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Published by Devon Taylor

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Published by: Devon Taylor on Jun 29, 2012
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W
hen someone diesyoung, it is an undeniable tragedy. Itdoesn’t matter the reason. It is tragic if it was expected—a slow train com-ing that no one could halt—and it is atragedy if it was sudden and withoutwarning. ere is no happy endingwhen it comes early.When I got the word on May 31, 2012 that legendary horseman—and close family friend—Gary Zook had passed away from a heart attack at age 48, I felt the weight of this loss for bothreasons. Gary had lived hard for those 48 years, keeping a breath-less pace that almost guaranteed him an early arrival at the nishline. However, it was exactly this boundless energy and intensity that made his death almost incomprehensible. Few people everradiated the enthusiasm and vibrancy that Gary did.“e essence of Gary was talking a hundred miles aminute and energy, just constant energy. When he was teaching,he would half-pass himself across the ring to demonstrate what itshould look like and make a rider position while he walked andthen he’d run sideways and turn le and march. He was just soenergetic and passionate,” described former student and longtimefriend, Jen Barry-Baltrus.I grew up with him training both my sister, Meredith,and me and he made regular trips to our farm in southern NewJersey to teach riding clinics. He spoke and moved with suchebullience, such vitality, he could be exhausting to observe but forhow energized he made those around him feel. “When he taught,especially in clinics, he got everyone so excited. He could havetaught the entire day and then said, ‘Okay, we’re all going to get o our horses and change and do a whole other clinic and they wouldhave all done it,’” said my mother and his longtime friend, DeniseWorrell. “He was just that good.”Anyone who knew Gary knew that this energy nevertook the day o. He exuded life. His life began in 1964in Evanston, Illinois.ough Gary grew upin a northern suburbof Chicago, hisgolden blonde hairand blue eyes madehim the pictureof a Midwesternfarm boy. Early on, his father,Gary, Sr., a lawyer, taught Gary and hisyounger brother, Greg, two important lessons.“e rst thing he preached to us was to get up every day, put your pants on, and go work. Do something. Don’t sitaround,” said Greg. From the time the boys were old enough tohold a rake upright, they worked for their allowance. Greg remem-bers childhood aernoons spent with his brother raking leaves,clearing out gutters, and cleaning windows.e other thin Gar Sr. advised his bos was to discovertheir passion. “Dad always told usto nd something we love,” Greg de-scribed. “at mattered to him.”Heeding his father’s advice came easy for Gary when, aer the family movedto Birmingham, Michigan, he took agroup riding lesson at a local stable.“He was twelve years old,” said Greg,“and right away he fell in love with riding. He was taken with itand just loved it.” Hearing Greg describe his brother’s enthusiasm,it’s easy to imagine a younger version of Gary, full of his naturalenergy and further buoyed by the thrill of discovery, bouncinghome from the stable, bursting to tell his family all about thehorses.Gary realized quickly that he could combineboth lessons fromhis father—to ndhis passion and work hard—with the horses.Within two years, hefound a new stableand moved up theranks from beginnerrider to riding campcounselor. By fourteenhe was teaching lessons. Greg recalled his rapid growth: ‘WhenGary got into horses, he realized he could make money at it. Just acouple of years into his horse career, he was already getting paid.”His parents, Gary, Sr. and his mother, Joyce, were in fullsupport of Gary’s newfound passion. “Mom would get up early to drive him to the barn,” Greg recounted. “She drove him aboutan hour and a half every single day.” Aer the family moved toSomerville, New Jersey around 1978, his parents helped to buy him his rst horse. He began to ride with trainer Patty McElvey and soon aer joined the crew at Briarwood Farm under the tu-telage of Jack Benson, where he excelled as a junior rider. FormerOlympic show jumper Nona Garson recalls seeing Gary at horseshows in those early years. “I met Gary when he was still in highschool,” she said. “I remember being very impressed with his way.Even as a young guy, he had this great way about himself.”It was in New Jersey that Gary really began to come intohis own, both as a rider and in his personal life. As high schoolwound down, lifelong friend, Paisley Knudsen, who knew Gary from his riding days in Michigan, remembered him grapplingwith whether to continue on with school. “He and I talked a lotabout college,” she said. “It was always his parents’ wish for himand he was a good student.” However, perhaps knowing he wasalready where he belonged, Gary made the decision to stick withthe horses and committed himself fully to the equestrian life.Gary also made another important decision at that time to comeout to his friends and family. “It wasn’t a big deal,” Greg said, andthen added with a laugh, “Plus, I would get all my dates from my brother because, of course, all the irls wanted to date him.
