The Forgotten Rider

a true story of a ghost encounter, and a quest to find out who he was

I can’t remember which way the wind blew on the evening of May 4th, 2010, or if the air stood still. It was late spring, and the air brought an earthy scent. Sweeping grass surrounding the old farmhouse glistened, and the evening sky painted shades of orange and yellow.

A line of maple trees flanked the driveway, linking their tops, making a canopy of buds above the lane and then spreading away to shade the horse paddocks on the other side.

Haunted farm house, Feversham ontario, horse farm, haunted horse farm
Our farm house on the hill

The farmhouse sat on the highest point on the property, watching over the land. In desperate need of repair, or as my insurance agent said, perhaps condemned, we decided to breathe new life into it. With renovations underway, I had come to paint the fresh drywall in the living room.

Used for 30 years as a staff house for a sprawling world-famous horse farm, the house entertained its share of residents, each one leaving it a little less maintained than the next. The tall ceilings, transom window and original staircase sucked me in to save it.

Decked out in my painting clothes and Birkenstocks, I entered the house through a small, musty mudroom. The previous residents had left the door open throughout the years, allowing the elements in. Moisture disfigured the wood-panelled walls, and bags of garbage from the contractor were piled in the corner. The wooden kitchen door adorned so many layers of paint, it was a wonder it still shut closed.

I set up the paint tools and began trimming out the soft orange wall of the living room. I glanced out the window to the paddocks beyond the driveway and smiled about our new life. Imagining horses roaming the paddocks, children playing in the garden and completing the renovations over the next few years to our liking. As the evening turned dark, I plugged in the contractor lights and attempted to lay the paint evenly between the shadows.

ghost stories, renovations, farm house renovations, elizabeth mccowan
Serious renovations, but a glimpse of the mudroom

It was getting late, so I cleaned up the paintbrushes and headed out the kitchen door to the moonlit mudroom of yesteryear. Fumbling to find the keyhole to lock the yellow door, I felt something beside me.

I didn’t want to look, but I could feel it was looking at me. I would have screamed, but all the years of riding horses kept me silent.

The feeling was coming closely on my right, but the door to get out of the mudroom was on my left. I could escape.

My heart raced, and my mind wild with worry. With the moon as my light, I glanced toward the feeling to see a large, transparent man standing about a foot taller than I, in the mudroom.

I made myself look. Forcefully turning my neck in the direction to look fear in the face. I looked him up and down. His body, semi-transparent and difficult to see, though he stood only a foot or two away. So close, I couldn’t see his feet without taking a step back, but I didn’t want to fall over the garbage bags behind me. I stood stock-still, not breathing, my heart pounding out of my chest.

He was in his mid-late 20s. Standing very tall, or at least too tall to be a horseback rider, his clothing suggested he had just come off the cross-country course. He wore a rugby type shirt with a blue or green stripe on it, beige show breeches and the same terrible old rubber riding boots I had as a kid. If you rode in the 80s, you would know the ones I’m talking about (stiff as a board, and when your coach asked you to put your heels down, you thought you might break your ankle trying).

His hair was a reddish brown, though it was messy and dirty, so I couldn’t tell which colour it was. My initial fear subsided when I looked at his friendly face. He smiled at me. Leaning up against the wall as if we were meeting at a crowded party, he crossed one leg over the other, a casual and inviting stance.

Sharing a cramped room with a 6ft plus ghost wasn’t my idea of a good time, but he tried his best to flirt. He adjusted himself against the wall, slouching a bit to seem less daunting. Easy and approachable, he spoke “Can I come inside?.”

By this point, I located the keyhole, locked the door and was ready to run. I wondered for a millisecond what it might be like to invite him in, but having a ghost hanging out seemed invasive, even if he was friendly.

I turned away, “NO!” and shot out of the mudroom to my car, keys in hand, afraid to look back.

Attempting to drive the car without running into a tree or ditch, I played out what happened over and over in my head. I wondered how long he had been standing there, watching me paint and dance around to tunes. I thought about the old farm owner explaining they had only one rider die on course in the 30 years they ran events, and I started wondering if this could be him. Had he roamed the farm this long? Had other people seen him since his death? and… Did I just buy a haunted house?

When I got home, I headed to google to find out what to do when a ghost asks to come inside your house. All the articles I read said to never invite a ghost into your house. But I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the rider who died or was my mind playing tricks on me?

As I was bringing supplies in from the car the next day, I made several passes through the mysterious mudroom where I repeated the phrases my research the previous evening had suggested: ‘You need to move on. You can’t stay here. It’s OK to go now. You have died, and it’s time to go. Move towards the light, don’t be afraid’. I felt uncomfortable (and a little silly) repeating phrases from a ghost blog. But if this ghost had been wandering around my farm for 30 years wondering where everyone from the horse show went, I’d better help him move on.

And I never saw him again. As the years passed on the farm, I used to wish he’d come back to talk.

August 2020

It wasn’t until 10 years later, after I had sold the farm for city life, I thought more about the mudroom ghost. I didn’t talk about him when we lived there. Running a horse farm business was tough enough. I didn’t need to lose clients because they thought I was crazy, or ghosts terrified them. So, my encounter with the mudroom ghost stayed within my small circle. But the thought of him was always there. It was time to reach out to friends who were around in those times and find out more.

I thought of an old friend, Hugh Morshead, who worked at the farm during the hay days. One who would be open to hearing about a ghost story, and I called him. Excited to hear a story from times past, he listened on. Upon my description, he said, “That’s John” and bingo. I had a name. “Oh yes, he was very tall.”

