A freak equine accident last November placed Shelly Townsend’s prospects for survival in peril. While attempting to leap over an obstacle from an overambitious distance, a 1,400-pound mare thrust Townsend to the ground and trampled her torso. The Millsboro native likened the impact to that of a NASCAR driver colliding with a wall. She suffered a punctured lung, a punctured femoral artery, a lacerated liver and four broken ribs.
“In any sport that you do, there’s a danger,” Townsend said. “At some point you’re going to get hurt.”
If Townsend’s heart monitor were a thoroughbred racetrack, life and death were galloping neck and neck. Doctors estimated she had a 50 percent chance of pulling through. Then her guardian angel ran by the Grim Reaper like death was standing still. Now the amateur equestrienne is back on the horse — the same horse, Onyx (or “Tina”), that catalyzed the calamity.
Townsend straps on chaps and a helmet, and takes Tina — her favorite filly — for a jaunt through the obstacle course at her 43-acre Dagsboro farm. Here, she trains jumpers with help from her protégé, Sandra Mutton. Competitive jumpers are judged for speed and hurdling, and the four-legged athlete with the fastest finish and fewest faults triumphs.
At Townsend’s 75-acre facility in Millsboro, her other apprentice, Rachel Deig, helps train hunters, which are assessed on their style and technique.
“It’s supposed to look like the horses and riders are one,” Townsend said.
Deig also assists people wishing to learn or improve horseback riding skills.
“Clients fit different profiles,” Townsend said. “Some people just send horses for training and to be sold.”
Townsend and her team, which includes groomer Greg Romero, Townsend’s “right arm,” enjoyed a banner year in 2004. They were very busy, showing nearly 25 weeks, and very successful.
“We won almost every time we stepped in the ring,” Townsend said, adding the success led to the sale of three nice horses.
All but a few of the horses housed at the two facilities are on the block, with price tags generally ranging between $25,000 and $250,000. Competitive jumpers and hunters can cost more than $1 million.
“Honesty is one thing I’d really like to emphasize,” Townsend said. “We want to match the horse and the rider.”
“Some people who sell horses are like used car salesmen,” Deig appended. “That’s not what we want.”
Despite the disaster last year, Townsend feels fortunate for her history in the saddle and with the stable stalwarts. She has been tutored and befriended by preeminent breeders, trainers and riders from Western Europe to West Chester, Penn. The list includes Olympians Chef d’ equipe and wife Mary, Pierre Jolicoeur, Frank Chapot and Nona Garson, and other notables such as Emil Spadone, Dennis Mitchell, Paul and Emile Hendrix and Peter Van Der Kallen.
The latter acts like a father to Townsend, she said, by housing and feeding the Delawarean during her annual scouting ventures to the Netherlands. Looking for discipline, temperament, scope (power in jumping) and technique, she bolsters her battalion of Dutch warmbloods, which fill the expanding stall space in her two local barns.
Though the Dutch warmblood breed exclusively comprehends Townsend’s ten-horse collection, the clip-clop connoisseur doesn’t discriminate against steeds that don’t come direct from the farms of Holland.
“Just because Shelly goes to Europe doesn’t mean she won’t go up the road and say I want that one,” Deig said. “She loves all horses.”
Townsend recently procured a pinto, a black-and-white piebald horse, through the Internet. The transaction, her first blind buy, turned out OK. Reflecting on the purchase, however, she’s surprised that it proved profitable.
“The pinto was dirt cheap and then sold for a lot,” Townsend said. “But I wouldn’t suggest buying horses on the Internet, just as I wouldn’t suggest meeting people online.”
Townsend’s Dalmatian, Fred, inspired his owner’s new self-described obsession with pintos. In addition to the horses, the farm in Dagsboro is home to three dogs — Fred and two Jack Russell Terriers, Annie or “Lizard” and Harley or “Little Dog” — seven cats and two goats. Townsend did have a squirrel, Pepe, which she tamed and allowed to live in the main house, before it eloped with a female squirrel.
From an early age, Townsend developed an affinity for animals, especially equines. She began riding at 7 and showed her first horse in Ocean Pines, Md., at 8.
“My brother had quarter horses,” she said. “I loved animals so I wanted to ride.”
Over the years, her relationship with the mounts has become therapeutic.
“My time with horses has been so amazing,” she said. “I come in [the barn] and they can always put a smile on my face.”
And Townsend has had plenty of need for ameliorative companions. Accident aside, both of her parents passed away last year. She has also had to overcome skin cancer, an affliction, she said, which places her firmly in the fan base of Afleet Alex, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner. The owners of the standout stallion donate part of the horse’s proceeds to Alex’s Lemonade Stand For Pediatric Cancer Research. The fund, founded by 8-year-old Alexandra Scott, who succumbed to neuroblastoma in 2004, has raised more than $1.6 million for cancer research.
“When I watch the Belmont, the hair stands up on my arms, and I’ll get a choked up feeling in my chest and I can’t explain it,” Townsend said. “I well up with tears and I don’t let anyone see. It’s very emotional.”
On October 15, Townsend will host her own show, the first at the Dagsboro farm, to benefit Saint Jude’s hospital.
Townsend’s condition also spurred the connection with Mutton, who has served her mentor for three years and suffers from lupus, a chronic inflammatory illness that affects the skin, joints, blood and kidneys.
Next year, Mutton, 21, will receive a bachelor degree from Indiana University, following in the footsteps of Deig, 22, who graduated this year. Both women grew up in Indiana and were teammates on the Hoosiers’ equestrian team. They are now like daughters to Shelly Townsend and her husband, CP, a world-ranked professional poker player, according to the matron of the estate.
“I don’t have any children so they are especially dear to me,” she said.
But on a farm with more creatures than Old McDonald’s, there is never a dearth of new blood.