Gary Zook
: Larger an Life
By Devon Taylor
www.theplaidhorse.comJune 2012
The Plaid Horse
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Aer high school, Gary set out to make his way in thehorse world. He began to work with the United States EquestrianTeam in 1983, though his role was hardly prestigious. “He told ushe used to muck stalls for the USET,” recalled Meredith Taylor,my sister and his long-time student and business partner. It wasn’tlong, however, before Gary developed a partnership with re-nowned equestrian Michael Henaghan that catapulted his career.“When I met him he was only nineteen years-old,” Henaghanrecollected. “It was at a time when he was just barely aliatedwith the USET and just getting started in the whole thing.” Fewremember Gary as a rider, though it was in the saddle that Gary rst found success. “He hadn’t really had the opportunity to do alot of competing,” Henaghan explained. “We went and got him ahorse from Carol ompson and he was one of the rst winners of all the adult equestrian classes.”Gary and Henaghan struck up a relationship and beganto train together under the Huntover Farm banner out of White-house Station, New Jersey. With Henaghan, Gary establishedhimself as a premiere show trainer. ough barely of drinking age,he possessed a condence and poise that belied his youth. Gary possessed an ability to be both assertive and kind, oen in thesame breath, and early on he developed an ability to get the mostthe most out of any horse and rider. “He was a natural horsemanand a natural trainer,” Henaghan recalled. “He was very good atwhat he did.”Both talented and aable, Henaghan and Gary made anexcellent team. “When [Gary and Mike] were at the same show,”trainer Je Wirthman recalled, “you knewthey were a strong force.” e two were atthe top of the sport in the 1980s, train-ing some of the biggest names among the junior riders. “We were together when Ray Texel won at pony nals and then went onto win both the Medal and Maclay Finals,Henaghan said. “We also trained CherylWilson who won the Medal Finals. In 1989,the State of New Jersey gave us a wonderfulaward for outstanding achievement becausewe won both the Medal and Maclay nals.”Not many years aer having rst sat on ahorse himself, Gary was at the in-gate of the country’s most presti-gious shows helping coach riders to major success.As the business grew and more riders joined Huntover,it was Gary who headed up the role of training the pony ridersat the shows. “Back then Gary was the pony trainer,” Meredithexplained. In addition to training Texel as a pony rider, Gary alsobrought success early on to a number of would-be professionals—and their ponies—including Darren Graziano, who was a frequentwinner on his small pony, Yes I Can, helping launch both of theircareers. It was not long before he had a slew of pony kids—andpony mothers—to play ringmaster to at the shows. “I rememberMeredith’s rst pony nals in Quentin [in 1988],” Worrell recalled.“Gary had ve ponies there, all of which came equipped with apony mother. ere were ve frazzled mothers dragging ve pony riders to the ring. And the ponies all got ribbons and the kids allrode better than they could and Gary didn’t kill any of us. at wasGary—always, always able to bring out more in a horse or a riderthan seemed possible.”Among the young talent under Gary’s guidance wasSamantha Darling, who began riding with Gary and Henaghanwhen she was nine years-old and her parents felt it was time forher to move to a higher level. Darling remembers riding with Gary fondly. “I have had many trainers over the years,” she said, “butGary has always stood out as one of my favorites. I think whatI loved most about riding with him was the incredible amountof energy and enthusiasm he always brought to his training.” Itwas easy to see why a rider like Darling would enjoy her experi-ence with Gary. He made riding fun—and funny. “Gary knewhow to keep the kids entertained,” Meredith described. “He had areally bizarre sense of humor, but a good one. Somehow it alwaysended up going in some direction that you didn’t expect it to.” Hisboundless enthusiasm and tireless wit made him an easy guy tolike and an easy trainer to follow.Not only did Gary’s students adore him, but he adoredthem. It was perhaps because of the years he spent working withyoung riders that Gary developed a true compassion for his stu-dents that extended beyond the ring. e success was important tohim, but just as important were the lives of the