>> BY Peter Worden
When it comes to finding the town’s oldest and wisest citizens, Helen Shuttleworth is a natural, if unique case.Wisdom she has, particularly in the equine world, but Lord have pity on the journalist who dares call her old.
As I walk up the road at the Selkirk Saddle Club, she’s busy touching up stain on her barn, number 13-14. She wears a straw hat and sunglasses and behind her is Phelen, a 20-year-old half-Dutch warmblood, sixteen hands one inch, who went lame a few years back and can’t be ridden.
“Either she or I’ll die first, I’m not too sure who,” she begins. “She’s healthy enough. She might even outlast me, I don’t know.”
Also, unlike most of the long-time Revelstokians featured in Oldest & Wisest whom I’ve interviewed at their home, Helen seems most at home here on the club grounds where she visits three times each day to feed and shovel poop, or—in this case—to give Phelen her medication.
“You have no idea how expensive it is to have a horse,” she says, joking but not joking. Every six weeks, Phelen needs her feet trimmed at $50 a pop. It adds up. “Buying the horse is the cheap part of having a horse.”
Phelen brays as if in agreement and Helen tells her she’s OK, nevermind. It’s all a labour of love of course, and it’s a blessing for her that horses do live a long time and that she has, in her own time, had five of them.
Helen was born in Regina, the year, she politely declines to mention—“a long time,” she laughs. (I’m actually amazed she agreed to this interview. The last time she was featured in a local newspaper was after she was nearly mugged for her purse. Most appalling to her, however, was the newspaper writer calling her a senior.) She moved to Revelstoke 35 years ago in the winter of 1982 when her husband Bill was transferred for work. The spring that followed was an awful one that nearly washed out the Illecillewaet bridge. It was the first of many memorable, miserable weathered-in seasons to come.
“We like Revelstoke. I find the winters a bit much. It’s like living in a box,” she said “But then the sun comes out and it’s gorgeous.”
Helen got her first horse when she was nine. Nora. She was quite a horse, she tells me. A pacer, so she didn’t have to post. (I nod in complete understanding.) Horses have always taught her patience and humility. A previous bit placed incorrectly in Nora’s mouth severed the frenulum, the muscle beneath the tongue, so she used to slip her tongue out of the bit and run away with Helen. As a nine-year-old Helen had to hang her arms around Nora, hold on for dear life and fall off so she would notice and finally come to a stop. Sometimes in the middle of a field, Helen had to climb up a barbed wire fence to get back on Nora. “She ran away with everyone. She ran away with my mother and she never rode her again.”
She has had a lifetime of horseback adventures. She used to ride bareback up Mount Mackenzie on daytrips to picnic at the top. In Arrow Heights people would collect the horse manure and put it in their garden—“but that was the olden days,” she said. She would ride up Mount Revelstoke when the road was still gravel, trotting up and down again to condition her horse. She did competitive trail-racing and long-distance with Phelen until about 10 years ago.
“Come on, give me some more questions,” she says, getting me to giddy up with the interview.
Why don’t more people at the Saddle Club bring their horses into town? I ask. “When I first moved here, we did. But they don’t like the poop on the street. They leave a few little calling cards,” she says. “And traffic isn’t great for horses. When they hear the jake-brake it scares them. And what’s the point riding into town? There’s too many people. It’s almost hazardous to your health to ride a horse into town now.”
Are horses your secret to longevity? I say. She laughs. “Just live a healthy lifestyle, lots of outdoor activity. That’s about it, I guess.” How about when it comes to Revelstoke taking care of its Natural surroundings? “I hope they do something about the poor bears,” she says. They’re a common sight down at the Saddle Club, but the horses, bears and humans mutually ignore one another. “We coexist quite nicely.”
*Helen is by no measure the “oldest” —heck, compared to 97-year-old John Augustyn, profiled earlier, she is practically a foal. However, she is wise beyond her years. If someone is the oldest and/or wisest person you know and should be featured in this section please contact REVED.