In loving memory of Richard “Dick” C. Ayres

June 12, 1937 - September 11, 2007

My sister, Sara, and I grew up riding with Dick Ayres. I started lessons with Dick in 1989, when I was five years old, and Sara soon joined me. Below is a piece I wrote in 2006, when Dick was 69 years old and in failing health. It is based on interviews and conversations with Dick, recorded in his little white farmhouse at Blue Cloud Farm, his Longmont, Colorado stable, as well as on conversations with people who knew him. I hope it serves as a tribute to Dick, who was incredibly kind in a gruff, take-no-nonsense way and an astute observer of human nature responsible for instilling the love of horses in over three generations of Boulder County children. Most of all, though, it serves as a reminder of how much we loved him and how important he was in our lives.

Dick Ayres, prize-winning horse trainer, national horse show judge, riding instructor, and—at least to my mind—legend, passed away on September 11, 2007 at the age of seventy. When I interviewed him in 2006, his health was failing but his keen story-telling skills and blunt common sense view of the world were very much intact. His days as part of the intensive Western horse show world were nearly behind him, he claimed, but he was still hard at work teaching horseback riding to anyone who would drive out to Blue Cloud Farm in Longmont, Colorado, which had been his home for the past 37 years.

In the summer, when he was not watering his many pots of petunias, snap dragons, and geraniums, he read mystery novels in his small farmhouse, his dogs slipping in and out of the house through the screen door as the ebb and flow of visitors allowed.

When he taught, Dick perched on at the railing of the large outdoor riding arena or in a derelict folding chair, the kind with plastic strips forming the seat and back, wearing worn leather sandals, cut-off jean shorts, and a polo shirt. If he sat in the chair, it was invariably the oldest one available and the slats had stretched out from use. The man, like the wooden fencing of the ring, had weathered over the years. The wood had turned from a pristine white to a peeling sort of brown that was meticulously touched up each spring, while Dick had acquired distinguished grey hair and a mahogany patina to his skin, the result of hours in the sun and a disdain for sunscreen.

There was always someone sitting next to him on in the nearby gazebo, whether it was a mother watching her children ride or one of any number of friends who had stopped by to chat. His companions—Billy, a cantankerous Australian Shepherd, brown and white and matted and nonplussed, who lay across Dick’s front stoop regardless of weather, white hairs sprinkled over his muzzle, and Bailey, a gangly young German Shepherd the size of a small pony—tussled or drowsed close at hand, the latest in a long line of Blue Cloud Farms dogs.

Where Dick was, so too there were always dogs. In earlier years, it was Freckles, another Australian Shepherd who died from a kick in the ribs courtesy of a donkey Dick adopted. Next in my memory was Rip, the German Shepherd who should have been kicked to death as well, but survived darting under horses’ feet long enough to die from cancer instead. I am sure there were others in between that I have forgotten.

And, of course, there were also always horses and people eager to learn how to ride them.

Dick’s approach to training horses was different from most of his contemporaries’ methods. “I don’t think you can beat it into a horse. You have to let the horse think he’s doing it.” And his philosophy worked. “I have show horses that are twelve, thirteen years old and still want to show,” instead of burning out like many conventionally trained horses. “They have to want to do it, not be pushed to do it,” in order to have long show or riding careers, he said. 

Unlike most trainers, who, he claimed, “don’t like to teach—the ones that ride horses don’t want to train people to ride them, they just want to ride the horses,” Dick always trained and instructed riders as well as horses. He took on young and old alike, as well as competitive and just-for-fun riders, although he seemed to get the most enjoyment instructing children as young as five or six years old as he got older. When asked why he focused on young riders, he explained, “There are more kids who want to learn how to ride than adults. Adults want to ride, and they’ll show, but that’s as far as their interest goes. They don’t want to learn how to train; their lives are behind them.” Dick’s younger riders also seemed to be able to learn how to ride before they learned to be afraid of the potential dangers of working with these half-ton animals.

