Edward L. Woods, MD, has experienced plenty of exhilaration. He graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (New York), volunteered for the Navy in 1968 to fly combat missions in Vietnam, attended medical school when he came home, and performed thousands of lifesaving procedures during a 42-year career as a cardiothoracic surgeon.
Not wanting to rest on his laurels, the retired commander, 75, tackled a new challenge this winter: returning to the hunt field after more than five decades away. He and his wife, Brenda Wands, moved to Richmond, Virginia, in 2015 when she was offered a teaching position at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing. Woods split his time between Virginia and his surgical practice in Pennsylvania until his retirement last September.
After relocating full time to Richmond, he began boarding his 11-year-old off-track Thoroughbred, Derby, at Terry Adcock’s Oakdale Equestrian Center in nearby Powhatan. Adcock noticed his interest in riding out and invited him to join Deep Run Hunt Club (Virginia). Woods, who last foxhunted in the early 1960s, attended his first Deep Run meet aboard Derby just before Christmas.
“Honestly I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought that I would get to do this again in this life form!” he says. ”I thought I would go to my grave with those dreams of how exciting it was.”
How does hunting a former race horse compare to landing a jet on an aircraft carrier? “People would say, ‘Wow, flying jets in the Navy, that must have been the most exciting thing you’ve ever done,’ ” Woods says. “And I tell them, ‘No, actually, foxhunting is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done!’ It’s absolutely true. It was true then. It was true 50 years ago when I got my wings in the Navy. It’s true today.”
From A Percheron in Missouri To Trail Rides In Rock Creek Park
Woods grew up with adventurous equestrian blood in the family. “My great-grandfather was born in a covered wagon going to Missouri in 1840,” he says. “The biggest event to ever happen to Kirksville, Missouri, was when he imported a Percheron stallion from Belgium. It came on the train, and literally the whole town turned out. That Percheron stallion’s name was Nebuchadnezzar, like the king in the Bible, and it was famous in that area.”
Woods’ father’s position as a correspondent for the St. Louis Dispatch moved the family to the Washington, District of Columbia, area during the infamous McCarthy Senate hearings in 1954. Woods enjoyed riding livery horses along the bridle paths in Rock Creek Park.
As a history buff, he was thrilled to learn that President Theodore Roosevelt rode the same trails. “You know what he’d do?” Woods asks. “The way he would test a new diplomat from another country, to decide if he should trust him or not, he’d take them down to that bridle path, and he’d race him. If they couldn’t keep up, they weren’t any good, and he’d request a new diplomat!”
At 14, Woods secured a summer job as a Senate page, and that provided enough spending money to buy his own horse. “We were paid an ungodly amount of money to be basically messenger boys,” he says. “The rule in my family had been: If you made the money, you could spend it the way you wanted to. But my parents had no idea how much I was going to be paid as a page.
“So I got all this money, and I was having so much fun riding that I thought, ‘I’ll buy a horse,’ ” Woods continues. “I was too young to drive, but I knew a girl who could drive, so I called her up, and said, ‘Hey Sue, can you take me over to Meadowbrook Stables?’ and she said, ‘Sure, what for?’ and I said, ‘I want to buy a horse!’ She took me over, and I bought this horse, Geronimo, that was a Morgan–an actual cavalry horse that was owned by a retired general. He had used the horse, it was an Army horse.
“So I gave him my $250, and I went home for dinner,” Woods says. “It never occurred to me to tell my parents because they had always said it was my money; I could spend it how I wanted!”
In 1960, the suburban sprawl in eastern Maryland hadn’t yet arrived. The countryside beckoned to a teenager with a willing mount. “I could ride that horse from Gaithersburg, Maryland, at the farm where I kept it, to Frederick [Maryland, 25 miles away] to see a friend and back, and just go over fences,” Woods recalls. “It was absolutely magical. I didn’t even think about it. I’d just go there, eat lunch and ride home.”
While in high school, Woods joined Goshen Hunt (Maryland) and got his first taste of following hounds. “For a boy, it was absolutely heaven,” he says. “I spent every spare minute of my time on that horse. The thing is, I didn’t realize what a great horse he was at that time. I didn’t appreciate how sturdy he was–I rode him 50 miles a day! It was a wonderful experience.”
