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Jumping for Joy

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Margie Goldstein-Engle, superstar of international show jumping, never even got to try out for the '92 Barcelona Olympics. She fell in a pretrial event, and her horse, with 1{-inch cleats on his hooves, backed over her, ripping open her left side, breaking ribs, puncturing a lung and bruising her heart.

She missed the '96 Atlanta Olympics because her top horse was injured during the trials.

Now the 2000 Olympics are here, and Goldstein-Engle has made it. She will compete in Sydney, Australia, on the U.S. equestrian team's first all-female show jumping squad.

Finally. After all the early years of cleaning kennels, mucking stalls and riding rogue ponies and horses, after more than a decade of competing around the world 10 months out of the year, riding and training eight to 10 hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week, coming back from injury after injury. Finally, at age 42, after a career that has put her at the top of her sport, she has realized the one goal that had been so elusive.

"When I was growing up, the Olympics seemed out of reach," she said. "But as you realize some of your dreams, you start setting other goals. I'm just thrilled to be competing."

She won her Olympic berth with a new partner and newcomer to the grand prix level of show jumping: a 17.1-hand, 11-year-old, German-bred horse named Hidden Creek's Perin. He was flown to Sydney several weeks ago. His rider was scheduled to arrive there Wednesday.

Mona and Irvin Goldstein tried to steer their only daughter away from a career as an equestrian.

As they sat in the audience at their first grand prix event, their fears for her safety became all too real.

With a crowd of several thousand cheering them on, the horse and rider raced to the final jump for the win. There was a loud crash. The horse knocked down part of the jump as he soared over it, hit the turf and stumbled. The rider, their daughter, was launched like an arrow from a bow and hit the ground head-first with a thwack.

The crowd went silent as the horse galloped off. The rider didn't move.

"I can just picture it like it was today," recalled Mrs. Goldstein. "I was sure they would find her in hundreds of pieces."

But she finally got up, brushed the sod off her helmet and waved an okay to the crowd. Mr. Goldstein had black-and-blue marks on the arm his wife had been clutching.

During her 15-year career as an international competitor, the Miami native has endured her share of spills and injuries, but she always came back. She is one of the most highly placed and respected riders of grand prix show jumping. Fans love her. She's friendly and approachable.

The odds that she would make it to the major leagues in this tough and expensive sport were slim. Her mother, a retired elementary school teacher and principal, has never been on a horse. Her father is a retired accountant, and her two older brothers are a doctor and an actuary.

Horses became her passion when she was in the third grade.

"She spent the night with a friend, and the next morning they went to Gladewinds farm," Mrs. Goldstein said. "After that, she was hooked. We didn't let her take lessons until we saw how determined she was."

She cleaned kennels and mucked out stalls to pay for extra lessons.

"I ate, slept and dreamed about them," said Goldstein-Engle. With her brothers in college, the family couldn't afford to buy her a horse, so she rode everything and anything.

"The most ornery pony in the barn was my favorite," she said. "The more difficult they were, the more I wanted to ride them. In the long run, it helped me get into their heads.

"It's quite a challenge to work with a being that has feelings, different moods and feels pain but can't talk to you about it. It's something you have to figure out. You have to get to know them inside and out. And it's never boring, because each horse has its own distinct personality."

"Horses will talk to you through physical signals," said friend Julie Krone, who retired last year as the winningest female jockey and the first woman elected to thoroughbred racing's hall of fame. "It may be a little flick of an ear, a switch of a tail or a drop of a shoulder. Margie reads all the signals loud and clear; it's a gift she's been given."

"She understands the animal fluently," said 20-year friend Gina Johnson, a Clearwater businesswoman who covered the equine events for NBC during the '96 Atlanta Olympics.

"Jumping is a game of power and speed, inches and fractions, and Margie knows where you can shave a turn and lose a stride. She's fearless without being reckless, and she's got an eye for distance that any professional golfer would kill for."

Early on, the 5-foot-1 rider was told she was too small to be able to guide 1,000-pound horses over courses of 15 to 20 obstacles, some higher than 5 feet and with spreads of more than 6 feet.

"The more people told me I couldn't, the more determined I became," she said. "It must be the Aries in me."

"Even though she's small, she's extremely strong physically and mentally," said John "Spank" Deemer, her trainer and ground man for 20 years. "In the show ring, she's in control and fearless. I would compare Margie to a Tiger Woods or a Dan Marino. It's that talent, that inner drive that they have to compete and win. We have a lot of good athletes in our business, but she definitely is special."

When she was a youngster, Goldstein-Engle's parents thought riding was a wonderful hobby that was teaching her responsibility.

