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For A.J. Bruwer, Life Works

By Ann Bullard

The 19-year-old left South Africa with little more than the clothes on his back, a dream and the promise of a job. In 14 years, A.J. Bruwer has gone from rubbing horses and working colts for John T. Jones to being one of the industry’s more successful young trainers and judges. He and his wife, Wendy, realized a big part of their American Dream when they opened their barn on 73-acres in Versailles, Ky.

It’s been an interesting trip for the young man who showed against professionals in South Africa before he was a teen. He used his farmer-father’s four-year-old walk-trot horse. Other than being second in the Juvenile Five-Gaited Stake at the South African Championships, Bruwer showed with the pros.

Like many Saddle Horse men of his day and place, the senior Bruwer’s horses were more an avocation, although he trained a few for other people. The family’s main interest centered upon vineyards and wine-making.

"My dad started showing as a kid, too," Bruwer said of his father who died when he was just 13. "After Dad died, I had a gaited horse with a trainer who was one of his best friends. I would go to work for him every vacation. Not only did he let me groom, but he let me work horses every time I went. That’s where I got the bug to start training horses."

Bruwer remained in South Africa for a year after finishing high school. Bill Schoeman, who later brought Zovoorbij Commander In Chief from South Africa, helped his young countryman job hunt.

Schoeman is fuzzy about the details of his friend’s migration, saying he thought his success in coming to the States provided the inspiration for Bruwer and others to do the same. As they came from different parts of South Africa, there was little opportunity for them to know one another well in their home country. Since settling in the United States, the two have become good friends. Actually, another (unnamed) man told Bruwer about Jones’s need.

"I got to talking to this guy who told me Johnny needed some people. I picked up the phone, called him and he said, ‘OK, come on over. We’ll work something out," Bruwer recalled.

Bruwer smiled as he talked about his interview and trip to Kentucky. "I had a job lined up with Johnny but wasn’t 100 percent sure how it would work. I had only talked with him once," he said. "When I came, Johnny was in Greece and had arranged for someone to pick me up at the airport. When I got there, I called a lady who worked at the barn. She told me she was expecting someone and would pick me up at the Cincinnati airport. I had no clue who would show up or what they would look like."

Fortunately, the lady had a Saddlebred sticker in the window of her Blazer. Bruwer finally met Jones a week later. He remained with the veteran trainer for two-and-a-half years.

"We had just talked briefly on the phone. I needed help; he showed up. He was very polite, conscientious and had a good work ethic. At first, it was hard to tell about his talent; he watched, trying to figure everything out," Jones said, adding that Bruwer was someone you could count on every day. "Every time I let him do more, he showed me he could handle it."

Bruwer had the opportunity to work around a lot of nice horses including a young R.R. Silver Lady.

"I consider myself as being very lucky," Bruwer said. "I was surrounded by a lot of nice horses (including CH Foxfire’s Prophet, Radiating, CH The Savoy and Callaway’s Hot Copy.) Johnny gave me a lot of opportunities. He pretty much turned me loose and gave me nice horses to work right off the bat. I started R.R. Silver Lady, breaking her to ride and get ready for him."

Jones’s connection with Dr. Gene Scott brought Bruwer to California for a few months. Next stop: Minnesota to work with the late Paul Priebe.

Bruwer calls working for Priebe "another interesting experience. All you can say is that you got to work a lot of horses. Sometimes, we would get one in and, as it was walking in barn, Paul would call up and say someone was coming to look at that horse that afternoon. We didn’t even know what the horse wore but had to figure it out on the fly."

While working with Priebe was a challenge, most of his stock was finished horses. Bruwer missed working with youngsters. Libby Mathers’s program in Tremont, Ill., concentrated on breeding and young horses. When she had a need for a trainer, Bruwer responded.

Priebe was not encouraging. "Paul didn’t like it when I told him I was leaving," Bruwer recalled. "At first, he told me he’d like me to stay and manage the whole barn. After I told him I wouldn’t change my mind, he told me I could still go on the interview, but don’t come back.

"I did my homework on Libby. People told me this would be a good thing for me and her both," he added.

Mathers picked up the story. "When he told Paul he was coming down for an interview, Paul told him to get all your stuff and take it. If you go down there, you’re fired. He called me and I told him ‘Look, you’ve got the job. It did kind of freak him out. He came down, went back and got the rest of his things.

"When A.J. came to work for me, he’d just turned 22. He worked for me almost five years and did an excellent job. Why was he successful: he’s got a lot of natural ability, is hard-working and understands what it takes to be successful," she said. "He’s very dedicated and a real good guy."