The younger children’s lessons especially emphasized the often-overlooked strangeness of horseback riding. Perched on miniscule saddles constructed of leather and metal atop the backs of Dick’s trusted school horses—retired show or pleasure horses with names like Arizona Gal, Wheaties, Cider, and Chinook—who were content to amble around the arena with their small charges—they made one wonder what the first horseback riders were thinking when they contemplated hopping up on the back of such an animal.

From the side of the ring, Dick shouted encouragement—often in the form of homilies such as, “You can chew gum and ride your bike, can’t you? Then you can ride that horse and steer at the same time, too. Now get your heel down and your toe up!”—and mostly ignored the one or two over-involved parents bent on sharing his instructing position with him.

In the summer of 2006, he taught a camp for under-privileged children from the Denver area. “I just had so much damn fun with those kids,” he said, reaching down to scratch his dogs’ heads with absent-minded affection. He could also lay claim to having instructed some of the prominent judges and trainers in Colorado, such as top Appaloosa horse judge, Brett Wollerem.

While the horse business is difficult to break into, Dick could claim a longer history of involvement than most. His family’s connection with horses spanned several generations and two continents, and, to hear some of his long-time friends tell it, Dick himself was raised on a horse’s teat.

Except for his Monday visits to his mother, Margaret, Dick was a regular fixture at Blue Cloud, the forty-acre parcel of land a few miles outside of Longmont that he and his wife Ruth began renting in 1968 from Charles “Chuck” Sylvester, onetime General Manager of the National Western Stock Show (from 1978 to 2003), in order to expand their horseback riding and training operations. They later bought the property that would become Blue Cloud Farms. Dick’s family history started long ago and far away from Blue Cloud, however. Some of the story has been lost to time and memory, but the rest of it, beginning at the dawn of the twentieth century, during or possibly a few years before the official outbreak of World War I, when both of his grandfathers were serving in the Belgium Army, Dick was happy to tell.

Morse Beaupré, Dick’s maternal grandfather, and his family boarded a ship bound for New York in a quite ordinary fashion, tickets in hand, with a destination and people waiting for them in America. Once the Beauprés arrived in New York, they made their way to the Louisville-Lafayette area of Colorado to join up with friends and family from Belgium who had settled there previously. Morse married his wife, Rosa, and worked as a coal miner before moving to Longmont to farm a large plot for the Mayse family in the area of Longmont where the parking lot of a K-Mart shopping center has since smoothed over the site of his plot.

Although they served in the same army, events forced Dick’s paternal grandfather to take a slightly more torturous route to reach the United States. While serving with his unit in the Belgium Army, Camile Ares (whose son, Dick’s father, would later change the family’s surname to “Ayres”) was captured by German soldiers. Grandpa Ares, as Dick calls him, was imprisoned in a German concentration camp; the Germans’ punishment for the young enemy soldier was a bleak one—they sentenced him death by the firing squad.

Luckily, Camile escaped the prison by swimming the Rhine. The boat he caught, which would eventually take him to New York, was, as fate would have it, a horse barge.

After his narrow escape from Europe, Camile made his way across the country, heading towards the enclave of Belgian émigrés he knew. His destination was the Louisville-Lafayette region of Colorado. “I don’t know how he got here,” Ayres confessed. “If he hitchhiked—he had no money; he had the clothes that were on his back that he swam the river in” to escape.

However he accomplished it, Camile made it to Colorado and settled in Longmont. Once there, he went to work as a farmer in Mead. Camile farmed in Mead for the rest of his life, importing Belgium workhorses into the United States from his homeland. Six or seven years after he arrived in America, Camile had saved up enough money to send for his wife, Helen; his sister, Phyllis; and his seven-year-old son, Frances, the boy who would later become Dick’s father. Dick’s aunt, Frilda, was born in Mead, the first of the family to be born in the United States. The family used the imported horses on their farm and competed in horse pulls, trying to coax harnessed pairs of horses into pulling as much weight behind them as possible.

