By Linda White
We share the hurried rush of life, love, loss and death that our horses bring us,
honoring them for their brave hearts, their courage, and willingness to give.
When Hollywood gets wind of Mary Trowbridge’s positive influences on the Arabian breed and the people who surround it, watch for a blockbuster biopic, Mary’s Story, in a theater near you. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who take and those who give; Trowbridge is one of the latter. She is funny, irreverent, and understated, but she cannot hide her talent, her understanding of most things equine and human, or her passion for the safekeeping of both.
Ten years ago, when Trowbridge and several colleagues created the Horsemen’s Distress Fund, they hoped for the best, but little could have imagined how life-changing its effects would be. “We weren’t chartered until 2005, but at Scottsdale in 2004, 20 trainers stepped up, and the HDF hosted a trainers’ service auction that raised about $35,000. The Horsemen’s Distress Fund is NOT for just professionals,” she explains. “It is available to any Arabian Horse Association member in good standing. That includes amateurs, youth, preservationist breeders and others devoted to the Arabian horse. And the HDF’s mission is not only care for our own; we want to illuminate the Arabian breed to the larger community.” To date, the HDF has given out more than $1 million.
Youth exhibitor Lillie Brown and her family will never forget Mary, or the AHDF. “'I can't put into words how much Mary Trowbridge has done to help our family, through the roughest period of life we've ever been through,” says Lillie’s mother, Heather Barone. “When Lillie, then 13, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, I had no idea the financial toll her illness would take. We went from being financially secure, to being in danger of losing everything. Mary and the Arabian Horsemen’s Defense Fund stepped in and helped us when we needed it the most.
“Then, over a year after Lillie's cancer treatment was complete, she suffered a traumatic injury to her femur. Lillie was in intense pain and couldn't be moved without causing her to scream in agony. Once again our hero, Mary, stepped in and helped us get Lillie on a medevac flight to our home children's hospital, where her surgeons were able to save her leg. We made it through that horrible time in our lives with the help of Mary and the AHDF. We love and appreciate her more than words can express.”
Trowbridge’s, Ltd. has also embraced Horse Tales Literary Project, a nationally-based program dedicated to promoting children’s literacy, in cooperation with local schools, using live horses and horse literature, like Walter Farley’s Black Stallion and other classics,. “At Scottsdale this year (?)” she offers, "we had more than 600 first, fourth and fifth graders interacting with live horses, and receiving books to take with them.”
Trowbridge’s life’s work has grown from her own childhood fascination with horses. Her horse-lover mother encouraged her daughter’s passion as Mary, the youngest of four, grew up in little (pop. 1,394) Colebrook, NH. What kinds of horses did they have?
“Free ones,” Mary admits with a grin. “We had Ahab the A-rab, who was old enough to vote when we got him, and a Morgan gelding who lived to be 38. We showed a little, locally, and my career model always was to work with horses … and to try to understand people. I was accepted at William Woods College, but Marilyn Childs told me I would learn more by going to work for some good horseman.” [Ed. Note: Lifelong Vermont horse person and author Marilyn C. Childs was a noted Morgan horse breeder, trainer and exhibitor.]
Trowbridge had a college friend who worked at Sir William Farm, in Hillsdale, NY, so in 1978, during spring break, she followed Childs’ advice and joined her friend at Sir William. “Their trainer, Bill Bohl, was in Florida with the show string,” Mary explains. “When Bill came back, he told me he would like to offer me a job.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s great, because I wasn’t planning to leave here, anyway,’” Trowbridge spent four years with Bohl at Sir William, and joined him at Bridlewood Arabians for another four. “Then, my ‘maiden voyage’ training on my own was five years at Cricket Hill Farm, in Ancramdale, NY,” she adds.
Pat Trowbridge had spent his life with Angus cattle, first at his family’s farm in New York, and then with three or four different New England Angus breeders, managing farm operations, large-scale breeding programs, and transporting cattle to shows. The two met while Mary was at Sir William, and were married in 1981.
“We both were fortunate to have gained so much agricultural business experience,” she states. Twelve years later, still working for others, the couple elected to go out on their own, well aware that succeeding financially in their new endeavor would require a delicate balancing act. “The horse business doesn’t generate enough profit to pay owner/trainers a salary,” says Trowbridge with her usual candor. “That’s why it’s not a viable business entity for most private owners. I would equate it to wanting to get the money you spend for oil and gas back out of your car. And each horse has different physical and mental capabilities, so keeping their owners hopeful, yet realistic in their expectations, can be a real challenge.
“That’s a whole different conversation, but rarely do I get a horse I can’t do something with. However, I don’t like disappointing people for a living, so Pat and I decided to take on the challenges of running our own business. Do we ever ask ourselves why we’re doing this? Sure. At least once a week-if not once a day! But it’s a labor of love. Neither of us comes from money; our only backers are our clients and staff. We are like the spokes of a big wheel: Pat and I start the engine, but rolling the wheel takes all of us.
“One of the things I learned from Bill Bohl was the importance of paying it forward to the next generation. We are blessed to have a wonderful core group of employees who stay with us. Many come back as interns, and go on as professionals. There’s not much ‘me’ or ‘I’ in this business; we are a team, and we encourage their proprietary interest. It bothers me when an employee starts to talk about ‘my’ this or “my” that. We are the ‘Gang Green’. This is a team effort. We try to share our intrinsic values.
“A big part of it is ethics: being fair to the horses, and to the people. Part of the difference here is that horses are a dream for every one of us, at every level. It’s all predicated on a dream. Dreams get us through life, making the horse business a real challenge. It’s no surprise that horse people take their horses’ success so personally, because when people bring you a horse, they are turning their dreams over to you.”
Trowbridge trained horses for Broadway producer Mike Nichols for a number of years, and when he decided to disperse, the couple leased his farm, finally purchasing it in 2004. “That was a huge hurdle, especially in a changing business model,” Trowbridge admits. “Over the past eight years, the horse business has really changed, in part because we have allowed people who are not a part of the agricultural industry to change our lives. This is having a huge impact, especially on hobby industries like this one, one of the first to feel its effects.”
Trowbridge and her amateur and youth riders have earned scores of national performance titles. She was a virtual unknown when she trained and rode the *Bask son, Red Tape to the 1991 U.S. National Park Championship, but dozens more memorable show ring stars, both horse and human, would fill the succeeding 24 years, earn Trowbridge her colleagues’ and the Arabian public’s highest regard. The many professional honors she has won only begin to reflect her influence since 1978, when she took what she thought would be a 2-week gig at Sir William Farm.