Clearing Life's Hurdles

For 1991 Rider of the Year Margie Goldstein, overcoming obstacles is second nature
December 09, 1991

Margie Goldstein limps only slightly as she walks the dirt-covered floor of the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. Like a kid taking giant steps, the leading rider in show jumping's American Grandprix Association (AGA) paces off the distance between the flower-bedecked fences that constitute the course for the final event of the season.

It's Nov. 3, the last day of the 108th National Horse Show, and in the staging area under the stands, riders dressed in ruffled shirts and red jackets trade stock tips while they get their boots shined. Many of them play at this sport, traveling the 33-stop national tour with their high priced horses and tiny purebred dogs.

For Goldstein, of the middle-class South Miami Goldsteins, it's much more than a hobby—it's her livelihood. In 1989 she came out of nowhere to win the AGA's Rider of the Year trophy in a startling upset. Finally, at 31, she had earned the respect of her blue-blooded rivals.

Then a 2,000-pound stallion mashed her left foot to the approximate consistency of Cream of Wheat. It was March 23, 1990, during a preliminary event at a horse show in Tampa. The footing was deep and treacherous, and as the horse, Roman Delight, was going around a turn, he slipped. "It was like someone had pulled a carpet out from under him," Goldstein says. "My foot got caught in the stirrup, and the weight of the horse crushed every bone in my foot."

Doctors told her she would probably never walk normally again. Riding was out of the question, at least for a while.

A week later Goldstein was back on a horse, her foot immobilized in a plaster cast. Every bump was agony. Ten miserable weeks passed before she was able to return to competition.

"I don't know whether it's an inner drive I have, the competitiveness inside me, or what, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could get up there again," she says. "I was so hungry to get back. It's hard sitting on the sidelines, watching. The longer I was out, the more it made me want to get back in."

She made it gamely through the second half of the '90 season, earning a respectable top 10 finish in the riders' final standings. By the time the tour began again, in February 1991, she had gotten her line down pat. "It only hurts when I walk," she would say. "Not when I ride."

So there she would go, her 5'1", 105-pound body bouncing in the saddle, arms flapping, part athlete, part animal psychologist, cajoling a beast 15 or more times her weight to jump fence after fence, wall after wall. Her single concession to her injury was the specially constructed zippered boot on her left foot.

In truth, the foot hurt a lot of the time. As the injury healed, painful spurs formed around the frayed edges of knitted bone. And when she first returned to the circuit, nerve damage diminished Goldstein's ability to feel the horses' reactions, putting her at a disadvantage.

Using instinct to compensate, she won the second Grandprix she entered in 1991, setting the stage for what she now calls her best year as a pro. Going into the National last month, she had won eight 1991 Grandprix events, more than anyone else had ever won in a single season. She had become a full-fledged member of the U.S. Equestrian Team and a favorite to compete for the U.S. next year in the Olympics. She was leading the AGA point standings by a wide margin and needed no more than a respectable showing at the Meadowlands to win her second Rider of the Year award.

This time she caught no one by surprise. Her peers expected no less. "Margie is the bravest rider on the tour," says Sally Ike, who was a coordinator for the U.S. team at the National show. "She's ridden through a lot of pain. But she never, ever gives up. Ever."

Says Goldstein's teammate and two-time Olympian Joe Fargis: "Her mental disposition has a lot to do with her success. She's very positive, all the time. She's been an underdog, no question about it. But she came up scrapping, she did it the hard way. She works harder than other people."

She has had to. When she was nine, little Margie started coveting her neighbor's horse. She decided riding was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Problem was, her parents—Irvin, a certified public accountant, and Mona, a schoolteacher—were busy putting money away to send Margie and her two brothers to college. "They would have loved to have had the money to get me a horse, but that was really a luxury and we couldn't afford it," she says. Undeterred, she started spending her spare time at Gladewinds Farm in Miami, near her house. She had to pay for all her rides.

Her parents told her they would kick in the money for one riding lesson a week. Not good enough. So Margie went to Robert and Dorothy Kramer, who owned the farm, and begged to do odd jobs to earn more rides. "My mother said, 'We knew you were serious when you came home and told us they let you clean the stalls,' " Goldstein says. "But I thought it was great. Anything. I didn't care, just anything to be around the horses."