Dick’s personal driving experience with a team of his paternal grandfather’s horses was one he would never forget: “My first team that ran away with me, I must have been seven, and we were picking corn, and these two horses, they decided they were going to take off. I was driving, so I probably did something wrong. So they took off and ran up the cornfield; one horse had jumped the barbed wire fence so that the fence was going right between the two horses. I knocked down,” he stopped to think, “…probably a mile of barbed wire fence, steel posts and everything. So here I am, going up the road, Grandpa chasing after us, and finally got the horses to stop. And that,” he concluded, as if it were not an unusual childhood story, “is my driving horse experience.

Camile retired from working his land in the Mead area only to hand the farm down to his son, who continued to farm until it was no longer lucrative. The family then sold the farm and moved into the town of Mead, where Dick grew up, attending Pleasant Hill School, the same school his father attended as a little boy.

“My father,” Dick explained, “did not like horses, but if I bought a horse, he would make sure that it was taken care of.” It sounds like an idyllic childhood: “All through my grade school growing up years, there were five of us boys”—boys with names like Billy and Jimmy Slicker, Dick and his brother, Walter, and Frankie Wiengard—“that lived out there in the Mead area.” On Saturday mornings, “we would do our chores and then get on our horses and leave.”  

Before the recent transformation of much of Colorado from prairie scrub and pastureland into housing developments and suburbs-turned-towns took place, the state spread out before the boys, perfect for long rides and adventures between Mead, where the boys lived, and Platteville. “Just to the west of us,” Dick said, “the Highland Ditch ran down through this area, and the Highland Ditch, through the years, had eroded, and we had dug into the cliff, a room that was about 10 by 12 feet. We would dig, and we would dump the dirt into the Ditch, you know, and then we would go over there, and to get in, you had to climb—we would drop the ladder down—and you had to climb up the side of this cliff, which was probably, maybe 15, 18 feet. So we’d climb up there, and then we’d have a little fire going. But,” he added drawing on all the excitement of young boys with clandestine knowledge, “we also had a secret tunnel; you went around back and you could get into down into this hole and climb in there.” That, he explained, is how “the five of us kids…grew up, on those horses, living in that cave, and then riding out to Platteville.”

After graduating from Mead High School in 1955, Dick went to the University of Wyoming. At first, he gave some though to becoming a vocational technology instructor. Instead, he ended up spending only about a year at the University, and when he returned home for Christmas, he changed course. “I convinced my folks that I was wasting my time and their money going to school,” he admitted, “and I talked them into letting me take my one horse, my car and trailer, and to going to spend time with horse trainers in the area.”

Even knowing how the story ends, to hear about Dick’s decision to quit school now, when a college degree is regarded as a requirement for entrée into many careers and to deviate from the high school-college-career path seems vaguely fraught with peril, the decision seems a brave one. Of course, Dick didn’t see it that way. He knew what he wanted to do, he often told me, and so he figured out a way to do it.

“Most of my training came from Texas,” he recalled. “I went down there and I worked with, oh, Sonny Perry and Matlock Rose—all the who’s whos in the world.” It was a rough and tumble existence for a young man. On the road with just his mare and the trailer and car in which to haul her around the Lone Star State, Dick’s horse training education sounds like the basis for a country song. “Of course,” he said, “I was only down there probably six months when I decided that I did not need my own horse because that was just a hindrance to me. So I brought her back to Colorado, went back down with just my car, and by now, I had traded up, and I drove a ’58 Mercury station wagon, so if I was homeless, I would always have a place to sleep.”

Dick spent nearly two years traveling through Texas, working with established horse trainers willing to teach him their craft. When he returned to Boulder, feeling, he recalled, “kind of burnt out on the whole horse training bit,” he took a job at the Hogshead Lumber Company delivering lumber.

During his time with Hogshead Lumber, Dick met Bud Hayes. At the time, Bud owned a stable called Green Meadows (now bisected by Park Way Road) and held the horseback-riding contract for Colorado State University (CSU). After learning about Dick’s riding and training experience, Hayes opened his stable to Dick with a casual, “If you ever feel like doing some riding, just come on over.” “So I started going down to his stable, and he had all these old bloodline cutting horses”—horses trained to separate a single cow from the herd—“and I started riding those.”

