As a child, Anna Bryant was always drawing horses.
As much for the pictures as the words, she reverently leafed through the great horse books of the time, admiring the illustrations of Walter Farley and C.W. Anderson, escaping into a world of flying hooves and beautiful steeds.
“I had my nose stuck in a book or a pencil in my hand all the time,” she recalls.
To own a horse outright was out of the question for her family of modest means. But as a teenager, she was occasionally fortunate enough to have those moments of joy, when setting aside her books and pencils she could climb into the saddle.
“My grandmother took me horseback riding once in a while, and I spent summers with an aunt and uncle, who had horses on their farm,” Bryant says.
Although she was an observer of the horse world more than she was a participant, a family vacation to Kentucky, and a visit to fabled Churchill Downs left a Race name: Mardi Gras Dancer
Barn name: Babe
Sire: Afternoon Deelites
Dam: Dance With Frances, by Green Dancer
Foal date: Feb. 7, 2005lasting impression on a youngster who decades later would revisit that which made her happiest in life.
“We were in Kentucky to see all the sights, but that trip to Churchill Downs was definitely the highlight for me. Standing in the gate, during the off season, I remember having shivers going down my spine,” she says.
It would be a long time, before a feeling like that came again.
Horses were relegated to the recessed memories of childhood as Bryant focused the next 20 years on taking care of her own children, daughters she struggled to raise on a single-parent income.
Moving back to her mother’s coastal Texas hometown, she struggled financially and emotionally. “Let’s just say my kids and I made do with a lot of ramen noodles, peanut butter and jelly, and tuna casseroles,” she says, adding that a toxic relationship and her own health problems tested her mettle through her young adult years.
Bryant worked hard, found a good job in the petroleum industry, and after her children were grown, she rediscovered racing and art.
It wasn’t until Barbaro splashed onto the racing scene, breaking a million hearts when he died, that her imagination was rekindled.
“He got me back into horses. For 25 years, the entire time my kids were growing up, I did nothing with them. But then Barbaro happened, and I started drawing his image.”
And in between drawing portraits and making cards emblazoned with Barbaro’s image, through Facebook and other social media, Bryant discovered a whole world of retired racehorses were there to behold.
She began connecting with Thoroughbred nonprofits throughout the country, andin 2008, she found LOPE, (Lone Star Outreach to Place Ex-Racehorses) a facility within driving distance of her Gulf Coast, Texas home.
“I saved up a couple thousand dollars and drove up the road to Austin, and met Lynn Reardon of LOPE,” Bryant recalls.
Mardi Gras Dancer, a short, goofy couch-potato of a Thoroughbred was the fourth horse she met that day.
“He walked up to me, dropped his head in my chest, and I’m sure this isn’t the way to choose a horse, but that’s how I chose my horse,” she says.
Although this Dancer would not deliberately step on her toes, there were a few missteps and some bumps and bruises as Bryant and her gelding got used to one another.
“My first ride was with a rope halter, and bareback,” she says. “I promptly fell off. Then I got back on and we had a really nice five minutes.”
On their third ride however, after cows startled him, he crow-hopped a little. Bryant panicked, fell, and broke her hip.
After the incident she admits that fear set in, which she still has to conquer before setting out to ride. But, she has taken measured steps to overcome her jitters, attending clinics, observing other trainers with their horses, and trying a variety of different tack.
“I don’t get on him without asking him for a few ground exercises first, so I can see where his head is at,” she says. “If he has his sense of humor—he likes to play with things, pull on my cap with his lips, and he sticks out his tongue— I know everything’s OK.”
But if it’s windy or he seems off, she doesn’t push it, she adds.
Her favorite times now are simply riding with her three friends, in a western saddle, on a little jaunt. They may practice their “parade wave,” have a few laughs, and feel plain lucky to have a horse in their lives.
“This horse has given me a renewed sense of purpose in my own life and a renewed sense of how good things can be,” Bryant says. “He’s a Godsend.”