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Irene York...Enjoying Life To The Fullest

by Bob Funkhouser

She’s a hearty New Englander who has volumes of great stories about the show horse industry revolving around the American Saddlebreds and Hackney Ponies she’s loved most of her life.

“My dad was a horse dealer,” said York. “He used to ship in draft colts from Iowa, break them and sell them to the local farmers. As soon as I could sit up I was riding. My first three years of high school I rode or drove horses eight miles a day to go to school. I had a grade Morgan Horse and a reining Quarter Horse I would alternate with.”

Her first experience in the show ring came in 1933 when the Deerfield Fair was trying to get a horse show started. She said that there were 21 exhibitors, most rode or drove their horses from nearby. Deerfield offered them a free stall, grain for their horses, and a free room to get them to exhibit. The prizes in the class were also bags of grain. York and her friends got the Deerfield Fair Horse Show off the ground and in 1939 it became a recognized member of the New England Fair Association.

Deerfield is still going strong today and York has exhibited some of the most exciting horses and ponies to show on those grounds over the past 70 years. Starting with her grade Morgan in 1933 through such notables as Major Topping, Princess Of York, King’s Swell Of York, Heart Of Gold, Granite Hill Prince James, Sky Farm’s Golden Minute, Regal Aire, Gentlemen’s Deal, Granite Hill Jewel’s Masterpiece, Yankee Doodle Sportsman, Starlights Ladies Man, Boreen Gigi’s Masterpiece, Happy Talk, Twin Willow’s Showcase, and most recently Megabucks, the Deerfield Fair and all of the New England show scene has been better off with the presence of this grand enthusiast.

She started riding show horses through a friend, John Emerson, who later became her business partner in real estate and insurance. It was through his involvement with the good Saddlebred, Mountain Echo, that York purchased her first good Saddlebred, Major Topping.

“He was my first nice show horse,” explained York. “I showed him for 11 years and won in five-gaited, fine harness, and combination classes that we had back then.”

Her interest in ponies began in the early ‘50s, again through Emerson. “John was killed in a horse accident and I got his ponies,” she said. “I started to breed a few and we showed in hand, harness, and several of them where also top three-gaited ponies. I also loved driving the pairs. There was something about driving a pair that really fascinated me.

“I just love driving, continued York. “I’ve raised over 100 Hackneys in my lifetime. The pony business used to be big in the Northeast. With shows like Syracuse, Children’s Services and Devon there would be 15 to 20 ponies in a class.”

While York has enjoyed the limelight for many years on her home circuit, she rarely had the opportunity to venture south and take on the rest of the world in Louisville. Last year she made her first show ring appearance at the World’s Championship Horse Show, and it didn’t go exactly as planned.

“I was a basket case,” explained York. “I went in the ring and truthfully my knees were knocking. We didn’t do very good because I let him break twice. I knew neither one of us did what we could do, so I wanted to go back.”

Seeing that York was having a few problems with the talented pleasure driving pony named Megabucks John Lampropoulos offered to help York with the training of the half brother to World’s Grand Champion Silver and Gold. Rob Turner also assisted in getting the pony to Louisville and helping work it there. Lampropoulos pulled them together to make it to Louisville last year but now with a year’s work on the team they were ready to return to Freedom Hall.

“Johnny [Lampropoulos] has done a fantastic job with this pony,” said York. “I had had a hip replacement and he [Megabucks] was starting to be a little too much for me to work at home so Johnny said he would take him for me. He’s a sweet pony, loves to give you kisses. When I first bought him he was so homely - big ears, big head, just homely. Everybody looked at him and passed on him. It wasn’t until he was about four that he started growing into himself and getting pretty. All of a sudden he started getting motion also. People just get impatient with ponies sometimes. You have to let them mature.”

Mature he did. This year on Thursday afternoon in Freedom Hall the names Megabucks and Irene York were called out as the Reserve World’s Champions of section two in the Adult Hackney Pleasure Driving Pony class.

“I thought I was going to faint,” said York. “I had lots of friends on the rail because sometimes I’ll think I’m doing alright but I let him get away from me. My friends kept me on the ball this time and I thought we had a good go. I just love that pony. He takes a little hold and I like a pony that takes a little to drive.”

Still soaking up the Louisville experience of a lifetime, a lifetime which she’s devoted to the betterment of the pony industry, York is looking forward to the upcoming fall show schedule which includes her beloved Deerfield Fair, a place where many of her stars have been retired, and most all of them at the age of 20. She’s also looking forward to watching a junior exhibitor show Meagabucks in a second-year class at Eastern States aimed at increasing support of the pony industry through junior exhibitors.

Enjoying life to the fullest, Yok does all of this is while still working eight hours a day for her son’s business, taking care of her own barn and the harness pony Happy Talk, and driving her own ponies and buggies to the shows. Best of all, at any exhibitor’s party in New England, York is the last one to leave the dance floor and the first one to make it to the barn the next morning.

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