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Meet DeLovely’s Go-To Gal: Karen Medicus

WGC 5 O'Clock and Karen Medicus

by Ann Bullard

It’s Saturday night at the Kentucky State Fair. Back at the DeLovely Farm tack room, riders mill around waiting to be called. Mothers put final touches on daughters’ makeup. Chances are at least one DeLovely-trained horse will be in just about every Saddlebred and roadster horse class.

Down the barn aisle, the quiet work goes on. Horses are being readied; some nerves may be on edge. Karen Medicus remains a seeming center-of-calm as she prepares one or more world’s champion contenders for their final performances of the week. She’s been there, done that and has sprinted into Freedom Hall to head many a world’s title holder. Five O’Clock, the 2005 Five-Gaited World’s Grand Champion, and World’s Champion CH Onion, whose victory preceded Five O’Clock’s by 10 years, are two of her headliners.

“We could have told you so.” That’s the response you get when you ask those who knew Medicus as a youngster about her success in the Saddle Horse industry. Those at DeLovely Farm, where she has spent the last 26 years, and the customers whose horses she cares for, say she simply is extraordinary. And she’s living her life-long dream.

The dark-haired, blue-eyed little girl who grew up in suburban Atlanta, Ga., didn’t fit the ladylike mold her mother had dreamed of. After having two boys, Margaret Medicus was hoping her daughter would want to play with dolls and wear pretty dresses. That wasn’t Karen. She preferred a life in blue jeans.

When their daughter was about three, Margaret Medicus and her late husband, Bill, moved to what was then the country. Temple Stephenson, who had headed the program at the famed Broadlands Farm before Jolie Richardson’s death, and his wife, Jayne, lived across the road.

“We could stand at the kitchen window and Karen could watch the field where Temple worked horses. She often slipped out to watch him,” Margaret Medicus recalled.

Jayne Stephenson remembered the little girl who would peek through pasture fences. “I’d be jogging a horse and there would be this little girl taking pictures. She’d ask, ‘Can I take a picture of your horse?’ I finally called her mother and told her if there ever were a little girl who needed to be taking riding lessons, Karen was the one.”

Marietta, Ga., wasn’t all that big,” Medicus said. “We were one of eight families in the entire subdivision. I could walk across the road to Jayne and Temple’s place. I kept wandering over and peeked through pastures to watch the horses. After I finally got the nerve to walk down the road, Jayne told me she needed to talk to my parents about lessons. Mom and Dad had three kids and could afford one lesson a week. That didn’t suit me. I wanted at least two.”

In the style which Medicus would demonstrate all her life, she worked it out. She began going to the barn after school, bringing in the lesson horses and earning her extra ride a week. She “estimates” she began her grooming career when she was yet to be 12 years old. The next step was a horse of her own.

“The farm had a lesson horse for sale and my parents bought her. She was a Quarter Horse mix and did everything. Topsy would go English, western, jump fences and barrel race. I showed her in every division possible,” Medicus said.

While waiting for a new high school to be completed, Medicus’s school went on split sessions. Freshmen and sophomores had afternoon classes.

“I groomed and helped work horses from 7 to 11 a.m. and then went to school. A lot of time, I would come back after classes. My senior year, I worked for the farm as part of a work-study program, getting credit for that,” she said, adding, “Jayne was willing to work with me on that. I went to school in the morning, would be done by noon and at the barn by 1.”

Jayne put the young lady to work. Those were the days when one-night horse shows were the rule in Georgia, and the Stephensons made many of them.

“I have been to every Saturday night show there ever was in the state of Georgia. I also know how to fix a fan belt on a six-horse truck with a hay string. Temple taught me that,” Medicus said with a laugh. “He knows more uses for baling wire than anyone I know. Temple could fix anything with baling wire and hay string.”

While Medicus didn’t know the late Jolie Richardson, she does have important memories of Broadlands Farm. She went with the Stephensons to help clean out the barn after Richardson’s death.

“I don’t know how old I was at the time. To be in that barn and see CH Lady Carrigan, CH Broadlands Captain Denmark and CH Broadland’s Patrician Lady's shoes had such an impact on me,” she said. “We cleaned out all this stuff and took a lot home in trunks. I wanted one of them. Mom had an old Singer pedestal sewing machine that worked. We traded it to Jayne for one of the Broadlands trunks.”

Medicus took the trunk home, relined and refinished it in the same Broadlands green. Before she moved into her present home, she used it for linen storage. At present, it is stored in her garage.
Lesley (Sodel) Miles and her sister, Stacey, were among the youngsters riding with the Stephensons. Medicus put Miles in the ring for her first horse show.