riders. “Gary madeit clear that he really cared about the people, not just the winning,”Worrell remarked. “He knew the personalities behind the kids, thefamilies—they were real people to him.” Darling agreed, adding,“What I found so special about Gary was that he treated all hiskids the same. He instilled the same eort in the rider who had allthe talent and won all the classes as the one who had no talent anddidn’t win much.” When Texel’s father died while Ray was compet-ing with Gary and Henaghan as a young junior, Gary was thereto care for his student. “Gary’s inuence on my life is something Iwill always be grateful for,” Texel remarked. “His care-taking of meaer the death of my father is a model of support and strength.”Aer six years of working and training with Henaghan,it came time for Gary to strike out on his own. He le Huntoverin 1989 and partnered with rider and trainer Ken Berkley to formRiver’s Edge in Flemington, New Jersey. “Somehow along the way Gary met Ken and they fell in love,” Greg remem-bered. “ey were greattogether.” Not only didthey complement eachother as partners, but they were striking as a pair,each with Hollywood goodlooks. However, they wereyoung, only in their twen-ties, and they had just acouple of horses and ridersat the outset. River’s Edgeas a venture marked a bigprofessional risk for them.“In the beginning, theirbusiness was new and they needed us as much as we neededthem,” Worrell described. My sister, Meredith, who had been withGary since Huntover, was one of their rst students and, thoughour family was unable to aord the heavy cost of training andshowing, Ken and Gary took her on. Within a year of the move,Meredith became a xture at River’s Edge. “In 1990, I startedstaying there in the summer as a working student,” Meredith ex-plained. “I needed more help and so I worked for them to pay formy lessons. In the winters I went to Florida with them.” ough
Meredith Taylor winner of the1995 Medal Finals with Gary,Missy Clark and Ken
June 2012www.theplaidhorse.com
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the business picked up quickly and more riders—and with themmore money—came through the door, Ken and Gary did not putany less eort into Meredith or expect anything more in return.Just as before, Gary—and now with him, Ken—put the ridersbefore the money.At the time—and still—our family looked at the gener-osity oered to Meredith as an incredible gi. However, I wondernow if Gary didn’t see a bit of himself in her. It was easy to forgetin those years when Ken and Gary lived on a beautiful farm andenjoyed such success that Gary didn’t begin there. Like Meredith,he was not born into horse show royalty. He had found his way upthe equestrian ranks due in no small part to professionals like Jack Benson who were willing to take a chance on a kid without muchmoney, but with a great deal of passion. Just a few short years ago,when Benson passed away, Gary recalled, “e trainers I used toride with [before Jack] would always put me down because I didn’thave the best horse and I did my own braiding. But he never said‘you have ugly braids and ugly clothes.’ Jack took me as is.” Perhapsit was because of this generosity that Gary was willing to pay itforward to students like Meredith.Trainer and friend Lynne Tarves remembered Gary oering the same good will to her and her daughter,Ellen, a talented young rider. “He never charged us.He used to trek down here [to Cape May County] allthe time to teach,” Tarves said. “He used to say thatKen couldn’t believe he would do it with the cost of travel or everything, but he did it. I think he believedin Ellen and wanted to help us.” What a studentlacked in funds Gary was willing to overlook if they made up for it in grit and determination.Gary made a name for himself teachingriding clinics all over the country and one of hisfrequent stops was at the Tarves’ farm, where he wasfavorite among the riders. One reason Gary was so eective as aninstructor was his creative and innovative approach to teachingany horse-and-rider combination. “He wasn’t afraid to ask a lot,”Tarves described. “He might set things up that were a little un-orthodox, but the design was to get you riding. Maybe your horsewas a little too green or only half-trained, but so what? at’s whatyou had to work with and Gary was going to get something out of it.” Tarves recalled one trip Gary took to her farm to teach a clinicwhere the sprinkler was accidentally le on overnight and the ringooded. Rather