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September 5, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 104




Tom Roberts Horses, a child and a fancy recently revived

Tom Roberts NCR editor

One thing I learned from being an editorial page editor some years ago was that columnists get to engage their fancies during the dog days of summer. I remember that most of them -- from Coleman McCarthy to David Broder to George Will -- wrote about baseball. Vicarious kicks. Sportswriters for a day.

I might be a bit late for summer's dog days, but I'll engage a fancy anyway. It has to do with horses and a child and a fancy recently revived when I picked up Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit. I haven't yet seen the movie, but the book is a delicious read, wonderfully researched. I agree with all the jacket kudos: "Captivating story remarkable captivating compelling" and on and on. Of course, it doesn't need any more hype. But it certainly is worth the time.

Horses have been a peripheral interest since my father -- a farm kid who had cowboy dreams -- gave me my first horse magazine. I barely got closer to the real thing, except for Walter Farleigh's Black Stallion series and one six-month stint during which I worked for an extremely grouchy barn owner who was as endearing and kind toward his horses as he was harsh and abrupt with most humans.

That pretty much ended the fascination and horses faded to the background.

Until Will came along. Child number three was, as it would turn out, eerily named for my father, who remained fascinated with horses and would reminiscence about his boyhood association with the animals until his last days.

Part of the thrill of reading Seabiscuit was my understanding of what could reasonably be classified an addiction. I knew this addiction from up-close observation. It is, in the main, a benign addiction, but it does, for all practical purposes, act like a disease. One gets hooked.

We knew what Will would be doing for the rest of his life by the time he was 14. By then he had already persevered through a broken arm and other injuries to declare that he wanted to continue to pursue this interest. He is the only child we tried to persuade away from an interest, explaining that his father was a journalist and his mother a nurse and that in order to do the horse bit, his father would have to own the local paper and his mother head of the cardiology unit at the hospital.

He wasn't buying. So he began spending 13 hour days, six days a week during the summer and every moment after school as a "working student" to earn his lessons and access to a horse for horseshows. He even babysat for the owners' kids between shifts to earn money for entry fees. And we watched him progress. The jumps got bigger and the courses more complicated and the competition tougher and the responsibilities greater.

He's become a successful trainer, riding at a fairly high competitive level, buying and selling horses and working incredibly long days. He doesn't consider it work. And if you see him connect with animals, dogs, horses, anything, you understand there's something more there. Horses do that to people.

I once commented on his long days and often long nights on the road, especially when he was getting started. He's become a man of few, but well-chosen words, often funny. This time he was simple and serious. "There's nothing I'd rather be doing."

And when I get to visit him now, or get the chance to watch him ride, I get a vicarious satisfaction at having seen the long haul of his pursuit. The hours of work, the determination, the learning, the practice, now more often than not converge in a wonderful harmony of human and beast, a flowing symmetry of grace and power. A I get some goose bumps and I understand a little bit. Nothing else would do for him.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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