“Once upon a time …” So many of us grew up with fairy tales, and perhaps dreaming that one day they’d come true in real life, but how many of us could turn our own story into a magical children’s book that not only charms but also bears a valuable lesson for all ages?
Artist Ellen Skidmore has done just that with the recent publication of her autobiographical children’s book, Ellen, The Little Girl Who Found Her Voice. Born with a severe stutter and a deep passion for horses and dogs, “I came out of the womb pony mad”, Ellen found herself working at The Thoroughbred Training Centre in Lexington, Ky, in her twenties, and it was there that she met Harvey, a big, gorgeous 17hh bay three year old TB.
“When I’d walk him he’d want to stop and check everything out and inspect things carefully; his curiosity in everything was really unusual. When he would run he never did well, he just didn’t really care, he was above all that!”
Inevitably Harvey’s racing career stalled, and with some help from her friend Linda Strine, Ellen managed to buy him very cheaply, despite never having sat on him, and despite his fearsome reputation on the ground — it often took two or three people to tack him up but Ellen maintains there he would never hurt her intentionally, “he wasn’t mean, he was just tough and a total badass”, she smiles, and she remembers an older exercise rider writing Harvey off and feeling furious, “because I could tell he was just bored and he was something special.”
After a month or so of turnout, Ellen spent a couple of years putting a good base on Harvey — hacking him out around the farm where she was based in Athens, Ky, starting him over little fences, taking him out fox hunting as a babysitter for the mature ladies; with more turn-out and a diverse programme she remembers him blossoming, even his ground manners improved.
“He liked the diversity, and he was turned out as much as possible so much easier to handle on the ground. He was a fantastic escort out hunting, he was great to get on and off, do gates, and he was always very careful about the going, if there were holes or anything like that.”
By the time they moved to Antebellum Farm in Lexington, where Kyle Carter was based and would start to train them, Ellen and Harvey were ready to begin their eventing career and a new chapter in their lives.
Kyle remembers them both vividly, “You could tell she absolutely adored him and loved him. He was a little bit intimidating for her to ride and deal with, he took advantage of her pretty well but he was very good natured about it, I just think honestly he had a little bit of that mischievous attitude so he wasn’t going to follow, he was going to create his own protocol and you had to deal with that a bit. He must have been 17hh, and powerful and big and very intimidating when she was around him on the ground but they were certainly a great pair.
“He was a little bit like Parker in that he was ultra ultra mischievous, I don’t think he was ever mean at any point, he was certainly a handful and yet as sweet as he could be. He’d be a horse who could have ended up in a disastrous situation and because of how she felt about him, and how he felt about her it worked; she didn’t take away that part of him, like some people try and break that out of them and she didn’t, she just nurtured him.”
Ellen and Harvey progressed through the ranks up to Training Level, although by now Ellen was also starting to paint more seriously, and was also occasionally riding out at Keeneland in the mornings, and to this day she regrets that she never had the wherewithal to really dedicate herself to eventing Harvey full time and with 100% commitment because she believes he was definitely a horse in a million and that they perhaps could have had a real eventing career together.
“He gave me, not a very good rider, such confidence; he made you feel like, ‘lets event, this is easy, let’s go!’ and not go like charging, but just really easy and happy and comfortable.”
After a couple of weeks off while Ellen went to the Olympic Games in Atlanta, she came home, got on Harvey and popped over a little X. The buck Harvey let out on landing threw Ellen well clear, “I did two somersaults!” and was to have a profound effect on the rest of her life.
“My hard hat saved my life. I remember waking up and the earth was moving, everything was blurry, I was crawling around totally incoherent. They found me walking around in circles outside my husband’s kitchen crying because I couldn’t find my horse or my dogs, but Harvey was already untacked in his stall so I’d done that without even realising. I had such a severe concussion. My vision was blurred, I had no balance for months and I thought it was permanent. I was scared I would never paint again, and it freaked me out.”
Ellen knew in her heart that she wasn’t doing Harvey justice and came to a difficult decision to move him on, “I was getting an MRI, lying there on the table, and just thought I’m not doing this horse right, he’s bored and I’m not there for him so I called Kyle the next day. He was in Canada and he flew down, had him vetted and he was thrilled. He’d ridden him once, he took him to Spring Bay on a catch ride (he won) and said this horse is a great horse.
“Kyle cared more about the horses than hurting his students’ feelings, and he loved Harvey. I was in his barn and I groomed for him at Rolex and I knew he was the only person I could have sold him to. Jen and he came down to get him and I cried for two weeks, it was so horrible, but it was the right thing to do.”
Kyle remembers riding Harvey at Spring Bay, and remembers how thrilled he was to be able to develop a relationship with him, “I caught rode him for her at one Training event and that horse and I just saw eye to eye. He ended up winning that competition and of all the things that horse ended up doing that win stands out for me so vividly because when you ride a good one at a show and they just make it so easy…from start to finish he was like the perfect horse.
“I felt a real connection with him as a rider and I just felt incredibly fortunate to have such an opportunity. He’d be a top horse today; I go back and think about it a lot and I think he’s potentially the best horse I’ve ever ridden. He had the movement — the horse could do the most incredible passage, he had this huge trot, an incredible canter … he had all the elements on the flat. I hate it when people say thoroughbreds can’t move, he was a full thoroughbred and that horse absolutely floated, he was such a class horse!
“To jump him … he just fit me really well and I believed in him, and the gallop he had! Parker’s got a great gallop but it was as good as that and he jumped much, much better. He was a real class horse, there was no element that was lacking. He was handsome as hell, he had incredible feet, his legs were super-well-built, I think his temperament was actually incredibly well-suited for the sport or to do pure show jumping, I don’t know if he would have done Grand Prix classes but he would have done easily 4’9, 5’ classes.”
