by Ross Peddicord
Each year the Maryland Horse Council recognizes a professional who has had an outstanding career in the Maryland horse industry. Presented at the annual Maryland Horseman’s Party (a fundraiser for the Maryland 4-H Foundation and MHC). The recognition is designed to inspire children who have an interest in horses that there are an array of rewarding career options in the horse industry.
Jack Vordemberge figures he has done just about everything with horses—“except ride Western or in races!”
He has been a top show rider, an “A” pony clubber, horse show judge, announcer, hunt whipper-in, Gittings Horsemanship winner, captain of the McDonogh cavalry, animal science major at the University of Maryland, even a gymnast on horseback! For about the last 25 yeas, Jack, along with his wife Charlette (better known as “Boo”) has been the proprietor of Vordemberge Saddlery, the venerable institution established in 1884, the granddaddy of all Maryland tack shops.
But before the business of business claimed his attention, Jack rode for what he terms “just a great collection of classic horseman”— men such as former USET coach Bert de Nemethy, steeplechase Hall of Famers Paddy and Mike Smithwick; legendary coaches of the McDonogh school riding teams, Willis Lynch, George Edel and Jose de Murgiondo; dressage master Henry Asmis; the great Eastern Shore MFH Wilbur Ross Hubbard and his renowned huntsman, “Hounddog” Browm; and such Maryland horse show greats as Charlie Gartrell, Maj. Henry Dentry and Jack Piersol.
During all of this time, Vordemberge Saddlery, starter by his grandfather Louis Vordemberge in Baltimore in 1886, has been like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps going and going and going.
Visit the store’s current location in Cockeysville and Jack pulls out a well worn leather saddle, obviously old, but still in perfectly rideable condition. Even the serge panel made of worsted wool underneath the seat is taut and intact.
When a customer approached Jack’s grandfather around the turn of the century, he asked how long the saddle would last.
“A lifetime, if you take care of it,” was the reply.
Now, nearly 100 years later, Jack Vordemberge has the saddle to prove it.
It is such quality, service and dependability that has gained Vordemberge’s the respect of the industry, and why Jack, in addition to his considerable horsemanship skills, has been named Maryland Horse Council’s “Horseman of the Year.” The award will be presented March 7 at the organization’s annual 4-H fundraiser in the Ruffian Room at Laurel Park racecourse.
Now 57, Jack recalls the first spill he ever took. He was 8 years old, in the third grade at McDonogh School, and Jose de Murgiondo threw him up for his first riding lesson on Mt. Mansfield, a retired polo pony. “I was late for athletics, and he told me to catch up with the group which was across the field,” Jack recalled. “Needless to say it was my first ride, my first canter, my first gallop, and my first fall. When I came off, Jose said, “You’re a Vordemberge. You got to get back on and go.”
From then on, until he took over the family business, Jack followed Jose’s advice—and he has barely been out of the saddle since.
His first pony champion was a Hackney stallion named Cassius Comet, which Jack started riding when he was 11. “McDonogh owned him and let me take him home for the summer,” Jack recalled. “I kept him at the old Shawan Stables, now the site of Cal Ripken’s house (in Worthington Valley). HE would duck under the stall guard, run down the lane, and chase the mares! I showed him in the pony hunter division, and also drove him.”
From the time he was in middle school until his graduation from McDonogh in 1958, Jack was on the school’s varsity riding team. During that time, he joined Elkridge-Harford Pony Club, on of the nation’s first pony clubs which was founded by the late Louise Bedford, and later its offshoot, Green Spring Pony Club. “Donny Hebb and I were the fourth pony clubbers in the country to get out “A’s,” he said. Much of that time, Jack rode a gray purebred Arabian pony named Bazad, as well as a string of horses from the McDonogh stable.
On Mrs. Bedford’s advice, Jack purchased Bazad as a green broke 3 year old. “At the time, he was the second highest priced pony (to Craven’s Raven) sold in Maryland,” Jack said. Bazad and Vordemberge formed such a symbiotic relationship that Jack would give riding and jumping demonstrations on the horse bareback, without a saddle, bridle, hackamore or even a string through the animal’s mouth. “I even did outside course over post and rails with him without a bit of tack on,” Jack recalls. Such demonstrations took place at the Eastern National Livestock Show at Timonium and at the Boumi Temple Horse Show. “We’d also jump over people,” he said. At the time, Jack was also a member of the McDonogh Troop, which performed Roman riding stunts, such as mounting 6-man human pyramids on horseback. Bazad lived until he was 31.
After graduating from McDonogh, Jack caught the eye of Bert de Nemethy at a USET screening trial and Jack was invited to live at the Team headquarters in Gladstone, N.J. and try out for the Jumping Team. “I took a horse with me from McDonogh named Mison,” Jack said. The horse was famous at the school. He was such a quick, cat-like jumper with such a flightly temperament that few people could stay on him But he could jump! “Finally, Bert got tired of the horse’s antics and told me to come back when I got a better horse,” Jack said, “but I could never afford one.”
For a while Vordemberge studied to become a veterinarian, graduating from the University of Maryland with an animal science degree. But then brother Howard, who was running the family saddlery, met an untimely death from pneumonia at age 35. That’s when Jack took over the tack business, and stopped competitive riding.
He and his wife have two sons: John Matthew “Tacker,” 27, a paratrooper with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which is stationed at Camp Hovey in South Korea; and Todd, 24, a graduate of Widener University and currently an information systems analyst in the computer technology industry in Wilmington, Del.
As a saddle shop operator, Jack bemoans the loss of business through the advent of catalogue shopping, customers in the horse show and polo fields who go south for the winter, and partial loss of a loyal client base made up of many of the old horsey families from Baltimore and Harford counties, even though descendents of a lot of those families comprise his clientele. The store recently moved from its long-time Timonium location to new headquarters about three miles down York Road in Cockeysville.
Jack has developed a reputation as a stickler for perfectly-fitted tack, some of which he custom makes for customers. There is a Fenwick martingale, the Smithwick martingale, the “J.W.Y. Martin” gale. Jack reels when he thinks of sorebacked horses caused by ill-fitting equipment. He is known for his obsession with straight saddles: “I’ll send a saddle back to a manufacturer even if it’s just an eighth of an inch off.” He stressed that when he receives the Horse Council award, he shares it with his many Vordemberge Saddlery predecessors, including his grandfather Louis, who started the company: his father Howard, who began the firm’s racetrack business by selling tack out of the trunk of his car at Maryland’s many racetracks; his late brother, Howard: John Dorsey, who worked for the company for 49 years driving the firm’s truck daily to serve its racetrack clientele; and Stuart Myers, who was Vordemberge’s on-site master tack repairman for 41 years until he retired at age 81 in 1995. Now Jack does the repair work.
Will there be a fourth generation Vordemberge taking over the business in the next millennium? We can be sure it will only be if he can uphold the Vordemberge standards for quality and reliability.