On Oct. 10, 2010, Sylvia McDonald rode to her 57th opening day meet with the Arapahoe Hunt in Colorado. Now 85, Sylvia (as she’s universally known) continues to ride at least three days a week, despite arthritic hands and a knee replacement.
Throughout her seven decades of riding she’s become notorious among the Arapahoe followers as an unswerving stickler for correctly following the traditions of the sport. But she’s done much more than that in her life: She’s the mother of five accomplished children, she co-founded the first Pony Club in Colorado, and she’s bred and raised many notable Thoroughbreds for foxhunting.
“It’s an addiction,” said Sylvia. “It’s my life. If I get sick or injured, that’s the one thing I want to do: get back on a horse and go hunting.”
Daughter Lyn Robinson recalled that while cubbing late last summer, they stayed out hilltopping for two hours, sometimes trotting and cantering to keep the field in view.
“I was tired,” admitted Sylvia afterward. “I could only see [the field] in the distance.”
But it’s impossible to keep her very far away from horses and hunting. She’s only made one concession to her age: Her mounts must stand quietly to let her get off at the mounting block.
“I think the fact that she’s still hunting kind of defines her determination,” said Dr. Marvin Beeman, a prominent equine veterinarian and longtime friend.
Beeman, who was MFH and huntsman for the Arapahoe Hunt until he retired his scarlet coat at the end of his 67th season last April, is the only person more senior than Sylvia in the hunt’s membership. “She enjoys what she can of it, even if she can’t see much of it hilltopping,” he said. “And she always makes the effort to be properly dressed.”
“Very, Very Strict”
Sylvia’s sense of correctness was instilled early. Her grand-father, a Boston lawyer, enjoyed trail riding as a way “to clear his mind,” she said, and he was the one who made riding possible for Sylvia and her cousin, Alice.
“My grandfather wanted to make sure we did it right,” she said. “He went to England and Ireland and brought home two horses, but we didn’t know they were for us. We had to earn permission to ride the horses. He was good in that way, good at making sure we were not spoiled brats.”
He arranged for riding lessons with an Englishwoman named Phyllis Linington, who had established a riding stable in Milton, Mass., in about 1936.
“She was very, very strict,” said Sylvia.
When she was 11, Sylvia and her flea-bitten gray Cinders began showing and won “a lot of ribbons.” In one early competition photo, she shows perfect form over a three-foot post-and-rail in a large, open field—bareback. Sylvia was 12 when Linington introduced her to foxhunting with the Dedham Hunt (now the Norfolk Hunt Club).
“We had to do everything right, according to tradition,” said Sylvia, who earned her junior buttons and a hunting whip at age 14. She still uses the child-sized whip. “It’s wonderful for my arthritic fingers,” she said.
During World War II, Sylvia trained horses in order to ride. She was Sylvia Robinson in those years, and her husband was stationed with the Marines near Pinehurst, N.C. In 1951, the young couple moved to Colorado with their burgeoning family: Lyn was born in 1944, Keith arrived in 1949, followed by Laura in 1950, Rickie in 1953, and Charles in 1958. Each earned Pony Club ratings, and Lyn and Laura are still active Arapahoe Hunt members.
Soon after moving to Colorado, Sylvia crossed paths with Beeman, who as a young veterinarian helped attend her horses. Beeman had ridden with Arapahoe since age 6, and he donned the scarlet coat of a whipper-in at age 10 because of a shortage of qualified help due to World War II and because his father, the legendary George Beeman, was huntsman from 1932 until he retired in 1987.
“In those days, we were always interested in someone who had hunted back East,” said Beeman. “Sylvia had spunk and a lot of try, and she was a good horseperson. We could see that when we watched her handle her animals and watched her ride.”
For the Robinson children, learning to ride in the rough country of Colorado in the 1950s was far different than it is today. There was little formal structure, and few, if any, riding arenas. It was just a matter of putting a leg on each side and going “hell-bent for leather,” said Lyn. Since no one had a horse trailer, they rode their horses everywhere, whether to the meet, or to school for show-and-tell.
Sylvia’s first Colorado horse was named Sugar. “Someone gave her to me for $100. She was 14.2 hands, probably 5 or 6 years old, and supposedly had a bad heart,” said Sylvia.
Yet Sugar hunted for at least 10 years, and when Lyn was 8, Sugar carried her on her first hunt. Sylvia’s best off-the-track horse, Swarie, cost $100 and a load of straw in 1964.
But the most memorable was the Shetland pony Peanuts, who, at 11 hands was the first mount for many children (including this author). Among other things, Peanuts once climbed three flights of stairs as a school prank, and he and Lyn were pictured in a 1956 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse jumping over a 3'6" log.
Peanuts often went foxhunting with the family, which meant riding about 5 miles to hunt headquarters on Friday, where the animals stayed overnight, then 10 or so miles to the kennels on Saturday morning for the junior hunt. After the hunt, they would ride back to headquarters, eat lunch, then depart for home.
In 1954, Sylvia and her friend Rowena Rogers co-founded Platte Valley Pony Club. “Roe had started a Little Britches riding group, and one day, a friend said, ‘Why not make it into a Pony Club?’ ” recalled Sylvia. “I knew about Pony Club, so we did that.”