Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Goodbye, John Henry.





So long my friend.

John Henry 1991-2011

Kathleen Conklin, “John Henry’s human”, knew she had to be part of his life the moment she laid eyes on him in an Amish mule dealer’s barn in Lancaster County, PA. on a cold winter night in 1994. The impressive force of his charisma is rare among equines. He usually wasn’t hard to notice. 1200 pounds of 16.2 hand, black shiny Percheron Mule with 12” ears. Hard to be wallflower. Plus he had the uncanny ability to launch a loud, clear, friendly bellow at the precise moment that doing so would have the most powerful effect in a crowd of people and horses. We smiled. Everyone knew who it was and they were glad to have met John Henry. He even gave the lucky ones a kiss.

John Henry began educating Kathleen about mules as a 3 year old. He knew only how to be tied and to be lead. He would not let anyone touch him. What an education he would provide! And what a fortunate mule he was to have Kathleen to work his magic on. She was receptive. Dedicated. Horse smart. Kind and fair. She always did everything the right way for John Henry.

His competition championships stretch from Shelbyville to Saratoga to Gladstone to GMHA to Lorenzo….and to Walnut Hill. The prestigious summit of carriage driving … Walnut Hill! A Mule at walnut Hill!?! Imagine that. Invited there, even. A barrier broken. John Henry was a champion or reserve champion at Walnut Hill 6 of the last 7 years. Few that saw him will forget the turnout: the restored royal blue butcher’s cart with bright yellow trim and Kathleen absolutely correctly appointed in her blue and white striped apron. Every detail meticulously researched and executed. But the joke was on Walnut Hill. A mule would never have been used to pull a butcher’s cart! Only fast horses like hackneys’ would be able to make the rounds before the meat spoiled. But still he won and won and won. Always loved that joke. It was impossible not to smile at John Henry.

Few know that it was John Henry that caused the United States Equine Federation to overturn a 50 year ban on mules in competition. Mules were banned because their exceptional skills beat society’s horses. They were reinstated because of the skillful ambassadorship of John Henry and Kathleen. It was hard to say no to John Henry. A barrier broken with a smile.
I taught John Henry and Kathleen to dance in preparation for an invitational musical Kur at a meeting of the American Driving Society in Fair Hill, Maryland. How could I say no? But what music to use? This had to be special. The choice? I knew it the second I heard it. Canned Heat’s “Too Much Giddyup (Not Enough Whoa)”. Look it up. It was perfect. And of course John Henry was his usual superlative self and made everyone smile again.

John Henry’s legend is larger than space allows to tell it all here. His magic broke down barriers too numerous to list, but…. and I speak for the horsemen that knew him… in a lifetime, we count on the fingers of one hand the good horses by whom we measure all the rest. John Henry will always be at the top of our list. A mule on the top of the list? Imagine that! We are truly privileged to have known the magnificent John Henry.

“Take this hammer, and carry it to the captain,
Tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone”. 
A prison work song about John Henry, attributed to Leadbelly