A Life Well Lived

Barbara Childs with her last riding partner, the dressage stallion Jacques.

Barbara Childs with her last riding partner, the dressage stallion Jacques.

By Judy Heinrich

I first met Barbara Childs several years ago when she asked to write about my experiences as a (not very competitive) Limited Distance Endurance and Competitive Trail rider. Since we mostly talked about me I didn’t learn much about Barbara, although I continued to follow her as a fellow writer and the voice of Dudley the Donkey in Appointments.

            Then, very recently, I had the opportunity to ask Barbara about her life and was fascinated at its twists, turns and detours – many of them self-directed. It made me wish I had gotten to know her better, sooner.

            If you ever met Barbara you already know two things about her: First she was tiny, just 5 feet 2 inches and very petite – a “mere slip of a girl” as they used to say. Second, she had a very welcoming and sharing presence. As her good friend Katherine Pfaff put it, “Barbara loved everything and they loved her right back – people, animals and plants.” I suspect she also had a great sense of fun and wonder.

            But what became most apparent as I listened to Barbara was her strong inner compass and core of quiet determination. Having once made a decision – however unconventional – she was going to do whatever it took to see it through, no fanfare necessary. And she seemed to enjoy the entire process, both the fun times and the hard work that it took to get wherever she had decided to go.

            You couldn’t cover Barbara in just a magazine article but here are a few snippets that

I hope will give you a glimpse into an unusual life, well lived.


Barbara was born in 1943 and grew up as an only child in Chicago, bicycling, taking ballet, and accompanying her father to Arlington Park Race Track. Those trips to the track were her only childhood experiences with horses but she fell in love with them. Her parents couldn’t afford to get her one so she read every horse book she could find and planned for the day when she’d have one of her own.

When Barbara graduated from the Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, with a degree that qualified her to teach Junior High and High School, she applied to the Chicago Public School System and arranged to take a position in the inner city schools. Why that choice? Because, she explained, “I wanted a horse more than air, and you got a little extra pay at those schools.”

That little extra pay would go into her “equine bank account.” And while her account slowly grew, she invested in riding lessons so she’d know what she was doing when she got that horse.


“I Want a Horse”

When her account reached $1,500, Barbara withdrew it in cash and put it all down on a table in front of Tom Hughes, a well-known polo player at the Oak Brook Polo Club, then the largest in the U.S. “I want a horse,” she told him. “Come back Tuesday, I’ll have some for you to try,” he said.

Tuesday came, Hughes had five horses for her to ride, and she picked a five-year-old mare named Stage Magic. A Thoroughbred since this was the ’60s and the Warmbloods had not yet invaded. She trained Stage Magic for the Hunter ring and the pair did very well in Show Hunter classes in the B shows.

Barbara knew she could move up to the A shows the next year if she had an A horse. So she passed Stage Magic on to another rider and bought herself a horse called Model T, which her trainer Bunny Kizorek had found at Danada Farm in Wheaton. Danada bred champion racehorses, including the 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonaire. Again Barbara trained her horse – this time for Jumpers – and they had success at the A shows.


Summer Break Job

When school broke for summer, Barbara applied for a job helping train the yearling racehorses at Danada. Even now she thinks she got that job because she told Lester, Danada’s manager, that she owned and showed the Danada youngster Model T.

“Two other girls and I would break the young horses and gallop them,” she remembered. “It was so exciting and the horses were so good. They were from stakes horses and it was like they knew what to do. It was lovely.

“We worked from 5:30 to 11 a.m. six days a week for $100. I loved it and didn’t really want to go back and teach school,” Barbara said. But she was in her mid-20s at the time so she did the responsible thing, and only got to work at Danada for one summer.


“If I Die, Go to the Post Office”

Some time later Barbara was living in Hinsdale, Il., in the private residence of an older lady. “My landlady had been like a foster mother to me and had told me, ‘If I die, you take yourself and your horse to Wayne, Il., which is very horsey. Go to the post office and ask the lady there where you can live.’”

Sure enough, the landlady did die and Barbara followed her instructions. “I ended up living in a beautiful coach house on the Leo Menners estate for two or three years.” Her horse ended up boarding at Lamplight Stables, now Lamplight Equestrian Center. Because Lamplight focused on dressage, Barbara eventually switched to that discipline.

