Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
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Brown Beauty

Katherine grew up in Canada, riding a pony named irish Mist. He was her first love. Cruel fate separated the two, until, years later, something brought them together.
By  |
Riding Crop: The last leg of Katherine Todd’s journey back to Irish Mist began with a photo on Instagram. Elizabeth Lavin
During a quiet moment at work, Katherine Todd scrolled through an Instagram feed created by five Dallas girls who call themselves the Royal House Saddle Club. Katherine lives in Canada, but Instagram’s algorithm had suggested that she have a look. She saw a photograph of a Connemara pony with a white star on his forehead. Then there was the mouth. Katherine started shaking. She knew she’d found him. For eight long years, Katherine searched for the horse that saved her life when she was a troubled teenager growing up in Guelph, Ontario, an hour southwest of Toronto. The horse’s name was Irish Mist. And now he was living in a backyard barn on Royal Lane, in Preston Hollow. Until recently, Irish Mist was owned by my sister. Katherine put her face in her hands and sobbed. She doesn’t usually show emotion at work. She’s paid to be the calm one. Katherine is a patient advocate at a group home in Guelph. Eventually, she gathered herself and texted her fiancé. Until that moment, Katherine had scoured the internet in vain: deep searches of Facebook, Instagram, hunter jumper competition results, horse blogs—every digital place horse people hang out. Nothing. How does a horse disappear? Katherine sent a message to Remy Willey, a Highland Park High School junior who missed six months of school last year with migraine headaches, the lingering effects of a riding injury. Remy’s photographs had attracted 15,000 followers to the Royal House Instagram feed. “I used to ride this horse,” Katherine wrote. “He’s so sweet and sensitive.” Remy responded by sending more pictures. It took almost a year for Katherine and her fiancé, Cody McNaughton, to save up enough money and accumulate enough vacation time to travel, but by June of this year, they were on a plane to Dallas.

When I met Katherine in the baggage claim at Love Field, she was outfitted for yoga—tights, tank top, everything but a mat and a water bottle. Cody, a retired professional hockey player, stood next to the carousel. They’d been flying all day: Toronto, New York, Atlanta, Dallas. Improbably, their bags were among the first off the plane. My sister, Scarlett, who’d seen Katherine’s original comment on Instagram, was idling outside. She would drive us to meet Irish.

Scarlett is an unlikely horse person. The two of us didn’t grow up around horses, didn’t ride horses, or know people who did. She doesn’t ride now. Scarlett bought Irish in 2010 for her daughter, who was 10 years old at the time. Scarlett was in the middle of a divorce and thought her daughter needed something. Maybe they both did, because when her daughter outgrew Irish, Scarlett couldn’t bear to part with him, at least not all the way.

She begged a woman named Dominique Miller to take him. Dominique had talked Scarlett into buying Irish when her daughter rode at the Rocking M Stables, on White Rock Creek, east of Presbyterian Hospital. So Dominique was already Irish’s godmother, if that’s really a thing. Eventually, Dominique agreed to take the horse. She had one stall available.

Katherine is shy. Cody is the talker. Before we’d made it to Walnut Hill, my sister and I knew the outlines of Cody’s hockey career: selected in the first round of the 2008 Ontario Hockey League draft, along with Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin. Seguin went ninth, Cody 12th. Cody bounced around the minors, played professionally in Germany. He thought the Germans were going to give him a BMW, surely an Audi. “I got a Corolla,” he said, laughing. Cody was invited to skate with the New York Islanders. It came down to Cody and another guy. “You’re just as good as he is,” the coach told Cody. “But he’s 5 inches taller.”

Stable Partnership: Even after years apart, the bond between Katherine and Irish—forged during competitive riding events across Canada—is strong.

Irish was originally owned by Katherine’s aunt, a woman named Valerie Shipp. Valerie is an accomplished Canadian horsewoman and sits on the board of the Ontario Equestrian Federation. Horses run in the family. Valerie and a partner owned Tallery Stables, a show barn. “My aunt was a goddess to me,” Katherine says. “I told her, ‘I’ll do anything to be around horses.’ ” Valerie welcomed her niece, and Katherine fed, watered, mucked, all the usual things. And for years, Katherine competed all over Canada.