During those four-plus years, "we bought and sold and I worked some nice horses. We still have a really good relationship," Bruwer said, pointing out that he still has five of Mathers’s horses and babies in training. Among that group of ‘nice young horses:’ CH Justa Rascal and The Wings Of The Dove.

The Mathers’s show string often attended the UPHA Chapter Five Horse Show. Jack Magill from Dallas, Texas regularly includes that show on his schedule. In 2000, Bruwer met one of Magill’s customers, Wendy Caudill. It became a life-changing experience for both.

Wendy grew up riding almost anything with four legs at a small farm in Desoto, Texas, just south of Dallas. She started with a man her mother, Shirley Rinehart, calls "an old circus horse trainer, Denny Bell, who had elephants and other animals all around. Wendy had to ride those too. He had her breaking quarter horses and riding horses in parades."

Wendy’s parents bought their daughter her first Saddlebred from Art Simmons; shortly after that memorable van trip to Missouri, Bell "threw Wendy in the ring at Ft. Worth," her mother recalled.

Rinehart credits Bell with teaching Wendy "how to work and do everything and for her work ethic. She took a lot of ---- because she’d rather get dirty mucking stalls than cruising the malls with her friends. Before she finished high school, she began teaching lessons."

During Wendy’s senior year, a business opportunity brought the family to Nebraska. After four or five years, they were back in Dallas, where Wendy began riding with Magill. In the winter of 1999, the Rineharts bought CH Mariachi, teaming Wendy with the bright five-gaited gelding. Later that year, they purchased the chromed-up Show Biz Time. Wendy and Magill shared rides on the two stars.

Perhaps it was Wendy’s blue-ribbon ride in the Ladies Five-Gaited Stake at UPHA Chapter Five that caught Bruwer’s eye. Perhaps it was her ribbon-winning rides aboard Show Biz Time in the three-gaited division. Or perhaps it was one of those intangible somethings. Whatever the reason, the two made note of one another, planning to meet again later in the season.

"I checked him out and she did, too" Rinehart said. "He seemed like a really interesting, good guy. They developed a friendship. He could see she worked hard and had lots of talent."

Meanwhile, Wendy showed between Magill and Paul Cates Stable in Austin, Texas. As her relationship with Bruwer grew, she spent more time in Illinois.

Mathers saw the handwriting on the wall. "I knew he was going to marry Wendy and wanted to strike out of his own. A.J. had the opportunity to get a barn. He rented one in Oswego, Ill.

"It was a big adventure for him to start on. The day he left, everyone had lumps in their throats. It was a sad day, but a happy one for him," Mathers said. "His little dog didn’t want to leave. A.J. kept calling him but Charlie just stood there."

It was an uphill battle. "Just like any other person who walked out of a colt barn, I didn’t have any clients to take with me. I kind of started from scratch; that first four to six months was real tough," he recalled. "I said one day I had only so many dollars left in the savings account. If this is gone, it’s gone. I’ll have to go look for a job again. Possibly the day after that, I got seven horses in from a couple of different people."

After two years, Bruwer had enough of a customer base and horses in training "so I knew I could buy a place and cover the mortgage with the business I had going."

"We bought Joan Schilke’s old place [in Yorkville, Ill.]," Bruwer said. "She had sold it to a hunter-jumper trainer who couldn’t get his business going. It was a prime spot, about 10 miles from where I was. I was certain everyone would go with me," Bruwer said.

He was correct. Wendy handled a large lesson program that helped pay the bills. And the farm was an excellent investment.

"We were in the second fastest-growing county in the U.S. We were very fortunate that it was in a good area on a major highway. I got it zoned commercial," Bruwer said, explaining that the land did nothing but appreciate. "Any property that went up that much in four years – something was bound to happen. People said I was nuts, but I went ahead and sold it."

Then came the big question: where did the Bruwers go from here. Texas was considered, but, as he put it, "I had been in Illinois for 10 years, but I’m really not from there, nor anywhere else but South Africa. I always wanted to move back to Kentucky."

In June 2007 they made the move. Wendy was pregnant with their son, Jake.

"We had to give up a lot of business when we moved down here; 12 horses went in different directions," Bruwer said, explaining that a lot of clients wanted to ride every weekend. "We brought Vicki [Vicki and Sam Reed)] and Libby with us. A few others came to finish the season as they did not want to change in the midst of things."

The Texas-girl elaborated, "I love seeing mares and babies around. We decided to take that leap of faith. We had a baby [Jake was born shortly after Louisville, on Aug. 31.]" She since has gotten her amateur status back.

