Capt. Lawrence Fox, MD, Ph.D., had a small window to accomplish a big goal.
His 70th birthday was at the end of October. His horse, Sgt. Peppermint, turned 30 this year. That meant they were eligible for The Dressage Foundation’s Century Club if they could complete a judged dressage test at a show.
However, there was a catch: Fox, a medical officer in the U.S. Public Health Services, wanted to do the test in uniform, and he was only allowed to don the rarely worn PHS Dress Blue Yankee if he was on active duty. He’s retiring from the PHS at the end of this year and continuing as a civilian contractor, so he had just two months to make it down centerline for the first time.
But Fox is no stranger to setting difficult goals.
For the last 30 years Fox has researched HIV. He’s currently the assistant chief of the HIV Research Branch, Division of AIDS, at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fox, who has degrees in British literature and microbiology in addition to his medical degree, started his work when the disease was still a poorly understood death sentence. People didn’t know how to stop it or how it spread. He remembers a colleague showing up in a biohazard suit to visit one pediatric patient at a time when even doctors were frightened of the disease.
In those early days, research progressed at warp speed, helping provide the treatment protocols we have today. Now, Fox said his focus has shifted to finding a cure for the disease, which is progressing at a much more normal [read: slow] pace for medical research.
“I expect to be doing this for another five years, assuming I’m healthy,” said Fox. “One of the consequences of that [busy early career] is I’ve gotten around to other things in my life later.”
That includes having children—his first was born when Fox was 40—and riding. He had some experience with horses as a child at summer camp, and it was something he remembered fondly. Fox was a single parent of three when he discovered the Columbia Horse Center near his home in Columbia, Maryland. He thought a weeklong summer program could be a good option for his daughter, Amy Fox, then 7. Amy came home exhausted at the end of her first days at the barn, but she was determined to return. Her father accompanied her to lessons and soon began riding himself.
“What was remarkable was the way she and I interacted when we were with horses,” Larry said. “It was no longer, ‘I’m the daddy and you’re the daughter.’ It was, ‘You’re a more advanced rider than I am, and I’d like to learn from you.’
“There were times when we’d arrange to have private lessons with just the two of us,” he continued. “I remember her friends in her class were amazed when they heard about this. There weren’t any other daddies riding, and also you’re taking lessons with your dad and enjoying it?”
Larry rode in lessons and on trail rides, but it was a physical commitment. Years of long-distance running had created osteoarthritis in his hips, which made mounting painful. He took a break from riding and underwent surgery to resurface both hips before getting back in the saddle about 10 years ago.
One day, Larry showed up with Amy for a trail ride and was paired with Peppermint. The gray Quarter Horse was a change of pace from the docile beginner horses Larry normally rode, but he found him a fascinating challenge.
“What I discovered was Peppermint liked to canter,” he said. “He would walk if you could keep it to a walk. He hated to trot, and he did not respond well to the aids I had learned to use at that point to get him to stop, which were not great.”
Larry learned the horse was an infrequently ridden, trail-ride-only option because of his lack of brakes, but he really wanted to try him in lessons.
“I begged and pleaded, and the instructor relented,” Larry said. “And she modified her lessons accordingly. She’d say, ‘Everybody halt; Larry and Peppermint go in small circles.’ ”
Amy had taken on a few horses who were sour or out of condition and made them into happy, healthy mounts, and Larry felt confident he could accomplish the same with Peppermint. He eventually brought the little gelding around, found brakes, and forged a trusting relationship with the longtime school horse.
Larry bought Peppermint (whose show name is Sgt. Peppermint to go with Larry’s rank of captain) in 2011 so he wouldn’t have to continue his job as a school horse, but not long after, he got a call at work that the gelding was down in the stall, colicking. Larry rushed him to the Marion duPont Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia, where he underwent surgery. Larry stayed by his side throughout his recovery, taking time off work and doing whatever he could to rehabilitate his friend.
“He was very, very happy to see me,” he said. “I’ll never forget how much he brightened up when I came to see him. I’d groom him every day and talked to the doctors.”
Larry moved Peppermint to Claire Lacey’s facility in Clarksville, Maryland, to recover. The gelding arrived during foal watch season, and Larry would find Lacey sleeping in a lawn chair, Peppermint on one side and the pregnant mare on the other.
They ended up staying, and Larry transitioned from his hunter/jumper basics to a dressage seat. Larry said Lacey has given him a crash course not only in dressage, but also horse management. It was Lacey who showed Larry Peppermint’s contracted heels, which he now believes may have contributed to the gelding’s unwillingness to trot. (They have since pulled his shoes and rehabilitated his feet.)
“I have come very much to her way of thinking, that the ideal beginning for a rider is to start with dressage,” he said.
After three years another bout of colic struck, followed by another surgery. During this round of hospital visits, Larry said Peppermint actually reached out and hugged him, putting his chin over Larry’s shoulder and pulling him close.
“He’s a reserved horse,” he said. “He’s not the kind that sticks his neck out of the stall and begs to have his head scratched.”
They made their way back to riding again, but then two years ago it was Larry’s turn to be the patient. He awoke one morning with a feeling of pressure in his chest.
“I would describe it as a lump in my chest, like a lump in your throat,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any other symptoms—rapid heartbeat, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea.”
After checking his own blood pressure, Larry determined there was a problem.
“I called the ambulance, fed the pets, called the kids and told them I was going to the hospital, and met the ambulance in front of my house,” he said. “I was whisked to the hospital in two minutes, where I called the office and told them to cancel my trip to Paris the next day for a medical conference.”
Diagnostics revealed damage from a heart attack, and the next morning he was in surgery. He had coronary artery disease involving all three vessels, and his bypass surgery required four grafts.
Cardiac bypass recovery is incredibly painful since the procedure requires surgeons to open the patient’s chest and then close it with wires, making breathing and coughing difficult. It’s common for patients to experience some form of post-traumatic stress or depression as a result, and Larry was no exception.
“I was cautioned by my surgeon, when I’m doing something jostling like trotting, I may feel the same pressure on my chest like I did when I had to cough,” he said. “For the next three months after that probably, I’d experience flashbacks.
“The solution seemed to be to simply live through it,” Larry continued. “You force yourself to do what you don’t think you can, and then you can, and you feel good about that.”
Peppermint was by his side the whole way.
“One of the great motivators for me to get out and do stuff was wanting to get back out to the barn,” he said. “I had to wait a few weeks to get cleared to use my arms, because of the nature of the surgical wound. I’d go to the barn and just hang out. ‘Have an apple, Pep, and we’ll dream about the days when we can do things together again.’ ”
Eight weeks after his hospital discharge, Larry was back in the saddle, and he’s been riding since. He and Amy, now 23, keep their three horses with Lacey and continue to train in dressage. In addition to the physical and mental therapy of riding Peppermint, weightlifting helped Larry get strong again. His son, Daniel Fox, is a personal trainer and Maryland powerlifting champion, and Larry lifts with Daniel and his wife, Krystal Fox, for about two hours several days per week.
With all these obstacles in the rearview mirror, Larry wasn’t going to let a little thing like never having shown before stop him from doing his first test in his dress blues. On Nov. 3, Larry and Peppermint headed down centerline in the maiden Intro A division, scoring 65 percent at Thornridge Manor Farm in Glen Arm, Maryland, in the Maryland Dressage Association’s last show of the season.
Larry said they received lots of comments from the judge about how happy and supple Peppermint was. And while it was his first dressage show, he doesn’t intend for it to be his last.
“We plan to continue training and likely return each year to test our progress,” he said. “This was a very, very special way to celebrate my 70th birthday.”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at email@example.com with their story.