A dark bay racehorse releases joy of inner child

Anna Bryant, center, practices her "parade wave" on Mardi Gras Dancer

Anna Bryant, center, practices her “parade wave” on Mardi Gras Dancer

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, 2005
lasting 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.

Anna Bryant's portrait of Rags to Riches, which she did for Anna House at Belmont.

Anna Bryant’s portrait of Rags to Riches, which she did for Anna House at Belmont.

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.

Note the tongue: evidence of his good mood

Note the tongue: evidence of his good mood

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.”

9 responses to “A dark bay racehorse releases joy of inner child”

  1. Nuala Galbari


    “He walked up to me, dropped his head in my chest.” I think this is the perfect choice of horse for you. He chose you. The first day I met my OTTB, Captain Jack Sparrow, he pressed his muzzle on my arm and slobbered over me. That was my ‘sign’. We’ve been together since November 2011, and he’s a sweetheart. I also do a few ground exercises before riding (and I am just a ‘middling novice’ at present). I don’t ride on very windy or very cold days, or even when there are too many teenagers around the barn (they tend to make noise, en group).

    When there is just one other rider, it’s quiet and the weather is calm, then he is at his best. I talk to him often — which my trainer does not recommend — but I know it keeps him calm when he hears my voice.

    I think if you listen closely to him, you will know what makes Mardi Grass Dancer happy; he’s a lovely horse.

    I know you ride Western, but I would like to see you wearing protective head gear, if you would consider it.

    Wishing you many great years together.

    Thank you, Susan, for this lovely story.

    Nuala Galbari

  2. Lisa Melone

    I can relate to this story so much. My only horses in childhood were 4 weeks of summer camp and escaping with CW Anderson’s lovely books. I spent hours drawing horses, trying to emulate his work. And I finally got my first horse at 50–an OTTB who has given me a few bumpy rides along the way, but we’re having so much fun. He’s made me a better and happier person.

  3. Bob

    So glad happiness found you.

  4. Marti

    I got my OTTB the same way…. But my guy was starved, almost to death. I offered to take him, thinking I’d rehab him and then sell him…. But when he weakly stepped out of his dank and dirty stall and into the light, and he placed his head in my chest as if he was trying to hear my heart, I knew we would stay forever… He passed away 3 years ago, after 21 wonderful years together. Best horse ever.

    1. NLReagan

      That’s exactly the way I got my first dog. Jumped in my lap and that was it. Wish I had room for a horse.

  5. Melanie GLover

    I have loved horses all my life but never owned my own until I was 47. It was like being a kid at Christmas all over again! Finally getting my own horse has been a breath of fresh air for me and now, I won’t live without him. I could give up many things but my horse is not one of them. Good for Anna and Mardi Gras!

  6. Anna Bryant

    Susan, what a sweet article! Thank you, it was such a pleasure to visit with you- you are so lively and personable, it’s refreshing!
    Babe truly is a joy to have in my life, and I get more comfortable with him and less fearful each time I ride.

  7. TBDancer

    Great story and what a happy ending for both Anna AND Mardi Gras Dancer. For some of us the “childhood dream” doesn’t happen until we’re adults and able to get a horse for ourselves, but that doesn’t make the experience any less magical. The joy is still there.

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