Poetry in Motion

The effortless magic of the Gypsy Vanner comes to the big screen, courtesy of an enterprising pair of Chester County breeders.

In a rolling pasture, a trio of horses trots across the Chester County countryside. They are easily recognized by their marbled white-and-black coloring, their long, thick manes and lower legs showered with an abundance of “feathers” typical of English draft horses. Possessing an almost mystical appearance, these Gypsy Vanners move across a field as if they’re floating.  

El Brio Vanner Ranch's Mirabell.Soon, the three horses are joined by another mare and her foal, Storybook. It’s a perfect name for the exceedingly friendly, inquisitive three-week-old filly. It also befits the tale of Ed Fitts and Sue Rathbone, who’ve forged quite the storybook plotline of their own.

Back in 2000, the couple traveled to Ocala, Fla., for a close-up look at the breed imported to the United States in 1996. They returned to what would become their El Brio Vanner Ranch with a pair of weanling fillies purchased from Dennis Thompson, co-founder of the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society. Ever since, Fitts and Rathbone’s mission has been to breed and raise animals that retain the Vanner’s purity and distinct characteristics—a muscular build, impressive athletic ability and a gentle temperament.

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Inside El Brio’s handsome barn, a dozen Gypsy Vanners relax in their stalls. Odd Job Bob munches away on a bale of hay. There was little fanfare for Bob when the couple imported the horse from Ireland in 2000 after they saw a photograph of him pulling a carriage.

“He’s our ambassador for the breed,” says Rathbone with a smile. “He has this magnetic personality. He competes in dressage and [carriage] driving. We take him to horse shows and demonstrations. He does everything—Odd Job Bob.”

A couple of years ago, Odd Job Bob was featured in the children’s book Odd Job Bob and Hairball: A Day in the Park, told mainly through El Brio trainer Megan Coy’s lushly colored illustrations. The 14-year-old gelding regularly appears in the kids’ areas during readings at various horse shows. Odd Job Bob promoted the breed at the World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in September 2010, and he’ll appear in the Rose Bowl Parade in January.

Sue Rathbone with Charlie. See more photos below.Then there’s the movie. Odd Job Bob is the equine star of the family film The Greening of Whitney Brown. He’s teamed with veteran actors Kris Kristofferson, Brooke Shields, Aidan Quinn and 15-year-old dynamo Sammi Hanratty. The film follows the misadventures of Whitney Brown, a privileged and popular Philadelphia teenager whose world is upended when her parents experience a sudden economic freefall that necessitates a family move to Whitney’s grandparents’ old farm in the country. While there, she befriends the amazing horse of a crusty old rancher.

Fitts and Rathbone are the executive producers of the film, which was supposed to unfold in downtown Philadelphia and Chester County. But due to a sharp increase in union costs, the movie was actually filmed in Atlanta and its surrounding countryside. The couple spent roughly $9 million on the 90-minute finished product, which is slated for release sometime next year.

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With the movie finished, Fitts and Rathbone are focused on their latest venture, the construction of a winery structure in the Napa Valley, Calif., town of St. Helena. It’s a spot where the volcanic soils in the arid, rocky hills above Lake Hennessey produce grapes with powerful and unique flavors. Under the direction of acclaimed French winemaker Philippe Melka, the vineyard’s first release, Feathered Horse 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, has received a batch of positive reviews hailing its complex flavors.

“We got very lucky with the property,” says Fitts. “It’s high up on Pritchard Hill—a great area for growing Cabernet Franc grapes. We plan to have the winery opened in early 2012.”

When everything is up and rolling, the winery will produce upwards of 1,500 cases a year. The couple’s Gypsy Vanner stallion, Charlie, is pictured on the label. “It’s kind of funny,” adds Rathbone with a laugh. “We started out naming our foals after wineries, and then we named the winery after our breed.”

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Vanners have been selectively bred during the past 50 years to create a kind of small Shire that’s colorful enough for the flamboyant caravans of Romanies—or Gypsies or travelers, as they’re also known. Powerfully built, with impressive athletic ability and magical looks, the Gypsy Vanner’s original job was to pull a heavy vardo (living wagon) that held all that was precious to its owner.