For the most part, Wendy, as her husband puts it, "does the mom thing. Jake is at the walking, running and beginning to talk stage. Madison, his 11-year-old half-sister, attends Woodford County Middle School. Wendy calls her an ‘artsy kid’ who loves to sing and do art.

"Wendy handles all our finance, the bookkeeping, billing. She has the job no one wants," Bruwer said. "It’s tough, but she does a great job with it."

Perhaps she better describes her role. "I’m raising Friesians and having fun."

"Wendy hasn’t had a horse other than a few younger ones for her mom. Six weeks after Jake was born she won the gaited ladies qualifier and stake at Mane Event with Callaway’s Ball Of Fire. We sold him during the winter. The day before Louisville, I called Cindy Kolmeier to make her an offer on Heirobatic so Wendy would have something to show. Her mother owns a nice three-year-old, Callaway’s Heather Anne, that’s going to be very special," he said, adding that plans are for Wendy to show the mare next year.

"We’re rebuilding – up to about 24 horses again. We’ve quit doing lessons, but are doing a lot of breeding. That’s the end I really enjoy. We have a lot of babies and foaled a lot of outside mares," he continued, speaking of his present business. "I’m back where I was at Libby’s. I really enjoy seeing something come along. We’re about half amateur horses and half babies, two and three-year-olds and yearlings coming in. We’ve got a good mixture going, one that I like."

That mixture includes six horses for Traci Massaro, five youngsters for Mathers, several for the Reeds, Shirley Rinehart and Wendy’s amateur five-gaited mount, Heirobatic. Californians Ron and Paul Kirsch and A.E. Nelson and long-time friend Margo Baird have added some of their youngsters to the Bruwers’ list. Add to those the Friesians that are Wendy’s project, Saddlebred mares, babies and retirees in the pastures and you have the approximately 60 horses (give or take) that inhabit the 73-acre farm.

Massaro’s Kingswood Stables is the relative newcomer among the client group. Her friend, Kurt Antonacci, who handled some catch rides for Bruwer, brought her to visit the farm about two years ago.

"I immediately bonded with Wendy," Massaro said, explaining she had previously met A.J. at shows. "We kept in touch on a friend’s level."

In September 2007, she sent Art In Motion (Artie,) a horse she had owned and repurchased, to the Bruwers in hopes of returning him to the show ring. Bruwer made progress, but the two decided the best thing for the animal’s soundness was to let him perform on Kentucky’s blue grass pastures. Still, she was pleased with what she saw.

"When I was considering the next step for my horses, I wanted them to be on the Kentucky circuit, where they belonged. I wanted to experience this other circuit," she said.

If she had any reservations, spending the weekend with the Bruwer family and visiting the barn resolved them for Massaro. "It is such a beautiful place, really well run and organized. We had so much fun.

"I think it was kind of fortuitous that a horse that basically needed to be rescued turned into such a good thing. I felt compelled to bring everyone there," she added.

"Everyone" includes the black five-gaited star, Echo Of Thunder, Albelarm Radiant Lady (Isabel,) CH Titleist Commander for show pleasure driving, the coming two-year-old Kalarama’s New York Lady and Artie.

"I got my parents [Jim and Teddi Massaro] to come down in November. Dad saw how well A.J. was doing with Artie. He told A.J. to find a nice horse for me to show on this circuit. He told him about ‘Cookie,’ [Phi’s Phortune Teller.] He called the trainer and told us he knew we would love the horse, that he could get him in the barn if we agreed on the price. Dad agreed even before I had ridden him – just on A.J.’s word."

Cookie has been an unqualified success. Massaro won both amateur park classes at Bonnie Blue, a red and yellow ribbon at Midwest and white at Lexington. Bruwer stepped up in Junior League’s Three-Gaited Park Stake, earning his first Lexington tricolor.

"I can’t remember having a better season than I’ve had this year. He transformed Thunder for me; he’s a pleasure to ride. We’ve been in the top two or three almost everywhere except Louisville," Massaro said, pointing out that no detail is too fine for Bruwer to consider. "At Bonnie Blue, our first show with A.J., all the horses’ feet were poulticed and wrapped. He thought the ring was a little hard, so he wrapped everyone’s feet to take extra precautions."

At Bonnie Blue, Massaro and Echo Of Thunder were fourth in the gaited ladies qualifier. "A.J. told me he had an idea. It was something to do with Thunder and he’d let me know by the end of the week. Saturday morning he told me he didn’t want me to go back in the ladies but in the gaited stake."

She recalled the trainer’s words. "’I want you to show him. I think you can do it; go in, ride hard and have fun.’ It was a lot of fun," she said about their tricolor of choice placing.

