Three top show jumping riders recall the holiday surprise ponies that started it all.
A pony at Christmas is the stuff of childhood dreams–whimsical, fanciful and just about the most magical gift that could come the way of a young horse lover. As Christmas morning draws near, many children are hoping that their big gift will be found peeking over a beribboned stall door rather than under a tree.
For some, that heartfelt wish will become a reality, and for a very few, the fulfillment of that cherished dream leads them to lives at the pinnacle of equestrian sports.
Here is the story of a few ponies who had just such a role in the lives of the young riders who woke up Christmas morning to find their most fervent wishes had become reality. The first pony in this group was also the littlest and fuzziest pony, and her appearance created a magical Christmas for one of the most successful show jumping riders in the world, Beezie Madden.
Madden (née Patton) remembers the surprise of her life one Christmas morning when she and her older brother Stuart woke up to find the family’s four-horse van backed into the driveway of their suburban Milwaukee home. When the ramp came down, the children were thrilled to find two ponies on the van. The ponies were small, gray and Welsh and were a mare and her daughter.
Madden, who was 5, got the filly and named her Flicka after My Friend Flicka. She and her brother played with the ponies that Christmas day, but she was in such disbelief that she had a pony of her own that she kept asking her parents when the ponies had to be returned.
Each pony came with a bridle, Madden recalled, but no saddle. She and her brother rode their ponies bareback and learned balance and patience. Flicka was the naughty one, while her brother’s pony, named Fudge, was angelic in comparison.
“My pony got herself under the fence and out of the paddock on a regular basis. We used to have to get her from the neighbor’s pretty regularly,” she said.
When she was growing up in Wisconsin, there were few showing opportunities for young children and ponies. So it would be awhile before little Beezie would reveal her talent. However, her first pony started her on her path toward two Olympic gold medals and scores of other huge wins.
“For sure my experience with this pony got me started and made me want to continue becoming a better rider,” she said.
A Special Relationship
The next Christmas pony found her way to Park Place Stables, a small lesson barn in Ocean Township, N.J., that has since succumbed to suburban development. But that Christmas morning, a little more than a quarter of a century ago, a young boy found himself going up the driveway with his parents to learn that a red bay mare he’d ridden in a few lessons with trainer Nadine Higgins was to be his.
Ray Texel, who is now based at Pine Hollow, Parkland, Fla., said his experiences with this pony set the foundation for his career. Texel won the American Horse Shows Association (now U.S. Equestrian Federation) Pony Finals National Championship in 1987 and followed that in 1989 by winning both the ASPCA Maclay Finals and the AHSA Medal Finals.
Now a professional grand prix rider, Texel still fondly remembers his first pony, whom he named Nantucket Lady. He describes her as ornery but not mean, and as their bond grew, the ornery behavior diminished.
“She got me off her back at least three times a day when I first got her. I was not dissuaded by all the bucks and falls because she was mine and I loved her, and so I just stayed at it and dealt with it,” he said. “I took care of her, groomed her, and she turned into the sweetest thing. Over the course of time, this pony and I became an ultra special combination. I could ride her with a halter and lead rope or get on her in the field with nothing at all.”
Learning to solve his riding problems through patience and kindness was a significant part of what “Nannie” taught him, Texel said.
When Texel started going to local shows, he quickly and easily garnered the points at area shows to be the New Jersey Professional Horsemen’s Association champion in the pleasure horse or pony division. By then, it was clear that his skill and ability had surpassed what Nantucket Lady could do in the show ring, and he moved on to fancier ponies.
While Texel has enjoyed all of the ponies and horses in his career, he never thought he would experience the special relationship he had with Nannie again in his life. So when he found a similar connection with a grand prix horse named Fleur, he was amazed and delighted.
“It’s rare in a rider’s lifetime to have two horses with such a special connection to a rider,” he said. “Fleur reminded me in some ways of Nantucket Lady. She was very sweet, yet very tough. Like Nannie, I was also able to get on Fleur and ride her around in just a halter and leadrope.”
It was almost a given that Wendy and Laura Chapot, as the daughters of Frank and Mary Chapot, would have ponies. After all, Frank and Mary represented the United States in Olympic competition: Mary twice and Frank six times. Yet, for Wendy and Laura, the Christmas they each received a pony was an unexpected thrill.
“I remember each of us unwrapping a halter from under the tree,” said Wendy. “Then, our parents said, ‘Let’s go out to the barn to try them on.’ We went out to the barn, and there was a big blue bow on a stall.”
For Wendy, the pony behind the stall door was Periwinkle, a medium chestnut mare. For Laura, it was a small, dapple gray Welsh gelding named Brighton Sunup.
Normally, Christmas is a day off at the Chapot’s Chado Farms in Neshanic Station, N.J. But on that Christmas, Wendy recalled, the two ponies were tacked up and taken for a ride by their delighted new owners.
Wendy and Laura remember Brighton Sunup as being both adorable and challenging. “He was a bratty young pony and very talented. I think I got bucked off as much as I stayed on,” Laura said.
When she showed Brighton Sunup, Laura said her flat classes posed a special challenge. “I think I got bucked off in all my under saddle classes. I didn’t mind all that much, though. I would just get back on and try again,” she said.
Despite all the bucking, Laura loved Brighton Sunup. “He had the cutest Welsh face, and I just adored him,” she said.
Apparently, the judges admired him too. “I did the Welsh division on him, and he was four-time Horse of the Year in Welsh Ponies,” she said.
Wendy also experienced show ring success on her Christmas pony. “She wasn’t the model winner and wasn’t the fanciest mover, but she was a great jumper,” Wendy recalled. “She didn’t need to school, and she didn’t need to work at finding the distances, but she did make you work to find them, which made her a great teacher.”
Wendy recalled one year at the Pennsylvania National, winning a second-placed ribbon in the regular working pony hunter class, which qualified her to ride in the winner’s stake class.
“I won that class, and it was a huge thrill for me and for my parents, who were extremely proud,” she said.
These days, Wendy goes by the last name of Nunn. She’s a successful business professional, married, and the mother of 18-month-old Frank. She continues to enjoy life in the amateur-owner jumper divisions where she carries on the Chapot family’s winning tradition.
Laura has followed in her parent’s footsteps and ridden many horses, including the legendary Gem Twist, to international titles.
Wendy said there’s no Christmas pony in little Frank’s immediate future, but down the road, if he shows an interest, that could change. Texel, who is the father of 5-year-old Miles and 15-month-old Morgan, also said there’s no Christmas pony looming on the horizon for his children.
But one Christmas morning, a new pony could inspire the next generation of riders to take up the mantle.