“They lived maybe five miles on the other side of Jayne and Temple from my family,” Medicus said. “I was taking care of the little black pleasure walk and trot pony Lesley showed. We really have a long history together.”

“She put me in the ring at Wills Park, Ga., when I was six,” Miles recalled. “After I moved to DeLovely, at the end of my equitation career, she took care of Mellow Magic and then CH Reedann’s Lahaina, my walk-trot horse.

“Karen is amazing. She’s a very bright person and a lot of people may be intimidated by her. What I remember of her then is that she was a total worker, not a teenage player,” Miles said of the lady seven years her senior. “I think of her being at small, one-night shows, always grooming, helping and showing a pleasure horse. We sat around Temple and Jayne’s trailer a lot at those shows. Now she’s watching me put my children in the ring. If someone wants to know what I looked like as a small child, she tells them, ‘Just look at Macy.’ ”

“I’ve had a lot of people working with me and she is one of the best,” Jayne Stephenson said of her protégé. “When she worked for us, we had to get 17 or 18 head ready to go to one-night shows. I never had to get behind her and check to see if the trunks were right. It makes me very proud to have been there when she started. Karen has justly earned all the kudos she gets.”
Medicus had no question about her career path. She was determined to find a school with a good equine program.

“When Karen got ready for college, it had to be a school with an equine program,” her mother said. “The lady in the riding program at Otterbein College in Westerfield, Ohio, came around making calls. Karen was quite impressed with her and decided to go there.”

She entered Otterbein, where she studied stable management in their Equine Sciences Department. She worked one summer for David McIntyre and the next for Jerry Heddon’s Dogwood Farm near Atlanta.

“Jerry had fired his broodmare manager,” Medicus recalled. “Here I was, not even 20 years old, in charge of seven breeding stallions and I don’t know how many mares. I worked at the breeding operation at Acworth in the mornings and then drove 60 miles to Cartersville to help take care of what was there. Jerry would come over and help at Acworth and there was one guy to help at the Cartersville barn. By the end of the summer, Jerry had consolidated things, so I ended up being with Dogwood at Dewey Henderson’s old place in College Park. When the trainers [Bill and Doris Reed] went on the road, I spent time there working show horses and breeding mares. It was quite an experience!”

Otterbein College required its equine science students to complete an internship. Heddon had closed his operation and was sending his daughter, Jama, to ride with DeLovely. Karen and her mother asked Heddon for an introduction to the Shivelys.

“The following September, I was supposed to show a two-year-old in hand for Temple,” Medicus said. “The Shivelys were there. Jerry told them he knew someone he thought would really work for them, and they agreed. I began the summer of 1981.

“I don’t think they ever quite understood what I was going to be doing. They knew they had free help for the summer. It was a standing joke with Raymond that I got paid $21.50 a week: 21 square meals and 50 cents allowance,” Medicus said with a laugh, adding she never got the 50 cents. She also received horse show expenses. “I started as a groom and a babysitter, I think.

“The two upstairs bedrooms in Raymond and Lil’s 100-year-old farmhouse had been turned into dormitories,” she said, recalling those early days. “I had Jama, Jennifer Allen and Christie Fletcher with me. When I went to bed at night, I never knew if my bed had been short-sheeted, or if it had baby powder or water balloons in it. Every once in a while, my underwear was strung down the barn aisle or in the freezer. Jama was the ringleader, but never got caught.”

Medicus recalled the good times. “I think I was the reason Lillian realized she needed some kind of a counselor at the house,” she said, thinking of the free time she spent with the girls. “We have a drive-in behind the farm. The kids could walk and I could go around in the pickup loaded with soft drinks. I had to entertain a lot of kids as well as work full time.”

At the end of the summer, Medicus returned to school for her final year. After graduation, she called her mother asking, “What do I do now?” Margaret Medicus recalled.

“I asked her what she had trained for all those years,” her mother said. “I asked if she liked her internship with the Shivelys and had she left in good standing. She called them before graduation and they had a spot for her. We dropped her off at Lil’s and she’s been there ever since.”
That summer, the DeLovely group headed to
Louisville. The roadster star, Nonstop, was one of Medicus’s charges.

“I had only worked for Raymond a short time. Running into center ring with Nonstop was absolutely the greatest thrill of my life,” Medicus recalled. “She was my first and Raymond’s first. It was the best feeling in the world.”