"She was one stubborn, determined little girl," Mrs. Goldstein said. "And she handled us just right. Whenever there was an injury, she would say, "Oh, that was an emergency dismount,' or "Oh, I was learning to fall.' It was never the horse's fault. She always came up with something to reassure us."

By the time she graduated from Florida International University with a degree in business, her parents were resigned that horses were her life.

"We kept offering her other choices," Mrs. Goldstein said. "I thought she'd follow me into education because she is so good with children. We really never dreamed that anybody could make a living from it. But once again, she brought us along. She set her goals and pursued them, and I think she outdid us all."

Goldstein-Engle won her first grand prix competition with a 16.3-hand, gray German-bred horse named Daydream, the only horse that she and her family bought together.

"Daydream was the spark plug that set us off," Deemer said. "He loved jumping high, and he loved Margie. He jumped a wall over 7 feet high in the puissance competition at the annual indoor show in Washington, D.C. He won it three times."

Now 20, Daydream is retired and living at Goldstein-Engle's barn in Wellington, a community on the edge of West Palm Beach, where he spends his days munching hay in an airy stall that is cleaner than most houses.

Several years ago he had a special visitor, a little girl who had lost a leg to bone cancer. She wrote a letter to Goldstein-Engle, saying her big dream was to ride Daydream.

"We brought her here from Virginia," Goldstein-Engle said, "and I let her get on Daydream."

Her next grand prix horse was another gray, a 16.2-hand, Dutch-bred stallion named Saluut II. "He's one of the smartest horses I've ever ridden," Goldstein-Engle said.

"That stallion was so quick, clean and careful, you couldn't beat him," recalled Johnson. "She trained him, and he had the same courage and love of the sport that she does. He was powerful, and he trusted her implicitly. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they were a perfect match."

Saluut II, now 18, retired and breeding in Maryland, set a record for the most American Grandprix Association wins (five) in the same season in 1991. For one of his victories, Margie won a red Cadillac convertible that she drives around West Palm Beach. The license tag is a tribute to her former partner, "Saluut II."

"He gave us a lot of good memories," Deemer said of the horse. "I remember one particular competition. He turned to a fence, rocked back and sprang over it and never touched the thing. The crowd went crazy; they couldn't believe what they had seen."

For the past 10 years, Goldstein-Engle has been riding horses for Michael Polaski, a Milwaukee businessman. He owns Hidden Creek breeding farm in Oak Creek, Wis., and the training farm in Wellington that adjoins Goldstein-Engle's farm.

Polaski said he has come to respect Goldstein-Engle not only as a remarkable rider, but as a businesswoman. "She's a hard worker and extremely honest," he said. "She plays straightforward, and she's not afraid to admit it if she's made a mistake."

They work closely on scheduling and decisionmaking. One of those decisions was to buy Perin in Germany last fall. "He didn't have much experience," Polaski said, but they could see his potential.

"He has a lot of raw talent," said Goldstein-Engle. "He's never been hurt, and he's very trusting and willing to try anything."

Her Olympic mount is "one of the sweetest and most gentle horses I've worked with," she said. "I've never seen him pin his ears or upset. He loves people and doesn't want to be left alone. He licks you like a puppy dog."

Goldstein-Engle said she rides eight to 10 hours a day and is usually off Mondays. She also works out on a cross-country ski exercise machine.

"This is one sport where the more experience you have and the longer you do it, the better you get," she said. "It's a sport in which you never stop learning, and the horses are our best teachers."

At any time during the year, the six-time American Grandprix Association Rider of the Year has 20 horses on the road competing nationally and internationally and 10 to 15 horses in training at her farm. The annual cost of maintaining just one horse on the road, Polaski said, can run from $65,000 to $70,000.

Goldstein-Engle's husband, Dr. Steve Engle, is an equine veterinarian and one of the Olympic team veterinarians.

During off hours, Goldstein-Engle has a reputation for being the life of the party. "She can tell jokes for hours," Polaski said.

"And don't ever play pool with her," Johnson said. "That same eye that wins the grand prix will kill you at pool."

But do go with her to the race track. "She can come to the races and look at the horses and pick the winner every time," said Krone, "and not on my tip!"

Competing with Goldstein-Engle on the U.S. equestrian show jumping team are Nona Garson, 40, of Lebanon, N.J., and her famous Russian-bred former cavalry horse, Rhythmical; Laura Kraut, 34, of Oconomowoc, Wis., and her Dutch-bred mare Liberty; and Lauren Hough, 23, of Wellington and her German-bred horse Clasiko. If any member is unable to compete, the alternate team member is Todd Minikus, 38, of Loxahatchee and his German-bred stallion Oh Star.

Team members compete in individual jumping qualifiers Sept. 25, team jumping Sept. 28 and the final individual jumping Oct. 1.