Typically, the horses were tethered on the side of the road or in fields, eating whatever grass they could find and living without shelter in the cold winters. They needed to be patient, quiet and trustworthy in order to be safe for pulling caravans and carrying Romany children, who often rode bareback. Any horse without a good temperament was immediately culled from the breeding stock.  

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While Romanies no longer live in vardos, they continue to raise horses for showing, driving events, fairs and as a good source of income. Bred from a combination of feathered draft and pony breeds, Vanners range in size from 13 to 15 hands, weighing 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. They are sturdy, with heavy bones, flat knees and a short back.

Feathering is an inherited trait passed down and enhanced through generations of careful breeding. The amount and quality of feathering separates the superior Gypsy Vanner from the average one. Manes and tails must be long, thick and flowing, and their leg feathers should begin at the knee/hock and fully cover the hoof.

Vanners come in a variety of colors, though the most common is piebald (black and white). To become a member of the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, an animal must possess a certain look and meet a clear conformation standard, ensuring that it’s the same quality of horse first produced by Romany breeders. Though the horse is still rare in the United States, its numbers are increasing annually and currently total roughly 1,300. Traditionally used for the sport of driving, Vanners also excel at dressage, hunter-jumper events, and both English and Western riding.

El Brio Ranch stretches more than 188 acres across three separate parcels. The tail end encompasses what was once the fabled old King Ranch. In addition to 11-year-old gelding Odd Job Bob, its purebred stock of Gypsy Vanners includes five broodmares, one gelding, 15 foals, and stallions Charlie and Turley. The latter is a striking piebald who won Supreme Champion at the Dream Park Classic in New Jersey in 2009. Charlie’s offspring have earned titles at a variety of competitions, and he’s the first Gypsy Vanner to be honored with the High Point GV of the Year Award by the U.S. Dressage Federation.  

El Brio’s “Golden Opportunity” embryo program offers several stallion/mare combinations. It utilizes one of the top reproduction centers on the East Coast: University of Pennsylvania’s Hoffman Center for Reproduction, located 15 minutes from the ranch. Rathbone tends to the horses with two assistant trainers, Aaron Leon and Megan Coy. They had four Gypsy Vanner foals this year and expect six in 2011. The horses sell for $8,000-$45,000.

“We work with all our horses from birth, and they learn their barn manners early—from cross ties, clippings, blacksmiths and baths,” says Rathbone. “They’re lunged and ground driven, trailered and shipped. As 2-year-olds, they come under saddle and hooked to the cart. They have such sweet dispositions, and are easy to work with and train because of their willingness to learn.”

It’s always been all about the horse for Rathbone, who grew up in Pennsville, N.J., where she got her first pony at age 9. “Neither of my parents were horse people, and my dad was trying to figure out what to do with me on weekends, so he got me a pony,” Rathbone recalls with a laugh. “I traveled with a brat pack of kids that all had ponies. Back then, you could ride all day and no one bothered you. We would tie up to a tree and go swimming in the creek. I didn’t show, just rode the trails.”

Rathbone and her former husband owned and operated a 70-acre standard-bred facility in Woodstown, N.J., with a half-mile racetrack for training and barns for layups for other trainers. At one time, they had 40 horses in training and racing in the Mid-Atlantic region. He trained the 1976 New Jersey Horse of the Year, Dozer, while Rathbone worked with Cherry Bambino, winner of the New Jersey Sire Stakes in 1984 and the 2-year-old Filly of the Year.

In 1995, Rathbone and a girlfriend traveled to the town of Sedona, Ariz., where modern mystics claim to balance psychic energies. On a private ride, Rathbone guided a Peruvian Paso palomino stallion through gorgeous Oak Creek Canyon.

When she returned five years later with her 14-year-old son, Rathbone learned the horse had been sold to a man from Chester County. That man was Fitts. The woman who’d finalized the purchase contacted Fitts, who later phoned Rathbone and invited her to visit the horse and his farm.

“That was 10 years ago—and I never left,” Rathbone says with wry smile. “Why would I?”

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As for Fitts, he’s not a man deterred by bumpy roads. In a life full of insistent interests, filmmaking and a smart, new winery are only the latest two. A native of Littleton, N.C., he graduated from North Carolina State with a degree in industrial engineering. Nearly 50 years later, Fitts is still coming up with spot-on solutions.

