A cloud of dust rises as the heavy hooves disturb the dry terrain. Black as obsidian, the horse makes its round in the ring—a locomotive of elegant power, seemingly unaware of its nearly 1,400-pound heft. Were this the fifteenth century, the rider, clad in all black save for the blonde hair, could as well have been a knight in chain mail. But rather it’s just another day on the Friesian Marketplace farm in Greer, South Carolina.
Kelsey Baird sits atop a horse named Nick who will soon be shipped out to his new home in Oregon. Nick—like his fellow Friesians, Corneel, King, and Luke, to name a few—is just one of the horses Kelsey and her mother and business partner, Cheryl, have imported from Holland. For the past nine years, the duo has found perfect homes for these unique equines—anywhere from Australia to Nashville, Canada and Mexico, and yes, even just up the street, where a client owns six Friesians. It sounds like a business story, but with animals, especially with horses and their owners, it’s always much more personal. It’s what Cheryl calls “a heart business,” and they are the “matchmakers”—pairing the right horse to the right owner.
Who are these owners? Let’s see, the Bairds have had inquiries from Martha Stewart (her agent), a sheikh from Dubai (his “guy”), and a member of the band Bon Jovi. (Of those, it was Bon Jovi’s piano player who bought one for his wife). Clients—who text and call the Bairds with glowing gratitude and updates on their horse years after their purchase—come from everywhere, and across every spectrum. The country act Big & Rich’s manager, Marc Oswald, and his wife Krista, have bought two—one of which will be the carriage horse for guests at the Fontanel Mansion, the former Nashville home of country star Barbara Mandrell, which the Oswalds now own. Then, there’s the original creator of the product Simple Green, Judi Walker in California, who bought one for her granddaughter, Lauren, with whom Kelsey spent a week on the West Coast training.
One of the original six Friesians the Bairds purchased almost a decade ago on their initial trip to Holland sparked the interest of a woman named Blythe Brown from New Hampshire. “She told me about Zerko (the horse’s registered Dutch name),” Brown remembers, “and after a long conversation, we determined that Zerko would be a good match for me. I flew to South Carolina to meet my possible new companion in the horse-flesh, and it was love at first sight. Zerko arrived to our farm in New Hampshire, and right away this Friesian stole my heart. I changed his name, and gave the barn the name “Dante”—a tip of the hat to a character in a new novel my husband was writing.”
That novel is Inferno, by Dan Brown, written 10 years after his blockbuster book, The DaVinci Code. Dante, the horse that is, has his own fan club now, and graces the barn door in sculpture form at the Brown’s farm, Historic Runnymede, in New Hampshire.
Inherently majestic, horses have an especially arresting hold. Look no further than Black Beauty, written in 1877 by British author Anna Sewell. More than a hundred years later and it is still one the most successful books ever published. And it’s about a horse. Not a Friesian, mind you, but still, a horse. But as any Friesian owner will tell you, these aren’t just any horse.
The particular aspects of the Friesian breed, hailing from Friesland in northwest Netherlands, are the feet feathering—which lends a delicate detail on these otherwise big-boned, broad colossi—as well as their long-flowing manes, and gleaming, black-as-midnight coats. They are gentle and even-tempered; the horse of the nobility—of knights in shining armor, really. Until, as it is with trends, Friesians faded into a draught-style horse for agricultural pursuits, especially in Friesland, where the economy depended on it. In fact, the horse almost faded out entirely. “They got the breed going again, and they started refining the breed more and making them more modern for sport,” explains Cheryl, who started riding at age 6 and has trained horses for 35 years, “and now they look more sporty than in the old days when they were wider and thicker for pulling.”
Of course, like most success stories, if it weren’t for a serendipitous meeting with a Frieisan a friend had brought to Cheryl to train, this might just be any other horse story. Instead, “It was the smartest, neatest horse I had ever worked with, and I didn’t know anything about them,” says Cheryl, sitting fireside in her home adjacent to the barn. “I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ He was three years old and a little wild at first so I took him on, and it turned out I won five world titles with him.”
