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September 20, 2012

A New Year And A New Beginning For Woody

Woody, "The Doctor of Confidence," has one more patient before he can retire with Jody Jaffe. Photo courtesy of Jody Jaffe.

It seems fitting that Woody, aka The Doctor of Confidence, leaves my farm right as my people celebrate the new year of 5773. He and I are both off to new and separate adventures.

I realized my dream this summer of riding my horse Katie in a classic and getting to wear a shadbelly for the first time. I will continue to show her in the Special Adults as well as bring along my sweet OTTB, Cassie. I’ve also discovered my 3-year-old Paint/Thoroughbred isn’t the only one with cow in him. Turns out I do, too. I spent last weekend cutting cows atop Jimmy, and short of jumping, I don’t think there’s anything more fun to do on horseback.

I couldn’t have done any of it had it not been for Woody. But our time together is over. There’s another woman in Virginia who’s got a big case of The Scareds. She loves horses too much to give them up and needs to find a way back to feeling comfortable. I know Woody will work his calm magic on her, because he did it with me.

But before he steps onto his next patient’s trailer, I will dip an apple in honey and feed it to this kind, gentle and, yes I’m going out on anthropomorphic limb here, wise horse. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we dip apples in honey, symbolizing our hopes for a sweet new year. And if there’s anyone who deserves the sweetest of years, it’s this big, red Thoroughbred.

Just What The Doctor Ordered

Woody came into my life when I was considering a life without horses. I’d had two head injuries in two years from falls off a horse. Neither was bad enough to leave me drooling. But the first injury left me with short-term memory loss for a couple of hours, and the second wiped away an entire day of my life, which rattled me to my soul. Enough to make me wonder if it was time to stop riding.

Enter Woody, whose first career as show ring hunter left his owner Diane Wade with a wall full of ribbons from the country’s biggest shows. He moved into his second career, doctoring frightened riders, when a friend of Diane’s needed a confidence booster. I was his fourth patient; I’m including Diane who tells of a time she was so scared she sobbed around the course as Woody just marched on like he had George Morris on his back. They won the class.

Now he goes to Leah Coxsey, a refreshingly earnest 32-year-old woman from Middleburg, Va., who started with a mild case of the The Scareds 10 years ago when her mother died. Losing a loved one, especially someone as important as your mother, slaps you in the face with your own mortality. Compound that with a spooky horse, a few falls, and life in general, and you have a full-blown case of The Scareds.

“I want to get back to jumping,” Leah told me. “There’s no feeling in the world like it. That’s how I fly.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s exactly how I felt. But like I was before Woody came into my life, Leah’s too scared to jump. She says she’s going to give it one last try, with Woody. I know this will be a successful mission. Just ask the judge at that Thoroughbred Celebration show who dubbed Woody “Steady Eddy” as he carted me around over my first course of jumps at a horse show in too many years to remember.

In a way, I envy Leah’s upcoming journey. Conquering a fear is powerful medicine that carries over into all aspects of your life. What was daunting yesterday seems not only doable today, but also challenging and exciting. Plus, for me, there’s no better way to feel connected to nature—to experience on the most visceral level how we as humans interlock with all the creatures on Earth—than handing over your trust to a 1200-pound being that doesn’t speak English and could kill you with a strike of a leg. It’s not so easy to do after you’ve been injured, either emotionally or physically. And it takes a special horse to make you feel safe enough to do this.

Woody is that special horse. The minute you sit on him, you can feel his calm, his steadiness and, dare I say, even his sense of mission. Did he know how nervous I was that first ride? Of course. A horse can feel a fly land on him, so surely he can feel a rider tensed tauter than a coiled spring. It didn’t matter to him, he just walked, trotted and cantered like he had a confident pro on his back. And that’s when his magic started to take hold. With each step, I loosened a little more. By the end of the first ride, I felt like I’d come home. I was on a horse, and I wasn’t scared.

The Seeing-Eye Horse

It wasn’t long before we were jumping. Woody is a metronome. He stays at the same beat regardless of his rider’s nervous gyrations, which makes it very difficult to miss a distance. That, and he’s got a better eye than I do. Recently, I let my eventer friend jump him because she said she’s struggled with finding the right distances. “Wow!” she said, with a huge smile. “So that’s what it’s supposed to feel like. This horse gets you right every time.”

Yup. And then some. Last year I got on him a day after oral surgery. I wanted to ride, but it was too soon, which I discovered about 15 minutes out on trail when I got dizzy and had to close my eyes. I just chucked the reins to Woody, wrapped my arms around his neck and waited until he brought me home.

“Now we can add seeing-eye horse to his list of accomplishments,” said my old trainer Peter Foley, who also trains Woody’s owner, Diane.

There are so many Woody stories I could tell. Perhaps all Woody’s patients should get together and write a book about him. He’s as good with young horses as he is with old women. When he first arrived, I turned him out with Jimmy, my then 2-year-old Paint/Thoroughbred who was a pushy brat. He’d crowd me at the gate, run over Dino, his yearling field mate, and tear up anything that got near his mouth. Within a week of living with Woody, he turned into a respectful young man who didn’t even go near the gate when I walked in and stopped picking on Dino. I’d watched Woody discipline him those first few days. He never lifted a leg to kick him or opened his mouth to bite him. Instead, he just turned his head and gave him the Woody look that said: “Behave, and be respectful. Our job is to keep these people safe.”

Woody is a man who knows his mission. Which is why I know Leah will be flying soon.

Farewell For Now

She arrived at noon, just as the morning sun had dried Woody’s freshly washed copper coat. I’d taken him from his pasture early to give him a bath and then put him back so he could have a little more time with his boys, Jimmy and Dino. These three are always plastered together.

Leah and I walked to the pasture to get him. The apples and honey were on a table near her trailer, ready for Woody’s New Year celebration. As I lead him up, I told her Woody stories. The time I took him trail riding with my foxhunting friends who know no hill too steep to climb or descend. Woody, a show ring hunter at heart, never complained and just kept trudging. I could have gone on and on, but Leah had a long drive ahead.

I dipped the apple slices in the honey and held them out to Woody. He’s clearly not Jewish, because he wouldn’t eat them with the gooey coating. So I washed off the honey, and he slurped them up. We talked some more, and Leah knew I was stalling. “That’s alright,” she said, “take as much time as you need.”

“No, it’s time,” I said, and yes I was crying.

Goodbye old friend and thank you for rescuing me. You have one more mission, then it’s back here to Finally Farm where you will retire and meander through the pasture with your boys.

Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.