For Rappahannock legend Moody Aylor, 79 years young, it is still all about the horses.
Moody is beloved by many, people like Anne Pallie, for example, who has ridden and studied with him for years, and says of him: “If you are fortunate enough to become one of Moody’s friends, he always watches out for you. If you need to brush up on your skills, if your horse needs some straightening out, if you are in trouble and need a hand or advice, Moody will be there for you. But you have to earn his love and respect. Once you do, he’s got your back.”
“He is always watching, outspoken, wanting and ready to help you be a better and safer rider, whether you want to hear his opinion or not,” says Jeanie McNear, another longtime friend who says she’s most appreciative of his honesty. “He is also one of the friendliest and most good-hearted souls one could ever be fortunate to know.”
Upon hearing Anne and Jeanie’s comments, Doris Jones of Five Forks, also a friend and student of Moody’s, smiles. “Ditto,” she says.
From the time he was a tyke, Moody was smitten with all things equine. He mastered myriad disciplines over the years, including foxhunting, steeplechase racing and racing in general, breeding horses, driving and horse training (especially problem horses); he mastered farrier work and taught himself veterinary methods.
He lives in a cabin surrounded by manicured lawns, barns and whimsical figurines, but spends dawn to dusk most days at his stables on Fletcher’s Mill Road. Once a bustling compound filled with 40 horses, he’s slowed down the business some and the stable now houses about 15 horses. His business is, as always, based on word-of-mouth.
Moody still trains, offers riding lessons and fox hunts with Thornton Hill Hounds. His racehorse training has garnered owners first-place ribbons, his mentoring of young riders has been rewarded with A-circuit performances and his foxhunting training has equipped many a hunter with enviable skills.
Sitting in a worn, comfortable chair amid the dust and dark heavy wooden beams of his office in a several-hundred-year-old barn, I absorbed the sight of walls covered with old and faded pictures; ribbons galore; proud write-ups of his notoriety with horse and rider; pictures of him astride a beautiful thoroughbred, sitting tall and majestic in scarlet and wearing the coveted colors so well earned. Earning colors is a time-honored tradition in the hunt world, a deeply respected honor.
Moody was only two when his parents and five siblings moved to Fletcher’s Mill and started working for the Fletcher family. Back then the farm used draft horses as work horses. Enraptured with the animals, Moody would take every opportunity to ride. By five, he could be found astride his mount and holding onto the large plow horse collar, part of the harness used in those days for plowing and timbering. Over the years, Moody learned from the farm hands and through trial and error and listening, he says, he learned what he knows.
His skill was not lost upon Jim Bill Fletcher, who more and more relied on Moody to manage the horses. As Jim Bill’s passion for foxhunting grew, resulting in increased training and breeding opportunities, Moody’s skill became even more valuable.
I admitted to Moody that I had been a “lawn dart” on more than one occasion — one who is catapulted over the head of a horse to the ground. Moody smiled and recounted with great humor a tale of cutting cattle. He was often astride Queen, a speed-challenged draft, so that when faced with a wayward calf, he’d have to overcompensate and ride in concentric circles in order to corral and direct the calf.
He had occasion to cut cattle one day with a quarter horse newly introduced to the farm. Moody had no experience with quarter horses, noted for their barrel racing acumen because of their ability to swing tightly around barrels at high speeds practically leaning full-tilt sideways. This particular horse hailed from the midwest and unbeknownst to Moody, was highly trained.
He was caught off guard when the horse suddenly responded to a calf’s errant flight and followed it with an abrupt hairpin turn at a high speed, launching Moody into the air and landing him with a resounding thud 25 feet away, while the now-riderless quarterhorse continued to pursue the calf and squire it into the ring without further incident. Moody chuckles over the memory.
He talks animatedly of days of yore, of his deep respect for Jim Bill Fletcher and Bill Lane, two men who proved pivotal and positive influences in his life, and the listener is transported. He talks of coming home from the army at age 25, and Jim Bill telling Moody that he’d like to offer him a job. And so it began anew, the relationship with Jim Bill.
Jim Bill was a big man, and bought big half bred horses from Dunnie Eastham to suit his foxhunting passion, and he was, recounts Moody, a force of nature, larger than life, a Rappahannock titan, passionate about his successful legal profession, equally passionate about foxhunting.
He became known, Moody continues, as almost single handedly founding the Rappahannock Hunt, a hunt so revered that it attracted riders as far and wide as Farmington and Middleburg, as well as all over the region. To hunt with Rappahannock was to acknowledge your ability to really ride, a badge of honor earned, jumping over large natural jumps, some immediately followed by precarious downward slopes, catapulting a horse and rider downward at great speeds. Riding with Rappahannock, Moody smiles, was not for the feint of heart.
When Moody was a teen, a mare gave birth to a small horse, average size but too small for Jim Bill’s needs; he gave the horse to Moody. That horse in turn became Moody’s best buddy, and accompanied him as he shot rabbits and squirrels, at ease with Moody crackling rifles and shotguns off her back.
They’d romp over hill and dale and jump every conceivable jump with flair. She was fluid in her movements and Moody fox hunted her first flight with enormous success. The hunt often enticed guest riders from all around, and had a family quite interested in his mount.
Dunnie Eastham, representing the family, came to Moody and offered him $400, but was declined. “You need to understand,” Moody said, “$400 back then, was a lot of money especially for me.” Dunnie came back again not several days later, and offered Moody $600. Moody politely declined once more. Dunnie came back once more and offered him $700.
Jim Bill took Moody aside and encouraged him to accept the money. “That’s a lot of money for you,” Fletcher said, “and with your talent you can train another horse.” And so, at the ripe old age of 16, Moody was the proud owner of a vehicle with a lot of income left to spare. He says he’s never regretted that decision, and has been the owner of many more horses since that time.
In 1965, Bill Lane, of Eldon Farm fame, was all about his Black Angus, apples and horses. He hailed from Chicago and loved all things Rappahannock. He offered Moody a partnership to run the stables before ultimately deciding the horse business wasn’t for him. Nonetheless, he wanted Moody to keep it going and offered to lease him the stables — the same ones he still manages today.
When asked what wisdom he’d share with newly minted riders, Moody replied: “There are three things of most importance to know . . . first and foremost, understand you need to plan, mentally visualize and then — and only then — execute. The second most important pearl of wisdom is you need to control the horse, to direct and listen; and the third is you need to make a decision — are you passionate? — and if so it’ll take hard work.
“Riding is easy,” he says, “but it takes serious commitment.” Moody then makes a peace sign and looks through his two outstretched fingers. “This is focus,” he says. “Watch their eyes and ears, know their language.”
Moody is one of the few people who really intuits horses, though he demurs and says it’s a learned skill. He’s not about lunging a horse in a ring, for example; rather he calls it groundwork without benefit of a lunge line. He can ask a horse to walk, trot, canter, collect and halt simply through physical messages.
Among the many horse folks hereabouts with amazing pedigrees of well-earned degrees and schooling par excellence, Moody Aylor is in a category all his own, a man with a deep and special connection. I can’t wait to go out riding with him and learn from a master.
Postscript: This author went riding with Moody the following week. She has much to learn, but he’s an awesome teacher.