Now married, Ellen moved out West to Arizona, and said the birth of her daughter Coco helped relieve the grief and fill the void left by Harvey’s leaving, and fondly remembers visiting him in Florida, “I went and saw him and it was hard, I had to really detatch. I was at the barn and he heard me stutter and it was so funny, he pricked his ears and looked up, he definitely recognised me as soon as he heard that.
“Kyle just loved him and had a really fun time, he was really going well” [at this point Kyle and Harvey were shortlisted for the Pan Am Games together] but “about a month later I had this miserable insomnia, a terrible night, and the next morning Kyle called me sobbing, and I said ‘I know’. I could feel something was terribly wrong from the night before, I just didn’t know exactly what it was. Kyle was devastated.”
Harvey had contracted Potomac Fever, even though he’d been vaccinated against it and it didn’t present as Potomac to begin with. Within eight hours of showing symptoms they had trailered him to the vet clinic, but he foundered there and then nothing more could be done for him; Kyle still reels from the shock of how quickly it all happened, “It was awful” is all he can say.
Of course Ellen took it hard too; as well as the premonition the night before, she tells me she has felt both Harvey and her deceased dog Georgie “visit” her after their deaths, a presence, that they walked alongside her for a little while on separate occasions and then were gone again, but it comforted her and gave her some closure, as if they had come to say goodbye.
“It was great because it made me feel good about the afterlife but it had a profound effect on me because I felt all my fumbling around as a young rider — I hadn’t been in touch, I’d been so self-absorbed, I didn’t realise how sensitive and how connected horses and dogs are to us spiritually and it really screwed me up for a while, and I tried to ride other horses and get attached but I just compared them all to Harvey. Finally, I called Kyle and told him, ‘I’m still screwed up over Harvey … I screwed up on this great chance — I had this fabulous horse and I had you as a teacher and I just wasn’t there’.”
Kyle laughed kindly and gave her some of that no-nonsense, down to earth Carter advice. Suffice it to say, Ellen is now an established artist, and is riding again. Super G, or Gstaad, is a 16 year old Swedish Warmblood who she bought ten years ago and started in jumpers, but has now switched over to dressage.
“He’s my old lady horse! I don’t know if we’ll compete, I’ll see how well it goes, he’s a really pretty mover and he’s just perfect! He’s very sensitive, he’s a big momma’s boy — I’ve never had a horse who likes me so much! It’s just been a whole new unstressful, wonderful chapter; I ride every other day and he’s the most well behaved, he tries so hard, we’re having so much fun, it’s like taking an instant happy pill!”
Reflecting on it all today Ellen is philosophical, “The Harvey thing was a really profound experience and it was a crossroads; if I hadn’t fallen off and said no I need to paint … my paintings were starting to sell. I could have kept riding, maybe have another spill and end up working at a desk or in a factory and I knew I couldn’t do that so it was a crossroads in my life. It did teach me.
“I let go of him and that was the right thing to do because he had a much better time with Kyle on him than me. Harvey was the kind of horse who wanted to go and do and Kyle was obviously the perfect match. Smart horses need smart riders! I know that, but he did teach me with Super G now that after having a horse like him I am more appreciative and more determined to learn how to ride Gstaad better.
“Often out West I knew that my trainers could ride my horse better than me, but now I have the confidence to insist that they teach me what I want to ‘get.’ I bought Gstaad for me to ride, not them. I’m enjoying him so much, and finally have the time and the resources — it’s very important to have the right horse for yourself for the right time in your life.”
Never has Ellen wished she didn’t stutter, “I never regret it, I’ve never felt that way. I just saw that even the kids who thought they were perfect were not — no one was perfect, and I got that as a little girl; I got that everyone’s got their something, but not everyone sees it. I’ve always felt that, it’s just that mine is out there.
“It’s made me more competitive, and that’s good and bad. I tried to overcompensate — in sports, in riding, in painting. Now I’m just so much more comfortable in my own skin.” Out of this comfort and security has come the passion to write and illustrate her book, a labour of love for the last two years that she hopes will help children of all ages with any handicap at all.
Kyle still keeps in touch with Ellen and has two of her paintings in his house, and Ellen has sent his daughters copies of the book. He tells me that growing up and dealing with her speech impediment has probably made Ellen more sensitive than most of us, “I think that she definitely has more empathy because of it; when you talk to her obviously she has the stutter but it disappears when she talks to the animals and it’s simply that I think she finds her comfort there, not just in the horses but with the dogs as well.
“I think that’s where she feels safe, and horses are fantastic — they sense that. They sense the goodness, and I think Ellen is a very good person. For me it’s always a little difficult because I only look at what we do with our horses, our riding, our competitions, and she was one of those people who made me realise there’s a life outside of that that you also have to attend to; having kids certainly opened my eyes more to that but she was probably the first person to make the first crack in my perspective.”
And Kyle’s memories of Harvey, “With all the horses that come through the barn and through your life, and obviously Parker is a huge part of it and there’s a couple of photos of him in the house, but Harvey is the one that is by the bed. Everything she thought about him — he was; he was a super-special horse, I wish that he’d been around longer.”
Many, many thanks to Kyle and Ellen for their time, and wishing Ellen the best of luck with her new book and exhibit of the accompanying paintings that illustrate it. Opening last week to a hugely appreciative audience in Aspen, the book can be bought online via West High Publishing and you can check out Ellen’s art on her website too. You can also like her Facebook page.