Soon, Dick’s potential as an instructor became clear to Hayes, who asked whether he would be interested in teaching beginning riding classes for students at CSU. Dick, who still held his delivery job for Hogshead Lumber during the week, agreed to teach classes on Saturdays and Sundays. His classes quickly became so lucrative that he quit his job at the lumber company in order to teach full-time. Dick had passed two years teaching and working for Hayes when Doreen Leonard, the teaching instructor employed by CSU, decided to retire.

Leonard, who now lives quietly in a small town near New Castle, Colorado, remembers Dick as a “nice, considerate boy” with good manners. She also recalled that, once, upon coming home from a trip to Texas, Dick returned with a Texas accent as thick as any native’s.

When Leonard retired, Dick didn’t give much thought to the position she left open because, he said, “I didn’t have a college degree,” one of the qualifications for CSU’s teaching instructors. Bud Hayes saw the situation differently, however, and told Dick, “I’m going to put your name in and you’re going to talk to Ms. [Elizabeth] Abbott,” the head of the University’s women’s physical education department.

“So I went up there and talked to her,” Dick recalled. “And she said, ‘Well, I really don’t care if you don’t have a college degree. Your reputation speaks for itself.’” In telling the story of the meeting, Dick’s voice climbed from its normal deep range to a creaky, crotchety high note in imitation of what must have been Elizabeth Abbott’s strident tones.

Elizabeth Abbott offered Dick the western riding instructor position, which he held for the next seven years. When he first took the job in the heyday of CSU’s riding program, he would have anywhere from 300 to 350 students taking classes each week. One of the best stories he told of his time as CSU’s instructor came as a direct result of the required weekly staff meeting.

“We had to meet a special instructors’ meeting every Monday morning, and all the instructors for the women’s PE department came. Well, of course, I was the riding instructor—one male—and the dance instructor—the second male. And [the dance instructor] would come in his Danskins, and Ms. Abbott would sit there and she’d just look at him—‘oh God,’ you know—anyway, one Monday, she said to me, ‘Next Monday, you will show up in Danskins and a tutu,’ and I said, ‘Ms. Abbott, you’re crazy as hell. I’m not showing up like that.’”

She insisted however, and finally, Dick agreed. A week later, Dick arrived at the instructors’ Monday meeting. “There I was, a person who had never worn anything but jeans and cowboy boots all my life. I wouldn’t even take my shirt off.” Despite his reticence, Dick admitted, “I showed up with the Danskins on, and [Ms. Abbott] just cracked up.” Ms. Abbott’s mandate accomplished its purpose; the dance instructor “never wore his Danskins to the meeting anymore.”

In addition to playing a vital role in enforcing the department’s dress code, Dick also met his future wife, Ruth, while teaching for CSU. “She was the English part of the college, I was the western part,” Dick explained.  

Originally from the East Coast, Ruth grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, the daughter of wealthy parents. As a young woman, she had Saddlebred horses, which she showed, taking champion titles in equitation and youth competition classes.  While living in Albany, she met and married her first husband and had four children.  The family moved from Albany to Boulder. Soon after the cross-country move, Ruth and her first husband divorced.

After the divorce, Ruth began teaching as CSU’s English riding instructor, where she met Dick. Meanwhile, CSU had changed its graduation requirements for its students, making physical education classes non-mandatory. The result was a plummet in the number of students who chose to take P.E. courses; the number of students in the horseback riding program was especially affected. Enrollment in riding classes dropped from an average of 350 students a week to a mere eighty.

When the number of students fell to about thirty students, Dick felt he was no longer accomplishing much and decided to start his own horseback riding business instead of remaining the instructor of the ailing program.

Leaving Bud Hayes’s Green Meadows, Dick began renting land from a man named Wes Osterberg, who had a spread called Foothills. Around the same time, Dick and Ruth, who was then living in the small town of Niwot, Colorado, began dating. Ruth’s location played a large part in Dick’s decision to move his fledgling business to Niwot. When they calculated the particulars of such a move, it soon became clear to Dick and Ruth that they would soon outgrow Ruth’s modest property in Niwot.  Dick brought about twelve horses with him when he moved to the property, which had a single barn with six stalls in it. The couple built four or five lean-to structures, which allowed them to board eleven horses.

