Mark C. Harrison, horse breeder and trainer, dies

He had served with the U.S. Cavalry during early days of World War II and later trained Saddlebred and Tennessee walking horses

  • Mark C. Harrison
Mark C. Harrison
April 01, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Mark C. Harrison, a noted Maryland breeder and trainer of Saddlebred and Tennessee walking horses, died Sunday of heart failure at Thomas Run Stables, his Bel Air farm.

He was 87.

Mr. Harrison, who was born into a family of Saddlebred owners in Montoursville, Pa., was raised on a horse farm.

"His earliest memories of riding are leadline classes on his father's Saddlebreds, and he continued to show through his early years in the youth classes," according to a 2009 profile in The Equiery, a monthly information and advertising publication for Maryland horsemen.

After graduating from Montoursville High School in 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry and attended Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kan.

Mr. Harrison said in the 2009 profile that the first thing a new cavalryman had to do was "wrangle his horse" before beginning training.

"All the horses would be in a large paddock and you were told to lasso one," he said. "Whichever one you caught was your horse to train and ride. I got a real hothead of a mare."

Mr. Harrison said that riding bareback for three weeks turned the new recruits into qualified riders, and one of the training exercises he mastered was jumping his horse off a large hill.

"We rode our horses to the top of this very steep and huge hill," he told The Equiery.

"At the top were these huge boulders, and we were told to jump our horses over them and run down the hill. Well, some horses just wouldn't jump and the sergeant would start cracking a whip in the air to scare them off.

"Some would jump, but then fall on their way down. I told the sergeant to hold on for a minute and I coaxed my horse to jump softly over, and we made it down in one piece," Mr. Harrison recalled.

Mr. Harrison and his fellow cavalrymen were en route to China with their horses in 1943 when their orders were changed and they landed in New Guinea.

After several days, they were told to leave all of their cavalry supplies and horses on the beachhead and change into infantry clothing because the cavalry unit was disbanded.

"We left 1,000 horses on that beach! And you know, those horses tried to follow us!" he said in the interview.

Mr. Harrison said they were told by officers that the abandoned horses were to be picked up, but he doubted that ever happened.

He became a member of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's personal guard and traveled with him back to New Guinea and eventually Tokyo.

After being discharged in 1946 with the rank of staff sergeant, Mr. Harrison was hired at a stable in Baltimore County working with Saddlebreds.

His reputation working with Saddlebreds brought him a job as barn manager at Boxwood Farms at Seminary Avenue and York Road in Lutherville, which today is the site of a shopping center.

At Boxwood Farms, Mr. Harrison worked for Joe Parker, who in the late 1940s was one of the few African-American trainers in the country.

Mr. Harrison told The Equiery that his mentor was the "best trainer in the world" and "all of his kids became great trainers too."

After Boxwood Farms was sold in 1957, Mr. Harrison moved to Tennessee when he took a job at Sugar Valley Farm, a gaited horse farm.

Returning to Middle River in 1961, Mr. Harrison established his own training business. An early client was Hollywood star Robert Mitchum, who had purchased in 1959 a 280-acre waterfront estate in Trappe.

Mr. Mitchum, who had starred in such films as "Cape Fear," "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," "The Night of the Hunter" and "The Longest Day," raised quarter horses at his Talbot County farm.

A client wished to purchase a quarter horse, so Mr. Harrison naturally turned to the film star.

When he went to pick up the horse, the actor told him he had several horses that needed to be broken.

"We worked out a deal," Mr. Harrison recalled in the interview, and Mr. Mitchum became a valued client.

He later wanted Mr. Harrison to move to California to train and condition his racing and show horses, but Mr. Harrison's wife at the time did not want to relocate to the West Coast.

In 1976, Mr. Harrison established Thomas Run Stables, where he continued breeding and training Saddlebreds and Tennessee walking horses.

He had a reputation for meticulousness and for being able to work with the most difficult horses.

He began training his own horses, he said in the interview, because he did not want someone else working with them.

"There is so much to undo before you get through to the horse," he said.

Mr. Harrison competed with his Saddlebreds, which he described as being "true show horses," at such indoor shows as the Washington International Horse Show, and in Harrisburg, Pa., Devon, Pa., and New York's Madison Square Garden.

Back surgery in 1986 caused Mr. Harrison to begin breeding, training and showing the smoother-gaited Tennessee walking horse.

The mistreatment of many gaited show horses led him to establish in 1983 the Plantation Walking Horse Club of Maryland.

Keith Dane is director of Equine Protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

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