This is Part 1 of a two-part article that appeared in the May, 2007 issue of Saddle & Bridle magazine.
Faces: Michele Macfarlane
Call her a poor little rich girl (she’s been both). Call her driven (some people would say it’s an obsession). Call her a perfectionist, a point-chaser, the ultimate competitor. (She admits it.) But the sum of Michele Macfarlane’s accomplishments is greater than its parts: she has done more for American Saddlebreds than any other individual of her generation.
The Saddlebred business, like any other sport, is fond of celebrating “firsts.” In 1924, Revel English was the first amateur to win the gaited stake at Louisville on Edna May’s King. In 1956, Tom Moore was the first person to win the walk-trot stake at Louisville on a stallion, Valley View Supreme. In 1988, Michele Macfarlane was the first woman (and second amateur) to win the gaited stake on her flame-red stallion Sky Watch. The line of people waiting to shake her hand afterwards in the damp heat of a Kentucky summer night looked a mile long.
But when Michele asked me to do the writeup on Sky Watch for the Kentucky State Fair Horse Show program the following year, she asked me not to dwell on her “first.” In fact, she asked me not even to mention it. “It’s been over-done,” she told me earnestly in her careful, private-school voice, brown eyes wide with concern. “Just write about the horse show.”
At the time I didn’t understand her reticence, but I do now. She had won the World’s Grand Championship. She could have been a Chinese politician, a German rock star, or a green-skinned resident of some other planet. The point is, she won. That’s what she wanted me to focus on. After years of dreaming, scheming, planning, drudgery, and sheer hard work, she had won “the big one.”
Michele claims that as a child, she hated horses. She was introduced to them when she was five by her mother, Ellen Scripps Davis, “because it was cheaper than hiring a baby-sitter.” Her first rides were trail rides. She rode a pony of dubious breeding; her mother in the lead, rode a pinto. “I had terrible hay fever,” Michele recalls. “The pony was cranky, and she’d get hot and sweaty immediately and then I’d start sneezing, and I was just being dragged along. I will never forget one time–I had only been riding for a couple of weeks–I fell off. We were just walking, as a matter of fact the pony was on a lead line, and my mother didn’t notice. I was so shocked that I forgot to cry. My mother was halfway down the road before she even noticed I was gone.”
People who meet Michele for the first time realize almost immediately that, for all her accomplishments, she’s quite shy. But if they stick around to talk, and are halfway intelligent, they realize something else: she has a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor. When I asked her why she persisted in riding when horses gave her hay fever, she said without hesitation, “I had to. It was survival. The whole family was involved with horses. I had an older sister who rode, my dad rode, my mom rode—that’s what we did. I was prissy as a kid, and I liked pretty dresses and I didn’t like dirty horses, but I guess we all change.”
Michele had a unique childhood. While she did attend an exclusive private school in San Diego so small there were only four people in her graduating class, at home she was a rancher’s daughter–and the rancher was her mother. E. W. Scripps, the founder of the Scripps-Howard/United Press International media empire and Michele’s great-grandfather, had bought 10,000 acres of southern California chaparral and built a ranch house in the valley. (“E. W.” stands for Edward Wyllis, sometimes spelled Willis; his father, James Mogg Scripps, had been born in London.) When E. W. died in 1926 at the age of 71—alone in his yacht off the coast of Liberia, a self-confessed “damned old crank” who smoked 50 cigars a day—TIME magazine observed that “the natural rugged beauty of [the ranch] he had been careful to preserve much as he preserved his own natural strength and powers from the debility that riches and refinement often breed.” (Translation: he didn’t let his wealth make him soft, and he didn’t try to civilize Scripps Miramar Ranch.)
“E. W. was a Saddle Horse enthusiast,” says Michele. “So was Ellen Browning Scripps,” E. W.’s half-sister and probably his closest friend. Michele’s mother was named after her, but most people called her Brownie. “My mother had Saddlebreds before World War II but liquidated them because they were too expensive. When she started riding again after having a family, she bought some cold-blooded spotted horses, pintos. They just appealed to her.”
Most of Michele’s childhood was spent either on horseback or exploring the ranch—which was considerably smaller than it had been in E. W.’s day. But this regimen had one major disadvantage: Michele barely had a social life. “I was good at school, but I didn’t socialize a whole lot with the other kids. I’d just go back to the ranch. Somehow I never went through that stage where you have slumber parties and all of that. I stayed with my horses.”