Although the newness has won off world’s championship honors, the thrill remains the same for all the DeLovely crew. Medicus used to keep a list of world’s champions in one of her trunks, but it’s now out of date. She estimates there have been 35. CH The Phoenix SM, CH Spartan’s Moon Charm, CH Fortunate Commander, CH Sultan’s Leather & Lace, CH The Homecoming Queen, CH Satan’s Seductress, Callaway’s Will Gillen and the 1995 World’s Grand Champion CH Onion are from the past. More recent world title holders include CH Callaway’s Capitol Reporter, Freaky Links, CH Spirited Wing, Power Ranger, Invincible Summer and the reigning World’s Grand Champion Five-Gaited horse, Five O’Clock.

One of Medicus’s early challenges came when Shively asked her to warm up Back N Black for the road wagon qualifier as he had a juvenile rider in the previous class. In 1983, Stouffer Walk had yet to be finished; the warm-up area was extremely narrow.

“If you had seen the traffic in that chute the first time I was in the wagon …” she paused. “I thought I was going to die. Raymond told me to take a couple of trips. I looked at the help; I’d never been in the wagon in my life. I told them, ‘We are taking one trip, going up and stop. We’re not attempting to turn this thing around. Just think about 17 wagon horses trying to warm up in that chute when it was narrow. There was no way to go up, turn around and go back, then turn around and go back again.”

The word “caretaker” has a myriad of meanings when used to refer to the horse industry. Everyone at DeLovely knows Medicus is much more than that.

“She brings a whole lot to our team,” Raymond Shively said. “No one ever works for me, we just all work and work together.

“Karen is a person who really takes care of a horse. I offered her an assistant trainer’s job here twice and she wouldn’t take it. She is capable of doing that. She can ride a horse as good as anybody. She likes what she’s doing – caring for horses. I think that’s one reason she didn’t want the assistant trainer’s job. She felt like she would lose touch with them,” Shively continued.

“Karen is a vital part of our farm,” Lillian Shively said. “She is so good with the care of horses. Scott [Bennett] says she is a veterinarian without a degree. I often wonder why she didn’t become a vet, but I definitely am happy she is here with us.”

Lillian calls Medicus “the best caretaker in the country. She knows more than how to make their hair shine. Here she is more of an assistant who takes care of horses by her choice.”

She also has taken much of the farm secretarial load off Lillian Shively. She handles entries, books travel and helps Lillian with special writing assignments. Those who know her say she is a computer whiz, who spends many of her at home hours on the Internet. And, according to Shively, she is a fantastic cook, specializing in pastas, fancy and soul food.

“We’re like peanut butter and jelly,” Lillian Shively said of their relationship. “And I think Raymond, her friend, substitute father and mentor, is among the top three loves of her life.”

Medicus agrees with that assessment. “After Dad died [in 1996], I decided if I ever found someone I wanted to marry, I would want Raymond to give me away. He and Lillian are the two most special people in my life, other than my mom.”

Her other loves: her Corgi, RC, named for Bud Willimon who gave him to her, the cat Terri Chancellor gave her 15 years ago and the horses entrusted to her care.

Helping supervise the South Africans who are part of the DeLovely training program also falls to Medicus. She spends a lot of time handling INS paperwork.

“A lot of them are learning as they go along. I’m responsible for teaching them and any other new help. If they have a question or run into a problem, they’ll yell down the hallway, ‘Karen, I need you.’”

Medicus already was in place when Todd Miles joined DeLovely in 1983. He assessed her strengths.
“She is a very, very loyal person. She wouldn’t have been here that long if she weren’t that loyal,” the world’s champion trainer said. “She probably is as good as anyone at what she does and she is very, very good at anything to do with a horse that has something physical wrong with it. And she’s extremely good with a tail. Every horse she takes care of has an unusually long, full tail. At Louisville, we’ll work until 3 or 4 a.m. and you never hear her complain. She knows her role and does her job right.

“The job she did with Onion is the reason she was an important part of Five O’Clock,” he continued. “And she loves that computer. We have a lady in the barn who says, ‘I want to turn [the computer] on and have it work.’ Karen wants to turn it on and make it work. She enjoys that kind of challenge.”

A lot of people talk about getting between a horse’s ears. Medicus is very much a psychologist for her horses. She talked about the Five O’Clock training and win.

“Todd came down to me and said, ‘The Nalleys want to move Five O’Clock to us. Do you know him?’ I think I looked at Todd and asked if we could win with him. I told him if he wanted me to take care of him, I would,” Medicus said.

