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An "Astonishing" Sculpture: The Leroy We Knew

Editor’s note: Alexandra Layos is a student at William Woods University. She has been a published author since the young age of fourteen. In 2002, she wrote The Missing Link, the first of her Blue Ribbon mystery series for young readers, followed by two other books in 2003 and 2005. Layos has shown in a variety of Morgan and Saddlebred divisions ranging from equitation to five-gaited pleasure and in-hand.  


Astonishinglee (aka Leroy) and Alexandra Layos

at Syracuse International in 2000


by Alexandra Layos


They called it “his show.” Year after year, he won almost every class he entered there, from Walk and Trot, to Junior Exhibitor Park, to Saddle Seat Equitation. He had carried so many riders to win the Saddle Seat Equitation Championship there, that at one point every rider’s name on the Larry McDermott Challenge Trophy presented for that class had been riding him when they won it. The show was the Mason Dixon Classic Horse Show, held in Quentin, Pennsylvania. The horse was Astonishinglee, now a legend at my barn.


Leroy’s story has now been told so many times by so many people that I could repeat it in my sleep. You may have already heard part of his story. Leroy was bred at Shingle Branch Farm, and was by the great Nobility, out of Dandormar Mae—a park horse from the start.


Dubbed Aston in his early years, he was shown by Judy Whitney, (now Judy Whitney-Harris) to a Junior Park World Championship, and Reserve World Championship when he was just three years old. His journey then took him to the Northeastern United States, through Mike Carpenter Stables (where he got his now legendary nickname—meaning “the king”), Cedar Springs Farm, and through an owner or two even after he arrived at Sweigart Stables in Pennsylvania. He became mine the December of my sixth grade year. He was the best Christmas present I would ever be given.


But Leroy was also a challenge, and learning to ride him was difficult for an eleven-year-old. Yet we made our way through the two years we had together, graduating from Walk and Trot classes into junior Equitation classes, and somehow along the way I was figuring him out, as we compiled quite an array of ribbons at home.


We assembled numerous awards, from the Pennsylvania Morgan Horse Club, the Mid-Atlantic Morgan Horse Club, for both Equitation and Pleasure classes, and the Pennsylvania Saddlebred Horse Association for Equitation points when we had shown against Saddlebreds in our area. We qualified for the Morgan Gold Medal Finals in Oklahoma City. We even won the Eastern Saddle Horse Breeder’s Association award for Equitation our second year together. That was our last season together, and in turn the last award we would ever earn together. I received it months after he had passed away.


You see we lost Leroy in January of 2001 after a long and valiant struggle against a mystery illness. Multiple vets, millions of tests, the best veterinary hospital in the state, and the best of care could not diagnose it until it was too far along, and so his friends and my thirteen-year-old self, bid farewell to one of the greatest horses and friends we had ever known.


It wasn’t so much the show-ring Leroy we missed. It was the silly horse at home: the one who threw the trash can lid like a Frisbee, the one who licked everyone’s face, who demanded to be the center of attention. The horse who purposely tangled himself in the long lines, who bowed when saddled, and would take his halter off, duck the crossties and wander the barn aisle. The show ring star, the equitation horse that could do any pattern in the world, could canter serpentines in the jog cart…that was only one side of him. That made him an equitation horse and a show horse. It was everything else that made him Leroy.


Leroy and some of his fan club


I was only thirteen when he left us, but his story has since taken on a life of its own. When he left I made a mental list of the things I wanted to get done in his memory, one of which was saving up enough money to have a beautiful gravestone made.


I saved my money and got it done so that his admirers would always know exactly where to come find him. The top reads, “He was mine, thankfully, he fought, bravely, he left us sadly, yet he lives…Astonishinglee.” The bottom says, “To the judge: he was a fabulous horse worthy of the blue ribbon. To the crowds: he was a champion, worthy of applause. To us: he was a friend and teacher worth more than any blue ribbon in the world.”


