The Headless Horsewomen: An Evening at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

November 1st, 2013 8:25 AM | Comments Off on The Headless Horsewomen: An Evening at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

By Sarah Miller

_D3S0629 Catie getting ready

Kim Fortune helps rider Catie Braxton put on the shoulders.

It’s a beautiful October evening at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, and Kim Fortune is strapping what looks like full saddlebags around Catie Braxton’s head and shoulders. An historical training method? No, it’s the Headless Horseman’s shoulders being tied into place. Every fall for the last 30 years Conner Prairie has been bringing a piece Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to life. Fortune, a retired attorney, is in charge of wrangling the horses and the riders who don the Horseman’s shoulders and cape  for 11 days in October. She has been volunteering in one way or another for Headless Horseman for the last 13 years.

She began her riding experience as a Hunter/Jumper, moved on to eventing, has done some foxhunting. Now she does dressage with an Oldenburg gelding named Whiskey. This year a shoulder surgery has kept her out of the saddle since April.

Even though she’s not riding this year she has has been evaluating and coordinating the riders and helping them suit up for the part. Fortune got started at Conner Prairie because her parents volunteered. She got into more than horses here. She’s learned to drive a team of oxen and, “can harrow, plow, and spread manure in a dress and corset”.

_D3S0682 Everybody saddled and ready to go

Vive the Horsewomen! Catie Braxton on Jack, Kim Fortune, Cassie Marcum on Baby and Shelby Sigman on Three

It takes at least 3 riders, and preferably 6 to make the Headless Horseman come to life. Despite the ‘Horsemen’ moniker most of the riders are women. Only 4 out of 14 riders this year are men. When she took over the position of finding riders for the Headless Horseman, Fortune says she “put out feelers, cajoled a few” of her eventing friends into the job. Not anymore. Tonight’s riders are Cassie Marcum on Baby, her sister Catie Braxton on Jack, Shelby Sigman on Three and Leslie Holloran on Cayenne.

The riders are being prepared beside an artfully charred reproduction of an 1863 Civil War-era train station. This is one of the two places the Headless Horseman will appear. Tonight Leslie Holloran and Cayenne are on the other side of the ride hiding in a barn. Here by the burned depot; Catie and Jack, and Shelby and Three will trade off rides. They hide behind the “Mayfield and Nicholas Dry Goods Store” and wait for their spotter to tell them that a tractor is coming with a new load of people eager to see the Headless Horseman in person. The tractor goes by and then the Headless Horseman rides out chase the wagon, then he draws up by the side, riding very close to the wagons before he falls back at the edge of the wooden covered bridge that leads out of the area. Everyone knows they are safe, because he cannot cross. The Horseman stands there and looks at the wagons before turning away and retaking his (her) hiding spot behind the store again.

_D3S0780 Shelby and Three

Shelby Sigman and Three charging the wagon

Braxton has been doing this for 5 years and says she loves the job. “It’s fun to see the reactions of the people in the wagons. Rewarding to meet new people every year. I’d probably do it even if I didn’t get paid”

Kim and Catie finish getting ready

Kim and Catie finish getting ready

Fun doesn’t mean easy. The job is not for the faint of seat. Fortune evaluates potential Horsemen and looks for riders who “have a good seat, good bond with the horse”. The horses have to be willing to ride toward the tractor, and not be fazed by the billowing cape. “Riding in the dark, at a wagon takes a special horse,” Fortune says.   Braxton agrees, saying “you only have eight inches of mesh to see through in costume. You have to have so much trust, always know where your horse’s feet are”. Braxton and her sister Cassie Marcum have ‘bombproof’ horses who have done the 4-H color guard, contesting and fairs. They are also used to their riders getting up to costumed hijinks.

Not all horse and rider pairs make it through the selection process either. Fortune said she had an upper level dressage horse that she had to turn away because he wouldn’t go toward the tractor. Any kind of horse could do the job, but hot horses like Thoroughbreds don’t work very well. Some of the teams who worked out this year are mounted shooters and members of “Red Hat, Purple Chaps”.

Catie and Jack reach the "Point of No Return"

Catie and Jack reach the “Point of No Return”. The Horseman cannot cross the bridge

This is the 30th year for the Headless Horseman at Conner prairie. Lynelle Mellady, Public Relations Manager at the park says “(The) Headless Horseman started 30 years ago because Conner Prairie was looking for a special, nighttime event that would be fun for fall and Halloween. So, to keep with our 1830s time period, there was a natural tie-in with Washington Irving, as he was a best-seller of that time and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was well-known then and a classic now . Thus, our version of Sleepy Hollow rose up from the grounds as Headless Horseman. We had about 500 people attend the first year.” An estimated 28,000 people attended this year.

Both Fortune and Braxton expect to be back here next year, padded shoulders, capes and reins in hand to scare another batch of Halloween history-lovers.


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