“I had been there with CH Onion and knew what type of effort, the preparation and conditioning that it takes. You have to have a caretaker who can look at the trainer and say ‘Your horse looks like ----’ or ‘He looks really good and I don’t think you need to change anything.’

“The ground person is the second most important person involved with a stake horse. The trainer is first,” she said, adding one thing she did for Five O’Clock was give him a personality. “When I first started to take of CH Onion, he was obnoxious and spoiled rotten. As I got to know him through the year before he showed, I realized that was part of his personality. He thrived on it.

“Five was the same way. He needed personal attention and to know you were there. I think that has a lot to do with attitude as far as show horses are concerned. They thrive on attention and will do the most obnoxious things to get it. Five would paw incessantly so I put pawing chains on him. It took me quite a bit to realize he wasn’t digging just to dig but to get attention. He knew if he dug in the stall I’d yell at him. He’d come to the front of the stall and go ‘OK.’ I took the chains off and chose to ignore him. Then I started paying a little extra attention to him. Chris [Nalley] will tell you his whole attitude changed when I started doing that. He thought he was the best horse in the world. To this day, I can be halfway down the barn and he’ll do something. I’ll yell at him and it’s okay. He thinks ‘She knows I’m here.’ CH Onion, CH Satan’s Seductress, CH The Phoenix SM – any of the great horses I’ve taken care of thrived on personal attention.”

Medicus and the entire DeLovely crew believe in giving horses treats. That’s quite different than the way she grew up with Stephenson.

“I have horses that eat bananas, apples, grapes, carrots, chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies. Linkin Park wants blueberry muffins. That works for me. I do try to get customers to keep treats on the healthy end but I never found feeding treats detracts from their show ring appearance. Don’t feed them five minutes before you ride, but as soon as they cool out, you can feed them. Customers bring treats to the help at shows. [Callaway’s] Capital Reporter would beg for whatever we were eating. He was eating pizza at Midwest. At DeLovely, I’m at a barn where the trunk in front of the stalls is like a horse’s smorgasbord.”

Chris Nalley, who with his mother, Jean, owns Five O’Clock, says Medicus “is a consummate professional who has the rare ability to combine cool, calm know-how and skill with a deep passionate love for her horses and her clients. She is unflappable out in center ring. Saturday night at Louisville is lot of pressure for anyone. She handles it like another day at a county fair.”

Nalley said he “had heard of Karen for a number of years, but I didn’t really meet her until Louisville when Pluto foundered [after winning the Three-Year-Old Futurity]. A friend of mine, who knew her well, told her the night it happened. Karen had experience with foundered horses. Dr. Greg Flynn had a kit used to treat founder and Karen got that over to the Tanners. She worked on Pluto on her own time at night. She just is that caring a person who did what she could to help.”

Medicus’s love and compassion for Saddlebreds shows up in other ways. She is very involved with Nealia McCracken and Pat Johnson in supporting Saddlebred rescue activities. She presently has a 24-year-old half sister to A Touch Of Champagne.

Kind, loyal, dedicated, hard-working and someone with a wicked sense of humor: those are some of the terms friends use to describe Karen Medicus. She also is a talented writer, although that’s a talent she doubts she could put to much use in the horse industry.

“I’ve thought about writing for someone like Dabora. But I doubt they would like much of what I have to say,” she said, referring to the frankness with which she assesses every horse.

Medicus has a proprietary attitude toward her four-legged charges. “I looked at Myrna Flynn one day and told her, ‘You don’t actually own this horse [Callaway’s Will Gillen,] you’re just borrowing him from me.’ ”

Karen Medicus is a happy lady. She is living her dream and with people who have become much more than the hackneyed phrase “like a family” can describe. She has the opportunity to work with great horses, and at Christmas to choose one for her holiday ride.

“Over the years, I’ve ridden CH Onion, CH Satan’s Seductress, Five O’Clock– 25 years of champions,” she said.

Will there be more? If Medicus and the other DeLovely staff have any say, the answer is yes. Her responsibilities include Freaky Links, CH Callaway’s Capitol Reporter, Linkin Park, Power Ranger, Invincible Summer and Five O’Clock.

Negotiating the shavings along Stouffer Walk and into Freedom Hall can be interesting to someone on foot. Sunday through Friday, Medicus will wear her running shoes. On Saturday night, she changes to dress shoes.

Getting a little shavings in those will be worth it to head another DeLovely world’s champion.

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