“You figure out how to do things better,” he says. “I tend to look at industrial engineering as enterprise engineering, or the people-engineering side of it. I think that’s where good industrial engineers are able to be very successful in business. It takes more than a passion. You need to translate that passion to your associates.”

Fitts began his career with Sonoco Products Company, a packaging solutions business in Hartsville, S.C., where he eventually rose to vice president. In 1979, he led a management team that purchased a paperboard packaging operation from Sonoco and transformed the operation into the Exton-based Dopaco, which makes drink cups, food trays and other packaging for fast-food chains.

Fitts was able to satisfy his thirst for entrepreneurship, and applied a mixture of industrial engineering and business attributes to his company. During his 26-year tenure as chairman and CEO, Dopaco grew from a company of 115 employees to 1,500 across nine plants, with annual sales of more than $400 million when Fitts left five years ago. Cascades, a Canadian maker of paper packaging that previously bought 50 percent of the company, purchased the remaining half in 2005. “I had plenty of time to plan for retiring,” Fitts says. “I bought a boat, bought a Harley and bought some horses. It’s kind of interesting the only one I stuck with was the horses.”

The idea for The Greening of Whitney Brown came about when a videographer, who’d included El Brio ranch in a part of a video promoting the Gypsy Vanners, approached the couple about financing a screenplay. They hired producers Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason as consultants, who explained that the original screenplay was a drama unsuited for a feature film. Fitts and Rathbone wanted a kids’ story, so they purchased the rights to the screenplay and started fresh.

“We were spending the winter in Florida when the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scam dominated the news cycle 24/7,” recalls Rathbone. “The story was everywhere. Financially, people were losing everything. That’s when we came up with the outline with a set of bullet points that were vital to the story. Set in Philadelphia and built around a family who loses everything in the recession, but realizes that family is most important after they move to Chester County countryside—and the daughter befriends a horse.”

To get the ball rolling, the couple contacted Moore-Lewy and Mason, owners of Perfect Weekend productions in Venice, Calif. The company has produced six films in recent years, including 2009’s The Open Road, starring Jeff Bridges and Justin Timberlake. Peter Odiorne made his feature film directorial debut guiding an original script by Gail Gilchriest, screenwriter for the family film My Dog Skip.

“We wanted to produce something missing in movies today,” Rathbone says. “Our requirements were that no one dies, it teaches life lessons and that there’s a connection between the horse and the girl.”

A Bryn Mawr native, Odiorne has worked as an editor and director, guiding projects from hundreds of television commercials to Web films and documentaries. Both Odiorne and Mason attended the Haverford School.

“Charlie and Justin had put me on the short list of directors—and in July of 2009, they gave me the nod,” says Odiorne, 38, the father of four daughters. “Ed and Sue were looking for a process that would go easily, where everyone could enjoy themselves. I kept a light attitude over the 29 days of shooting.”

Even so, 14-hour days were common during production, which was shot last fall. Watching the actors at work was eye-opening for Fitts and Rathbone. In the film, Brooke Shields plays Whitney Brown’s mother; Aidan Quinn is her dad; and Kris Kristofferson turns up as her estranged grandfather, Dusty Brown. NFL legend and Chester County resident Dick Vermeil plays a football coach, and Susan Roberts, wife of Comcast chairman Ralph Roberts, is headmistress at the private school.

The movie opens with aerial shots of the Schuylkill River and the Center City skyline. New York film unions put the quash on future scenes in Philadelphia and Chester County when they upped their rates in August of 2009. “We started hiring people, picking site locations,” says Fitts. “At the 11th hour, the New York unions said, ‘Nope, we’re putting you into the $50 million category.’ Our costs would have gone up 50 percent, so we pulled up stakes and moved everything to Atlanta.”

Odd Job Bob trained for 10 months to prepare for his role. “Bob did the more technical work—bowing down, pushing a swing, laying down pretending he was hurt and sitting down,” Rathbone says.

When Bob balked at running alongside a moving train, El Brio’s Mariah took over. “She did six takes, and they were pulling her back when she was trying to meet the train. “She’s a much more spirited horse,” says Rathbone. “No fear at all.”

Film regulations placed restrictions on both the horses and Sammi Hanratty—her time limited to just two hours a day. “In this business, the old adage is: Don’t work with kids and animals,” says Odiorne. “Well, here’s my first feature film, and I think I shattered that notion.”

To learn more, visit gypsyvanner.com.

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