Fair poster remembers a well-loved horse

Omar Rayyan displays this year's Ag Fair poster. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The story of this year’s Fair poster begins with good neighbors, an artist, and a horseman; a painting set aside and forgotten; and a kind gift at a time of loss.

But really, it starts with a horse, and Bruce Marshard who saved him from slaughter at a Saskatchewan meat packing plant in 2000.

Mr. Marshard, captivated by draft horses since seeing a team at work as a teenager, named his new horse Sonny Boy. It was the nickname of his late father who died in an accident when Bruce was only two weeks old.

Mr. Marshard, who was living on Cape Cod, came to his first Vineyard Ag Fair in 1998 with his earlier horse, Major, at the urging of the late Fred Fisher Jr., whom he had met at the Barnstable Fair.

In 2001 Mr. Marshard brought the tall, handsome, Percheron Sonny Boy to the Fair. From the outset, the big black horse won many hearts.

“Eleanor Neubert told me later, ‘Your horse was the biggest draw at the Fair,’” Mr. Marshard recalled this month.

Mr. Marshard acquired a second horse, Max, after Major had gone to live elsewhere. A custom woodworker, Mr. Marshard then as now also worked extensively with his horses, plowing snow, logging, clearing land for clients who did not want mechanical equipment on their property. With a contract to provide 32 cords of wood for the Penikese Island School each year, he needed two horses and Max, a Percheron from Upper Peninsula Michigan, was a good match for Sonny Boy.

At the Fair in 2002, the horses had a significant part in changing Mr. Marshard’s life dramatically, when one of them plucked the straw hat off the head of a barn visitor. Mr. Marshard went to talk to the hat owner, perhaps to apologize for his rude horse, and met his future wife.

The following April, Bruce and Laura Marshard were married on Lambert’s Cove Beach, with Sonny Boy and Max playing important roles. The bride, wearing a traditional white wedding gown, rode Sonny Boy onto the beach where friends gathered, while Mr. Marshard rode Max. They dismounted for the ceremony. Sonny Boy placed his nose on their clasped hands.

“Blessing us,” said Ms. Marshard. “It was pretty fun.”

The newlyweds climbed on Sonny Boy’s back. Riding off the beach together, they felt the big horse buck – “because he felt so good,” they recalled.

Two Fairs later Ms. Marshard was seven months pregnant with their son, Jack, now nine. The judge urged her not to compete in the Local Draft Horse Show. She did anyway, and all was well.

“They’re really part of our lives,” said Ms. Marshard. “We feel really blessed. They’re like having children, big, comfy cozy children that give you so much joy.”

Hard work, family bonds

Sonny Boy appeared on birth announcements too. For Jack’s, he stands in front of the stroller, as if to whisk the baby off on a ride. When Charlotte was born in 2010, the card showed Jack holding his baby sister while Sonny Boy nuzzles them.

The children’s arrival gave the horses a new role, docilely participating in the lead line class, little ones perched on their tall backs.

Through years of hard work in the woods, happy outings, competing in horse shows, and being admired by Fairgoers, Sonny Boy settled comfortably into the family. The bond between man and horse was strong.

Jeremy Mayhew’s film “Sonny and Max” (Oceanscape Arts, 2010/11) shows Mr. Marshard and the horses at work, later Sonny affectionately rubbing Mr. Marshard’s shoulder with his big head, nuzzling, contentedly accepting a carrot.

Both 25 this year, both Max and Sonny Boy were older than most draft horses. Steady work, pasture time, and good care (Mr. Marshard even shoes his own horses regularly) always kept them strong and healthy. There are frequent swims, at Lambert’s Cove and at Jim Norton’s beach on the Lagoon, where the Marshards and their horses swim in return for supplying manure to the Norton farm.

“Fifty-four bushels of manure is our beach pass,” said Mr. Marshard with a grin.

Contented, productive, loved, and healthy, Sonny Boy thrived right up until the sudden end of his life on March 8.

“He was full of it!” Mr. Marshard remembered about that day, as they returned home from plowing. “He wanted to canter pulling the snow plow.”

“Doing what he loved,” Ms. Marshard said.

An artist’s heartfelt gift

After Sonny’s sudden passing, a close friend told the grieving Marshards that she wanted to hold a memorial for him. Mr. Marshard said he thought only a half-dozen people would come.

“But 33 people showed up, with a dozen kids,” Mr. Marshard said. “Every single person had a story.”

In the crowd was Omar Rayyan with his wife, Sheila. The couple, who also own a horse, had been neighbors with the Marshards in West Tisbury some 10 years earlier. Mr. Marshard plowed their driveway with Sonny Boy and Max.

Learning that Mr. Rayyan was an artist, Mr. Marshard encouraged him to create a Fair poster with images of his two horses. But Mr. Rayyan was not interested, believing his artistic style would not suit a poster.

Eventually Mr. Rayyan painted a portrait of Sonny Boy, standing in a sunny pasture, a plump goose nearby. Not entirely pleased with his creation, Mr. Rayyan put it aside, thinking he might work on it more another time. The painting was forgotten

“Because of Sonny Boy’s unfortunate passing I thought it most appropriate to dig out that painting and give it to Bruce,” said Mr. Rayyan.

He wrapped the artwork and brought it to the memorial where he presented it to Mr. Marshard.

“I never knew he’d done it,” said Mr. Marshard.

“It just took our breath away,” said Ms. Marshard. “We looked at each other. We were absolutely speechless.”

She said the painting was the perfect depiction of Sonny Boy, showing his angular build, his enormous feet and head, his dark coat lightened by the sun. “He’s an extraordinary artist,” she said. “He captured the actual demeanor of the horse, of the being.

“He had such heart, that horse. He was the alpha horse in our little herd. He was a very benevolent leader.

“He was a graceful and kind being. Sonny was a leader with a quiet, dignified demeanor.”

Mr. Marshard told Mr. Rayyan he would like to submit the work as a Fair poster; the artist agreed. Mr. Marshard took the painting to Tisbury Printer where Kevin Cain added lettering.

“It was fortuitous that the composition I went with accommodated the layout and print, with good fortune and luck,” Mr. Rayyan said. “So I guess it was meant to be.”

Announcing the piece as winner of the poster contest, Fair Manager Eleanor Neubert said the image of Sonny Boy inspired the 2014 theme, Sharing Fair Memories.

“Sonny Boy was a very special horse and a big part of the Fair for years,” said Ms. Neubert.

“He was a gentle giant,” added Fair staffer Karen Colaneri. “He was the sweetest horse. Kids loved him; they could pat him.”

This spring Mr. Marshard acquired a new horse, Duke, another Percheron, who came from New York state. He is tall, and black, and casual observers often do a double take, because of his superficial resemblance to Sonny Boy. But his owners know how different Sonny Boy was, inside and out.

This week the Marshards will pack up their children and German shepherd, Sophie, and drive to the Fair in their horse-drawn wagon as they always do. They will compete in the Local Draft Horse Show and Dog Show, and the horses will be available for visitors to meet.

“It’s hard for us, not to go with Sonny,” Ms. Marshard said. But the Fair is an important part of this family’s life and they would not miss it.

“A lot of people are saying this is Sonny’s Fair,” said Mr. Marshard, a hint of sadness in his smile.

And for the very, very many at the Fair who will see the striking poster, buy the tee-shirt, and share happy memories of the big, gentle, black horse, it will be just that.