating. "She has been our daughter Emily's constant companion and nursemaid for six years?. It always impressed me how she stopped dead in her tracks when my daughter fell off, which wasn't often."

The Nashes also noted that Penny was foaled in 1965, by the Arabian stallion Ahmeer, out of a Welsh mare named Sweet Sue. Earlier in her career she was named Rie Rita.

"Penny was really lame when she arrived," recalled Beckman. "But being turned out 24 hours a day was just what she needed."

With Beckman's care, it wasn't long before Penny was sound and happy again. Although she was never bred, Penny was used in Beckman's lesson program. She taught many young children how to ride, including Beckman's then 4-year-old granddaughter, Katie, who cantered for the first time aboard the mare.

"She was so trustworthy," said Beckman, who also loaned Penny to a therapeutic riding center for a few years.

Beckman had Penny euthanized in 1993 at age 28 due to the infirmities of old age. "She's buried here on the farm," said Beckman. "I think she had a happy life here. It was the first time in her life she had the freedom of the outdoors. Many a child learned to ride on her, and she was well loved here."
 
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