Wrightsville, PA breeders Peg and Terry Helder (left) "adopted" acclaimed performer Guy McLean and wife Emily (second and third from right) after the couple was stranded in a snowstorm before the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo in 2011. Now the couples, shown with Australian friend Jess Butt (far right) spend weeks together each year and are "closer than most families."
It was freezing in the Equine Arena of the Farm Show Complex at 4:30am on February 27, 2014, less than twelve hours before the start of the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo. Guy McLean and his wife Emily had fought their way across the weather-ravaged country, from Texas to Pennsylvania, just the day before. Arriving in Harrisburg after a three day trip, they’d been in the Equine Barn settling the four horses until late into the night, returning at 4am after far too little sleep to help promote the Expo for three local TV news crews.
Guy, riding bridleless and bareback with a liberty horse at his side, worked with the reporters as they broadcast live for several hours. After putting the horses away, he and Emily tried to grab an hour’s sleep before the Expo started at noon. Ahead were full days of seminars and personal appearances, and at night, Theatre Equus rehearsals and performances. A grueling week, to be followed by appearances in Springfield, Missouri; Ontario, Canada; Equine Affaire in Ohio; and a three week trip to Australia, all in the span of seven weeks. But following the Expo, a welcome break: two weeks with Mum and Dad.
Guy McLean, an Australian citizen who moved to the US in 2010 to seek fame as an equine entertainer, has a Mum and Dad in Queensland, Australia and a second set of “parents” in Peg and Terry Helder of Evergreen Farm in Wrightsville, York County, PA. His twice-yearly visits “home” are some of his favorite weeks of the year.
“This place and home are the only places I like to hang out,” he said on an early March afternoon—his 39th birthday-- as he watched Terry Helder ride a two-year-old, All the Bells & Whistles, in the indoor arena. He had been at the farm three days and had started six horses. “This is more work than I do on the road,” he joked. Two of the young horses had needed just two rides, some might take three or four, he said. “They are wonderful-minded horses.”
Horse World Expo 2011
The McLeans and Helders first met just before the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo in February, 2011. Guy and Emily had only been in the country—in Texas, where they had joined another Australian transplant-- for six months. “So when Denise (Parsons, one of the Expo’s promoters) called and said ‘Come to Pennsylvania in February’ I had no idea about cold and snow. I said ‘Sure!’” Guy said.
The McLeans, driving from Florida, began to encounter snow. Even worse, they were arriving too early to get stalls at the Farm Show Complex. Mutual friend Craig Johnson, of Gainesville, TX, who knew Terry Helder from the reining circuit, called to ask if the Helders would put them up. “I said sure but they’d better hurry because they’re calling for snow, and they won’t make it” back the twisting rural roads to Evergreen Farm, Terry said.
With no four wheel drive, the rig with four horses sliding on the back roads of York County, the McLeans kept calling the Helders. “They got to East Prospect and I said, ‘Look, you’ll never get here. Stop driving now, leave your horses at Creekside Stables.‘” They settled the horses, unhitched the rig and drove to the Harrisburg airport to pick up friends who were flying in from Australia to help at the Expo. “We thought we’d never hear from them again,” Terry said.
“They called the next morning. They wanted to work the horses and asked if they could still come. So I drove over and hitched their trailer to my four wheel drive truck and brought the horses over. They and the horses stayed with us that night.”
“We’d been in Florida where the horses were sweating standing in the shade and now we were in Pennsylvania and they were shivering with four blankets on,” Guy remembered.
Though Guy is now one of America’s top equestrian stars, this was one of his first east coast appearances. “We didn’t know who they were, just that they needed help. We had some friends, one of whom had played polocrosse in Australia, and we asked if he had heard of him. He said, ’oh he’s my hero,’ and told us a little about what he does.”
Guy performs on horseback with three additional liberty horses in the arena. He places the horses wherever he likes, sidepasses between them, uses them as obstacles for pole bending and barrel racing, and lays one horse down and sidepasses the others over it. He canters in place and backwards, and stands on the horse’s back while cracking whips and flailing tarps.
“So they went to work the horses in the indoor, and I said, ‘are you the person who lays the horses down and sidepasses over them?’” Peg said. “And he said, ‘yeah, wanna see?’”
Peg remembered walking out into the indoor arena, where Guy had turned the horses loose, giving them their first taste of freedom in several days. “They were wild, spinning and bucking, and he calmly walked out into the middle of them. I thought he was going to be killed. Instead he gave a signal and they immediately stopped running and lined up side by side. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Guy and Emily left for Harrisburg the next day. The couples parted friends but did not keep in contact. “We got a flyer for the Pennsylvania National Horse Show in October, and Guy was performing. I said, ‘Terry, do you think they would remember us?’” Peg said. They went to the show and found Guy in a little hole of a booth. He did remember them. “We invited them to the farm and they stayed a couple of weeks. We became great friends,” Peg said.