The Kramers became her mentors, her inspiration and, ultimately, her sponsors. After Dorothy Kramer died of bone cancer in 1975, Robert gave 16-year-old Margie a credit card, a beat-up Chevy and a horse trailer so she could travel to shows around Florida with his 12-year-old daughter, Terri.

Margie won a blue ribbon in the first event of the first show she entered, and she kept on winning. She expected to win. She also learned to expect a cold shoulder from the rich kids with the right clothes and the right horses. "What was that like?" she says, repeating a question. The helmet is off now, and light brown hair spills down to her shoulders. Normally a fast talker, she falls silent for a moment. There's a distant look in her eyes.

"What was it like?" she says again. "You're maybe not dressed like the other riders. You don't have the custom things, you don't have the top clothing, and a lot of my stuff was hand-me-downs. They really don't tease you. It was more cliquish than anything. They'd more snub you than tease you. They never actually said much."

Goldstein claims her high tolerance for pain stems from her taking her lumps (and broken limbs) in football games with her two older brothers and their friends. "You couldn't show any pain," she says. "If you did, you were a baby and couldn't play. So I learned to control it. I had to try and be tough, even if I wasn't."

Oh, but she was. At 11, she fell off a horse and suffered a fractured left shoulder. She didn't tell anyone for a week. She has broken her nose, her collarbone (twice), her arm, her wrist and a couple of fingers.

That same toughness fueled Goldstein as she majored in business education at Florida International University, where she wound up near the top of her class. And it propelled her painstaking metamorphosis from the Daredevil of Gladewinds Farm—a trick-riding, head-over-heels urchin who would sooner ride a horse backward, bareback, than any other way—into a polished rider and businesswoman. In less than five years she rose, improbably, to become one of the most prominent figures on the national tour, finally making a comfortable living (top riders can earn upwards of $100,000 annually).

Goldstein's friends say they never had any doubt that she would come back from her latest injury. "If she had to cut her foot off to ride again," says Patti Harnois, who owns a stable of show horses on Cape Cod, "she would have cut it off."

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. During her 10-week convalescence, Goldstein bought a modest house in West Palm Beach and moved out of her parents' house for the first time. She renewed a close relationship with Steve Engle, a veterinarian who occasionally travels on the show tour. And despite her doctor's warnings, she was soon back at work, using crutches to get around, riding with her foot in a cast and keeping the other riders loose with her joking manner and upbeat personality.

"Everything about her is exuberant," says Darlene Sandlin, another member of the U.S. team. "But obviously she knows how to get down to business."

Now it's showtime in New Jersey. The cappuccino drinkers are settled in their seats. Even the VIPs in a pink-and-green terraced dining area at one end of the arena stop nibbling on Brie and turn their attention to the floor. In the AGA Championship, riders must clear 16 barriers in the first round without a mistake to have a chance at the $30,000 first prize. Goldstein's two closest rivals, Lisa Jacquin and George Lindemann Jr., have a slim chance to overtake her for Rider of the Year. To clinch the title, Goldstein doesn't have to win this event outright, but neither can she afford to fail in the first round.

Her mount, Saluut II, seems tired from the long season and affected, she thinks, by breathing polluted air. How would you like to sleep in a tent in the Meadowlands parking lot? "He didn't have a lot of energy left," she would say afterward. So, in a move that's decidedly out of character, she plays it cautiously, riding deliberately rather than going for speed. The strategy works; although Saluut II nicks several of the fence rails, none fall. In the timed jump-off against the five other riders who had a clear first round, Saluut II finishes third. "Ah, he was never in that much trouble," says Goldstein, the newly-named 1991 Rider of the Year, as a broad smile spreads across her face.

After the awards ceremony, at which she is handed the keys to a new Cadillac convertible, someone asks about her height. "I only look small," she says. "On the horses I'm as tall as I need to be."

PHOTOMANNY MILLANSaluut II was winded but had what Goldstein needed to win the title. PHOTOCOURTESY MARGIE GOLDSTEINAt five, Margie was riding high on her pony, Salty.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)