Woods also believes equestrian adventures kept him out of trouble as a high-energy youngster. “The Jesuit priests who taught me [at Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda, Maryland] were interested in Latin and Greek; I was interested in playing football and riding my horse!” he says. “I spent every spare minute that I wasn’t either playing football or working in the Senate riding this horse, and I swear to God, he absolutely kept me from being a delinquent. Every day was an adventure. One day he’d be a cowboy horse, the next day he would be a polo pony, the next day he’d be a foxhunter.”
Looking back now, Woods has a great appreciation for the freedom of his early life on horseback. “We didn’t know anything about riding in those days,” he says with a laugh. “When I started riding again after a 47-year break, they’d say, ‘You’re on the wrong diagonal.’ I had no idea what a diagonal was. ‘You’re on the wrong lead.’ I had no idea what a lead was. We just got on these horses and pointed them at fences and off we went!”
You’re Never Too Old To Ride Again
After graduating from high school, Woods enrolled in the Merchant Marine Academy and education, military service and a medical career kept him away from horses for several decades. “I graduated [from college] at the height of the Vietnam War, 1968, so I went to flight training in Pensacola [Florida] and basically I never went home,” he explains.
“I spent five years flying jets in the Navy during Vietnam, and then I went to medical school, and then I was a surgeon,” he continues. “And basically these activities consume your entire life.” A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia, Woods practiced at Bethesda Naval Hospital (Maryland), the Cleveland Clinic (Ohio) and the Geisinger Clinic (Pennsylvania) among other facilities.
His return to riding came a few years ago when he chose to reduce his workload and needed an activity to help adjust to the slower schedule. “Medicine consumes your life,” he says. “It’s really hard to go from 100 miles per hour, professionally, down to 40. I did all the aortic dissections and emergencies. My pager would go off, boom, the helicopter would arrive on the roof of the hospital, boom, down to the operating room, and I’d be off and running there for the next 24 hours. It’s not easy to walk away from that, for a lot of reasons.”
So when his young granddaughters encouraged him to take lessons with them, Woods found himself back in the saddle again. “Let me tell you, riding has made my life so enjoyable,” he says. “When you stop working at that speed, it’s very hard. Depression is quite real, and people [leaving a career like that] are prone to it.
“Teddy Roosevelt used the expression ‘black care’ to refer to this,” Woods adds. “He said, ‘Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,’ and that’s what the truth is. This horse has kept me moving and given me a focus that I never would have had without him and really helped me.”
Woods chose to board Derby, whose Jockey Club name is Belle’s Big Boy (Lasersport–Belle Lu, Signal Tap) at Oakdale after seeing the opportunities for riding out from the facility. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly like Montgomery County [Maryland] 60 years ago!’ We can ride all the way down to the James River.”
With 37 starts by age 5, Derby, now 11, is something of a veteran himself. Woods says that keeping him under control in the field is occasionally just as challenging as landing a jet. “We used to have a joke when I was flying. We’d say, ‘The goal is that the number of landings equals the number of takeoffs,’ ” Woods says. “And then if things didn’t go well, we’d say, ‘Any landing you walk away from is a good landing.’
“One big difference,” Woods continues, “is when you sit at the controls of one of those planes, like my A-4 Skyhawk, and you pull back on the power level, guess what happens? The plane slows down.
“I pull back on the reins of my horse—he may or may not slow down!” he continues with a laugh. “It’s not always predictable.”
Any equestrian can relate to that unpredictability. Woods spent hours watching YouTube tutorials and practicing plaits to braid Derby’s mane and look presentable for Deep Run’s formal New Year’s Day meet, only to have the gray gelding bolt down the road as Woods removed his bridle after the hunt. Unharmed, he was soon caught by a car follower.
Woods expected to be scolded, but instead he was regaled at the hunt breakfast by others’ tales of their own runaway experiences. “I have not felt camaraderie [like that] since I climbed out of my Navy A-4 Skyhawk for the last time 31 July 1973,” he posted later on Facebook. “I realize this is what has been missing in my life.”
The thrill of once again galloping across country with supportive friends makes all the challenges worthwhile. “It’s a dream,” Woods says. “The whole drama, the pageantry, being outside, the weather, the horses, the horn, the hounds. The whole drama of this tableau is just phenomenal.
“And you’re dealing with this live organism who is absolutely the most wonderful creature ever created,” he adds. “It’s as exciting as I told everybody it was, even when I was going Mach 1.5.”