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The Enduring Spirit of Debbie Myers



 

 

by Lisa DeMaria

 

            Debbie Myers has only one explanation for her love of Tennessee Walking Horses.

            “I must have been a horse in another life,” she said.

            It certainly seems like as good an explanation as any. This is especially true considering that Debbie, who has contributed so much to the industry, comes from a family with no ties to horses.

            Growing up, Debbie moved frequently. Her father’s work with AT&T took the family to many parts of the country. She was born in Richmond, Va., and later lived in New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Ga., Oklahoma City and Omaha, Neb. While the opportunity to live in new places was certainly an adventure, it also had its drawbacks.

            “Moving was a problem because I couldn’t have a horse,” said Debbie.

            She compensated for not having a horse of her own by taking riding lessons wherever she was. While living in New Jersey she had the opportunity to ride Saddlebreds. She had never felt anything like it.

            “That was just a whole new world to me,” Debbie said of the experience.

            The owner of the barn Debbie rode at even let her show some of the horses at Saddblebred shows. Many of Debbie’s friends, however, focused their riding on the hunter/jumper discipline. So she spent time following her friends and along the way she learned to jump. However, Debbie knew in her heart that it wasn’t what she was meant to do.

            “I liked it, but I wasn’t any daredevil,” Debbie said.

            Debbie’s adventures in jumping came to an abrupt end when she was involved in an accident while riding. Her father, concerned for her safety, stepped in and put a quick stop to her jumping. So instead Debbie returned to riding Saddlebreds.

            When the time came to attend college, she found herself at Manhattanville College in White Plains, N.Y. Far from concentrating on horses, Debbie pursued another long held passion of her life: the study of languages. Her choice of a major in college was French.

            “I always loved languages,” said Debbie.

            Debbie took advantage of many opportunities while in school. Among her experiences was a study abroad trip. She spent six months studying at the famed Sorbonne, or University of Paris, in France. It would be one of many trips out of the country Debbie would make in her life.

            Upon her return and subsequent graduation from college, Debbie worked in a series of translator positions. Among these positions was working for two years at David Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank and serving as an international reservations interpreter for Trans World Airlines (TWA).

            It was while she was living in Manhattan that one of the biggest occurrences in Debbie’s life would be set in to motion and it would be due to a wedding. The wedding, however, was not Debbie’s. Her roommate was the one to be married, leaving Debbie with an apartment and the high Manhattan rent all to herself.

Because of the high cost of living in the city, Debbie knew she needed someone to move in with her. The person she found was a friend’s niece, Marcia Coimbra. Coimbra was moving to Manhattan from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As nice as it was to have someone to split the rent with, Coimbra was an even better roommate for Debbie because she spoke French and no English.

Debbie and Coimbra shared the Manhattan apartment for a year and a half. When Debbie decided it was time to see more of the world, her friendship with Coimbra provided her the perfect option. Debbie left Manhattan and visited Coimbra’s parents in Rio de Janeiro for six weeks.

While there, she was introduced to Wilson, the son of Coimbra’s parents’ best friends. Wilson spoke English and the two struck up a relationship. While Debbie had gone to Rio to see the world, what she found was a marriage and returned to spend four and a half years in Rio. Before long, the marriage was followed by two children: a daughter, Alessandra, and a son, Felipe.

Unfortunately, it eventually became apparent that the marriage was not working. Never one to sit back and wait for something to happen, Debbie did what she always does: she took action herself. She packed up her belongings and the children and returned to the United States. Upon returning home, she promptly filed for divorce.

After her return to the States, Debbie’s parents moved from New York to Atlanta, Ga. Debbie decided to move with them. Atlanta would bring Debbie the next big change in her life.

In 1971 Debbie attended a Clemson University alumni dance. It was there that she met Jim Myers.

Jim was a native of Greer, S.C. He was born in a farm house on a piece of property that is now part of a runway for the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. Jim attended Clemson during its first year of being a co-educational institution. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering. Despite his degree, however, Jim found himself in sales after graduating. Later, Jim went on to earn his law degree by attending night school. He never practiced law, however. He earned the degree purely out of a desire to broaden his education.

When he met Debbie at that fateful dance, Jim was divorced, had custody of his three children, and was dating a stewardess. All he really knew about Debbie was that she came from Brazil. From this information, Jim inferred that she didn’t speak English, so he didn’t bother talking to her.

Despite the perceived lack of communication, Jim decided he would like to see Debbie again. He took her out on a date following the dance. While the two were seated in a booth (Debbie was on the inside) she turned and, according to Jim, said “Would you let me out please? I have to use the restroom.”

“That broke the ice and we’ve been together ever since,” said Jim.

As it turned out, a mutual neighbor had tried to set Debbie up with Jim before the two ever met.