Well, that was it. I wasn’t crazy. I did see the rider who died only a field or two away from the house. The confirmation had me eager to dive in for more information. Hugh had been the course builder on the property, and although he was working for the designer during the event in 1987, he wasn’t there when John died. He didn’t know what he was wearing that day, but he put me in touch with John’s student from way back in 1987, who was on the scene.

Reluctant to call a stranger, but wanting to know more, even if I look like a fool, I contacted her.

John’s working student, Paddy, had grown apart from horses and Olympic dreams. She gave up flying over fences on horseback to fly over the clouds as a commercial pilot in South Africa.

The first few moments of our video call were awkward. Ringing someone up about a ghost who was in your mudroom didn’t sound like a great first impression. I worried she might pin me as a crazy lunatic that lost her mind. I set those feelings aside, eager to learn about this John, and I pressed on. Upon describing my experience, she knew I had, in fact, seen John.

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Paddy sporting her custom Equitech Shirt and John helping her.

The shirt I described he was wearing was one he had specifically made for both Paddy and him to advertise his horse training business ‘Equitech’. She said they laughed that weekend because the sleeves were too short for him, but John was excited to have custom shirts and wore it anyway.

We talked a while, both of us wondering why he would come and talk to me after all the years. Although we aren’t sure what city John was born in, we know he was born in or around 1962, as Paddy remembers he was 25 when he died. At about the age of 8, he ended up in the foster care system in Oshawa, Ontario. Taken in by a foster family, his wit and charm won them over, and the family adopted him.

John, looking as 80’s as ever, teaching a lesson

John grew up into a smart and charismatic man who found a passion for horses. His beginnings were in the discipline of dressage, eventually transitioning to eventing with eyes on the Olympics. John’s family was disappointed in his choice to pursue the hobby, and Paddy said he rarely spoke of them. “John was the type of guy who could have done anything. He was very charismatic. His parents disapproved of his riding career.”

John had come across a steeplechase horse named Roy while training out of a farm in Port Perry (later to become Dreamcrest Farm of Ian Roberts & Kelly Plitz). The owner had imported Roy to Canada as an event prospect. Rumour had it, the horse was in fact dangerous on the steeplechase in Ireland for his runaway behaviour. His new owner couldn’t handle him, but John’s size and height (6’2), could be an excellent match. John traded his quieter horse, Sparrow Hawk, for the talented, but powerful Roy.

Roy was a promising talent. Under the right circumstances, the horse was graceful enough to score well in the dressage and scopey enough to clear the fences. John trained and showed Roy hoping to qualify for the 1988 Olympics.

John and Paddy moved the horses, and the growing business to a farm in Fenelon Falls where he grew his training and coaching business named Equitech. Things were looking up. He was very well-liked by his students. He kept things fun with his sense of humour and loving attitude. Paddy trained under him, hoping to represent Canada at the North American Young Riders’ Championships (which she later went on and accomplished after his death). I wondered if she was in love with John, or if he was possibly gay. Could that be why his parents were so disconnected? Paddy sent me a photo of John & his girlfriend, Rita to try to debunk that idea.

John and Girlfriend at a party — looks like he was having a great time!

After the dressage portion of the event on September 20th, 1987, he was in a good position to complete the show. The cross-country course was going to be tough. So difficult; the riders hung a straw-man with the word RIP written on his shirt from a tree for the course designer to see during the course walk. Huge jumps, deep and wide ditches, and poor conditions as it had rained the week leading up to show.

Despite complaints, the competitors all gave the course a go, and John was no exception. With optimum times written on a sheet of paper and taped to his arm, John borrowed Paddy’s brand-new cross-country watch and headed out from the starting gate. It had been foggy that morning and the previous rain had left the course a little sloppy. After he left her sight, she made her way to the finish line to meet him coming back. On her way, she heard a volunteer’s radio echo. A jump judge was calling for an ambulance. A rider was down. She knew it must be John. She ran down the hill to help him catch his horse.

But John wouldn’t be getting up from the fall. As John travelled downhill, Roy gained stride and missed the back rail of the oxer, rotating over the top. His haunches came crashing down on John, killing him instantly. Paddy followed the ambulance to the hospital and was there to see him laid out on a stretcher, alone, in a bare hospital room. On his arm, her cross-country watch, which she didn’t dare take back.

On the last day of the horse show, September 22, they led Roy around the stadium ring in a moment of silence for John as his fellow competitors sat on the back of their mounts and said their goodbyes. The next day, Roy, suffering from back injuries, would be euthanized.

When the show was over, Paddy returned to Fenelon Falls and unloaded his truck and trailer. Instructed by his family to touch nothing, she went on to the apartment they shared for 2 years to gather her belongings. The family didn’t speak to her again. No invite, or word of a funeral was heard in the equestrian community. It was as if he never existed at all.

There is a stigma in the horse industry of talking about someone who gets hurt or dies doing the sport. No one wants to imagine the worst while riding a horse. The fear of something going wrong is pushed aside in the minds of equestrians who are trained to sideline fears as if they are tricks of the mind. Talking about it could take away a riders’ bravery which could lead to a dangerous situation on the back of a horse. It was better to let him go than allow questionable thoughts to seep in.

It was as if family and friends forgot about him. No memorial at the scene of his death, no obituary to be found or no family member I could find, I have to wonder? Did he roam the farm for years?

I’d like to think I helped him, but who knows? Perhaps the few words I said were all he needed to hear. Why move into my house as a ghost of the past, when you can move on to new beginnings. I hope he found his way.

John pretending he was a snooty rich man in his dressage getup

PHOTOS: A big thanks to Paddy for providing me with photos of John.

Single Mom, Dog Lover, Equestrian, Creative

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Elizabeth McCowan

Elizabeth McCowan

Single Mom, Dog Lover, Equestrian, Creative

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