A running joke is that the Helders politely declined Guy’s offer to help with some of the young horses in thanks for the accommodations. “We said no thank you,” Peg said, “and in no time we were kicking ourselves. That was the dumbest thing we ever did.”
“I figured they weren’t very impressed with my training,” Guy joked.
“One day we realized we were old enough to be Guy’s parents,” Terry said. “Guy said ‘Good, then we’ll call you that.’” The relationship with the Helders “means the world to us,” Guy said. “It was hard to leave our families in Australia and to be so far away for so long. To have a mum and dad in the US is awesome. We’re closer than most families.”
“Guy is exactly how he is, all the time,” Terry said. “The performer is just the person he is, down to earth and human. He’s one of best horsemen I ever knew. He has a way with horses I’ve never seen in anyone else. I’ve been in the business for coming on 40 years and I think I’ve learned more from him in the past four years than in the 35 before that. The Australian way is to ask a lot of horses early on and then leave them alone. It’s very educational and also very entertaining to be around him.”
Susan River Childhood
Guy’s parents own the 1600 acre Susan River Homestead Holiday Ranch resort in Queensland, where they offer trail riding. Guy says he has been a horseman since he was 15 months old, and was riding out with the guests by age four. “I was the youngest of five boys, my name was Wait For Me. I felt small compared to them. I felt faster, braver and smarter on a horse and the girls wanted to talk to me.”
Each of the boys took a turn helping on the ranch. Guy left school at 15, and from age 15 to 20 he was in charge of fifty guest horses, their training and the trail rides. He also trained outside horses. “I fall in love with my horses. Most successful trainers have a horse for four weeks and then give them back. Or if they own horses, they need to sell them. I didn’t want to do that. My horses are my family, they are in my life for 20-30 years. I also didn’t want to deal with the people. I realized the only way to make it was to become a performer."
Guy came to the US because “there are 24 million people in Australia and 30 million horse owners in the US,” he said. “All the big names are here. There’s a big event every weekend. In Australia there’s a big event every two years.”
His focus is horses, period. “My dad said, ‘you can’t talk about nothing but horses. No one wants to hear that all the time.’ So I came to America, where that’s normal,” Guy said. He, Emily and friend Jess Butt spent an afternoon at the local snow tubing hill (Guy called it “that slippey dip thing” and thinks snow is wonderful), but even in his few weeks of down time there’s no activity that’s more interesting than horses.
The Helders, who met at a horse show as teenagers and married very young, now train and show only what they breed. They also give lessons. The two-year-old Terry was riding had the bloodlines of every stallion they had ever stood represented.
The Helders give their two-year-olds thirty days training in the winter and early spring, then turn them out until the end of show season. “Guy puts such a good foundation on them,” Terry said. “When they come back in they pick up from where they left off. Sometimes they’re even better.
“What Guy does for us, and Emily on the computer does for us, that’s really special to us. Helping us with the young horses, the problem is we can’t let him around them too long because he falls in love with them and has to buy them. He believes in what we do also.”
“We’ve been in the horse industry 40 years,” Peg said, “and we’d help anyone who needed help. But this relationship has grown from a friendship to family—they’re stuck with us now.”
Guy bought three young horses from the Helders’ breeding program this winter, including the horse he trained in demonstrations at the Expo. “I’m that impressed with them,” he said. “They’re like the Australian stock horses, they will have a go at anything. The difference is that it costs $15,000 to import one from Australia and Terry only charges me $20,000,” he joked.
Guy has three sets of four horses he performs with: The east coast set, four in Texas and four in Australia. He tries to swap them out to avoid burnout and is very protective of their down time. The horses in Australia are unworked for up to ten months at a time. He reconnected with them three days before they were scheduled to perform. “I find that what you teach them they remember,” he said.
In early April, after five days at Equine Affaire, Guy, Emily and the four horses returned to Mum and Dad’s for a little rest and relaxation before a flight to Australia. The east coast horses stayed at Evergreen Farm while Guy was in Australia, returning to perform at the Devon Horse Show May 28-31 for the first time. Guy looked forward to a reunion with his loud, boisterous family; his siblings include a stunt man who was seriously injured shooting Hangover II and his younger sister Skye, who plays rugby and has worked as a nightclub bouncer. He is overwhelmed by them and reverts to the youngest brother Wait For Me in their company, he said.
He also looked forward to seeing his 11-year-old daughter, Amber Rose, who wants him to hurry up and get famous so he can take her to Disneyland. She wants to come live with him when she turns 18 and he looks forward to teaching her horsemanship the correct way.
Guy likes Pennsylvania; Horse World Expo’s Theater Equus is his favorite nighttime show. “It’s the best crowd, they go off. The best response I ever got was from the audience at Dressage at Devon, though the riders didn’t appreciate me. Their horses went mad when I rode past so they made me wait in a corner. I guess the horses couldn’t understand why there were four horses so close together.”
And central Pennsylvania will remain Guy McLean’s home away from home. “Mum and Dad are going to have to sell us a corner of Evergreen Farm,” he said. “We’ll have property here at some point.”