“She (the neighbor) said, ‘I know a fella you’d want to date, but you’d never want to marry him’,” Jim said quoting the neighbor’s statement to Debbie. As it turned out, the neighbor was right on the first count, but not the second. Debbie and Jim dated for a year before marrying.

Even from the start, Debbie and Jim’s marriage was unlike most. To begin with, the pair immediately had an instant family, complete with five children all under 10 years of age. When the couple got back from their honeymoon in Canada, their housekeeper, who had been caring for the children while the newlyweds were away, immediately quit.

Debbie and Jim went on to add a sixth child to their already sizable brood. The couple had a son, Andrew, several years after they were married. Being the youngest, Andrew was arguably the child who was most exposed to the walking horse industry when Debbie rediscovered her passion for horses.

It was almost an accident when it happened. During their entire courtship and marriage, the subject of horses had never been broached.

Unbeknownst to Debbie, Jim had his own history with horses. In his youth, Jim had grown up with ponies. As he got older, Jim moved on to Quarter Horses. Much like Debbie, Jim’s interest in horses had fallen by the wayside when he went to college and started a family. Neither had ever mentioned their former passion to the other.

“We had never mentioned the word ‘horse’,” said Debbie. That all changed when Jim brought Debbie along on a business trip to Tennessee. Years earlier, Debbie had seen an exhibition on walking horses. She told Jim that she would love to see some walking horses on their trip. Jim, however, knew that horses were not Debbie’s major reason for taking the trip with him.

“She really just wanted to get away from the kids,” Jim said.

While the couple greatly enjoyed seeing all that Nashville had to offer, including the Grand Ole’ Opry and the home of Johnny Cash, it was driving through Hendersonville that changed their lives forever. On the side of a road, Debbie and Jim spotted a sign advertising walking horses and welcoming visitors.

The pair found themselves on the farm of trainer Sam Caldwell. When they arrived, Caldwell had a four-year-old stallion named The Warlord on crossties. After talking to the Myers, Caldwell told Debbie that if she hadn’t been wearing a dress, he would have let her ride. Debbie told him straight away that she had pants in the car and off she went to change.

Debbie rode The Warlord that day and Jim recalls standing by the rail with Caldwell watching her. After a few minutes of seeing how much Debbie was enjoying it, Caldwell turned to Jim.

“He said to me, ‘I don’t know who you are and where you come from, but that ride just cost you a whole lot of money’,” Jim said.

Jim should not have been surprised by Debbie’s reaction to the ride. She had always displayed an affection for animals of all kinds as long as Jim has known her. He recalls an incident shortly after they moved to a piece of property with some acreage, about a year after they were first married. There was a lily pond on the property that had been covered over with dirt and leaves. One day, while by the pond, Debbie came across several baby rabbits. Wanting to do what she thought was best for the young animals, Debbie gathered them up and brought them up to her and Jim’s bedroom. Jim found her there later, with the young rabbits on the bed, trying to feed them with a baby bottle.

In much the same way that she knew she wanted to help those baby rabbits, despite the fact that neither she nor Jim had any knowledge of walking horses, Debbie knew that they were meant to be a part of her life. She also knew that no matter what, Jim would support her.

“Jim’s a big one with ‘If you have a dream, do it’,” she said.

Debbie and Jim bought two horses by the time they left Tennessee. They added another two before long. Not entirely sure of what they were supposed to do after buying the horses, they boarded them at a local polo club.

“Needless to say, they weren’t there long,” said Jim.

Debbie realized right away that she needed help. “I figured out really quickly I couldn’t do this by myself.”

With that in mind, the couple set themselves up with their first trainer: Herbert Smith. After Herbert, the Myers moved their horses to the barn of Frank Witherspoon. The experienced proved to be a life changing one for Debbie.

“Frank Witherspoon taught me every single thing I ever needed to know about walking horses,” Debbie said.

The couple made their next great move in the business thanks to a horse named Ebony’s Emperor.

Debbie had met trainer Allan Callaway in the early 1970s. Originally from Georgia, Callaway met Debbie while he was living there. Debbie and Callaway attended the same shows, but it wasn’t until the late 70s that Callaway began training for the Myers.

During his career, Ebony’s Emperor recorded an impressive five world championships, including Debbie’s first world title.

Working with Callaway brought more than just success in the ring; it also brought a new family friendship with the Callaways. Debbie and Callaway’s wife, Karen Callaway, both gave birth around the same time. Debbie still has pictures of Andrew playing with John Allan Callaway when they were young. She recalls going to the barn, a young Andrew in tow. Karen would make lunch for them while the boys played.

“That’s what this business really is; it’s family oriented,” Allan Callaway said. “”We have quite a bit of that.”

Unfortunately, the wonderful success Debbie shared with Ebony’s Emperor and Callaway came to an abrupt end when Ebony’s Emperor died unexpectedly. The death had a profound impact on Debbie.

