Wilhelmina McEwan doesn’t remember a time in her life without horses. Her first riding lesson, at age 10, drew her into a world she’s lived in happily ever since.
Training or equipping horses of impressive stature has shaped her story. As a horse trainer and co-owner of a company that produces equine gear, Fenwick Equestrian in Rembert, South Carolina, she cheered on 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah as he sported her company’s brand.
“American Pharoah wears our coolers, which is great,” Wilhelmina says. In 2009, the company began selling high-performance therapeutic fabrics for horses, similar to what athletes have worn for years.
Winning the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing takes an exceptional horse like American Pharoah. “There’s been a lot of controversy over the difficulty of three races in five weeks,” she says. “Everyone was saying to give more time between races so winning the Triple Crown would be easier on the horse. The newer generation wants everything to happen faster.”
American Pharoah’s win came at the perfect time. “I was worried the powers-that-be would weaken and think something should change. For a horse to receive that honor, he needs to be extraordinary.”
Wilhelmina felt honored that her business outfitted him, she adds. “American Pharoah is a gorgeous horse, but I think the most spectacular thing about him is his attitude.” Prior to American Pharoah’s win, 37 years passed since a race horse won the elusive award. Affirmed, another Triple Crown winner, earned the title in 1978, and the year before that, Seattle Slew won the honor. Wilhelmina was acquainted with both of these remarkable race horses; the family of her late husband, Brownell Combs, II, owned and operated Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky where Seattle Slew and Affirmed resided after their racing careers. One of Wilhelmina’s roles at Spendthrift included director of racing.
Wilhelmina McEwan and Fred, her brother, are horse trainers and co-owners of Fenwick Equestrian in Rembert.
“It was exciting to be a part of American Pharoah’s career, especially having been a part of Seattle Slew’s and Affirmed’s successes,” she recalls, explaining that at the time, Spendthrift attracted the world’s best stallions at the end of their racing careers.
In the 1970s, Wilhelmina enjoyed a stint on the Canadian equestrian team. Her first riding lesson had been at Quantico where her father was stationed with the Marine Corps. All of the horses there were named after Marine bases or victories; she favored a thoroughbred named Samoa.
“He would do anything for me,” she recalls, adding that he also had a temper. Later, her father’s employment with Fabrique Nationale brought her family to South Carolina. In 1978, the McEwans opened a training center in Rembert that still operates there today.
Wilhelmina maintains the training center at Fenwick Farm along with her younger brother, Fred McEwan. The horses stay at the center for six to eight months learning basics. “They’re young, and their attention span is short, like grade school children,” she says, explaining they learn to have the saddle put on them, get a rider on their back, go through the starting gate and train with other horses. By the time they leave, they’re galloping a mile and breezing.
Wilhelmina enjoys the personalities of the young horses they train. “They’re so innocent, and it’s neat to see the ones that are so naturally talented, which are few and far between.”
She’s thrown herself into designing the gear, too. Before their products were available, horses were outfitted in “funky, old fabrics” — polyester, cotton and wool. “The old fabrics had to be washed daily ... and you’d have a huge stack of laundry every day, which was impractical,” she says. The cutting-edge, functional fabrics they produce are anti-bacterial, odor resistant, machine washable and anti-UV. Their five therapeutic blankets cover winning horses in various seasons: a winter blanket for warmth, a fly sheet made of mesh fabric for summer, one made of “bamboo fabric,” a jade blanket crafted with a natural jade coolant and a liquid titanium blanket that reduces the horse’s aches and pains and accelerates the healing process.
Fred explains the gear gets rave reviews from blacksmiths and veterinarians who take care of the horses. “They’re super for calming young horses,” he says. “I recently sent two horses to Florida, and they were wearing a blanket and mask and did great.”
Brunello, the 2015 USHJA Horse of the Year, wears Fenwick products. “It’s really cool to see our products used across disciplines — by both show horses and race horses. The products we make are adaptable to both,” Wilhelmina says, adding that they have a contract with the Kentucky Derby held in May every year. The entrants will each don the bamboo cooler, which features hypo-allergenic material and reduces cramping. Fenwick also has a contract with the Belmont Stakes, held in June in New York, where the horses are clad in Fenwick’s fly sheet, and the winner will secure a newer product: the titanium fly sheet.
According to Wilhelmina, race horses don’t know how to cool themselves down; they don’t intuitively know to keep moving when a race ends. After exerting themselves, they tend to come to a complete stop and “tie up” — another term for muscle cramping.
“Our products enhance the body’s ability to heal,” Fred says, adding that as a result they’ve been inspired to design apparel for humans made with the same fabrics. Next steps will involve rolling out the new therapeutic attire in the summer and fall of this year. The design and finish work takes place at Fenwick, and Wilhelmina’s having a blast brainstorming, sewing and pinning materials together.
“We’ve introduced colors and designs never used on horses before, and it’s really stimulating,” she says. With improvements they’ve observed in horses wearing their products, they’re excited for humans to experience similar benefits. “Skin rashes have decreased significantly with the use of our functional products. Whereas the horses that used to have routine acupuncture and chiropractic appointments, now their time between treatments has been lengthened and they maintain much better.”
Owner of Aberdeen Catery in Camden and longtime family friend of the McEwans, Jack Brantley attests to Wilhelmina’s incredible energy, business acumen and seemingly endless ambition. “I don’t think she’s ever had something in front of her that she didn’t go and get,” he says. To other horsemen, his meaning is not lost when he says, “She’s a workhorse.”
As for the day-to-day training of younger horses, Fred says it’s gratifying work. “I like the excitement of watching the youngsters go through the program. It’s rewarding to see them go on and be successful.”
While his skill is without question, American Pharoah’s notoriety hasn’t spoiled him as it might do to a person. It’s his winning personality that left an impression on Wilhelmina. “He loves people, loves attention, loves to be petted, and his trainer, Bob Baffert, has let the public get close to him,” she says, describing the typical race horse, in contrast, as finicky and easily irritated. “He has an absolutely unbelievable attitude. It’s impressive how well he’s handled various demands and environments.”
Although the McEwans are thrilled to experience such intimate encounters with high-performance race horses, they simply love training and equipping America’s horses. They’re among the privileged few who can honestly say they love what they do. Whatever temperament they encounter, it’s all in a day’s work.