Massaro commented on the trainer’s patience and ability to get into a horse’s head. "I think that’s one thing that makes him really great. He can be tough when he needs to be but I think he trains all the horses differently rather than having a set program he uses on everyone."

Sam and Vicki Reed have been part of the Bruwer equine family "ever since he went on his own," Wendy said. "They’re some of the finest people I’ve ever known in the horse business – like family to us. Vicki is an awesome lady who works so hard to remain an accomplished rider."

Vicki has been on the sidelines as far as riding is concerned this year. Surgeries limited her personal participation to driving. She and Firecracker Jack earned a reserve world’s championship this season, stepping up one from their third-place finish last year. Their good friend, Kurt Antonacci, catch-rode Doubletree’s Quixotic in the Five-Gaited Amateur Gentlemen’s qualifier. Currently, Bruwer shows two of their other stars: Liberty’s Magic in the open three-gaited division and SJ Great Guts in fine harness.

Rinehart looks at Bruwer as a son-in-law, trainer and friend. "We had one horse that turned out much better than expected. I thought, man, this kid is good. I felt he always had an eye for good, young horses," she said.

Rinehart smiled as she talked about Bruwer and Wendy’s daughter, Madison, when Madison was young. "Seeing a young man who had never had a child interact with a toddler is pretty cute. That little girl is a real charmer and has him wrapped around her little finger. I love to see that."

‘Dotty over.’ That’s a term used to describe one’s feelings; you might say crazy about, smitten with instead. That certainly describes Bruwer’s feelings about his young son, Jake.

"From the time I set foot in the house until he goes to bed, my time goes to my baby boy," he said. "He’s pretty much daddy’s boy. When I walk in the door, he won’t let me out of his sight. Some nights, his mama is so nice as to let me give him a bath.

"Since he came along, our lives have changed a lot. Things that used to be important are not so important. He comes first. The rest is still important, but not life and death like it used to be. He actually made me relax, wake up and smell the roses. I’ve never experienced anything like it," Bruwer said.

He and Wendy have put Jake on some horses. "Only the best ones in the barn; he might as well get a good start," his dad said with a laugh in his voice.

Not unexpectedly, Bruwer is a sports fan; as a kid in South Africa, he played a lot of sports – including the South African ‘national game,’ rugby. He likes to golf, but says he is "kind of terrible at it. I might be the biggest Brett fan ever," he said, explaining his change of football allegiance switched from the Green Bay Packers to the New York Jets.

Even though he is watching television, the horses are not far from Bruwer’s thoughts. His mind is working them even when physically he is not.

"When something didn’t work well that day, I can be sitting in front of the TV or doing something in the house and come up with a plan to try tomorrow. I have a horse in the barn that’s been struggling with a show bridle. One night I was in front of the TV with the channel on something I never watch. Wendy walked up and asked what I was watching. I realized I wasn’t but was thinking about the horse and what curb bit to try the next day," he said.

Bruwer considers himself "pretty boring. I just like to work hard," he said, admitting at times that is hard for a man raised in a nation to have fun to do. "I’m very proud of my [home] country; it was hard to let go of it when I came here. I’m always going to be a South African, but South Africa could never have given me the life in the horse business that I have here. I would never have been a horse trainer there.

"I like the professionalism here. I was so impressed with the way the horses are turned out, the way businesses are run. Way back when I left, the professionalism wasn’t nearly what it is here. A lot of guys try to go back, but no one has accomplished that perhaps for a year or a matter of time, but I don’t think anyone has nailed it yet."

His job and family make Bruwer get up in the mornings. "I put my heart and soul into this business. Hopefully, hard work produces great success. I’m not in this just to win blue ribbons; I actually care about and love the horses."

Success is measured in many ways. The Bruwers and their clients are aware enough to know the blue ribbons will come.

After Louisville, Jim Massaro told Bruwer he had spent a long time earning his stripes and got a few more this year.

"Just keep working and doing things with the horses; we don’t worry about the ribbons, they will come," Traci Massaro said.

As John T. Jones put it, "A.J. is a people person who has really matured and made a good horseman. He’s paid his dues and is doing really well. He started out showing, took his lumps and went on. He wasn’t an instant success, but took the hard road, plodded along, worked his way up and is there now. I’m real proud of him."

Bruwer’s main regret: that his parents didn’t live long enough to experience it all with them.

Wendy spoke of the man – and the dream. "He is charming; a bit of a quiet person. He’s extremely knowledgeable and a hard worker. I saw it when we met.

"I was charmed by the fact that he left his family, country and came with only a few clothes and a dream. He did everything the American Dream is based on. Our place in Kentucky is a completed, dream come true for both of us."

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