Irish first appears in the records of Equestrian Canada in 2007. He was 6 years old. A year later, he shows up in the database of the U.S. Equestrian Federation. By then, Irish had his permanent pony card. Irish is listed as 14.2 hands, or 56.8 inches at the withers, the maximum allowable height for a pony. Irish was more valuable as a large hunter jumper pony—up to three times that of a comparable hunter jumper horse. There was only one problem: Irish didn’t like to jump. He wasn’t Ferdinand the Bull exactly. Irish never laid down in an arena. But he certainly wasn’t a push-button horse.

According to Katherine, when Irish went away to be broken by Canadian cowboys, something awful happened. He came back terrified of men, broomsticks, and the mounting block. He would rear when he was bridled. Irish still flinches at plastic flowers, white handkerchiefs, standing water, or blue tarps simulating water. “He was a broken little thing,” Katherine says. “So was I.”

Katherine is the mixed-race daughter of a Canadian mother and a Trinidadian father. Kids called her Oreo when she walked past. In high school, Katherine developed a severe eating disorder and lost a quarter of her body weight. She exercised obsessively.

Katherine recognized herself in the horse. And maybe he sensed something in her. For three years, they were inseparable. “I was in love with him,” she says.   

Turning onto Royal, I looked back at Katherine. She stared out the window. The houses get bigger as you head east. “I don’t expect him to remember me,” she’d told me over the phone. “The last time he saw me, I was 15 years old, sobbing, with my arms around his neck.”

In 2008, Valerie had invited Katherine to a horse show in Kentucky. Katherine thought she was going to watch her cousin ride Irish. In reality, Valerie wanted to get rid of him. Late on the final day of the show, Valerie pulled Katherine aside. “Go say goodbye to Irish,” her aunt told her. “I sold him.” Katherine curled herself into a ball for the 600-mile ride back to Guelph. “Why are you upset?” her aunt asked. Katherine says that’s what hurt the most: her aunt didn’t notice the connection between Irish and her. She cried for weeks.

Within a year of the sale, Katherine started searching for Irish. She was scared for him. “He’s not easy,” she says. “He’s the sort of horse who’d be abused.” Katherine’s aunt wouldn’t tell her where Irish had gone, only that he’d been sold to a good home, to good riders. Ultimately, Irish was consigned to a Dallas woman.

For two years, Irish bounced from horse show to horse show. It’s a hard life for a horse. Trailers, unfamiliar stalls. When the horse came to Rocking M, Irish was shoeless and had a suspicious strip of white hair that ran along his withers, the point at which a horse is measured. A horse scar. Cut a horse and white hair grows along the incision. At some point, someone wanted to ensure that Irish stayed a pony, but it didn’t work. Today, Irish stands about 15 hands high, or 60 inches tall. He’s not quite a pony, not quite a horse.

According to Katherine, when Irish went away to be broken by Canadian cowboys, something awful happened. He came back terrified of men, broomsticks, and the mounting block.

As we pulled into Dominique’s driveway, she stood in the breezeway of the barn. She calls her place Royal House. Dominique wasn’t wearing her usual Union Jack cap. The riding arena, which takes up much of the front yard, was empty. The next morning, it would be filled with little girls, half of whom would participate in egg and spoon races on horseback while the other half would tightrope walk along the top rail of a fence.

Katherine got out and walked over to Dominique. They hugged. The greeting was brief. Hello. How are you? He’s right over here. Everyone could feel the pull. My sister, Cody, and I held ourselves back. Dominique walked Katherine to the middle of three stalls, where Irish lives between Tootsie Roll and Lucy. Dominique pulled open the door. Katherine stared inside—the in-between girl looking at the in-between horse. Then she hung her head and sobbed.

