■ Good Thunder and Marikate Matthews, always the crowd favorite.
ARABIAN HORSE TIMES • DECEMBER 1998
Arabian horse times feature
OF HORSES AND HEROES:
Good Thunder by Mary Kirkman
John Rannenberg is used to hearing how wonderful a horse Good Thunder is. For years now, after classes the stallion wins and those he doesn’t, his trainer has been accosted by enthusiastic fans that praise the 11-time national champion. Even, Rannenberg notes bemusedly, by Saddlebred trainers — and Thunder doesn’t go like a Saddlebred. The simple fact is that Good Thunder, a compact 14.3 hands who appears towering in the show ring, exhibits the heart, spirit and love of the game respected by knowledgeable horsemen of all breeds.
ood Thunder is an individual of unique charisma. “There are ones that want to be with you. You read them differently; they want to be kind of human,” Rannenberg explains, describing the horse who within weeks of his arrival at Rohara Arabians in Orange Lake, Fla., established his place as a favorite. “He’s that way. He’s fun to be around.” Bred by Judy Martin of Pendleton, Ind., Good Thunder first attracted Rannenberg’s attention at the Ohio Buckeye Show of 1989. Head trainer at Rohara, John was warming up Canadian Love for the pleasure driving stallions class when he realized that his eyes kept straying to a sprightly bay, driven by Michael Platzer. Canadian Love won the class and went on to win the championship; Platzer’s bay was farther down the card. Still, Rannenberg was impressed enough to comment to Rohara owner Roxann Hart, “You know, I saw a really interesting horse …” Before he could finish, she rejoined, “Was it a bay stallion in driving?” That fall, John Rannenberg received a call from Michael Platzer, who was leaving ARABIAN HORSE TIMES • DECEMBER 1998
the business. Platzer had one horse he thought perhaps John should look at — the bay stallion from the Buckeye, who had been returned to his owner, a lady from Sarasota, Fla. Rannenberg talked to client Allen Jarabek. “Bought right, this could be a fun horse,” he said. “Say no more,” Jarabek replied. “He’ll be at your barn in the morning.” Sure enough, as the crew fed the Rohara show string the following morning, a trailer arrived and Good Thunder got off. From the start, Rannenberg knew he had a “personality” horse. For one thing, Good Thunder was very vocal: When the trainer arrived in the morning, the stallion nickered a welcome. He chatted with his neighbors, and called to any mare that would listen. For another, he developed his own idea of a schedule — he went first on the morning’s training agenda. Rannenberg didn’t mind. The partnership that began at home soon proved effective in the ring as well. At Scottsdale just a few months later, Good Thunder won Pleasure Driving Stallions and Informal Combination, and
was Reserve in the Pleasure Driving Championship. He blasted through a series of regionals with a collection of firsts and seconds — only once finishing lower — in pleasure driving, English pleasure and informal combination. At Canada, he was national champion over 14 others. Only at the U.S. Nationals in Louisville was he doubted; it was taken for granted that no one could defeat multi-National Champion in Pleasure Driving Quintara. Rannenberg knew Thunder was good enough, he just wasn’t sure it would happen; only Allen and Barbara Jarabek, whose experience in Arabians was comparatively brief, were confident. “We didn’t know enough to know that he wasn’t supposed to win,” recalls Barbara Jarabek. “We thought he could do it.” The judges agreed. From 25 pleasure driving contenders, they selected Good Thunder as the U.S. National Champion. The following February demonstrated just how sure Rannenberg was of his horse, when he was asked to participate in a roadster class at Scottsdale. “It’ll be a fun class for people to see,” he was
of horses and heroes: good thunder
Good Thunder with Barbara and Allen Jarabek.
told, and Rannenberg, who had seen roadster classes at Saddlebred shows and knew that they used to be a fixture at Arabian events — there was a national championship offered until the mid1970s — agreed. He thought Good Thunder might enjoy the outing, and never doubted that the stallion whose forte was the disciplined pleasure division could make the transition to wild-going road horse. Ever anxious to get to the ring, Good Thunder racked up a Championship in Informal Combination and a Reserve Championship in English Pleasure Stallions that year, as well as became the talk of the show for his roadster performance. It turned out that when Rohara reached Scottsdale, everyone who had agreed to appear in the roadster class had dropped out. John, who’d commissioned navy silks with pink lightning bolts (“Thunder’s advertising logo at the time”), had no intention of canceling. “They’re going to see a show,” he promised. On the cold weekend night when the class was scheduled, the stands were packed. 212
“Even though I no longer own Good Thunder, my love and appreciation for him will never diminish.” — Barbara Jarabek Warming up for what would be an exhibition, John Rannenberg had a brainstorm. He recalled years before seeing an old road horse character named Dewey Henderson, who closed each winning performance by standing up in his sulky during the victory pass. Tentatively, John rose in his cart, only to sit down suddenly several paces later. Gordon Potts, the only one in the warm-up ring at the time, was astounded. “What in the world are you trying to do?” he queried, and when he heard, he said, “You’re crazy!” The crowd enjoyed Good Thunder’s speedy turns around the ring, with John sitting still in the bike like a race driver.
