By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
It was a rainy Friday, and the Sentinel rode up Sand Mountain to see a man about a horse.
Doyle Couch and his horse, Dagger, had been featured on the cover of the August edition of Hoofbeats, an equestrian magazine. That’s because they are slated to compete next Tuesday, Nov. 8, in the ninth episode of America’s Favorite Trail Horse television show, which is a sort of American Idol for the horsy set.
America’s Favorite, sponsored by ACTHA, the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, is a national competition, and Hoofbeats is a regional magazine, but Hoofbeats coverboy Couch – as well as coverhorse Dagger – reside near Trenton on a small farm in Bryant. So the Sentinel was planning a man-and-horse story with a local slant.
What became apparent, though, from the moment the Sentinel’s boot touched the turf was that what it had instead was a man-woman-and-horse story.
“I’m sort of his campaign manager,” says Doyle’s wife, Jan, who had in fact arranged the interview, as she leads the way into a stable apartment decorated in a motif described by her husband as “Horse Horse Horse.”
Doyle explains he is no good at promoting himself. “I don’t want people to think I’m bragging, or taking a big ego trip,” he says.
“But I can brag on him all I want,” says Jan.
Doyle wears a cowboy hat, Jan a ball cap embroidered with a horse head silhouette, as if to show they are playing on the same side – Team Horse Horse Horse?
And they are, they are. As they talk about what to look for in trail horses, the Couches have the marital knack of finishing each other’s sentences, so that a conversation with them entails listening in stereo.
“We’re watching more for the horse doing what the rider asks them to without resisting,” says Jan.
“Willingness,” says Doyle.
“Team,” said Jan.
“You and the horse working together,” says Doyle.
They co-talk not with impatience but with an affectionate harmony that indicates to the Sentinel’s keen reporter’s ear a marriage of no great antiquity. And sure enough, the Couches, though both in their 50s, admit they met and married only about 10 years ago after leading eerily parallel former lives apart.
Both Doyle and Jan were born and grew up riding their horses within about 30 miles of their current home. Both had solid previous marriages that produced a son and a daughter apiece, and both lost their first spouses to tragic accidents. Doyle’s wife died in a car wreck, Jan’s husband while cutting down a tree.
During their mutual bereavement, Doyle and Jan met at a horse sale in Cleveland, Tenn. – “I wouldn’t have married a man that didn’t have at least three horses,” says Jan – wed after a whirlwind equestrian romance – “When you’re in your late 40s, time is valuable” – and have been riding happily together ever since.
But going through old pictures together later, they found snaps that astonished them in their similarities: Jan and her husband had posed for a family portrait with their boy and their girl on the same Christmas at the same store in front of the same backdrop as Doyle and his wife with their son and daughter of nearly identical ages.
But the weirdest photograph of all is one that Jan’s girlfriend snapped of her riding her horse on a Sulfur Springs trail the Thanksgiving before she met Doyle. Jan smiles into the camera as in the background the lens catches another rider headed in the opposite direction. Jan, facing the camera, doesn’t see the other rider, and he, under his cowboy hat, is looking straight ahead, not noticing her, either.
“Hey, that’s me,” said Doyle when he saw the picture.
The shot now hangs on the wall of the Horse Horse Horse stable apartment, a kind of reminder for the Couches that they were meant to be together though their fate has been a little more confusing than most couples’. “A blink of the eye can change your whole life,” concludes Doyle. “We do all this stuff together because we might not be here tomorrow.”
What they have done together is mostly along the theme of Horse Horse Horse: They own a horse trailer with living quarters and have traveled all over America for trail rides; they ran the trail-riding concession at the Preserve in Rising Fawn while it was operating as Wild Moon Ranch and Resort; and they planned to compete in America’s Favorite Trail Horse.
It was Jan’s idea to enter with her horse, Dollar, and she paid Doyle’s entry fee as an afterthought. “I told him, ‘I entered you, too, because you’re going with me anyway, so why not try? That’ll give us two shots at it,’ ” she said. “Well, he got chosen and I didn’t.”
“She pouted two days,” said Doyle.
The Couches explained that 1,000 riders entered the ACTHA trials but only 100 were chosen to compete on the show. Of those, 10 vie on each Tuesday night episode for the weekly title. The 10 weekly winners will face off at season’s end for top billing and a cash prize.
Well, that was the man-woman part. Now, the horse.
Dagger is a 10-year-old sorrel quarter horse named for a long white streak down his head shaped like an ornamental knife, or possibly a letter opener. The Couches got him five years ago, when Jan says he was already “marked as an outlaw.” “A lot of people wouldn’t dare ride him because he liked to buck,” she says.
“He didn’t like to buck,” says Doyle. “He would buck if they used spurs on him. He hates spurs.”
The Couches agree that Dagger had just been misunderstood. “He’s got a real sensitive, gentle side but if the wrong one messes with him, that can make him the devil,” says Doyle.
Dagger places velvety nostrils on the Sentinel’s face and whuffles warm air. The Sentinel eats it up, and Doyle shows off Dagger’s “freestyle” trick of crossing the stable at his invitation to take a horse biscuit Doyle is clenching in his teeth. He and the horse can sense what the other will do before they do it, he explains.
“I’ve owned thousands of horses, good and bad,” says Doyle.
“But never one he wouldn’t sell,” says Jan.
“Before Dagger,” says Doyle.
The Couches hope Dagger’s charm and showmanship, as well as his bond with Doyle, will make him stand out in Tuesday’s competition.
“The whole bottom line is Dagger trusts Doyle and Doyle trusts Dagger,” says Jan.
You can watch Doyle and Dagger compete in Episode 9 of America’s Favorite Trail Horse this Tuesday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 Central, on HRTV, which is Dish 404; or you can watch online at ACTH.TV.
Either way, to vote for them, go to www.actha.us.