'Horse of a lifetime' fulfills her dreams
Barbara Halpern rides Moto at BarGee Farms in Indiana Township.
Barbara Halpern and Moto were winners at the Sewickley Hunt Horse Show in May.
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As a child, Barbara Halpern would ride three or four buses from her native Providence, R.I., to take a riding lesson. Then, when she got home she didn't want to wash her hands because "I wanted to savor the aroma of horse on my hands."
As a young woman, she went on to forge a career doing horse-related public relations that offered occasional equine side benefits -- such as riding beautiful gray Arabians under the lights of the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden to promote a horse giveaway by her client Courvoisier.
And then, after she co-founded and was running the former Hartwood Show Jumping Festival in Hampton, people loaned her horses to ride in the amateur equitation classes on the flat. Six years in a row she won. "People thought it was fixed!" she joked.
But the itch was never scratched.
"I always desperately wanted a horse," said Ms. Halpern of Shadyside. Not just any horse, but one with whom she could compete in big amateur shows.
Finally, at age 61 and after two other horses failed to work out, she's got one in Moto, an 18-year-old gray Dutch Warmblood. They've earned blue ribbons in every show they've gone to, competing over 3-foot fences in the adult amateur division.
Ms. Halpern's first horse was a thoroughbred mare whom her two brothers bought for her as a wedding present more than 30 years ago. She showed her about five times, but Wedding Whim was not able to do all the maneuvers. The horse died a year and a half later from a lesion on her spine.
Decades passed. Finally, seven years ago, Ms. Halpern leased and then bought a "fun" horse. But Kashtan, a Swedish Warmblood, was a little too feisty on the ground, and he didn't have the classic skills to do well in anything but small local shows.
Still, Ms. Halpern didn't give up.
"I wanted a nice old campaigner," Ms. Halpern said. "I was 60. I thought, 'If I'm not going to do it now, when am I going to do it?' "
She mentioned that she needed a "new horse" to her friend, Paul Valliere, a dealer, who warned her it might take a year to find the right one.
Three weeks later, he called to say he'd found Moto, who was available because the woman who owned him couldn't get him to do what she wanted.
Ms. Halpern doesn't have that problem.
While she was still getting acquainted with him on a leasing arrangement, she went to a show in Cleveland and came back with a blue ribbon. She subsequently bought him and went to another show, which also yielded a blue ribbon.
This past May, the duo won the Sewickley Hunt Horse Show equitation class for adults 18 and older, plus four jumping classes for adults 35 and older. Ms. Halpern said she was the oldest competitor by 25 years.
"He's been great. He's truly the horse of a lifetime. He's very quiet, but he comes alive at horse shows when you jump. He's a beautiful jumper. I can also take him out trail riding," she said.
"And he is like owning a large lovable puppy dog. He nickers whenever I go toward his stall and will lick me all over. It is very hard to find a horse with all these traits."
After Sewickley, she had planned to show Moto in Michigan in July and at this past weekend's Western Pennsylvania Professional Horsemen's Association Horse Show in Saxonburg, but he pulled a knee tendon in late June and has been sidelined. Ms. Halpern now is thinking of taking him to a show in Ocala, Fla., next February.
"I am not rushing the healing, as he is irreplaceable, and I want it to be perfectly resolved before I jump again," she said.
Ms. Halpern has driven to Moto's stable, BarGee Farms in Indiana Township, every day to ice down his sore knee; even when he's healthy she does all her own horse care, saving on stabling costs. "It's a labor of love," she said.
And it's a remarkable turn of events for a horse-crazy woman who was so close, yet so far from horses for so many years.
She had a job writing for in-house corporate newspapers right out of Simmons College in Boston. Later, after a failed attempt doing graphics for a New York agency, a patient of her father gave her the name of PR man Ted Worner as a possible job lead. When she visited his office, the first things she saw were posters of a name-and-win-the-horse contest he promoted that she had entered as a child. An instant bond formed between the two, and he hired her.
The promotion for the Courvoisier account she came up with was a yearly giveaway of a look-alike for the gray Arabian in the famous painting "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" by Jacques-Louis David. In finding and buying the horses, she actually talked one year by phone to a Saudi Arabian prince. His horses were too expensive, so she found and bought one from stage and film director Mike Nichols.
Then she married tax attorney Richard Halpern and moved to Pittsburgh, where she got a regular PR job with Lando Co.; the salary paid the board for Wedding Whim. When the mare died, Ms. Halpern settled into a life of raising two daughters, working part time in public relations at Marc USA -- and riding lessons.
Then in 1988, social worker Carol Huff of Fox Chapel called with the idea of having a grand prix show jumping festival as a fundraiser for the Parental Stress Center, now part of Family Resources of East Liberty, which focuses on the prevention and treatment of child abuse in the region.
"That was a wonderful opportunity to use the PR skills I'd developed in New York," Ms. Halpern said.
Two years later, the first Hartwood show was held after she lined up Waterworks Mall and Range Rover as sponsors.
"It became one of the most popular shows on the U.S. circuit. It was one of the largest grand prixs."
After 10 years, though, a change in leadership brought a decision by the stress center to do a less-intense fundraiser. Until then it brought in $40,000 to $60,000 to the center every year and added $2 million to the Allegheny County economy, Ms. Halpern said.
Since then, she has done freelance public relations and taken riding lessons. "Right now I'm enjoying my new horse," she said.
"I'm living out a childhood fantasy at the age of 61."
First Published August 9, 2010 12:00 am