“People were screaming,” Rannenberg recalls. “Good Thunder was getting more and more brilliant — he was electric, and I really hammed it up.” As the only entry, he was the winner. But the best was yet to come: As they rounded the first turn on the victory pass, John stood up. Thunder, having never experienced anything like this in his life, was trustworthy to the end. They circled the ring at warp speed, with the crowd hollering and screaming and clapping. Over the next few years, Good Thunder’s enthusiasm for the show ring continued to grow. On the odd occasion that the van pulled out without him, he was noisily angry. His personality as a stallion developed as well. Mannerly and responsive, he was never difficult to handle — but at the whiff of a mare, he invariably would seem to expand within himself, arch his neck, prance and call out, with a real “Hey, girls! I’m here!” attitude. The Jarabeks were delighted. “A bond developed as we went along,” Barbara recalls. “He was such a people horse
ARABIAN HORSE TIMES • DECEMBER 1998
of horses and heroes: good thunder — such a personality. He was so good natured, that we just got to love the horse.” In the show ring, he added the Canadian National Championship and U.S. National Reserve Championship in Informal Combination in 1991, then in ’92, focused on English pleasure, winning the Reserve National Championship in Canada and finishing Top Ten in the U.S. They were placings he repeated in 1993, along with wins in Scottsdale, but his strong record that year was bittersweet. Allen Jarabek had been diagnosed with cancer. He died in April. Barbara Jarabek continued Good Thunder’s campaign for another year, watching Rannenberg ride the stallion to English Pleasure Top Tens in the U.S. and Canada. “Then it was time to give him a chance in amateur,” she says. Crestfallen, John put the stallion on the market. Not long afterward, Marikate Matthews, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., arrived at Rohara to look at Western pleasure prospects. She and her husband Mark had purchased Rohara Moonstorm the year before, and John, familiar with her riding abilities, enjoyed putting her up on a succession of Western horses. Just for the fun of it, he put her up on Good Thunder, too. “He started doing his thing,” John recalls, “and she got this look in her eye and she sat back and raised her hands and squeezed him a little bit — and he was just incredible.” “I had more fun than I’d had in a good year at least, riding a horse,” Kate Matthews confirms. “He was so well trained and so receptive to everything I
asked him to do.” When Mark asked which ones she had liked, she replied, “I want Good Thunder.” For Rannenberg, it was the best news. “There was never a consideration of moving Good Thunder from John,” Kate confirms. “Never, never, never. John didn’t even have to ask us.” With Marikate Matthews, Good Thunder’s string of wins rolled on into 1995, as they added championships in Amateur Pleasure Driving and English Pleasure AAOTR 40-Over at Regions XII and XIV. And then tragedy struck. It would be one of the most amazing incidents in the stallion’s life. In August, when the Rohara show string left for Canada, it was transported by Stanley and Steve White, and that, says John Rannenberg, saved Good Thunder’s
life. Thirty-six hours into the trip, just half an hour from a layover in Fargo, N.D., the stallion “got uneasy.” The groom in the 15-horse luxury streamliner called Stanley White over the intercom with the information, and the veteran trainer pulled over so that the horse could be walked to ease the pain. He phoned ahead to John Rannenberg’s mother, a Fargo resident, who in turn called a veterinarian to meet the van when it pulled into the county fairgrounds, where the horses would spend the night. As the group gathered around an uncomfortable Good Thunder, it became apparent that veterinarians in Fargo rarely saw fancy show horses; used to working mostly on cattle and on farm horses who didn’t command the resources for expensive treatments, the
“His gift to the world has been his performances in the ring and what he’s done for the people around him.” — John Rannenberg ARABIAN HORSE TIMES • DECEMBER 1998
Good Thunder with John Rannenberg.