than cancel the clinic or move it to another area,Gary used it as a learning opportunity. “He said, ‘Okay, we’re allgoing to do water today,’” Tarves remembered. “And not only dideveryone have to trot and canter through it but, sure enough, heput a jump right in the water.” Gary was committed to teachingriders to be versatile and well-rounded and this included makingthe best of unforeseen elements. People got their money’s worth athis clinics, too. Gary was famous for teaching every single strideof a course, in a sense riding each step of it with his students. A visit to youtube.com and the dozens of videos shot at his clinicsreminded me how much Gary channeled his energy and loqua-ciousness into his clinics—and what strong results he got.His clinics weren’t entirely about teaching, though,Lynne admitted. “He was always shopping for horses,” she said.“When he came down here, every horse that came in, he was as-sessing.” Gary had a natural eye for a horse and an uncanny ability to nd a diamond in the rough. On one trip down, Tarves recalled,“is skinny horse came into the ring and I looked over and Gary was just about hyperventilating. I said, ‘what’s wrong?’ and he said,‘this horse is amazing.’ I said, ‘really?’ and Gary just said, ‘trustme.” Ken and Gary bought the horse and he went on to great suc-cess in the show ring as a hunter under the name Tell e Truth.Gary also found hunter Star City on a trip down to the Tarves’farm.Not only did Gary bring the gi of nding horses tothe River’s Edge enterprise, but he was also a natural salesman.Whether he was selling horses or promoting one of his riders,Gary was masterfully persuasive. “He could sell anything,” Mere-dith described. “And he could convince you of anything. He couldtell you that you were purple and have green hair and by the endof the day you would say, ‘I guess I’m purple and have green hair.You convinced me that this is true.’ He would say it in a way thatwas like being purple and having green hair was the best thing thatcould have happened to you and that you are so lucky to have thatand that you should go show it o because it’s just that fantastic.By the end, you wanted to be purple and have green hair.”It was exactly this ability to sell anything that madeGary such an eective teacher. “He was a born communicator,”Garson observed. Gary had an ability to instillcondence in his riders in a way that they truly believed they were even better than they were.“I remember taking a lesson [with Gary] aerI had just gotten Color Guard, my equitationhorse,” recalled former student, Hilary Sivitz.Another rider was also in the lesson and shewas already a really successful equitation rider.But he somehow made me feel like I was already at that higher level, too. He didn’t baby me or actlike he had dierent or lower expectations forme.” It wasn’t an act of deception for Gary, either.He was able to size up exactly what a rider was capable of andbring him or her to that level. Worrell described, “I think he hadan instinct. He was smart as a whip. Some people are just really good at guring out what has to be done. He was a natural at beinga kind of psychologist in lessons. He knew how to get the best outof people.And get the best out of riders he and Ken did. ey worked tirelessly to bring the horses and riders of River’s Edgeto the upper echelon of the show circuit and it wasn’t long beforeGary was back at the in-gate for the big victories. When Mer-edith won the Medal Finals in 1995 and nished second in theMaclay and USET nals—just six years aer River’s Edge wasestablished—Gary cemented himself as an icon in the horse showworld. He proved that he could duplicate the success he had atHuntover and continue to stay on the top of his game. “He was theman,” Barry-Baltrus said. “He was on the cover of Practical Horse-man every other week, teaching all over the country, winning theMedal and Maclay nals year aer year.”As Meredith’s younger sister, I certainly was privy to thebig moments of success, like her wins at the nals. However, forme what punctuated these years of riding and showing wasn’t justthe pomp and circumstance of the horse shows, but the humid,hot summer days at River’s Edge, when Gary and Ken would teachlesson aer lesson. When the days got long and monotonous,Gary would sometimes break up the boredom with a comic bit hewould begin spontaneously, such as giving everyone nicknames
www.theplaidhorse.comJune 2012
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