by Katherine O. Rizzo (printed in the February 2009 issue of The Equiery)
Each year, the Maryland Horse Council recognizes a professional who has had an outstanding and influential career in the Maryland horse industry. This person is typically someone in the industry whose work is known but not widely celebrated in the media. The recognition of such individuals is designed to inspire young people to combine their love of horses with their chosen careers.
The 2008 honoree is Mark Harrison, a truly kind man who shared his passion for horses with the gaited horse community and horse industry as a whole. For nearly 80 years, Harrison has shown, trained and bred Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses. He continues to share his vast knowledge and horsemanship with family and friends from his farm Thomas Run Stables in Bel Air. Harrison also acts as a steward for the natural gaited horse through the association Plantation Walking Horses of Maryland.
The Cavalry Way
Having grown up in a family of Saddlebred owners just outside Baltimore, Harrison naturally was drawn to the breed. His earliest memories of riding are leadline classes on his father’s Saddlebreds, and he continued to show through his early years in the youth classes.
Right out of high school, Harrison enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry during the height of World War II and remained enlisted until January 1946. While stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, he attended Cavalry School at the same time as the 2007 Horseman of the Year Joseph Vanzego. A segregated army prevented the two from ever meeting.
Harrison reminisced that each soldier had to first wrangle his horse before beginning training. “All the horses would be in a large paddock and you were told to lasso one,” he explained. “Whichever one you caught was your horse to train and ride. I got a real hothead of a mare!” After being required to ride bareback for three weeks, Harrison and the other cavalrymen became truly good riders. One exercise that Harrison remembers “fondly” was jumping his horse off the top of the “big hill.”
“We rode our horses to the top of this very steep and huge hill,” he recalled. “At the top were these huge boulders, and we were told to jump our horses over them and run down the hill. Well, some horses just wouldn’t jump and the sergeant would start cracking a whip in the air to scare them off. Some would jump, but then fall on their way down. I told the sergeant to hold on for a minute and I coaxed my horse to jump softly over, and we made it down in one piece.”
Disbanding the Cavalry
After a little over a year at the school, Harrison and his horse shipped out to China with the rest of the battalion. However, mid-route, the Army’s plans for the group changed and it landed on a beach in New Guinea instead. After three days, the soldiers were told to leave all their cavalry supplies and horses on the beach, change into infantry clothes and board a ship to fight in the war. “We left 1,000 horses on that beach! And you know, those horses tried to follow us!” Harrison said, tears swelling in his eyes. The officers told the cavalrymen that they would send ships to retrieve the horses, but Harrison does not believe they ever did. Thus the U.S. Cavalry was officially disbanded as modern warfare moved forward.
From New Guinea, Harrison joined General Douglas MacArthur’s personal guard in Australia. “They treated us better than regular infantry because we were cavalry,” he recalled. From Australia, he traveled with MacArthur back to New Guinea and on to Tokyo, Japan. When the war ended, Harrison retired as a staff sergeant.
Boxwood and Sugar Valley
Upon returning to the United States, Harrison began working at a local stable in Baltimore County and married his first wife. His talent for working with the high-spirited Saddlebreds landed him a job at Boxwood Manor in Towson when the barn manager at the time, Russell Law, bought several horses that Harrison was already training.
There he worked under Joe Parker for five years. Parker, one of the few African-American trainers in the U.S. at the time, was the “best trainer in the world,” according to Harrison. “All of his kids became great trainers too,” though they now mainly work with Morgans, he added. When Boxwood Manor was sold, Parker moved his business to New York and Harrison took a job at Sugar Valley Farm in Tennessee. He worked for four years at the gaited horse farm, which was “one of the best in the country,” he maintained.
When he returned to Maryland, Harrison began his own training business when an early client in Glen Burnie asked Harrison to find him a good Quarter Horse, Harrison contacted actor and breeder Robert Mitchum. Best known for his role in the 1962 film Cape Fear, Mitchum was one of Hollywood’s leading men in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. While chatting with Harrison when he arrived to pick up the horse, Mitchum mentioned how he had several horses he needed broken. “We worked out a deal,” Harrison said, and Mitchum became one of his early clients.
Mitchum offered the trainer a job in California conditioning his racing and show horses, but thankfully for Marylanders, Harrison’s first wife would not let him move their family.