of horses and heroes: good thunder
Good Thunder 1998
• U.S. National Champion & Top Ten • Canadian National Champion • Region XII Champion & Reserve Champion
• U.S. National Top Ten • Region XIV Reserve Champion • Region XII Champion
• U.S. National Champion & Reserve Champion • Region XV Champion • Region XIV Champion • Region XII Champion • Scottsdale Champion
• Region XIV Champion • Region XII Champion
• U.S. National Top Ten • Canadian National Top Ten • Region XV Champion • Region XIV Champion • Region XII Reserve Champion
• U.S. National Top Ten • Canadian National Reserve Champion • Scottsdale Champion
practitioner was inexperienced with the successful management of severe colic. On the telephone to John Rannenberg, White had the unpleasant duty of saying that the situation did not look good. On the telephone to the University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine, the North Dakota veterinarian admitted that he hadn’t tubed a horse since vet school and was hesitant to try now. He administered a tranquilizer. Good Thunder went down in the barn aisle. “I thought he was going to die then,” Stanley White recalls. “We couldn’t get a pulse, and the vet said he was dead. I said, ‘He can’t die — we’re not going to let him die. He’s a great horse, and I’m not a quitter.’” Dropping to his knees, Stanley slapped Good Thunder’s girth to start the heart, while his son Steve pressed on the stallion’s flanks to force air into his lungs. Good Thunder was alive, but he couldn’t rise. On the theory that the stallion had always been a “smell of the greasepaint, roar of the crowd” type of horse, everyone made as much noise as possible, clapping and yelling and cheering, to convince the dying horse that the show must go on — and with Stanley’s help, Good Thunder staggered to his feet. White didn’t lose an instant. His exhausted crew broke down the stalls in the big streamliner, and hustled Good Thunder up the ramp for the long trip back to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. A few miles out on the highway, away from observation, White pulled over to the side of the road and produced the tube and oil he carried in case of emergency. At that point, Good Thunder was down again, his groom pounding on
his side to keep his heart beating. They had nothing to lose, White figured. He would try tubing Good Thunder himself. The procedure was successful, extracting gallons of refuse from the stallion’s stomach and relieving the worst of the agonizing pressure. They would stop once more for tubing and oiling on the hair-raising ride to Minneapolis, but for the most part, the usually four-to-five hour trip was a threeand-a-half hour blur, as the streamliner flew wide open, well over the speed limit, through the night. In the back, Good Thunder and his groom walked the entire distance, rounding the walls of the 50-foot van as if it were his barn at home. It was after 2:00 a.m. when they arrived on the university campus, and then were unable to find the clinic in the dark. At home in Florida, John Rannenberg was frantic. Finally, as dawn was breaking, he called the clinic for a report. “I’m sorry, Mr. Rannenberg, but he hasn’t come in yet,” the attendant replied. Rannenberg went cold. In all probability, Good Thunder was dead. Then the attendant came back on the line. “Wait a minute! I hear a horse coming.” Through the open phone line, 1,500 miles away, John heard the sound of horseshoes on concrete … and then the clear, unmistakable sound of Thunder’s conversation. He was alive and on his way to surgery. They weren’t out of the woods yet. Three days later, Thunder showed signs of a relapse. This time, says Kate Matthews, his own personality saved him. On the way to prepare for a second surgery, a mare called from another barn. “Good Thunder got so excited that he began prancing, blew himself up and
ARABIAN HORSE TIMES • DECEMBER 1998
of horses and heroes: good thunder
Show ring Awards 1992 called back,” she chuckles. And suddenly he was okay. “When he came home a month and a half later, the only way I could describe him was like Black Beauty at his worst,” recalls Matthews. “You remember, when he was pulling that horrible cart, broken down in the streets? His coat was absolute brillo. It was a scary and a sad kind of time. But all of the sudden, about a month later, he came out of the barn — and he was Thunder again. He didn’t look great, but he acted great. He started to prance and act like himself. The vet said we needed to start riding him.” John studied Thunder, and decided the plucky stallion would like to show, so at the Tampa Thanksgiving show, they hitched him and sent him into the ring. “It was very emotional,” Kate remembers. “He was so happy; the crowd loved it, and he won. That’s how we got him back.” And back he came. In 1996, Kate and Thunder served notice that they were as good as ever, winning the Pleasure Driving AAOTD Championship and taking Reserve in English Pleasure AAOTR at Scottsdale, then winning in harness and under saddle at Regions XII, XIV and XV. They skipped Canada, then picked up the U.S. National Championship in Pleasure Driving AAOTD, and the Reserve National Championship in English Pleasure AAOTR 40-Over. “It was an incredible year. I thought, ‘we’ll never do that again’ — and then we had this year!” She pauses reflectively. “Each win had its own special meaning. That first Scottsdale was ‘wow, we’re back and it’s great.’ Then Nationals — it was my first with him; he’d been recovering the year before.” ARABIAN HORSE TIMES • DECEMBER 1998
After a year off to concentrate on English pleasure, during which they were U.S. National Top Ten in the AAOTR 40-Over division, Kate decided to put driving back into the equation. “He is powerful — actually, he’s more powerful in harness than under saddle,” she says. “I like showing him in harness more than under saddle.” So began their knockout 1998 season, one in which Kate and John shared Good Thunder, culminating with three new national championship titles. First, they faced a personal demon and returned to Canada, where Good Thunder was named Canadian National Champion in both open and amateur pleasure driving. “That was probably the most emotional,” Kate observes. “We had to overcome so much to get there — to win, and unanimously! I’d won national championships, but never unanimously — and then John was unanimous, too.” From the safe vantage of a tri-color and rose garland, Kate recalls the hilarious tension before Thunder’s show. The classes were moving along a brisk clip, and she was nervous about being on time. Good Thunder, on the other hand, had his own ritual. “Every time we bridle him, he stands there and yawns; he doesn’t want that bridle on until he’s done yawning,” she says. “It may be twice, it may be nine or 10 times. He yawns so big and his mouth opens so wide and he curls his lips back — it’s just hysterical.” But at Canada, she was standing in the stall saying, “C’mon, c’mon,” as he elaborately and lazily yawned. “Don’t rush him, Kate,” John Rannenberg cautioned. Thunder finished his yawning, they tacked up, and made it to the ring on time.