Irish eased toward the open doorway. It’s impossible to know whether he recognized Katherine, but he was certainly curious. Generally, Irish moves to the back of his stall when someone new approaches. Dominique whispered to Katherine, “Talk to him. Talk to him. Let him hear your voice.” But Katherine couldn’t speak. I looked over at Cody. He bit his lip. He and Katherine have been together for seven years, since high school. Irish has been there the whole time, like a phantom limb. Irish was her first love, he’d told me. “Let him hear your voice,” Dominique kept saying. But for Katherine, it was just too much.

Eventually, Dominique handed Katherine a piece of watermelon. Irish loves watermelon, rind and all. “Watch out,” Dominique said, stepping off to the side. “He’ll slobber all over you.” Pink water poured out of Irish’s mouth. Seeds splattered on the concrete. Katherine got watermelon all over her hands. The mess broke the tension, and we were free to breathe. Katherine fed Irish another piece. She stayed a long time. “It’s him,” she said finally. “He’s gotten bigger.”

Afterward, Katherine followed Dominique inside Dominique’s gray, ranch-style house. Katherine and Cody were staying in a room that looked into Irish’s stall. Later Katherine told me, “I couldn’t have imagined that this place existed.”

The Royal House Saddle Club was originally composed of Willey, Alex Blumenfeld, Tarryn Richards, Elise Marshall, and Isabel Gregory. Alex says the club was accidental. They were just the girls who rode on Saturdays. “None of us were good friends,” she says. “But we loved it and stayed.” All of the founding five are accomplished riders. Isabel, who’s bound for SMU in the fall, is the oldest. She’s currently the third-ranked junior dressage rider in the FEI Young Riders of America, ages 18 to 21. One afternoon, her father leaned toward me. “Dominique’s responsible for Isabel becoming the rider she is,” he said.

Royal House runs like a salon. All day long people pop in and out to see Dominique, who’s usually feeding, mucking, watering, or running small camps for children. If you drop by to visit, expect to talk on the move. One morning, while Dominique poured oats into hubcap-size platters, an architect stopped by to give her a goat magazine. Royal House has two goats: Mary Poppins and Blue Bell. Blue Bell is Remy’s. It was supposed to be a dwarf goat but, like Irish, kept growing. There are also chickens. The west flock is comprised of bigger birds. They lay the biggest eggs. The east flock lives just outside Irish’s stall window. They are, as Dominique’s husband, Kirk, calls them, noncompliant. Most nights they have to be put to bed.

Dominique has been around horses her whole life. She was born in London, moved to South Africa, then back to England, to Farleigh Hungerford, a village near Bath. “I grew up playing in the dry moat of a ruined castle,” she says. “We all had different backgrounds: kids from council houses, kids from manor houses. Put us with horses, and we were on equal ground.” Dominique came to Dallas as a nanny at 17. She went back to England for Montessori training. When she was 19, she returned to Dallas for good. She taught at Meadowbrook School on Northwest Highway, and she has been teaching art or riding ever since.

The horses at Dominique’s aren’t the only ones in Preston Hollow. Ross Perot reportedly kept Tennessee Walkers on his property for years. Most are hidden away behind tall hedges or live in barns of two or three horses. One homeowner is building a house-size barn on Strait Lane. Another just went up on Walnut Hill. It includes a stall for a donkey named Ed. Before long, North Dallas real estate agents will be staging their better listings with retired thoroughbreds.

A few hours after Katherine and Irish’s reunion, Dominique and Kirk cooked dinner. Chicken, potatoes, salad. Kirk is Dominique’s second husband. Looking around the house—a project in every corner—I couldn’t imagine either one of them ever telling the other one “no.” Theirs is a Montessori marriage. Honey, I wanna reinvent the beehive. Use your 3-D printer! Can we get a rabbit? YES! We’ll name him Zeus and keep him in the dining room! Let’s adopt a street dog from Nicaragua! Only if it looks like a catfish! Dominique and Kirk met online. His profile said, “I’m useful, not useless.” As if to prove it, Kirk built the Royal House barn.

By the time Kirk got up to wash the dishes, Cody was showing us pictures of himself after he was cross-checked in the face. He lost four teeth. He finished the game with chewing gum plugging the holes. Without warning, Katherine, Dominique, my sister Scarlett, and her daughter started talking about Irish the way men get criticized for talking about women. I couldn’t keep up with who said what.

