A sturdy glow emanates from Carole Mercer. It has nothing to do with the brisk wind that sends clouds scudding over her ranch in the oak savannah east of Eagle Point. Dressed in leather against the wind, she is demonstrating tricks with her canny mares, Bobbie and Valentine.
They bow, touch the flag and take "Spanish steps," extending their forelegs in large strides with Mercer encouraging them. These girls like to perform in front of big crowds, and a lone reporter is not enough of an audience for their best behavior. Undoubtedly, they will do better in September when they strut their stuff during the opening ceremonies of the biggest horse event in the world, the 2010 Alltech, FIE World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky.
Mercer, with hair as white as her mares' is black, says "her golden opportunity has come in her golden years."
"I'm glad it happened to me at 65, and not 21," she says. "It's given me huge confidence and humbled me at the same time. It's a really interesting balance."
Mercer and her dancing mares are no strangers to performance, but getting into a venue like the world games required effort, including the 10-page application with videos, photos and news articles about her performing mares. Even more amazing, she only learned of the opportunity days before the deadline.
An adrenaline rush helped her complete the application, and then she didn't hear anything for seven months. When the final approval came by e-mail, her confirmation reply to the selection committee was clear: "YIPPEE! That's the noise that cowgirls make when they are really, really happy."
Mercer grew up in Wyoming, "did time" in California but always wanted to be a cowgirl, working "shoulder to shoulder with the men," with the opportunity to be a lady when she wanted.
Ranch life was near perfect, but after her only child, Sarah, was killed in an accident in 1997, Mercer became clinically depressed. The two Morgan mares she got on the first anniversary of her daughter's death were part of her recovery.
Bobbie (Rockway Queen Nativa) and Valentine (Rockway Razah) were 4 years old and had never been handled. Half sisters, born four days apart, they are "hot" mares, the equivalent of driving a Ferrari, says Mercer.
"You have to be very subtle, otherwise you end up in a ditch."
The horses gave her purpose, and performance gave the horses purpose. They work together every day.
"I've been able to take them to this level of training because they are long-lived," she says. "It took two years for Valentine to bow."
Defined by daily work together, it's an intimate relationship. Mercer rides Bobbie and drives Valentine in front on long lines. No punishments are used in training, only positive rewards tempered with a bit of scolding. She has to know what she wants and how to get it without hurting the horses. They are smart and willing, so there's always another possibility.
She stays in the moment because her mares are in the moment all the time. "I can't flicker. I'm whipped after a performance," Mercer says. "It's like dancing — a good partner can make you look really good. I'm the leader of the dance."
She'll make the eight-day drive to Lexington with friend Nancy Savage, who promotes the mares. They'll travel in her "living quarters" trailer, where her mares have 8-foot-square stalls and she and Nancy can bunk, too.
"Traveling with horses is hard on everybody. You have to bring everything, including all the feed for the horses."
They won't stay for the show but will drive back after her performance is complete. To stay is too expensive, and Mercer gets no fee for her performance. She's accepting donations but no sponsorships for her participation. She doesn't want to ride with logos, understandably, because with the black Morgan mares, and Mercer in her black performance gear, the team is strikingly beautiful.
It's the trip of a lifetime, and she is game for it.
She likens her journey to Walt Disney's philosophy: Dream. Believe. Dare. Do.
"I'm beyond the dream," says Mercer.
To donate to the dream, go to Mercer's Web site: www.carts-carriages.com.