Here’s to the Donnerhalls

Celebrating the special people who support our lives with horses

I once dated a guy who was allergic to horses. Notice how I said “once.”

He was a great guy I dated in college and we had a lot of fun together while it lasted. Unfortunately, he happened to be so allergic to horses (and a myriad of over things) that on one occasion, he hyperventilated while sitting in the same room as my laundry hamper filled with barn clothes. One of my roommates jokingly labeled him as “poor breeding stock” due to all of his allergies.

When he eventually broke up with me, I was pretty sad. Over the phone, I wailed to my parents about how I was doomed to be a lonely old spinster. My dad, who doesn’t usually share his opinions on my dating life, spoke up. “Well, I knew that wasn’t going to work out anyway,” he said.

I was shocked at how blunt and pessimistic he sounded, especially considering his usual soft-spoken nature. “What do you mean?!” I blurted back. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something to the effect of how he didn’t imagine me being with someone who couldn’t be there for me and my horses—physically, mentally and emotionally. Dads are usually right, aren’t they?

A few years after I graduated college, a guy named Mike came into my life and he’s stuck around ever since. Mike is pretty smart, and somewhere along the lines, he must have figured out that the quickest way to my heart was through my horses. He wasn’t a horse person himself, but he has become one by default.

Here’s Mike and me at a show at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. He’s a good sport about show days, to say the least. (Photo by Sherri Holdridge Photography)

In our years of dating, Mike has mastered the show routine. We all know that show days can be tedious—early mornings, long days, usually unpleasant weather, some unanticipated drama, lots of emotions and a lot of sweat. It might sound silly, but I truly believe that coming to a horse show is a huge gesture of love that shouldn’t be underestimated.

The night before shows, Mike goes over my test with me, reminding me of places where I’ve had trouble in the past and the things that I tend to score well on. He wakes up with me at 4 a.m., playing his pump-up tunes to fire me up. He sits in the barn aisle, sipping his coffee while I braid my horse. He hates cats, but he tolerates it as Garfield the orange barn cat jumps into his lap. He backs the trailer into a parking spot on the show grounds far more skillfully than I can. He stands at the side of the warm-up ring, holding my bucket of treats, coat polish, fly spray and a rag. He wipes off my boots before I head into the ring. He helps me clean out the trailer, lugging muck buckets to the manure pile with me. He grabs one handle and I grab the other. It’s a romantic image, isn’t it? Someone must really love you if they’ll help you carry buckets of manure around.

On the weekend that I earned the final score toward my bronze medal, Mike stood in the tack room of the trailer and hugged me while I cried tears of happiness—and relief—after I finally reached a goal I had been working toward for years.

It’s not just on show weekends that Mike shines, though. He has learned that when we come back from a trip, the first stop we make is at the barn. He’s also gotten really good at knowing what to do when someone frantically hands him a lead rope attached to a horse and says “Here! Hold this!” After lessons, he will ask “Did you practice your turn on the haunches? I know you wanted to improve your scores on those!” It’s weird actually having your boyfriend hold you accountable for practicing your low-scoring movements.

While Mike is a really special guy, I know there are other people out there who go above and beyond for their horse-loving partners. A year or two ago, when DT’s content director Jennifer Mellace and I were in Florida, we met up with our good friend and longtime colleague, Beth Baumert for dinner. We were joined by Beth’s wonderful husband, Al, and a few other lovely dressage ladies. I don’t remember the conversation exactly, but it was praising men like Al who stick with us through the horse stuff. The moment that does stand out to me is Beth smiling, looking toward Al and saying “Yes, he is a Donnerhall!” Everyone let out a laugh and nodded in total agreement.

And now, when horse people ask what my boyfriend is like, I tell them that he, too, is a Donnerhall. Top quality. The ideal partner.

I also asked DT’s Jennifer Mellace to share a story with us about her own Donnerhall, her husband, Vince. Here’s what she had to say:

Thank You for Being My (Horse) Guy

Anyone who knows my husband Vince knows that he’s the strong silent type. They also know that he’s not a horse guy. I knew that when we met 24 years ago. But what I also knew 24 years ago was that I was a horse girl, and that wasn’t going to change. The good thing was that Vince knew it, too, and was OK with it. How did I know? Let me explain … 

I spent most evenings and every weekend at the farm where I kept my horse. Part of the reason I could have a horse was that I was able to work off the board. So, I became the weekend caretaker of the 20-plus horses on the farm. Since many of my weekend hours were devoted to the farm, Vince—who clearly wanted to spend time with me—would meet me each Saturday and Sunday morning and help dump water buckets and wheelbarrows (God bless him). He also became very in tune with the horses. I remember one particular horse who came in from turn out just slightly off. It wasn’t obvious as to what was up and yet Vince (the “non-horse guy”) took it upon himself to observe the horse and feel his legs. He then suggested that maybe he had an abscess, and even suggested in which foot it was. Lo and behold, the vet was called and the horse did, in fact, have an abscess in his front left foot. Not bad for a guy who knew nothing about horses.

The farm was a boarding facility for a few of us, but most of the horses belonged to the farm’s owner who also had a small breeding business—she bred a couple mares a year to stallions like Art Deco and Riverman. So, handling babies and going to warmblood inspections also came with the territory. As years went by and Vince became more comfortable handling my horse and some of the others, the owner asked him to also handle some of the babies. Of course, I wasn’t sure about this, but he was totally calm, cool and collected and had almost a mesmerizing effect on them. People at the inspections would often comment on how good he was with them. Again, not bad for my non-horse guy.

As the years passed, Vince’s hands-on involvement lessened, but his support of my passion never waned. In fact, I think it got stronger after we married in 1999. Since then, he’s seen me through all the ups and downs that come with marrying a horse person, including our move to Maryland from New Jersey, which involved finding a new barn; the gentle prodding to get me back in the saddle after our kids were born (momma guilt is real people); the joy I found in seeing my kids learn how to ride; the leasing of a pony for my daughter; the loss of my heart horse; the joy of finding a new horse; the injuries after a bad fall; the guilt of making the decision to sell my horse when I realized the partnership wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard I tried; the break I needed from riding; and now, my gradual return to the saddle. He’s been by my side through it all.

So, this Valentine’s day—a day that Vince and I don’t even really acknowledge—I want to say thank you for being my (horse) guy.






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