“Well, of course, the minute we combined our resources, we had twenty or twenty-two head of horses,” Dick recalled. The business—a stable full of show-quality horses and two professional instructors—was officially up and running. “We weren’t teaching beginners because we didn’t have any school horses,” Dick explained.

Dick and Ruth were married on May 30, 1968. A year later, the business, and the family, had outgrown Niwot. In addition to Ruth's children from her first marriage, they had a son, Michael, and a thriving business that had no direction in which to expand. It was time to move again.

This time the move was permanent. In 1969, Dick and Ruth moved to 6069 Prospect Road, just outside of Longmont, Colorado. After renting the property from Chuck Sylvester for three years, they bought the forty-acre parcel that became Blue Cloud Farms.

Blue Cloud experienced its growing pains as Dick and Ruth built an indoor riding arena, eight-stall barn, and a shed row to accommodate nearly a hundred horses. Even those measures didn’t quite manage to house all their horses, so they ended up building another barn, this time one with thirteen stalls.

Finally, the couple had enough room. Once they’d dealt with the issue of housing all their horses, the show circuit began in earnest. “We would take our kids all over the country,” Dick said. Ruth, who showed hunters and jumpers, showed along the East Coast in places like Harrisburg and Madison Square Gardens, while Dick, who exhibited western equitation and pleasure horses, showed in the western states, especially Arizona and New Mexico.

As their children grew up, the couple cut back on the number of show horses they owned and showed, replenishing their stable with school horses capable of being ridden by beginning riders. Dick became an important part of the Colorado equestrian community and held a variety of positions at the Boulder County Horseshow Association, including that of president. He was also a member of the Palomino Horse Association and the American Quarter Horse Association. As his reputation grew, he also began to judge horse shows nationally in geographically diverse locations from California and Montana and even judged the Land of the Midnight Sun show in Alaska.

When Ruth died of cancer 1987, at the age of 52 and after twenty-six years of marriage—“She wasn’t even done living yet,” Dick pointed out—Helen Gould took up the position as Blue Cloud’s English instructor. Gould later bought into Blue Cloud as co-owner with Dick, where she still trains horses and instructs riders today.

When asked to describe his late wife, Dick’s description was sparse—“She stood 5’2” and weighed 120 pounds, but it was all—it wasn’t even dynamite, it was nitroglycerine. She could blow just quicker than hell”—but also heartbreaking.  “Every time a dog or a horse dies now, I say that she must have needed that horse in her stable up in heaven because why else would that animal die? She’s got all the good horses, all the good dogs up there with her,” he added, in a tone that was not quite exasperation.

Up until his death, Dick still taught, willing to shout instructions to those who were interested in horseback riding from his chair in the shade. His health, after years of smoking, was less than the best—he traded in his omnipresent packet of cigarettes of years past for a portable oxygen backpack—but his enjoyment of life on his small patch of Colorado was unwavering. Not a day went by without someone stopping by to say hello or to share interesting gossip from the surrounding community, often bearing bottles of fly spray or groceries from Whole Foods that had Dick murmur jokingly about the crazy Boulder hippies. Dick’s dogs lulled in the ringside dust, loping off to plunge into the stable’s newly-created pond when the heat of the midday sun became too intense. Children still saddled up scruffy, rotund school horses, reveling in the mundane chores of learning to brush their charges down and how to hold the reins under the anxious gaze of their parents, while the occasional high-gloss show horse could be seen ambling along with the lazy, rocking-horse gait prized among the western pleasure and equitation set or catapulting over an especially tall jump in the English ring.

Dick could see it all from the windows of his small, red-roofed, white house, which still sits tucked up at the end of the tree-lined driveway. It is the same house he and Ruth built when they came to Blue Cloud some 37 years, five children, and countless horses ago. It was a good life.

© 2012 by Rebecca Klymkowsky