She didn’t even especially like most of her classmates. “Everybody was hoity-toity and ‘fancy,’” she says. Since the Davis family was neither, Michele sometimes felt like a complete misfit. Her father, attorney Everett Con Davis, had an office in San Diego. “Even in the 1950s and ‘60s the ranch was still very remote, on a two-lane road. I’d ride to school with my father when he’d go to work, and my mother would pick me up in the afternoon and drive me home. When she couldn’t, there was a hired man—and we called him that, ‘the hired man’—who lived on the ranch. He was in his 70s, and he drove an old Chevy feed truck that was all dented and dusty. He’d come to the school gate to fetch me—this old man with his dirty straw hat and chewing tobacco dripping off his face. It was really embarrassing.”
But Michele looks back on those years with obvious nostalgia. “I didn’t know we were wealthy—really, I didn’t, because we weren’t that wealthy. There was no inheritance [from E.W.]. My mother had owned the ranch from a young age, and we did everything. We had a milk cow and we took turns milking her. We had chickens, we raised our own eggs. My mother did her own dry cleaning—I remember helping her. I never had an allowance. I suppose some people would be appalled at how we lived. I took a bath once a week, on Sunday, sometimes in three inches of water because we were on a well that didn’t pump any more than that. I loved it. It was a great way to grow up, and my mother was great, too. She was fun—very down to earth and easy.”
What Michele didn’t know about the family’s finances—and didn’t discover until her parents’ death—was that Brownie and two of her brothers had taken a page out of old E. W.’s book and bought up some small-town newspapers throughout the West, calling themselves the Scripps League Newspapers, Inc. A TIME magazine article in the 1940s characterized Brownie as a “smart, temperamental, strong-minded” business woman. Eventually, their venture would make them rich.
Brownie loved anything horse-related, but she was especially fond of street parades. “We’d put on our Western clothes, take our pintos to the closest local parade, and ride down the street,” says Michele. But Brownie quickly realized that “the people riding Saddlebreds were getting all the recognition. Yet she was still attached to the spotted horses, so she decided she was going to make herself some spotted parade horses, but of Saddlebred bloodlines. And that’s when the whole mess started.”
Even though Michele could ride anything with hair, when she was about ten Brownie bought her a solid-colored Saddlebred and put her daughter and the horse in training with Bill Rowan. “She did that just so I’d learn everything the proper way,” Michele observes. “She wanted to give me the opportunity to get a little polish, if I were so inclined.”
Brownie also made another purchase—a registered Saddlebred mare with spots. Her name was Miss Flashy McDonald. “She was seven years old and wild,” Michele recalls. “I was game to try anything, and I broke her to ride myself. She was perfect for me. We showed her at the pinto shows and she won there, and at the Saddlebred shows she could usually get a ribbon in the pleasure classes.” But when Brownie tried to breed her to some good local studs, the mare wouldn’t settle. So Brownie went horse shopping again, and this time came home with a fourteen-year-old spotted Saddlebred stallion. His name was Flashy Bourbon Peavine, and he became Scripps Miramar Ranch’s foundation sire.
When I first interviewed Michele, shortly after she had bought the magnificent walk-trot gelding Shaman, she told me, “We have thirty brood mares. We’re using mostly his daughters, and we have mares in foal to Supreme Sultan, Flight Time, and Main Event.” Flashy Bourbon Peavine’s first—and subsequent—crop of babies were half spotted, half solid-colored, and Michele and Brownie discovered a new hobby: genetics. “It’s fascinating,” Michele said. “Excellent for Science Fair projects when I was in high school.”
By then Michele and Brownie had lived through a number of changes. In 1962 they had participated in the ultimate street parade—the Rose Parade. They were considerably wealthier than they had been, and although Brownie still insisted on setting up the show tackroom herself—so it would be done right—Scripps Miramar Ranch had acquired its distinctive maroon horse trailer, a reputation for perfectionism, and a barn full of blue-ribbon show horses, some home-bred, some not.
And Michele had acquired an essential skill, for which she thanks trainer Bill Rowan. “He impressed upon me that I was good at what I was doing, and that I should go out there and show everybody I was good.” In 1977, Michele won the three-gaited amateur stake at Louisville on Going Big Time. That same year, the Scripps Miramar breeding program produced the flashy spotted stallion Chubasco, who went on to become one of the most highly-acclaimed breeding stallions in Saddlebred history. “He was the culmination of five generations of our breeding,” said Michele. “He put our spotted horses on the map.”
But the biggest change in Michele’s life came when she married fellow Saddlebred lover Steve Macfarlane and followed him back to Kentucky.