“It just broke my heart,” she said. “It was like losing a best friend.”

As hard as it was to move on, Debbie refused to let Ebony’s Emperor’s death hold her back. The Myers bought a farm in Wartrace, Tenn. Trainer Sammy Day happened to have his farm just across the street. The proximity led to Day training for the couple on and off over the years. While the family still lived in Georgia most of the time, Debbie spent her summers at the farm with Andrew.

Debbie soon found the next great horse of her life. That horse was Collector’s Glory. Debbie bought the mare as a three-year-old, later winning the 1986 Three-Year-Old Mare World Championship. Perhaps more important than what the mare accomplished for Debbie in the show ring has been what she’s produced for Debbie as a broodmare. Now 25 years old, Glory has produced five daughters, every one of which Debbie owns. She sold one of the fillies once, but soon realized she had made a mistake in letting her go. It wasn’t long before Debbie went out and bought the filly back. The mares, which Debbie refers to as her “Glory Girls,” are now one of the most significant aspects of Debbie’s farm.

“They are kind of a foundation stock for my program now,” Debbie said. “I won’t ever sell any of them.”

Debbie was not alone in her continued passion for, and immersion in, the walking horse world. Jim enjoyed his own success with the stallion The Finishing Touch. The two shared a special bond that was clear to those who watched them.

“He was a one-man horse,” Debbie said. “No one could ride that horse like Jim.”

They kept the stallion until he was 12 years old. When they were approached with an offer to buy the stallion, they could see that Erica Hartlein connected with him and loved him. They decided to give the girl the same chance at success with the stallion that Jim had.

Several of Debbie and Jim’s children also became involved in the business while growing up. While Andrew was the only boy who showed, Debbie and Jim’s daughters showed and did well for a time. They were not involved for too long, however.

“They didn’t show very long because they got to where they wanted to meet us at the show with the horse washed and ready to go,” Jim said.

Even as her children got older and drifted away from the horse business, Debbie continued on. In 1998 Jim semi-retired and he and Debbie permanently moved to Shelbyville. The move made it all the more possible for Debbie to follow her passion.

Chad Way was the next trainer to have a major impact on the Myers and their life with horses. Way trained Debbie’s gelding Jubilee’s Night Threat.

Among his accomplishments, Night Threat brought Debbie a 1999 world championship and a 2000 reserve world championship. Regrettably, Night Threat died in the early morning of Nov. 29, 2000. Way, displaying his devotion to the family, and to the horse, remained with the gelding all through the night until his death.

Following the unfortunate occurrence, a familiar face reappeared in Debbie’s life. Allan Callaway had moved to Shelbyville and opened his training operation there. While the Myers had never lost touch with the Callaways, due to the distance between the Myers’ farm and Callaways, he had been unable to train for the couple.

By this time, Callaway’s son, John Allan, had joined the family business and was training horses alongside his father. It was John Allan who would train Debbie’s mare, I’m Causin’ Commotion.

“Probably the best mare of my life,” Debbie said of the horse.

Even as a two-year-old, Commotion began raking up wins. She only improved from there. Over the course of her short career, Commotion earned a total of five world championships. In 2006, with Debbie in the saddle, she took home the Owner/Amateur Mare and Gelding Reserve World Grand Championship. As if that wasn’t enough, she was voted the 2006 Mare Horse of the Year by the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association.

The future seemed to hold nothing but promise for Debbie and her homegrown mare. In March 2007, however, Allan knew something was wrong, even though Commotion was showing no signs of a problem. He told Debbie of his suspicions and before long the mare was shipped to Rood and Riddle Animal Hospital in Lexington, Ky.

There, she was diagnosed with a bout of colic. She underwent surgery and seemed to be improving. The roan mare bravely fought the illness for three weeks, before taking a turn for the worst. Allan drove all night to bring her home after her death.

Callaway remembers Commotion as being a special horse. “She was a real natural horse, easy to train,” he said. “She had a lot of heart to her.”

Debbie continued on, but Commotion’s memory still stays with her.

“That was tough,” she said. “I don’t even know how to say it. It’s just losing something invaluable.”

The loss was so difficult, Debbie and Allan don’t talk about it much.

While Debbie has trouble talking about Commotion, she managed to continue on with her life and her riding. Her unfortunate luck continued, however, when her pony stallion Nagano suffered an injury in mid-2007 and had to be taken out of competition. The pony, named for the Myers’ farm, has garnered some sales inquires, but that is not an option according to Debbie.

“I don’t ever want to sell him,” she said. “He’s my babysitter.”

