by Bob Funkhouser
It’s not often that someone can command the love and respect of nearly everyone in their chosen industry. It’s particularly notable in the Hackney Pony industry where “feeling the love” among professionals won’t make the Top 10 of anyone’s list.
Born July 14, 1931, John Shea was the exception in many regards. He was an exceptional human being and an exceptional pony trainer. Often thought of as a big teddy bear, Shea always had a smile and a good word for everyone. Although he had a wonderful persona and way with people, he also badly wanted to beat your butt every time he or one of the ponies he trained went through the gate.
John Shea left this world on Wednesday, Jan. 2. Shea had been dealing with health issues for the past few years and his body finally gave out. He left behind a loving family that includes his wife, Loraine; daughter, Lorye Wells, her husband, Gary, and their daughter, Shea; as well as daughter, Vickie Adams. In addition, he left an extended family headed by longtime caretaker/assistant trainer/co-trainer Abel Vega, Mary Gaylord McClean and her husband, Jeff, and legions of others in the show horse industry.
Horsemen and townspeople alike came to pay their
respects to one of the all-time greats
of the pony industry.
Shea’s introduction to the horse world came at an early age when he helped the neighbors with their trotters and pacers after school, on the weekends and in the summers. They attended many of the Illinois county fairs with the trotters and pacers and that’s where he was first introduced to Shetland and Hackney ponies.
Shortly before his 18th birthday, Shea moved to Houston, Texas and took a job with the legendary E.W. “Shorty” Bechtol at Josephine Abercrombie’s famed Pin Oak Stables. From 1948-1951 he worked alongside Bechtol as well as another top trainer/character Red Meeks.
In 1951, Shea was drafted into the United States Army and served two years. When he returned to the States he settled in Chicago, working for the Curtiss Candy Pony Hitch where he traveled throughout the country with his closest friend, Joe Hutter, to horse shows and fairs putting on exhibitions with the famous hitch.
From the time he was a kid, traveling to fairs and horse shows was all Shea had known and he liked that lifestyle. He liked showing ponies, he liked people and he liked applause. Leaving the pony hitch behind, Shea returned to Texas and went to work for C.C. Teague’s C-Jo Pony Farm where he was quite successful. The name Shea appeared at the top of the Shetland Pony Congress Championships in Des Moines, Iowa many times during the next four years. His entries were the best of the best in halter, breeding and performance divisions.
It was also at C-Jo Pony Farm that he met his wife to be, Loriane. In 1961 they were married and moved to Gainesville, Texas to open their own stables that operated for the next seven years. One of their early customers turned out to be great friends and clients that were influential in the Sheas making their next move, which was in 1969 to Covington, La. The Joe Dorignac family played a big role in John and Loraine’s lives and likewise, the Sheas were there for the good and the bad as experienced by the Dorignacs.
“We stayed very close with lots of the boys that came through our lives,” said Loraine Shea. “There were so many different ones and Joe [Dorignac] was just like family.”
Texas was very good to the Shea family. Besides Dorignac, Shea also had championship ponies for the likes of two of Texas’s most notable exhibitors of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Anna Lee Spires Judd and Eva Clifton.
The year 1976 was the last time John and Loraine would move and it was only across town. They settled into the current day location of Shea Stables and continued to make history in the pony world as well as many friends in the Covington area.
It was also around this time that a young lady in Oklahoma who had horses with Harold Adams sent a pony to him. This young lady and her friend, Shelly Dixon, went in partnership on a pony and decided they needed a pony trainer. John Shea was very familiar to them as he was the top pony trainer on their Southwest circuit. So it was, Mary Gaylord and Dixon sent Ridgelieu’s After Dark Blackie (a Shetland) to Shea and who could have predicted where that road would lead!
In 1976, under Shea’s direction, Gaylord bought the first pony she ever owned herself, the grand champion Shetland Bill-Mar’s Playboy. The person who owned Bill-Mar’s Playboy happened to be Jeff McClean who immediately became her best friend and eventually her husband some 20 years later.
So smitten with the horse industry, Gaylord left school in 1977 and moved to Louisiana to be around horses and ponies full time.
“Dad said I wasn’t going to learn to ride and drive any better in college and he knew the horses were going to be my life so he let me leave school and move to Louisiana,” said Mary Gaylord McClean. “I took a Saddlebred named Negative with me because I had to have something to ride. I was at the barn every day learning all I could.
