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Wanted: Stories on Walking Horse Underdogs

(Editor’s note: Harriet VanDyke, a walking horse enthusiast, owner and exhibitor from Providence Forge, Va., welcomes your stories on the Tennessee Walking Horse underdog, or Cinderella stories of your walking horses. Last year, her “Seabiscuit,” Sunfire Phoenix, carried her to the Three-Year-Old Amateur Park Pleasure Reserve World Championship.

Please send your story ideas to the following e-mail address: Please keep it short and make sure you provide adequate contact information so she can follow up. Her columns will run in The Walking Horse Report.

(Here is her story.) By Harriet VanDyke

Here’s a little background about me: I am Harriet VanDyke and one of the poster children for Walking Horse underdogs. I am a relative latecomer to the industry. I had owned horses for about eight years and was the co-owner of a small boarding stable when a boarder asked me to help her with her newly purchased Tennessee Walking Horse mare.

Lady was a wonderful, smooth riding, naturally going horse, who was the perfect ambassador for the Tennessee Walking Horse.

We must never forget in the midst of all of our bickering among ourselves that we need all facets of the breed if we are not only to survive but also to thrive. I owe a great debt to Lady and her owner Joan and the many other wonderful Walking Horse people that I have met along the way for what has become my lifelong passion.

I now live in Providence Forge, Va., with my husband, my two children, and two of our retired show horses who have become excellent trail horses. Pride and Pepper have introduced many converts to the “glide ride.”

When I am not trail riding, showing horses, or spreading the word about the wonder of the Walking Horse, I am a high school teacher. We have had a horse in training over the years with some of the best in the business: Steve Hankins, Russ Thompson, and Joel Woosley. We now call Jeff Hatcher’s barn home. Last year my Seabiscuit--Sunfire Phoenix--carried me to the Three-Year-Old Amateur Park Pleasure Reserve World Championship. Let’s face it, Ohio-bred, Virginia-owned, West Virginia-trained, and ridden by a high school teacher; it doesn’t get any more Cinderella than that.

Dating back to biblical times, the story of David and Goliath is an example of the phenomenon that captures the interest and support of everyday people. Most everyone loves an underdog.

It is because these everyday heroes share a shred of commonality with the rest of us? May it is because America’s story is the story of an underdog, a dark horse of sorts. When the colonists traveled across the Atlantic in search of democracy, freedom, and equal chances for all people, no one expected us to overcome the English Monarchy that oppressed us, but we did.

Our ragtag, undersupplied, undertrained militia overcame England using pure grit. Over the years, the term “underdog or dark horse” has become interchangeable symbols that America rallies behind and “roots for.”

I would venture to guess that everyone reading this column today is a horse lover. I would also venture a guess that everyone was hoping that the small gelding underdog named Funny Cide would defeat the odds and become the first gelding to win the Triple Crown in decades.

Remember the unforgettable story of Seabiscuit; he was an American hero during the Great Depression who won the hearts of most everyone because there was a little of him in each of us. I recently watched another fascinating equine underdog story called Hidalgo.

I am sure you are wondering what my point is. This column was forged by a discussion on The Walking Horse Report message boards based on the age-old question about whether judging is fair or not. Judging is a subjective process performed by individuals who even under the best of circumstances can be influenced by personal preferences.

Unfortunately underdogs do not always fare as well with judges as they do with the rest of us. Most of us realize that it is difficult for the everyday Walking Horse owner to compete with the “Walking Horse Elite.” Without naming names, I am sure that each of you knows one person who is on that list.

It is the working class owners who with limited resources continue to compete and have become the backbone of our sport. These faceless owners sacrifice from their own lives and needs for the benefit of their horses. There are owners like myself who cannot afford to advertise their many wins. Oftentimes, it is all we can do to keep up with our training bill and sometimes, we don't do that very well.

At times I wonder, as do many of you, when we see two good horses and the more notable rider wins the blue, if the two riders switched horses, would the outcome be the same?

The purpose of this column is to tell the many untold stories of the Walking Horse underdogs. I do not want to undercut the many contributions of the Walking Horse Elite; we know what you do for the breed and our sport, and we are grateful. Remember the classes would be mighty small without the everyday dreamers who show against the Elite every weekend. Let's not forget the many wonderful everyday people who also make important contributions to the industry. This column is dedicated to making sure that every dog or horse has its day.

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