A spinning, rearing Thoroughbred who appeared 15 years ago like a whirlwind in Kelly Hennessy’s life, became a rock she clung to for support during life’s storms.
In his mane she wept for the life of her husband, who after 20 years of marriage succumbed to cancer and left her alone in the world, but for the horse. And on the broad back of her 17-hand OTTB Distinguished Gentleman, Hennessy rode through wild rides, suffering cuts, contusions and broken bones, and in the end emerged a stronger and more capable rider and person.
Since 2001, the crow-hopping wild child who was practically foisted upon her as an unwanted Thoroughbred at risk for going to slaughter, has remained a constant in Hennessey’s life; at her side teaching her how to communicate in “horse,” to persevere through bad rides and hard times, and to trust in him, her “steady Eddy.”
New name: Distinguished Gentleman
Barn name: Mr. Beane
Sire: Waynes Crain
Dam: My Lady Pilgrim
Foal date: Feb. 6, 1992“I think of him as my boomerang horse,” she says. After attempting to sell him early on after her husband Jim became sick with his first bout of cancer, Distinguished Gentleman bucked off every prospective buyer who tried him until Hennessy was advised that a sale might prove impossible. “My trainer, who was trying to sell him for me called and said she’d never seen it happen, but sometimes the horse picks his owner, or chooses his person,” she says.
But with her husband being so sick and in need of care, she made one last effort. “I found another person who said she would try to sell him, but that if she couldn’t, he would go to auction,” Hennessy says. “I said, as in slaughter-auction? And she said yes. And I said no thank you, I can’t do that to him.”
Meanwhile Distinguished Gentleman cooled his heels in a backyard barn until Hennessy’s husband was cured of his first bout of cancer, and Hennessy once again had the time and energy to devote to training a horse who once crow-hopped with her across the field until she bailed out, exhausted.
First, she studied natural horsemanship techniques to gain his respect and build trust in one another. Working with rope halters with no bits, the technique worked so well that in 2006 she fought back her personal fear of cross-country riding and entered them in a schooling Event. “I was petrified,” she says. “I leaned down and whispered, ‘Just get me through this buddy,’ and I told him we have to jump things in the woods. He trotted up to everything I pointed him at and never went above a trot! I was hooked!”
The flush of happiness that brightened her cheeks and made her eager to get up everyday to embrace her good life was shattered in 2009, when her husband was diagnosed once again with cancer. And now it was worse. In three short months, from diagnosis to death, he was gone.
After 20 years of marriage, there were only two constants in her life: Her husband and her horse. Her friends urged her not to sell the horse, because, they said, “You’ll need him later.” And they were right.
“I put the horse with a friend, and I can’t tell you how many times I went to my friend’s house, found him in his stall, and cried in his mane,” she says. Her husband died in October 2009, three months after diagnosis, and by the time the New Year came, her friends once again urged her to look toward the barn for comfort.
“In 2010, I immersed myself. I took clinics with Denny Emerson and Eric Smiley. And every upper level Eventer who met my horse loved him. He’d become my steady Eddy, a horse who might have wound up at auction.”
Time and again he has given her the strength to endure life’s painful turns. And when he hears her voice, he nickers softly and comes running—her best friend, who chose her a long time ago.
“He has been much more than my rock! He has helped me through the death of my husband, the death of my two dogs after my husband, one from cancer and the other a heart attack and coming back to me after the death of (another horse),” Hennessey says. “This horse is my guardian angel.”