“He [Shea] was like a dad to me. Lorye was like a sister. They took me in as family. The thing I remember most is he taught me a lot about the horse business from a trainer’s view. I learned what it was like to be a groom. I learned what it was like to be a trainer, all of the work that went into this from the ground up. It has made me a better owner.
“John also taught me how to act and how not to act. He taught me about traditions and ‘unwritten rules.’ He made sure I wasn’t going to be an owner who just showed up to ride or drive. He shared his knowledge about the industry and about working ponies. He showed me everything.”
“He was a good man,” added Jeff McClean who had been both an employee and a customer of Shea. “He was persistent; he never gave up with a pony. Heck, Dream Boy was third and fourth for a couple of years as a young pony but John believed in him and how many world’s grand championships did he win? Also, never in my life have I seen him hit one. He was very kind.”
In its heyday the Shea/Gaylord road show made the rounds across the country making sure pony classes had entries wherever they went.
One of the most formidable teams in the
history of the Hackney breed was John Shea,
Mary Gaylord and four-time World’s Grand Champion
Harness Pony Cherry’s Dream Boy.
“A few years we went to 20-something shows,” explained Gaylord McClean. “One year we had won 100 classes by the time we got to Indianapolis. We would start with the two Florida shows in February and Shea had to have a pony for every division. He was great about making sure there were ponies in every class possible so we had to have one. He also liked the training money and day money,” she chuckled.
There were many lessons Gaylord McClean learned from Shea about life in and out of the ring. She views one of the most important lessons being sportsmanship.
“He helped me with how to be a good sport win or lose, even though he would get mad,” said Gaylord McClean. “I think that’s why I made up my mind to try and always be a good sport after watching how silly he looked sometimes getting mad about how we were tied.”
Shea had a deep reaching impact on many individuals. Fifteen-year-old Abel Vega came to Shea Stables in 1978 as a caretaker and under Shea’s tutelage became an astute trainer and great friend.
“I’m going to miss him more than anyone else I can imagine,” said Vega who has been a co-trainer at Shea Stables for many years. “He was my best friend. I spent more time with John than anyone in my life. He was fun to travel with. We had a lot of good times and a lot of good ponies. He taught me everything I know. Whenever I would have a problem with a pony he would always help me figure it out.
“I’m going to keep training ponies here as long as the customers will support me. I’m going to do the best I can for John.”
Helping people is what Shea did best. According to his wife, Loraine, it didn’t matter if it was a backyard person or a professional trainer he was competing against, he would help them with training tips. She also said there were times when his advice came back to beat him.
“Red Meeks used to get mad at him all the time,” said Loraine. “He would say, ‘John, that’s what we get paid for. Why do you want to give it away?’
“There’s a man named Dave Smith from Canada that told me a story about John helping him. He said the first time he ever went to Louisville he was lost and walking around in the barn area and John came up and introduced himself and helped him get around. He invited Dave back to the tack room and the two have been great friends every since.”
In 1998, La Louisianne wore the roses of
the Hackney Pony World’s Grand Champion
with John Shea driving for Mary Gaylord.
With the likes of Bill-Mar’s Playboy, Cassilis Sovereign, Pride’s Starmaster, Holiday’s Prime Time, Holiday’s Candy Man, Perfect Impression, Dream Girl, Dixie Jubilee, General Jackson, Bold Lad, Steppenwolf, Belle Star, Shamask, La Louisianne, Royal Canadian, Fancy Ribbons and the legendary World’s Grand Champion Harness Pony Cherry’s Dream Boy to his credit, Shea was the first pony trainer inducted into the UPHA Hall of Fame, and that honor came in 1996.
Shea was honored by his peers with his
1996 induction into the UPHA Hall of Fame.
photo by Jamie Donaldson
While his feats as a pony trainer are well documented, he was just as involved in another world that we knew a little about. Shea was just as crazy about birds as he was ponies. Shea would often have a few birds with him at horse shows and they always happened to be for sale. Not only did they provide a little income, they are always a conversation piece that would attract people and nothing made Shea happier than to have a few people around carrying on a conversation.
“It’s Mary’s [McClean] fault we’ve got the birds,” exclaimed Loraine Shea. “Rob [Byers] gave her a bird that Sarah wouldn’t let him keep because it was too noisy so Mary gave the thing to John. That bird was all right until I would get on the phone and then it would scream louder than I could so I told John either the bird went or I did.
“Well, that turned out to be a mistake. He took that bird and another one outside to the barn and now 20 years later we have 165 pairs. What usually starts out as his hobby ends up my job!