I saved enough money to purchase a beautiful locket, and I had his picture placed inside. I was then able to cross off number two on my list.


Number three came true when a talented school high school friend of mine did a beautiful pencil drawing of him on a large canvas: a headshot of Leroy, Leroy napping, Leroy cooling out after a class with a blue ribbon, Leroy trotting under saddle. Another friend is making a video with clips of him, photos and background music to help preserve his memory.


My biggest dream though, was to retire the Larry McDermott Challenge Trophy and have the replacement trophy be named in his honor.


You see, I had never gotten to ride Leroy in that class—the Saddle Seat Equitation Championship at Mason Dixon Classic in Pennsylvania. In ’99 I was still showing in Walk and Trot, and so Leroy’s former owner Zak Adams showed him and won the equitation class. In 2000 my school play fell on the same day as the qualifying class. Though it was a tough decision, I decided for once that I would participate in a school activity, and so the night of the qualifier I was at our 7th grade play instead of riding my beautiful Morgan. That year my sister Katy took the reins and guided him to win both the qualifier and the championship.


When the next Mason Dixon rolled around, I was no longer mounted on Leroy; we had lost him that past January. I tried for the championship but came in reserve instead. Filled with disappointment, I returned to the barn. The next year I showed a Saddlebred, so riding at Mason Dixon was not an option. But the year after I found myself mounted on a Morgan once again, and Futurity’s Gallant Son carried me to win the class two years in a row.


To retire a challenge trophy the same rider must win it three times consecutively. I was looking ahead at my last year as a junior exhibitor. If I didn’t win it that year, I was out of chances. If I did…I would retire it.


That spring I found myself riding a mare I had admired from the moment she arrived at our barn. Her name is Futurity’s Roses Are Red, and Rosie and I did, indeed, win the last leg on the trophy together. I knew exactly what I wanted to have done.


Before I ever retired the trophy, I had already contacted the man who was to help make my dream come true. “If I do win this,” I told him, “I want to commission you to make this trophy.”


Enter Douwe Blumberg, equine sculptor extraordinaire. I emailed him immediately and told him my plans. I sent him pictures and video clips. I told him Leroy stories. I did anything and everything I could to help him get to know who Leroy really was. I had complete faith in his abilities from the start and I just knew this sculpture of Leroy was going to be amazing.


I didn’t know that he was a former horse trainer and had closed his barn because his art business was so well received. I didn’t know that he had completed well over 200 private commissions to date, including pieces for The Budweiser corporation, Mr. William Shatner, Ms. Elisabeth Goth, Ms. Misdee Wrigley, and the ambassador of Bahrain to name a few.


I didn’t know that he had numerous awards and worldwide private and corporate collectors to his credit.


I didn’t know that some of his recent projects included the installation a life-size commission for William Shatner, a life-size monument for the KY State Fair and Exposition Center, and the installation of a piece at the JFK Special Warfare Museum. I didn’t know any of that.


All I knew was that I had seen the trophy he had done in memory of a well-known American Saddlebred on display in his booth along Stopher Walk at the Kentucky State Fair and World’s Championship Horse Show a few years before. I had seen it, and I had loved it, and I knew that Leroy deserved that, too.


But the biggest thing I didn’t know was that Douwe Blumberg had done many a Saddlebred, but he had never sculpted a Morgan. Astonishinglee would be the very first.


“I had done a few Morgan silhouettes in bas-relief but never a 3-D figure,” said Blumberg.


“I've always loved the Morgan horse, especially their heads. I am attracted by the clean, straight profile (most of them...) and the wide forehead. They tend to have smaller ears than most other breeds for their size, and they also have rather large eyes, which makes their face very expressive. [Sculpting Leroy,] It was fun and refreshing to really be forced to study the photographs to catch every subtle nuance that stamped him a Morgan.


Knowing the basic anatomy is essential to sculpting a horse, but the differences between the breeds, sometimes subtle, sometimes surprisingly great, are vital in capturing the individual animal,” Blumberg explained.


