In the end, Cadillac Jack went out the way many men wish they could — surrounded by adoring young women stroking his hair and feeding him gourmet treats.
Cadillac Jack was a hard-working chap who never complained about his many responsibilities (10 kids, all under the age of 12), erratic work schedule (three hours on some days, a half hour on others) or low wages (worked solely for food).
Chances are good that most of you never heard of Cadillac Jack. But almost all of you knew some incarnation of him.
Caddy was one of the unsung heroes of the equestrian world: a school horse, one who could be depended upon to go out and do his job even on days he was tired, a little stiff, or just plain didn’t feel like it.
There are no retirement farms that cater to school horses; no charitable foundations set up to support them in their golden years, or to rescue them from auctions or feedlots. Old school horses are routinely dumped at auctions across the country, from the Enumclaw Livestock Auction in Washington state to the weekly New Holland sale in Lancaster County, Pa., and sold at prices ranging from 15 cents per pound to $300 outright.
By school horse standards, Caddy lived a charmed life (his human counterpart might have been an amalgamation of Richard Branson and Hugh Hefner). A long-backed bay quarter horse gelding, Caddy spent his last years at Cedar Hill Farm in Moncure, just past Sanford on 15-501. But before that, he lived and worked at Stony Hill Stables in East Hampton, N.Y., carrying little girls with names like CeCe and Lily around hunter classes at prestigious shows like the Hampton Classic, the North Fork Classic and the Sagaponack Horse Show.
Mary Von Werne, the trainer and riding instructor at Cedar Hill, first met Caddy in 1998 when she was working at Stony Hill. “He was one of the hardest working lesson horses at the barn,” said Von Werne, 33. “He taught beginner hunters, equitation, dressage, even a couple of handicapped riders. One man had cerebral palsy and could barely walk, but he took lessons on Caddy twice a week and was able to trot on him.”
At Stony Hill, Caddy earned a reputation as a “point and shoot” horse who could safely pack his rider around a course. “He had a good long stride ... he jumped more like an equitation horse,” Von Werne said. “You could just point him at something, and he’d do the rest. He was really brave ... he never looked at the flowers on the jumps, and you never had to school him.”
In addition to being Stony Hill’s most valued baby-sitter, Caddy was also a standout in the dressage ring. Carol Lavell, a 1992 Olympic team bronze medalist in dressage, frequently held clinics at Stony Hill.
“He did second level with our barn owner,” Von Werne said. “Caddy more than held his own in those clinics. His dressage was almost nicer than his jumping.”
To paraphrase a line from “It’s A Wonderful Life,” strange, isn’t it, how each horse’s life touches so many other lives? And the impact they make is not soon forgotten.
Olympic event rider Bobby Costello remembers his first school horse, a skewbald pony named Sweetheart, with astonishing clarity.
“She was a great pony that taught dozens of kids the ropes,” Costello recalled. “She brought me from the walk-trot classes (at the Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, Mass.) to the small pony hunter division with success. She was quite fancy looking, but she was a bit lazy, so I learned from her to ride forward to the jumps right from the beginning.”
A 14.2 hand pony named Tiny Blair has the distinction of teaching two notable eventers how to ride: Jimmy Wofford, widely acknowledged as the godfather of three-day eventing, and Fred McCashin, a Southern Pines equine vet who competes as an amateur.
“That pony could jump all the fences at the U.S. training center (in New Jersey),” said McCashin, whose father, Arthur, was captain of the show jumping team that captured bronze at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
Melanie Wyatt, who has taught scores of Moore County children to ride at Foxtrack Training Center, still has a soft spot for her first lesson horse, a 15-hand bay gelding named Heigh Ho.
“I was lucky to grow up near Pinehurst Stables,” Wyatt said. “Of course, I fell in love with this sweet natured little lesson horse that doubled as a carriage horse. I would wait until he got back from carriage rides and then take off his harness and ride him.”
Wyatt uses 12-15 horses in her lesson program at any given time, many of them in their early 20s. “I divide the year into four three-month blocks,” she said. “Each of my horses gets a new rider every one of those blocks, so basically they’re working with four different riders a year.”
The best school horses, says Wyatt, are those that can tolerate even the most timid, green rider. “My horses will politely stop if a rider loses their balance,” Wyatt said. “My horses will also stop if the rider is not in the correct position going to the jump. I’ll hear someone complain, ‘I can’t make my horse go!’ and I’ll say, ‘Aren’t you lucky?’”
When he was in his early 20s, Caddy was purchased by one of Von Werne’s students, Zara Beard, the daughter of renowned photographer Peter Beard, whose family owned 80 acres of prime real estate in Montauk. The evidence suggests that Caddy was, during his time with the Beards, spoiled rotten. “Zara totally pampered him,” Von Werne said, laughing. “He even got weekly massages.”
Von Werne moved to Moncure in 2003. The following year Zara was off to boarding school, and Caddy was shipped to Von Werne. The Beards boarded Caddy at Cedar Hill for a few months and eventually gave him to Von Werne to use in her lesson program. Caddy adapted quickly to his new surroundings and stepped right into the role of senior beginner school horse.
Last year, a bad foot abscess kept him in a stall for several weeks. He was never quite sound after that, so Von Werne retired him to a pasture at Cedar Hill, where he formed a close bond with Deegan, another retiree.
Earlier this year, Caddy had a stroke.
“He could still stand and move around, but he started leaning to one side,” Von Werne said. “He was pretty happy for about three months, but then he got to the point where he’d have to turn his haunches when he walked just to keep his balance.”
On May 28 — his last day — Caddy began receiving visitors in the morning. One by one, the young riders streamed in to give hugs and say their goodbyes to the 32-year-old gelding. Von Werne fed him countless carrots and horse cookies and even made him a special lunch. “Everyone here rode Caddy at some point,” Von Werne said. “All of my teenage students learned to jump on him.”
At 2:15 p.m., Von Werne and Cedar Hill proprietor Allison Feher walked Caddy slowly to his final resting place, where the vet was waiting. “I always said he’d go out with a carrot in his mouth,” Von Werne said, her eyes moistening.
And he did. More like this story