“I’ve had calls from all over the country from his bird friends. He helped them just as much as his pony friends. This one lady told me that her husband was giving her a hard time about buying more birds and John told her, ‘Honey, you can’t sell out of an empty wagon.’ She bought more birds and turned her business into a good one.
The Hackney pony business will forever be a better one having had John Shea as one of its members. He was a professional’s professional in that he prepared his ponies well, presented them exceptionally well and bought and sold with the best of them. Also far from the norm, especially today, Shea never met a horse show he didn’t like. While it might not have been good for the competition, it did help many shows keep the pony divisions alive. And while he liked to have as good a time as anyone, Shea never brought embarrassment to his family or customers.
Through the years some of those lucky to associated with him included the aforementioned Anna Lee Spires Judd, Eva Clifton, Joey Dorignac, Jeff McClean and Mary Gaylord McClean as well as Sallie Wheeler, Patrice and Henry Watson Jr., Henry Watson Sr., Marion Joullian, Richard Ridge, Richard Bornemeier, Susan Whitaker and Jessie Pettie. One of the most recent customers is Stephany Monteleone who won the World’s Champion of Champions Hackney Pleasure Driving Pony title in 2007 with Mastercraft’s Namesake LF under the direction of Abel Vega and John Shea Stables.
Flanked by customers Jessie Pettie and
Stephany Monteleone, John was a familiar face
at horse shows across the country
both large and small. photo by Sandra Hall
“I had never had ponies before,” said Monteleone. “I had a few Saddlebreds to show and then started breeding a few Saddlebreds, but nothing too serious. One day I decided to get into the ring and start having some fun. I knew John and he let me come out and drive a few times so I decided to get some ponies.
“John and I clicked. He was a character and I liked that. We would sit at shows and I would pick his brain. He was great about sharing information and teaching me about the pony business. We had a lot of great laughs as well.
“I loved it from day one. I am so thankful John introduced me to ponies. I used to show dogs for many years and always had bigger dogs and then one day got a Silky Terrier and totally fell in love with them. The ponies are my Silky Terriers. They have so much personality and heart.
“I am so happy to have had the few years together that we did. It meant something to be a part of the team. Abel [Vega] is unbelievable. I’ve never met a harder working person and John always complimented Abel. I’m looking forward to continuing with Abel. I’ve got four ponies there now. We’ll get started in Tampa next month.”
Volumes could be written about the nice things Shea did for people, many of which he had never met before. While it may be easier for friends and customers to sing his praises, his competitors held Shea in just as high esteem.
“I thought the world of him,” said Reedannland’s Dr. Alan Raun who has shown against and done business with Shea for decades. “The thing I will remember most about John is that he never criticized other people or trainers. If something went wrong with a pony he sold he didn’t blame the driver or trainer. It just didn’t work out. He was a first class person.”
Dr. Raun’s sentiments were echoed throughout the industry as many others had nothing but good to say.
“We met at the Dallas Horse Show in the early ‘70s and after John met you, he always made a point to stop and talk and inquire about what was going on in your life,” said Arkansas pony owner/trainer/breeder Richard Bornemeier who became a very close friend and confidant to Shea. “We got to be friends and then I had a pony named General Jackson that John asked me about. He had a customer who wanted to offer me less money and also trade some stuff in and John told me as much as he wanted that pony, he didn’t think I should take that offer. He thought the pony was nicer than that. I really appreciated him saying that and I had a tremendous amount of respect for him from that point on.
“The next year he came to me and said he thought Mary [Gaylord] would buy General Jackson. I gave him a price and he got back with me and said fine. The dealing was all above board, all straightforward. We bought and sold a lot of ponies through the years after that and I always admired him for the way he did business. There was no monkey business to it and unfortunately, I think there is enough of that out there and it keeps the breed from growing.
“I learned a lot about people and the business from John. I got to spend a lot of time with him and you couldn’t have asked for a better friend.”
The most anyone can ask is to live a long and healthy life surrounded by family and friends and doing the things you love most. John Shea certainly had most of that. We all would have preferred his health to be better and his life longer but he more than made up for it in the other categories.
Stories will be told for some time; everyone has a special John Shea moment or two. The image of him reared back in his chair at the end of his aisleway at Lexington Junior League or Louisville is a piece of show horse history that will never be forgotten by many who loved him as they at one time or another have been part of the court he was holding. With his squinty eyes, unique deep voice, and a smile that could bring light to the darkest days, Shea loved to share his life and he cared about the lives of others.
“It won’t be the same without him,” reflected Jeff McClean. “That’s the only way to put it, it just won’t be the same. He was one of the good guys.”