Every show jumper has a different way of warming up for a horse show, but how many like to go for a gallop the day before a big class?
That’s exactly what Melissa Woodson’s off-the-track Thoroughbred Spring Heeled Jack needs, and that’s what he got the day before he competed in the NAL Low Junior/Amateur-Owner Jumper Final at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show in Harrisburg, Pa., on Oct. 18.
“If he can gallop a little bit before shows, he really enjoys that,” said Woodson’s trainer, Mary Babick. “Then he comes to the ring ready to think about what he’s doing. You can’t force him.”
Woodson and “Frankie” had a single rail down in the final, making them the second fastest four-faulters to land in 10th place, but Woodson didn’t come to this year’s indoor season brimming with confidence.
A bad ride at the Devon Fall Classic (Pa.) a few weeks earlier shook both Woodson and Frankie’s confidence, so Woodson was happy to have a positive ride in the final, even if she took the blame for the rail.
“I’m certainly disappointed about the mistake I made that caused him to have a rail,” said Woodson. “I want my horse to be successful. I love his story and I believe in him so much and it would have been an absolute blast to jump-off.”
That story started for Woodson in June 2009 when she purchased the now-12-year-old gelding (Our Emblem—Bafooz, Clever Trick) after Babick had found him at Frank and Mary Chapot’s farm.
He’d steeplechased under the name Ten Pound Bay until he was 5 and was started as a lower level hunter and jumper by Joy and Kayley Kloss before Babick brought him to her farm for a client to try.
When the client wasn’t interested, Babick offered him to Woodson.
At the time, Woodson had been working with Babick for about a year. She’d ridden as a child, but hadn’t shown much and was looking for a jumper.
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The first horse she owned as an adult was a chestnut Thoroughbred mare, so she was ready to take on the challenge that Frankie posed.
“He’s still a little wild,” Woodson said. “He tries very hard, but I would say he’s everything good and bad about the Thoroughbred all wrapped into one. He’s incredibly brave, he’s very smart with his legs, he has a huge heart, tremendous ability, but the bad side is that he doesn’t have great feet. We have a glue-on shoe specialist who [works on him.] He’s very hot and certainly not the ride for everybody. Every time he goes into the ring, he has a desire to win.”
As a fan of Thoroughbreds, Babick knew Frankie would be a great match for Woodson. “You have to look past the wildness in the beginning,” she said. “Walking back from the ring, especially if he’s had a clean round, he’s naughty. It’s better to ride back than it is to lead him back! He just always wanted to try and when he would jump, he would show the right shape in his jump. He loves the game.
“I think the best horse-rider combinations are like each other, and he and Melissa are really similar,” Babick continued. “They really attack the world—in a good way!— and have a good heart. In the beginning, I told her, ‘You’re going to have some tearful moments,’ because he used to do things like bounce through the one-stride or do one in the two.”
According to Woodson, Frankie’s show name is the perfect fit for the feisty gelding. The spring-heeled jack was a mythical creature from the Victorian era that was a sort of demon.
“It was very tall and skinny and had big red eyes and it was breathing fire and jumped out from behind corners and harassed people,” said Woodson with a laugh. “It caused absolute havoc. It would run up to 10-foot walls and jump from a standstill.”
Woodson laughed recalling her first show with Frankie. “Mary said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t fall off because we won’t be able to catch him.’ Of course, I didn’t know how fast he would turn left, and all of a sudden, I’m thinking left, he goes left, I’m hanging off the side, and I hear Mary scream, ‘Don’t fall off!’”
Woodson, 35, lives in Locust, N.J., and commutes to Manhattan for her job in finance. She tries to get out to the barn five days a week, but like many amateurs, struggles with job stress and riding.
She uses her 1 ½-hour commute to Babick’s Knightsbridge Farm in New Jersey to wind down before her lessons.
“I think the hard part is making the transition between hard, fast, everything-needs-to-be-done-a-day-ago, to coming to the barn and trying to then listen [to instruction,]” she said. “That commute home, I try to take the time to decompress and be in the right state of mind.
“[Mary] stays late at least three nights a week to teach me,” she continued. “Our lessons don’t start until 7:30 at night. I’m lucky that I have a trainer that’s willing to do that for me, because most wouldn’t. I think she really believes in Frankie and really believes in me.
“Once he figures out what you need from him, he’s a very fast study,” she said of Frankie. “He’s a smart horse and he’s willing to help you get out of any situation you find yourself in. I think that if there were more people out there willing to try a Thoroughbred, they would see that same desire to go in and do a job and win for you.
“Frankie and I have grown together and I think we’re certainly unlikely individuals to end up at a horse show like [the Pennsylvania National]. I didn’t come from the background of a lot of these riders, but under Mary’s care and instruction, we’re very fortunate that we found each other and that we could make it to this level. I think there are a lot of people that just didn’t believe in him.”
Woodson is actively searching for another Thoroughbred jumper, but admitted it’s hard to find a good one because when people find them, they want to keep them. She’d like to move up a level because Frankie has the scope, but she also wants to keep his schedule light.
“I love this game,” she said with a smile. “Going into the ring with Frankie is like going out for cocktails with my girlfriends. I know no matter what, I’m going to have a good time, but occasionally, I walk away from the experience saying, ‘Let’s pretend that never happened and let’s hope nobody saw!’ ”