Harrison feels that the basis for his training methods is direct communication with the horse. He has watched and studied all kinds of methods, including round penning, and finds that he is better able to communicate to the horse through the [lunge] line. “I want to be in control and want to [physically] be in touch with the horse at all times,” he explained.
Harrison met John Lyons at the Maryland Horse World Expo one year. One of Harrison’s horses would not load onto the trailer, and Lyons came out to help. “He’s a hell of a nice guy, but I can get a horse going on a lunge in 30 minutes, both ways, when it takes [people like him] three-hours!” he boasted.
“To call Mark a trainer is just not enough; sometimes he is more like a magician,” said longtime friend and student Louise Semancik. She went on to say, “He can look at a horse that might be giving a rider a problem, make the tiniest of changes and suddenly you see a whole new horse and a very happy rider.”
Harrison feels that, through the years, each horse has presented him with a different challenge—and that is what he loves so much about his job. “It is very easy to ride a horse that Mark has trained,” said his wife, Jan.
As much as he loves training horses, Harrison loves teaching other people his methods, too. “He is so generous with his talent,” said Semancik. “He has a way with horses that is admired by all who know him, a work ethic that never ceases, and a love of life that is contagious.”
Peacocks and Walkers
Harrison continued his freelance career throughout the ‘70s, specializing in gaited breeds but handling any and all “problem horses” that clients brought his way. After marrying Jan Nolf in 1971, Harrison established his Thomas Run Stables, named after the nearby Thomas Run creek, to breed, train and show Saddlebreds.
Harrison began to breed his own horses simply because he did not want someone else working with them. “There is so much to undo before you get through to the horse,” he explained.
Known as the “peacocks of the show ring,” Saddlebreds are “true SHOW horses,” said Harrison. He and his family traveled up and down the East Coast competing in all the big “indoor” shows, including the Washington International Horse Show, Harrisburg, Devon and Madison Square Garden. “Trainers back then knew how to show horses,” he commented. By contrast, he feels that many people buy their way into blue ribbons and championships these days.
After having back surgery in 1986, the Saddlebred trot “was just too much” for even this dedicated trainer. So he switched to breeding, training and showing the smoother-gaited Tennessee Walking Horse. Harrison also showed Morgans and Arabians at one time or another, stating he’d show “anything with a flat saddle and a double rein.”
Partly due to his disdain for the mistreatment of many gaited show horses, and partly due to his desire to preserve a more naturally-gaited horse, Harrison helped start the Plantation Walking Horses of Maryland in 1983. The club is nationally recognized and hosts shows and clinics for the naturally-gaited Walking Horse.
Building a Legacy
Today, at 86 years young, Harrison still breeds and trains a few horses a year, though he feels the horse industry has changed considerably over the decades he has been involved.“Breed classes, especially in this area, are all but lost … and so are Saddlebreds. [They] are gone, or at least on their way out. Many people have moved south, some headed to New England, because that is where the breed classes are,” he said.
Harrison feels that trainers have changed a lot, as well. “They’re all women! They’ve taken over,” he joked. “We never saw women trainers back then. I’m glad they are taking over. They are much kinder with the horses. I’m high on light hands and the women have that. They had a lot to learn and they learned and are GOOD!”
Harrison has spread his love of horses to all of his children, too. Some of his sons showed Tennessee Walkers and at least one great-grand daughter currently shows on the Howard County circuit—and is doing “very well,” said the proud great-grandfather. “I’m so proud of all of my children who all have great jobs and great homes,” he said.
His family legacy includes six children, three step-children, 16 grandchildren and 11 great-gran children, “with two on the way,” said Harrison. With a large family and an even larger group of friends, the trainer has distinguished himself among the horse industry as a “godfather,” according to Semancik: “Wherever he is, there is always a big group of people around him, hanging on his every word.” This was never more evident than at the 2008 Maryland Horse Council barbecue, when at least 150 relatives, friends and Maryland equestrians came out to honor this Maryland legend and to celebrate his lifetime of work to support the gaited breeds and the knowledge he has shared with countless people.
“Perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the horse world has been Mark’s steadfast promotion of the sound, natural Tennessee Walking horse -– always upholding the natural over the artificial, speaking out against abuse and manmade gaits, always providing the knowledge that people needed to enjoy their gaited horses ‘naturally’.”
– Keith Dane, Director of Equine Protection for The Humane Society of the United States