Sometimes, returning to a place in our pasts, even a happy place, can be one of the most emotionally draining experiences that a person can endure. This was certainly true for me when I ventured back to the now abandoned Shalom Farm, where I had taken riding lessons years ago and ultimately purchased my mare Dalrahza from Les Wagschal.
York Region Ontario is home to over 1500 horse farms and more than 20,000 horses. Shalom Farm was a breeder of Egyptian
and Anglo-Arabian horses from the mid-seventies until Les passed away in 2002, but the farm continued on until shortly before it was sold in 2011, so that the remaining horses could be sold. Now, the 150 acres are designated as “Heritage,” and according to the town of Whitchurch-Stouffville, there have been no applications made by the current developer to change that designation or even build on the land. I expect that in the near future it will become home to subdivisions or big box stores, which seems to be the demise of a lot of picturesque properties in the area. These saving graces – networks of small, picturesque horse farms that meander through the landscape were and are so comforting. You know that the moment civilization proves too much to bear, you can drive a short distance to your stable and tack up a horse and without crossing any major roads, head for the York Region forests, not to be heard from for hours.
A couple of weeks ago I decided to return to the farm with my camera to preserve the memories. The imposing iron gates, normally closed to prevent the possibility of a horse escaping out on to a major road, were wide open, and there were deep tire marks throughout the property. Outside looking around, I saw it: the century farmhouse, the “guesthouse,” the formerly productive land, farm implements, and the two barns and large arena.
The outbuildings near the home and arena are now in terrible disrepair, and the house was sadly in much the same condition, having been salvaged of anything that could be driven away or carried off. A previous tenant operating a school in the last few years built a beautiful observation gallery in the arena, which is now stripped as well. In assessing the condition of the buildings, there is a visceral truthfulness that spares nothing. The porch steps are completely gone, and the front door is absent, now covering a large hole in the floor. Some windows were broken or missing. I stood in silence and awaited the memories and old familiarities, feeling buffeted by grief and loss. In my opinion, no one is able to have authentic interactions with supernatural beings, because I’m quite sure that the supernatural does not exist, but were ghosts of horses and people past following me around wanting to be heard? It was very much like glimpsing another reality. I vividly remembered each horse standing in his/her stall as if the memory were maybe six months old….
Of course, Les Wagschal was an internationally known clinician, giving seminars/clinics all over the world. He was 11 Times National/Reserve Champion – Dressage, and 3 Times Open National Champion
Dressage in U.S. and Canada. He acquired some of his foundation breeding stock from Germany and the EAO. He was perhaps most famous for breeding/competing with Shalom Mishkoh +//, an imposing and talented 16.2 grey Anglo-Arabian sired by Serenity Osiris and a thoroughbred mare, trained to Grand Prix in dressage. He even won the Devon Open one year. Shalom horses are used as sporthorses all over the world, and Les sold horses to Sheikhas and porn stars, and regular horse enthusiasts like me.
There was padlock on the gate and a “No Trespassing” sign up when I drove by two days later.
I wish I had met Les and his family (and Dalrahza who is also now gone) years before I did. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to be coached by both Les and his daughter; you just don’t get many opportunities to learn from people of this calibre. You also don’t get many opportunities to own a horse that has competed in the US Nationals and excelled as a working cow horse, trail mount, and a carriage driving horse. Sometimes it takes years to learn to relax and enjoy riding, and then you realize you should have started sooner. But after the ride is over, no one can take the grief away, nor should anyone try. Our love for people and animals is nothing but a gift, and it keeps on giving, even when they go home.
And, of course, the happy memories – they tide us over the stormy and sad days if we are willing to keep them alive. They can give us warmth on the most chilly and lonely nights. Nurture them, and keep them safe.