Earl Grey, a 33-year-old gray gelding that could have been the last horse on Old Courthouse Road, died Sept. 27 after apparently breaking his shoulder in a fall.
“He was sort of the last horse in this area of Northern Virginia and Tysons,” said Robert McDowell, who grew up with the horse that give his wife and two children, ages 3 and one year, their first horseback rides.
“He was the last vestige of that era when there were a lot of smaller horse farms in Vienna,” McDowell. “It no longer exists.”
“We are all sort of ‘pet people’,” said his next door neighbor, Mary Allen Ingram. “We could ride all the way to Hunter Valley from here in those days. When Mrs. [Catherine Filene] Shouse was building Wolf Trap, we could ride out there and swim in the pond with them.
“We were close to Vienna, but still had the country atmosphere.
There are [still] horses out Hunter Valley way, but there are very few houses with any land out here.
“There is nobody else with enough land. Everything else has been developed,” Ingram said.
AFTER HE POSTED a small, laminated sign at the pasture fence to inform the neighborhood that the horse had died, apples, and other tributes began to appear in response, McDowell said.
“Apparently he had a pretty big following, especially children who probably haven’t had close and regular contact with another horse before.”
“He had this whole other life that we didn’t know about because it was at the far end of the property that we couldn’t see from the house,” said McDowell, whose house is out of sight from the barn where Earl Grey lived. “He used to hold court at Foxstone Park.”
A GELDING OF UNCERTAIN descent who had lived alone in his pasture since 1971, Earl Grey came into the McDowell family after another horse died.
McDowell described him as “an investment in my mom’s five-minute career in horse trading.”
His mother, longtime Vienna resident Martha McDowell, a member of the Greater McLean Republican Women’s club, had bought a mare and foal from the owner of Gypsy Hill Farm on Clark’s Crossing Road, a neighboring horse farm. But the mare died a few months later, and Earl Grey was given to Martha McDowell as a way to make up for the loss.
Earl Grey’s lineage was unknown. “He was kind of a mutt,” McDowell said. The family speculated the horse was a mix of Quarter Horse and Appaloosa. When he developed a degenerative muscular ailment in a suspensory ligament common to the Peruvian Paso strain, they speculated he might also have some Paso ancestors.
“He was a magnificent hunter,” said McDowell. In his early years, he was a deep charcoal gray, but the color lightened over the years.
IN HIS LATER YEARS, Earl Grey lived alone.
“They called him ‘the King.’ He ran the joint,” McDowell said.
“We had a few boarders on and off, but as he got older, he lost some teeth. It took a long time for him to eat, and the other horses took his food.
“He was perfectly content to be alone. He had probably more years of retirement than he did of working,” McDowell said.
“We have a spring at the front of the pasture. It went dry [this summer] and has not come back. It was sort of interesting that those two things would extinguish themselves at the same time.”
“We are still very sad. It’s like losing a member of your family.
“I DID SEE HIM as a friend and a neighbor,” said Ingram. “He would always stand there at the gate. I would go and give him marshmallows and talk to him in the evening.
“He would turn and look at me, eyeball to eyeball, when I talked to him.
“He would stand down there and watch people jogging. Everyone sort of knew him. He would stand at the road and watch the cars go by. Horses are very sociable animals.
“We felt very attached to him,” said Ingram. “We really did truly love him.
“For so long everybody who has gone to Cardinal Hill [Swim Club] had enjoyed the horse, said Linda Criscitello, another neighbor. “We did not know his name. We had only been here two years,” she said.
But when Robert McDowell’s one-year-old daughter missed her music class because of the death of a horse in the family, Criscitello said, it must be the same horse she and her children, ages six and four, had visited.
“They were able to pet him. They kind of got to know him. He was kind of like, our neighborhood friend,” she said.
“To establish a relationship with an animal, that was probably the first. We don’t have any animals,” she said. Criscitello, who teaches a music class for preschoolers, said animals teach children how to be kind and gentle. “Animals can love, too. Not just people,” she said.
“We are sad, still, [but] I would like to get [another] horse for our kids. I just think horses teach kids a lot of good things like responsibility,” said McDowell. Earl Grey’s death “has opened up all kinds of theological questions” for his son Griffin, 3.
“I liked the horse very much,” said Kyle Criscitello, 4. “Did you know he broke his shoulder?”