He has high cheekbones.

I just want to squeeze his face.

Oh, he looks good. Under saddle he’s amazing. We put green saddle blankets on him.

Green! We did, too!

He has a nice bum. And those bulges on his neck.

He’s as pretty as John Kennedy Jr.

He reminds me of Little Joe on Bonanza.

Little Joe rode a paint.

Not the horse. Little Joe.

I think Irish looks like Brad Pitt.

Irish is smarter than Brad Pitt.

Little Joe worked what he had.

The next morning, I was alone in the barn, sitting in the breezeway, when Katherine walked in wearing paddock boots and shorts. We didn’t acknowledge each other. She slipped into the feed room and got two apples, walked to Irish’s stall, and pulled open the door. Katherine stepped inside and leaned against the wall. It was such an intimate moment that if I could have heard what she was saying, I’m not sure I’d have written it down. Irish came over when he saw Katherine or when he saw the apples. He let her stroke his face and neck even after the apples were gone. The spell was only broken when my sister walked in to check on us.

Scarlett delivered Irish to Royal House on St. Patrick’s Day 2016. Dominique threw a welcome party. “Why’d you sell him?” I asked Scarlett during a long phone call about Irish and horses. “Why, I mean, if he’s perfect and all?” There was a pause. I knew it wasn’t for money. Scarlett sold Irish for $1. “It was more like a thank-you,” she said. “For her letting him live with her. I knew she would always do what was right for him. I was so grateful. There is nowhere else on earth I’d rather him live.”

My sister still pays for part of Irish’s upkeep, buying new bridles and blankets. Every now and then, she’ll bring a 50-pound sack of carrots. She chips in for hay and spends most Fridays mucking stalls. “Lots of us do it,” she said, referring to the other horse mothers. “Moms who don’t even ride. I feel good when I leave there. I’ve hugged Irish. Dominique serves us kombucha.”

On her third and last day at Royal House, Katherine finally rode Irish. Dominique, Cody, my sister, and I stood under a beach umbrella with our arms draped over a fence. It was 11 o’clock hot. Dominique’s neighbor, Wende Neitzel, crossed the alley to watch. Wende volunteers at Royal House. She competed in dressage as an amateur for 10 years after briefly riding professionally. After regaining her amateur status, she rode at Devon, perhaps the United States’ most prestigious dressage event. In 2012, she was the amateur champion of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Dominique was nervous when Katherine mounted Irish. Katherine’s no longer small like the girls who generally ride him. He sometimes steps away when he feels a boot in the stirrup. If a rider’s not committed, she could find herself doing the splits in the air. “He might be one of the most intuitive horses I’ve ever seen,” Wende said, as Katherine started off at a leisurely walk. “He wants to know what you know.”

Even to the untrained eye, Katherine and Irish’s bond was unmistakable. But it made sense. They learned to ride together. Katherine sat like a dressage rider: upright, flexible, and balanced. Hunter jumper riders have a tendency to lean forward. “Imagine having someone on your shoulders,” Dominique said. “If they’re always leaning forward, it throws you off balance.”

Dominique called out instructions, but I’m not sure Katherine heard her. She was listening to Irish. “A horse feels everything,” she’d told me earlier. “They can feel your tension.” Presumably they can also feel your joy. Katherine and Irish made slow circles in the arena. Dominique gave up her coaching. She turned to us. “He’s completely comfortable with her,” she said. “Katherine’s gotten him to leg-yield. She’s even asking him to stretch, and he’s doing it.”

After 40 minutes or so, Irish and Katherine were sweaty. “Katherine has a lovely seat,” Wende said, one of those sports compliments that don’t sound like much to outsiders but stand like trophies to the informed. Katherine dismounted, her face flush. Katherine walked Irish behind the barn, where she and Dominique hosed him down.

A week later, I asked Katherine about the ride. “It’s like he was wondering, ‘Where do I know you from?’ ” she said. “And I was telling him, ‘I was someone in your life who loved you well.’ ”