This chain of events led her to lay eyes on a young Bavarian Warmblood being longed by the well-known Swedish trainer Bo Tibblin. “Oh, this one I want to take home,” Barbara said. “Too big, too expensive, too young,” said her trainer Natalie Lamping (now an S dressage judge who has judged most of the major USET Olympic, World Cup and Pan American Games selection trials). But Barbara couldn’t get the horse out of her mind and Natalie decided having Barbara ride it might dissuade her. It had the opposite effect.

“I got on him in the indoor on a blustery cold day and I didn’t want to get off him. I didn’t know how I was going to afford him but I knew he was going to be mine,” Barbara said. Of course she made that happen, and promptly renamed him Bagheera after the black panther in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Then in 1987 she showed Bagheera to the US National Championship at First Level and Reserve Champion at Second Level. They apparently became just the team she had known they would.


“Here’s Your New Dog”

Between her various horse pursuits Barbara had taken time to get married in 1979 to Robert Childs, nicknamed Chico. He was a Yale graduate and Naval PT Boat Commander who had been awarded the Purple Heart and made his career in the financial industry. They were still living in Wayne when Chico lost his dog, a rescue Lab mix. He was thinking of getting another Lab but Barbara had never been able to get Scottish Deerhounds out of her mind after seeing them in “Out of Africa.”

While Deerhounds weren’t common in the U.S., Barbara found a breeder just 20 minutes from Wayne. She went up without Chico and chose a young male who had a heart condition; she was told he would need special care and probably die an early but peaceful death. Chico took to him right away and, after one early, unplanned deer chase, took him on long but careful walks. Between that good conditioning and some mysterious daily medication from Cuba, the renamed “Baloo” (after the bear from The Jungle Book) lived eleven-and-a-half years – long for any dog of that size. Baloo was the first of several Deerhounds she and Robert welcomed into their lives.


Loss & A New Life

In the early 1990s Barbara lost her husband, father, mother and Baloo within just two years. After taking care of her mother’s affairs and later suffering one of Chicago’s worst winters, Barbara called her friends Larry and Carol Stuenkel, who had moved from Chicago to a wonderful farm in Landrum. They told her to come on down and bring her horse.

“I liked it here right away,” Barbara says. “The mountains were very strengthening, I liked the people of the equine community, and I liked that my church was close by – Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Tryon.”

Barbara had two children’s books published here, Sammy and the Cowbird (2009) and Dear Bianca, Yours, Rudyard (2010). She started writing for Appointments when it was a black-and-white sheet, and has covered the equestrian scene here for about 12 years. She met Dudley the donkey when house-sitting for his owner, Dr. Joy Baker, and has given him a voice ever since.

And of course she got involved in showing at FENCE, competing her Thoroughbred Rilian through 2nd level and Rebecca Kemp’s horse Gus at 3rd level. In the years since, she has ridden horses for clients and friends, most recently being Katherine Pfaff’s dressage stallion Jacques (Jacobean), a son of the famous dressage horse and Grand Prix jumper Roemer. Katherine says the arrangement had made both Barbara and Jacques very happy.


End of a Chapter

In 2007 Barbara had a bout with breast cancer, went through treatment, had regular checks, and had been living cancer-free. Only recently had she learned that the cancer had come back, this time in the liver.

Barbara faced whatever was to come, supported by hospice and surrounded by her friends, including her latest dog, the 15-year-old Chihuahua Sophia.

She exhibited her usual sense that everything would work out. “I’ve done everything I’ve loved to do and that includes horses and riding, having my dogs, being at the barn, gardening and writing.”

No doubt part of her acceptance came from two of the other unusual turns that her life took long ago, when she spent four of her teenage years with the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago and the year after her mother’s death at the Cloistered Contemplative Monastery of Poor Clares in Rockford, Il. Both times her health eventually suffered under the rigors of convent life and, as Barbara described it, “the Mother Abbess said God decided I needed to go back into the world.”

In the end she was once again ready to go where God decided; but she is sure to have had some ideas of her own once she got there. Godspeed, Barbara.


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