So how did he go about creating a figure so life-like and accurate, that captured the very essence of Leroy’s personality and character?



Early in the process                          Almost finished


He read the stories and studied the photos and drawings. He took the time to get to know who Leroy was and what he meant to people.


“I always enjoy creating a piece more when I get to know the owner a bit and through them, the horse. Seeing Leroy's pictures and reading Allie's stories about him really gave me a sense of who he was,” said Blumberg.


“I was really touched by his kindness to kids and gentle spirit. As a trainer I had hundreds of horses through the barn over the years, but there were a few that really found their way into my heart, and it was often the humble lesson horse with the heart of gold.  Not that Leroy was a humble lesson horse, but his heart seemed to be made of gold. I tried to convey some of his gentleness in the piece.” 


I realized how well Blumberg had really gotten to know Leroy when he approached me about changing the way the piece would be sculpted.


I had originally asked him to sculpt Leroy’s head, neck, shoulders and front legs as if he were trotting. After studying Leroy for a while and thinking it over, Blumberg emailed me and asked me how I felt about portraying Leroy standing as if he were in the line up, ears forward, eyes soulful. 


“I chose a moment to portray that wasn't action-packed so that nothing would divert the viewer's attention from his face and eye,” he said.


In his email he explained how he felt this pose spoke to him more.


“It is up to you,” he wrote, “but after studying all his pictures, I would recommend that he be sculpted like he was standing in the line-up rather than trotting. I say this because so many of his pictures show him ‘hanging out’ with kids etc, that I'm thinking it might ‘feel’ more like him.”


I told him I had complete faith in his judgment, because I knew he was right. Leroy loved to trot, and he loved his victory passes, but more than anything he loved people. And he was right, too, that his eyes were the most important element. His eyes were what connected him to everyone.


Douwe concentrated on them, as well as his facial expression. According to Blumberg, the piece “came alive” for him when he concentrated on capturing Leroy’s kindness and loveable-ness.


“When I sculpt a horse, I always add the mane and ears last. My thinking is that if I can get a likeness without these essential elements, then when I add them, it'll really look right,” he said.


It did look right. The Astonishinglee Perpetual Memorial Trophy had come to life…and it almost seemed to bring Leroy back with it.



The finished trophy


The piece was completed just in time for its inception at the 2006 Mason Dixon Classic. Everyone who knew Leroy when he was alive was startled at the resemblance, and there were even a few tears because it “just looked so much like him.”


Ironically, the first winner to get her name engraved on the trophy’s plaque was Kaitlyn Grant, a young girl from my barn—the barn full of the people Leroy loved so very much. To add to the irony, she was riding Unforgettablee, who, just like Leroy, was bred at Shingle Branch Farms.


Katie and “Toby” won the trophy a second time in April 2007, a great team which reminds me very much of Leroy and myself.


Though I have presented the trophy in person for the first two years, I know the year will come when I won’t be able to. However, thanks to the amazing talents of Douwe Blumberg, and the larger-than-life horse himself, Leroy will forever be remembered as a great show horse, and an even greater personality.


I believe the greatest of artists work through inspiration, and I believe this piece was inspired either by the horse himself or by God above. I believe that because when I look at it, I go back.


Back to eleven years old and gripping the saddle for dear life as Leroy cavorted around the outdoor ring with glee, almost putting me into tears before our first show. Back to throwing my arms around his warm neck and burying my head in his sad, sad excuse for a mane. Back to curling up next to him on the ground and both of us taking a nap together…back to him reaching down and grabbing my shoe in his mouth and raising his head again, causing me to leap around on one foot, demanding he put it down.


Allie Layos sharing some quiet time with Leroy
at Children's Benefit Horse Show in 2000.


I go back to his antics, back to the frustrations, back to the victories, but Douwe Blumberg was right. Mostly what I go back to…is his kindness. 

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