Despite this, Debbie has several horses with promising futures to look forward to. Currently in training is her four-year-old stallion Simply José, out of the mare Simply Red. Despite his short career so far, José has earned several top placings. In 2006, José was the world champion in the Owner/Amateur Three-Year-Old Stallions class as well as Reserve World Grand Champion for Owner/Amateur Riders on Three-Year-Olds. The pair came out of the 2007 Celebration with a fourth place finish in the Owner/Amateur Riders on Four-Year-Old Stallions class.

Debbie is also anxiously awaiting the debut of her filly, Shakira.

“She’s just crackerjack good,” Debbie said of the mare. Shakira seems to be so good, in fact, that Debbie is looking to Shakira to be her next mount, who is also out of one of Debbie’s broodmares.

Even with all there is to look forward to, Debbie is constantly reminded of the presence that is missing.

“Commotion has just left a huge hole in my competition string,” Debbie said.

Despite no longer having Commotion in her life, Debbie found a way to keep the mare in the hearts and minds of those around her. At the 2007 Celebration, Debbie gave a memorial trophy in Commotion’s name during the Three-Year-Old Amateur World Grand Championship. As difficult as it was to give out a trophy in the name of her beloved mare, Debbie was not alone when she did. Her daughter, Alessandra Carter, had joined her in Shelbyville to watch her compete. Carter brought her three-year-old twins, Alexander and Isabel, with her. The children joined Debbie in center ring and helped her give out the award. The moment was a special one for Debbie.

“That was a joy to me,” said Debbie of the memory.

Those joys in life are what keep Debbie going, even when things are tough, and Debbie has certainly had her share of tough times in her life. In 2004, Debbie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments to battle the disease for the past three years. Debbie does her best to not allow it keep her down, physically or emotionally. The best method she has to keep her spirits up is visiting with her horses, either on her property or at the Callaways’ barn.

“I’ve been through a lot in these past few years and I just go over there when I want to forget everything,” she said.

Callaway is quick to admire Debbie’s strong nature. “She’s really just a brave, strong person,” he said. “She doesn’t do any complaining. You wouldn’t know it. She likes to come to the barn maybe once a week and just kick around.”

Debbie is sure to never take anything in her life for granted. “I cherish every day,” she said.

Debbie certainly has a lot to cherish. Besides her horses currently in competition, she has several up-and-comers and has high hopes for the future. These include the colt Purple Jazz, by Jazzman and out of one of Glory’s daughter, who is just beginning his training.

If that wasn’t enough to be thankful for, Debbie need look no further than her own 50 acre farm, Gates Manor Farm at Nagano, in Flat Creek, Tenn. The farm is the home to Debbie’s breeding stock as well as the family’s dogs and cats. Debbie’s beloved mare, Glory, whom she has now had for 22 years, lives on the farm with the other mares. Debbie makes sure Glory knows how much she cares for her every day.

“I always kiss her goodnight and tell her I love her,” Debbie said.

Having the farm and having those she loves around her has brought Shelbyville close to Debbie’s heart.

“I wouldn’t trade living in Shelbyville for anything in the world,” Debbie said. One of the reasons she gave was the great friends she has made while living there. The Callaways have also made living in Shelbyville special to Debbie.

“They are family,” she said of the Callaways. “The extra little things he’s (Allan) done for me have been unreal.”

Callaway is quick to praise Debbie and her history of raising and training quality horses from birth.

“That’s quite an accomplishment in and of itself,” he said. “It’s kind of special when you raise a colt from day one.”

That is not the only thing Callaway is able to commend about Debbie. “She’s a real genuine person. I mean, there’s no put on about her,” he said. “She’s a real good rider and she loves her horses.”

Along with raising and riding her horses, Debbie also keeps busy with the business she and Jim began about eight years ago, Gates Development, LLC. Through the company, the Myers develop land and build houses.

“It’s just a semi-retirement business,” said Jim.

So far, the business has been responsible for the building of about 50 houses in Bedford County, Tenn.

The Myers also spends their fair share of time traveling. Since they have been married, Debbie and Jim have gone to Europe, Mexico, and made 14 trips to Hawaii.

Over the years, Jim has noticed a shift in the responsibilities taken on by him and Debbie. With their children grown and out of the house, (Andrew, the youngest, is in the first year of his surgical intern residency at the University of Alabama, Birmingham) Debbie spends most of her time taking care of the horses and the construction aspect of their company. Jim focuses his energy on the company’s landscaping and the couple’s domestic necessities.

“I do all the cooking now,” he joked.

Just like Sam Caldwell predicted so many years ago, Jim acknowledges the cost of having horses since that first ride Debbie took. “The horses have been a diversion, an expensive diversion,” he said.

As expensive as it may be, it’s hard to argue with something that clearly brings so much joy to Debbie’s life.

“My years in the walking horses have been wonderful years,” Debbie said. “I’ve had ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade a day of it.”

 

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