There was never a horse in a big red bow waiting for Nancy Richards when she was a kid.
Though she pined, like so many little girls her age, for a gallant steed like the one who pranced across the pages of The Black Stallion, her parents were unmoved by her impassioned pleas.
From the get-go, they made it clear. If she wanted a horse, she had to earn the money to pay for it.
“Growing up, I don’t think many people understood how much I wanted horses in my life,” says Richards, now 26. “But I knew what I wanted, and it made me work twice as hard to get it.”
She isn’t kidding.
In her early teens, she mucked stalls and fed horses at the New Jersey barn, Idyll Acres, in exchange for riding lessons.
As she got older, her zeal led her to take on four jobs at one time.
By the age of 18, she would rise before dawn to commence a paper-delivery route and then hurry off to Burger King, where she served customers from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Race name: Dina’s Dear
Barn name: Elmo
Dam: Supercilious Susan
Foal date: May 2,1990
Race name: Spicer
Dam: Spicy Sweet
Foal date: March 14, 1998After punching out, her day was just getting going. Pulling on a pair of jeans, she would head to two separate New Jersey barns to look after approximately 40 horses. Of course, working with horses didn’t feel so much like work, no matter how many bales of hay she lifted, or how many wheelbarrows she carted away from freshly cleaned stalls.
“I wanted to be at the barn all the time. In the beginning, I had to rely on my parents for rides, and I was so frustrated because I wanted to be there more,” she says. “But, once I was driving and working there, I could spend all of my time there – I loved it.”
Then one day, a darkly handsome racehorse who, to her, possessed the untamed beauty of the Black Stallion, retired to the farm.
“People said he was too much horse for me, and that I shouldn’t ride him,” she recalls. “I started riding him anyway, and there were times when he’d literally take off on me, and I’d just hang on.
“So many times he’d fly around the ring at a dead gallop, and at that time, I couldn’t pull him up.”
Not a quitter, Richardson stuck to her lessons, and when, in 2001, she was offered a chance to own the dark bay, she leapt at it. He was given to her for free, in a moment that felt like a turning point in her life.
“When I was a little girl, I wrote down on a piece of paper everything I wanted in a horse. This was after I saw The Black Stallion movie and read the book,” she says. “Years later, I came across that crumpled piece of paper, and Dina’s Dear (Elmo) had every quality I had dreamed of.
“He was dark bay, had a sweet personality, and although he wasn’t easy to ride, he was there for me when I needed him.”
Of all the times the dark horse seemed to be looking out for her, the one she remembers best occurred on a trail ride in a woodsy area near the barn.
On a beautiful day, Dina’s Dear had bottled his racehorse tendency to bolt, and was serenely following a pack of trail-riders up a steep, tree-lined hill.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Richards felt something wrong. Vines that hung from the nearby trees had somehow snaked around her, as they tried to rush past; she was trapped. For several heart-pounding moments, Richards flailed to become untangled.
Rather than spook or bolt like so many horses would, under the strange circumstances, Dina’s Dear stopped and waited until she could free herself.
“I could have been knocked off of him, at speed, if he’d kept running,” she says. “But, my sweet boy stopped and waited until I was free from the vine.”
In their decade together, the pair has won ribbons at New Jersey horse shows and in 4H Western Showmanship classes. Their polished appearance was hard-fought after many tough lessons and swallowed pride. “At one show, he started going so fast that I had to bail off,” she recalls.
But she got stronger, and the pair hit their stride.
And for a long time, life was idyllic at the farm.
But on one day, as she made her customary check on Dina’s Dear, she found him standing in the center of his stall, with his head down, shivering and sweating.
Veterinary tests revealed he had an impacted colon and severe colic. After a valiant effort to save him, he was euthanized on Dec. 29, 2010.
“It was the hardest decision, and most heartbreaking one, I’ve ever made,” she says. She stayed with him to the end, waiting for the drugs to take effect, and carry her Black Stallion away from his pain.
Richards still chokes up when she thinks about their last day together.
But, with the same determination that gave her the courage to ride horses that others said she had no business riding, and the perseverance to work multiple jobs, Richardson returned from the horse hospital to the farm.
And so she started fresh, turning her full attention to Spicer, another Thoroughbred she had agreed to adopt back in 2008. It was good to focus on the sweet mare.
She spent long days teaching the claustrophobic mare to load on a trailer, a massive undertaking that took all of Richards ingenuity, and months of practice.
And, best of all, the mare learned how to stand very still while Richards sat in her wedding gown, posing for pictures at the one-year anniversary of her wedding to her husband Mark. The lovely mare stood very still as lace billowed around.
“I originally planned to hold my wedding at the farm and ride Elmo down the aisle in my dress, but he passed a month after I got engaged,” she says. She changed her plans, got married in a church, and took anniversary photos with Spicer.
Now, surrounded by love of her new family, and her mare, Richards is happily managing the farm and teaching a growing number of clients how to find the same joy in the saddle that she knows only to well.
“My life is really amazing right now, but it took a lot of work to get here,” she says.
None of it was handed to Richards wrapped in a red bow. She did it all herself.
“It’s better that way.”