Loving bond: Christy Conard's love for horses brightened her life


Herald Staff Writer

Christy Conard's bond with horses -- forged by sickness -- began at age 3, when she would sneak into the paddock in front of her parents' west Bradenton home.

The youngster would grab her family's old pony, Midnight, by his forelock, pull him over to a railing and clamber atop his back fast as a flash. She rode the gelding without a saddle or reins, completely confident in their oneness.

Looking back, Betty Conard said, that little pony not only helped her daughter cope with a life-threatening illness but spurred a string of successes that lifted her daughter to the heights of a professional equestrian career.

It's the only consolation the family feels at losing Christy unexpectedly last week at age 26.

``She wasn't expected to live, so every day she did seemed special,'' said Betty Conard, whose family is still mourning the loss of her elder daughter's husband, who died from complications of treating skin cancer a year ago.

``The sad thing is that (her death) was probably preventable. We thought her heart was as strong and as normal as anyone else's, but evidently something was going on.''

As Conard packed up her daughter's many trophies, medals and ribbons, she reflected back on the first few years of her daughter's life. She was born with a heart condition called Wolfe-Parkinson-White, she said, which caused the child's heart to beat irregularly, at times dangerously faster than normal.

She went into heart failure when she was just 7-weeks-old and it wasn't until she was 5 that her heartbeat was stabilized with medication.

The family's physicians cautioned them to keep Christy somewhat isolated to prevent her from being overly taxed and unnecessarily exposed to germs that could make her ill.

So, it was with delight that Betty and her husband, Dr. Richard Conard, discovered Christy's amazing affinity with horses. Like her father, she was drawn to their warmth and gentle spirit.

Beginning at age 5, she was a ringer in nearly every jumping event she competed in. She placed first in the 11-and-under pony class in Florida for five straight years and first nationally dozens of times before age 13.

At 14, she became the youngest rider to win a U.S. Equestrian team gold medal.

Perhaps the climax of her career, though, unfolded in 1988. At 18, she placed first against the nation's top 99 riders at America's premier equestrian event, the national Maclay championship at Madison Square Gardens in New Madison Square Gardens.

Maclay trophy winners typically go on to compete in the Olympics. Those who rode with Christy said she was well on her way to a serious equestrian career.

After spending a few years riding and training other horses and riders, she moved to Memphis, Tenn., in 1995 and eventually opened her own business -- the Christy Conard Stables.

She had barely settled in to her new role when she started feeling heart flutters. She had two episodes before she died Jan. 13, but never consulted a doctor.

``It's a tremendous loss for so many of us,'' Christy's former trainer and longtime friend, Christina Schlusemeyer, of Ocala, said Monday. ``Christy was a such a wonderful rider and a wonderful friend,''

``Even her horses were her friends,'' she said.

After a long day's work, she came back to her Memphis apartment, talked briefly with her boyfriend, Charles Watridge, then sat down on her couch for a well-deserved rest.

She was still sitting on the couch, as if she had fallen asleep, when Watridge stopped in to check on her the next day.

He said she looked like she died peacefully, with one booted foot propped on her coffee table and one hand still encased in a leather riding glove.

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