Show season is winding down, and the horses are relaxing. The horse trainer, however, is not. "We forgot about Bob," Ruth Gimpel reminds the crew, who missed his stall when they put in fresh bedding. She says it in a tone of a mother who has sent a child to school without brushing his teeth.
Bob is an American Saddlebred, one of 27 horses housed at the stables that Gimpel, 56, has owned since 1982. Over the years, horses she has trained have won countless titles in national amateur shows. Her clients include the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame and Patricia Bonati, wife of well-known Hudson back surgeon Alfred O. Bonati.
Those who know Gimpel credit her success to a meticulous attention to detail, along with a sheer doggedness that never shrinks, even in the face of life-threatening circumstances.
"She wouldn't back down from a tiger," said Ronnie Graham, a mentor who knew Ruth since she was a young woman working at the Tampa Yacht Club and who now trains horses with her.
"Ruth can be a little scary when you first meet her," said Ali DeGray, a multiple championship winner and daughter of Wrigley heiress and romance novelist Helen Rosburg. Her family owns 20 horses at Gimpel's stable. "She's traditional, old school. But she's a very sensitive, generous person. She's my other mother more so than my horse trainer."
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Gimpel's love affair with all things equine began curiously. Born in South Tampa, the daughter of office supply store owners in Ybor City had never been around farms or horses. But an encounter with a pony ride on Dale Mabry Highway near her home charted her course for life. Gimpel was hooked.
"I'd cry if my parents wouldn't stop there," she said.
Steffi and Curtis Gimpel were puzzled, but despite their middle class income, somehow managed to find a way to pay for their 5-year-old daughter's riding lessons at the Tampa Yacht Club Stables.
As a teenager, she rubbed down horses for a trainer as they traveled the state. Her parents wanted Gimpel to go to college and ride as a hobby, but Gimpel had other plans. When she graduated from the Academy of the Holy Names, she began teaching at the yacht club.
"They wanted me to be a doctor or a vet, not a horse trainer," she said.
That the field included virtually no women did not deter Gimpel. She worked endless days and hours and eventually got into big show rings.
At first, the men would give her hard time, playing tricks and hiding her equipment. When it became evident none of that rattled her, and Gimpel started to gain respect, they supported her.
"You have to pay your dues," she said.
In 1982, after several years of working at other farms out of state, Gimpel returned to Florida to buy 12 acres off Sunlake Boulevard, just south of the Pasco-Hillsborough line.
To get the money, she sold a horse for $10,000, and her father cashed in a life insurance policy.
"It was in the middle of nowhere," she recalled of the area around Sunlake, now a part of suburbia.
With help from friends, she cleared trees and put up fences.
"I was her first customer when she bought that barn," said Pam Roush, who has known Gimpel since she was about 13. She said Gimpel possesses a unique sense of how to relate to even the most difficult horses.
"It's about paying attention and listening," she said. "Be detail oriented and figure out what the horse needs."
Gimpel can't really tell you what her secret is. She just knows that she knows how to relate to horses.
"Every horse is different," she said. "Each one has a different personality."
Roush, who enjoyed trail rides and sleepovers with Gimpel as a kid, later worked for her. Eventually she opened her own barn, Avalon Riding Academy, just up the road from Gimpel.
"She gave me my first horse out of her program," Roush recalled. "She is such a blessing. She is the reason I am in this business."
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Eight years and countless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches later, Gimpel enjoyed a successful business and routinely produced winners. But in 1990, she suffered a near-fatal injury when a horse kicked her in the face.
She had heavy plastic surgery and lost her left eye.
The injury would have been a career-ender for many, but not for Gimpel.
"I had no choice," she said. "I had a business to run."
Mentor Graham, who sold her the offending horse, said he still grieves about the accident. But it also sharpened her resolve.
"She was going to be great regardless," Graham said. "But that inspired her more. She wasn't going to let anything get in her way of being what she wanted to be."
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In 1999, Gimpel married Ed Gilbert, a veterinarian and longtime friend. Today, she is known nationally as a producer of champion show horses. Her office, at the end of the barn, is covered floor to ceiling in photos of horses. Blue ribbons adorn her lamp shade. She spends most of the year on the road to shows around the Southeast.
She and her crew of six begin each day about 5:30 a.m., feeding horses, followed by training at 6:45 a.m. There is no set routine. Each horse gets whatever it needs that day, whether it's a walk or a freshening up. Saddles and bridles also have to be cleaned. Horses have to be groomed and shod. "I can't put in 18 hour days any more," Gimpel said with a laugh.
Like many athletes, she's very superstitious. At shows, everyone has to have the bottom of their vest unbuttoned. At world championships, blue underwear is part of the required attire.
"She has high standards," DeGray said. "You have to focus and work hard."
But Gimpel also has a fun side, which can be seen when she interacts with her six dogs. (She also provides foster care for strays.) Each has collars and exquisite sweaters for holidays.
"She gets more excited about holidays than anyone I've ever seen," DeGray said. "Ruth's pretty awesome. Even during the busiest part of show season, she'll always help an animal in need."