By Kimberly Gatto
The immortal Shakespeare once wrote, “The most splendid gift of all is a noble horse.” Throughout history, there have been many equines that have proven these words correct. This is the story of one noble horse and the impact he had on my life from afar.
My story begins in Boston in the 1980s, where my childhood revolved around two great passions — horses and writing. As a budding author and a lover of all equines, I had a large assortment of horse books in all shapes and sizes. Every night at bedtime, I would pore through these books, mesmerized by the beautiful horses that stood, galloped and jumped across the pages. As a hunter rider, one of my favorite books was George Morris’ classic Hunter Seat Equitation — a book I reread time and time again.
One horse in the George Morris book always commanded my attention: Sandsablaze, a handsome chestnut Thoroughbred gelding. In the book, he and his young owner/rider, Buddy Brown, were shown winning the 1973 AHSA Medal Finals at Harrisburg. I was drawn to the horse’s attractive blaze and tall ivory stockings, his large “lop” ears and kind expression. To me, he appeared to be the quintessential equine partner. As his markings dazzled across the page in glorious black-and-white, Sandsablaze quickly became my favorite “famous” equine.
Mind you, at that time, there was no Internet available to search for information, so I knew very little about Sandsablaze’s life. In today’s world, I’d be able to simply type his name into a search engine and read about his life history. In the 1980s, however, there was no such luxury. As such, I was unaware of all that Sandsablaze had accomplished with Buddy Brown, including several Grand Prix wins and competing at the Olympics. I also didn’t know that the horse had died tragically in 1979. As the years passed, I thought of Sandsablaze from time to time, and often wondered what became of that handsome, kind-looking horse.
More than 30 years later, deeply established in my writing career, I came up with an idea for a book on Thoroughbred show horses. During my childhood, the majority of show hunters and jumpers were in fact Thoroughbreds. Having owned two myself, I have a strong affinity for the breed. I had hoped that by showcasing many of the greatest show hunters and jumpers throughout history, I could bring attention to the plight of the Thoroughbred and its usefulness as a sport horse.
Naturally, Sandsablaze was one of the first horses that I hoped to include in this book. Due to the power of the Internet, in which contact information is readily available, I was able to get in touch with Buddy Brown’s wife, Vanessa, and explained my project to her via email. She graciously put me in touch with Buddy, noting that he would be happy to talk about Sandsablaze. Nervously, I dialed Buddy’s number and left a voicemail.
I can still vividly recall the first conversation we had by phone. Buddy mentioned that Sandsablaze (known affectionately as “Pappy”) was in fact his “horse of a lifetime.” He offered to tell me their story for my book, noting that it was quite a powerful tale, worthy of a book in itself. I clearly remember that Buddy asked me if I’d like “the Reader’s Digest version or the whole story.” Of course, I wanted the entire story.
During the course of that first conversation, two things became readily clear. First, I realized that Buddy Brown is an amazing person and a true horseman, and second, he had a strong and enduring love for Sandsablaze that continues to this day. Pappy’s life and his bond with Buddy were indeed deserving of an entire book. Buddy would tell me the details of their story and I would put it into prose. I was incredibly honored to take on this project, and hoped that I could do their story justice.
Fortunately, my editor, Whitney Landis at The History Press, agreed that Buddy and Pappy’s story was indeed one for the ages. Over the next year, Buddy and I spent countless hours on the phone (as he is based in California and I in Massachusetts) as he relived the years spent with Pappy and their many adventures. I learned all about this amazing animal whose immense heart drove him to accomplish what had been deemed impossible. I also spent many hours on the phone with Buddy’s father, Graham, who is also an accomplished horseman. The more I spoke with Buddy and Graham, the more passionate I became about bringing Sandsablaze’s story — and their story — to life.
Over the winter months, I spent my free time researching the results of various horse shows where Pappy competed, locating and restoring old photographs and interviewing those who were in Pappy’s life before Buddy — including legendary figures such as Meredith McLaughlin and Joey Darby. I was honored to speak with some of Buddy’s teammates and colleagues, including my childhood idols George Morris, Michael Matz and Robert Ridland. Through this research, I learned a great deal about Pappy’s lineage and his early years, his personality and quirks, and the hard work and determination that he and Buddy expended on their way to success. While it was difficult to do all this while working full time (I work as a financial services writer during the day), it was worth every late night and early morning spent at the computer or delving through old newspaper clippings.
Pappy’s life story has taught me many important lessons – the value of trust and determination, the power of a true bond between a horse and human, and the fact that anything is possible with courage and heart. And while I never was able to see or “meet” this truly special horse in person, I feel honored to be able to tell his story. Through the book, this special horse continues to bring happiness to people, just as he did in life. Those who remember him are able to reminisce about an era gone by, and young people who had never heard of him can be inspired by his great heart. In the process, I’ve gained many wonderful friends, including the Brown family, Pappy’s original owner Meredith McLaughlin, his groom Jimmy Herring and others. Interestingly, my connection with Sandsablaze has come full circle — beginning and ending within the pages of a book.
Since its release, Sandsablaze’s book has already received many wonderful reviews. I’ve juggled calls and emails from various people who have already read the book, including the legendary George Morris himself, who described it as “a fascinating and most factual account” of Buddy and Sandsablaze. I’m looking forward to enjoying the success of the book in the months to come, and, most of all, being an instrument by which people will learn about this amazing animal. I’m also hopeful that, at some point, Sandsablaze will gain his rightful place in the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. A noble horse like Sandsablaze deserves nothing less.
To learn more about the book and read an excerpt, please visit http://sandsablaze.com
About the writer: Kimberly Gatto is the author of 14 published books thus far and has written for several horse magazines. She lives in Massachusetts and is the proud owner of a Thoroughbred and a Welsh pony.