Harnessing Victory

Mary O’Keefe and the horse she calls Spencer Tracy at Heartland Stables in Grimes. Photo: Duane Tinkey

Writer: Mathany Ahmed

A chestnut horse enters the ring at a lively trot, pulling a two-wheel cart that carries Mary O’Keefe. She holds the reins in her leather-gloved hands, elbows tucked neatly by her sides. The announcer calls out various instructions to the competitors — “halt and stand still,” “extend the trot,” “reverse and then walk” — and the duo performs each skill with nearly telepathic coordination. All it takes is a barely imperceptible flick of O’Keefe’s wrist and the horse, Spencer Tracy, stands as still as a statue or doubles his speed. The horse’s official name is MBA’s Just About Thyme.

After a few short minutes, they join two other teams in the center of the arena and await a decision from the costumed judges. The announcer’s voice booms over the speakers: “It is a unanimous decision. Your national champions tonight are MBA’s Just About Thyme and Mary O’Keefe from Cumming, Iowa!”

A handler drapes a sash of red roses over the horse’s neck while O’Keefe beams. After 25 years of competing in horse shows nationwide, she’s at the top of her game and won her third world championship in horse driving earlier this year.

O’Keefe, a retired chief marketing officer for Principal Financial Group, fell in love with the sport when her only son, Michael, was a child. Since his accidental death in 2019, horse driving has brought O’Keefe healing. It’s helped her feel connected — to him and a community.

Photo: Doug Shiflet

Chasing victory

O’Keefe and Spencer are an unlikely pair of world champions. Most winners in horse driving hail from large barns abroad or in Kentucky. Competitors from these areas often benefit from year-round training, thanks to the mild weather, and have access to horses with fancy pedigrees that can cost up to six figures.

In competition, up to 20 drivers hitch up horses to their carts in the arena. They’re judged for their beauty and how they exemplify breed standards, in addition to their ability to perform various skills without getting distracted by the crowds.

The horses accomplish these feats only when they’re really tuned in to the driver, O’Keefe said. “The horse is looking for direction from you,” she explained. “If you’re just along for the ride or you’re not doing your job, he or she can’t do their job.”

O’Keefe attributes her team’s success to the careful training they get from Amanda Simpson, who owns Heartland Stables in Grimes. Simpson has an uncanny intuition for matching horses to the right owners, which leads to the kind of relationships that challenge both drivers and horses without giving either party more than they can handle. She has a good track record: Another rider from the small barn, 16-year-old Damien Walker, is also a three-time world champion. “She knows the horses like nobody’s business,” O’Keefe said.

A ride through time

When Michael was 10 years old, O’Keefe discovered that riding helped him cope with rheumatoid arthritis. So she picked up the hobby at the same time and, for years, they traveled the country together to compete. She was grateful he wanted to spend time with her at an age when most kids are trying to assert their independence. “I don’t think boys and their moms have as much in common in their teenage years,” she said.

Michael started riding less as he got older, especially when he and his mother took over The Happy Cow, a skin care company. The two still bonded over competitions.” He would come watch me, he would support me, he could give me advice because he had done it,” O’Keefe said. “My memories of doing this with Michael are really dear to me. They’re the ones that will stick with me.”

Michael was 31 when he died from an accidental drug overdose, and the five years since his passing have been hard. O’Keefe’s husband, Jeff, has health problems of his own, but the horses and their mischievous antics have brought the couple some levity.

One of the ponies once stole a broom away from a handler with its teeth. “You could be having a really crummy day or missing Michael or having a morning cry,” O’Keefe said. “But you go out there, and the horse makes you be in the moment and let that stuff go.”

The other humans in the sport make her feel less alone, too. She’s been competing against the same people for years, and it’s a tight-knit community. Even though the competition is intense, no one hesitates to soothe a stressed animal from a rival barn or offer an opponent a shoulder to lean on. “When I come, everyone asks me, ‘How’s Jeff?’” O’Keefe said. “People care a lot. It’s really comforting, and something I can turn to in tough times.”

At events, O’Keefe still feels Michael’s presence. She now owns his horse, a 27-year-old American Saddlebred who is especially good with novice riders, and the black German Shepherd, Nox, he left behind. She said she remembers the way Michael always sat in the same seat at every competition, “two thirds of the way down the first rail.” He wanted to be close enough to offer an encouraging word or two when she rode past.

“He would always say ‘Breathe, Mom, just breathe,’” O’Keefe said. “And now, every time I go in, I hear Michael’s voice saying, ‘Breathe. Just breathe.’”

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