“Then one day I walked out of my barn and said, ‘One day, we will be all black. We’ll have all black Friesians.’ And my dream came true. At the beginning it was really hard because I had to go down a road less traveled that I really didn’t know much about. But I took a lot of time learning about the Friesians, and I really loved it so it made it so much easier to do.”
That same horse, named Maverick, would even come when she called. She had her moment in the hot seat with him when Maverick was set to appear in the 2012 Clint Eastwood baseball movie, Trouble with the Curve. “He had to run across a baseball field in Atlanta,” says Cheryl, “with no halter at a full gallop, and all the movie people were right behind me asking, ‘Will he do it?’ They turned him loose and he came right to my feet and they all cheered.”
If she sounds like a proud mama, she is. Though it’s hard to tell if she’s more proud of her daughter (a bio-engineering Clemson student on scholarship who graduated with a master’s at 21), or the success they’ve found together as a dynamic duo, taking the leap to start an online business importing horses from Holland, which is now the largest East Coast importer.
Cheryl and Kelsey try to visit Holland three times a year, and will be there this month. They’re selling horses at a clip of about three a month, though last year they sold 50, the largest amount yet. Nick, the horse headed to Oregon, a supermodel among horses for his training and beauty, is one of the highest sells at $45,000. Had he been younger, he might have fetched up to $150,000. The Bairds’ Holland business partner helps them decide on which horses come to the States—the best only, as the Bairds’ reputation is as shiny as the jet black coats of their charges.
The horses make the long trip from Amsterdam to New York, “Each with their own personal groom to keep them comfortable during the flight,” Cheryl says, then adds, laughing, “You know, to get them cocktails, or anything.” The geldings stay in quarantine for three days, the mares for two weeks, and the stallions for a month. From there, it’s off to Oregon, Oklahoma, or New Jer-sey (Bon Jovi, naturally), traveling by companies like Horses2Fly, or in a stall loaded onto a big cargo shipping rig. But that’s not before they are welcomed, like a new member of the family, to the Friesian Marketplace’s 10-acre farm, conveniently located ten minutes from the airport.
“They usually arrive at 2 or 3 in the morning, and we’re always excited,” says Cheryl. “It’s like a new baby every time. They come in off the trailer all bright-eyed, like ‘Where are we? This is not Holland!’ I get them treats and make them comfortable. I’ll make them a carrot and sweet potato hash, and we’ll give them lots of kisses and let them sleep a little while because they’re tired from their trip.”
Every college student coming home for spring break should be so lucky. But these horses, and the dealings involved, mean so much to these two women—for what they mean to their clients. The famous ones, and the not-so-famous ones, find friendship, solace, and even therapy in their Friesian, such as dealing with a husband’s slow decline from ALS, or the crushing loneliness after they pass, or adding a big splash of black to the golden years as one husband did to surprise his wife. Cheryl’s dark brown eyes sparkle with the telling of the story. “We just sent a horse off to Virginia,” she says. “The man had all the church ladies in the neighborhood come over, and his wife had no idea. The trailer pulled up, and he said, ‘I got your new horse!’” Like a well-intentioned friend setting up a blind date, Cheryl hopes it’s always a perfect match. “You just hope it goes right,” says Cheryl. “For our clients—and for our horses. It’s important that they get the right people.”
For Debbie Kesling in Ohio, a horse named Zanzibar was definitely the right pick for her. Kesling’s husband passed away from ALS, but not before getting her dream horse. “He had told one woman at the barn that he was glad that I would have Zanzibar after he was no longer here,” says Kesling. “Zan has become my therapy horse. I can tell him anything, and he doesn’t mind the tears that sometimes come with that.”
The Bairds make a living doing what they love by making dreams come true for people who love Friesians as much as they do. Even if it’s seven days a week of hard work. Cheryl’s mother, Carolyn, in her 70s, even helps with the bookkeeping—and cleaning the stalls. There is constant care, maintenance, and upkeep. The Bairds wouldn’t have it any other way. “At the beginning you have a really good idea, but you really don’t know how it’s going to evolve until you start doing it and find out what works and what doesn’t,” Cheryl says. But as the Bairds now know, going for your dream—however massive (literally) of an undertaking it might be—is always what will make you a breed apart.