• U.S. National Top Ten • Canadian National Reserve Champion • Region XV Reserve Champion • Region XIV Reserve Champion • Scottsdale Top Ten
• U.S. National Reserve Champion • Canadian National Champion • Region XIV Champion • Region XII Champion • Buckeye Sweepstakes Top Ten • Scottsdale Champion
• U.S. National Champion • Canadian National Champion • Region XIV Champion • Region XII Top Five • Buckeye Sweepstakes Champion • Scottsdale Reserve Champion
• Buckeye Sweepstakes Top Ten
of horses and heroes: good thunder
“He is powerful — actually, he’s more powerful in harness than under saddle,” she says. “I like showing him in harness more than under saddle.” — Marikate Matthews
Good Thunder with Marikate Matthews.
At the U.S. National Championships, lined up for the Pleasure Driving AAOTD final, Kate felt the heightened awareness of one who knows this might be their last time in Freedom Hall. Good Thunder was 15 years old; although he was uncommonly sound, she was not at all sure that they’d be back in two more years. It made their victory all the more sweet. In the open division, Good Thunder was Top Ten, but turned in a performance John Rannenberg cherished and the crowd loved. “When we hit the line, I was so proud of him and I was so proud to drive him. It was one of those things where I said, ‘I don’t care what happens,’ because it was so good. It meant so much to have him give me that kind of a performance. It would have been great to win, but it didn’t really matter.” At the close of 1998, Good Thunder’s career had spanned a decade, included seven national championships, four reserve national championships, more than a dozen wins or reserves at Scottsdale, and 30 regional titles. Already decorated with the Legion of Supreme 216
Honor, his current point total in fact entitles him to the Legion of Excellence commendation. He is not, however, even considering retirement. “I’ve never seen a horse enjoy going out and working as much as Good Thunder does,” remarks Roxann Hart. “He works mostly on the trails, and John will drive him through the pastures. He thinks that’s the cat’s meow. He is as fresh and interested as he was the very first day.” By the *Bask son Wisdom, out of the Amerigo daughter GL Americle, Good Thunder possesses the pedigree to serve well as a breeding stallion, and through the years he has been lightly bred, siring, among others, Thunder Tstruck, OABS $15,000 Futurity Reserve Champion Filly, and Thunder In The Night, Florida HalfArabian High Point Stallion. But his show career has taken precedence, and even now his supporters agree that he must maintain a presence in the show ring, for his own enjoyment. And so, at the Ocala Florida State Championship Show this fall, Good Thunder entered a new arena. Marikate
Matthews borrowed a native costume, and she and Good Thunder galloped into the ring. “As much as he loves trotting, he also loves to gallop,” John Rannenberg observes wryly. The judge agreed. Good Thunder added another title to his record. The team admits that native costume is an experiment. Nothing has been ruled out; Good Thunder may appear again in pleasure driving, or he may see where costume takes him. And he will likely sire more foals. The only thing for sure is that whatever is chosen must be good for Good Thunder. “I love him to death,” says John Rannenberg unabashedly. “He’s very special. He’s such a unique animal.” “He’s still my favorite,” agrees Barbara Jarabek, still a Rohara client and one of Thunder’s most devoted fans. For Kate Matthews, Good Thunder has reached the exalted status of her longtime Western partner, MD Mon Gahlan. “I love them both,” she says simply, with emotions so strong that it’s Mon Gahlan and Good Thunder first, and the rest nowhere. Everyone involved with Good Thunder has owned or shown other champions, known other nice horses, had other favorites. But Good Thunder, with sure resonance, stands out. “His gift to the world has been his performances in the ring and what he’s done for the people around him,” John Rannenberg says. “He has all the heart and will and desire you can ask of a horse. That’s really what he’s about.” ❑ ARABIAN HORSE TIMES • DECEMBER 1998