VIRDEN, Man. — Merle Coleman met her husband, Ron, by accident.
The 90-year-old diminutive horsewoman and former nurse recalled him needing medical aid after getting hit in the face with a pulley.
He recovered and went on to live a long life, passing away last year, while Merle gave up nursing at age 60 after breaking her neck from falling off a horse.
The couple, well known in horse racing and 4-H circles, raised, trained and raced horses for harness events.
A front room cabinet lined with trophies and race memorabilia attests to the family’s success with sulky carts.
“We won a few trophies,” said Merle, who shared her expertise with horses while leading 4-H programs for more than six decades.
Ron was known as Mr. Fix-it because of his skills as a mechanic and blacksmith.
“We still miss him, he took good care of everything,” said Merle.
“We scrimped and saved. We both grew up having to work for our money and grew up on farms.”
They settled in Virden in the 1970s, where Merle lives today on a half section farm with her daughter, Dreda Braybrook, who once also raced and rode.
Looking back fondly on her career, Merle cited a highlight at the Brandon fair when she met Queen Elizabeth with one of her 4-Hers.
Today, she credits Dreda with keeping the farm going and allowing her to remain where she is happiest — with her animals.
Dreda worked as a groom in Ontario and Florida, but these days she splits her time between horse chores at the farm and hotel work in town.
Dreda’s son, Clayton, continues the family’s harness racing tradition each summer on the Manitoba Great Western Harness Racing Circuit, making the commute from his music teaching job in Kindersley, Sask., to the farm and beyond for race events.
He keeps his miniatures in Sask-atchewan but the standardbreds at the Coleman farm. Having the land, barn and equipment at the farm made it easy for him to stay involved.
“It didn’t break me to get into the business. It’s breaking me to be in the business,” he said, citing shrinking race events that numbered as many as 20 towns in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It’s dwindled down to 10 actual race days in four towns,” he said, noting how eight horses compete with payouts going from first to fifth place finishes.
“Winner gets half the pot,” said Clayton.
Merle loves to watch the animals horsing around in the yard outside her kitchen window and longs to still be part of the racing scene.
“Even yet, when they pull out of here, I want to go,” said Merle.
Added Clayton: “It didn’t matter if they came first or last, she still loved them.”
Coles Bill Payer, their 32-year-old gelding, took 13 tries at qualifying before he launched into a successful racing career.
“He was a sweetheart, easy to work with, a calm horse,” he said.
In retirement, he was trained to ride and pull sleds.
“Any old lady can ride him,” said Merle.
Helen Elliott, a longtime friend who rode horses with Merle, said Merle was successful in both racing and teaching kids to ride.
“She taught them respect for the horses and people,” she said. “They were always excellent riders after she finished with them.”
Merle still spends time with her horses and is often in local parades. The previous night, she had gone for a trail ride.
The Colemans started out intent on raising and selling standardbred colts at two years old.
“But they got too attached and couldn’t sell them,” said Clayton, whose father, Gerald, built the local horse track in 1973.
“They kept them and trained them and raced them.”
Clayton’s late brother, Dale, also worked with stock and worked as a cowboy.
Today, Merle owns four standardbreds and two quarter horses and Clayton has nine racehorses and four miniatures. He turns the horses out to pasture for the winter, revving up training each March.
Merle also boards others’ horses on her land, some of which is rented to a grain farmer.
The Colemans got into standardbreds because they needed a horse that could easily follow a track in snow and ride to town, and the draught horses were too slow to use, said Clayton.
Racehorse training parallels body building and involves daily exercise to build muscles, stamina and speed, he said.
Clayton enjoys the camaraderie of the horse community.
“I don’t mind finishing fifth if we’re lined up across the track and have lost by a nose. It means everybody is doing well,” said Clayton.
Darryl Mason, president of the Manitoba Great Western Harness Racing Circuit, said the family has been strong supporters and promoters of the sport, breed and industry for many years.
“Their horses always looked great, they were fat and well looked after,” he said.
They also hailed from an area known for horses and racers.
Mason said harness racing can be started in childhood and continued through the adult years.
“You don’t have to be 100 pounds to ride a sulky,” he said, comparing it to thoroughbred racing.
Purses run from $1,400 to $2,500, but races also offer good exposure for the breed and potential sales.
Mason prefers the track to the show ring.
“It’s whether my horse can beat your horse. It’s not anyone’s judgment,” he said.
Mason, who operates Heartland Standardbreds at Killarney, said his town celebrated 40 years of racing last year.
“Racing has been around for a long time and I hope it continues,” said Mason, who noted standardbred racing has disappeared in Saskatchewan.
Clayton and Dreda aren’t certain of their sport’s future.
“Part of what messed us up was VLTs,” said Dreda, noting it re-duced betting money and crowds at races.
“You could shoot a cannon and not hit anyone,” said Clayton of his weekend races. “The writing is on the wall for this industry.”