At 91, Jill Forbes Willcox no longer needs to ride high in the saddle. “I have more sense than that,” she says.
Willcox has ended her riding days at Tory Hill, the horse farm, riding school and center in Glen Mills where she’s never really saddled horses so much as set them free. She’s led a full horsewoman’s life, including 20 early influential years as a dressage judge at the Devon Horse Show starting in the 1960s. Back then, she thought she’d arrived in the horse world. Then she unraveled the truth, which begins and ends with “getting rid of the tack” and its associated money. “I began to understand the psychology of everything, to be part of the horse’s experience—so much so that you had a horse without stress. You could go up to a wild horse and have it trust you,” she says. “That’s an art.”
Over the past three years, Tory Hill has been focused on rehabilitating and re-homing wild mustangs secured from western prairies, a niche within the Trainer Incentive Program sponsored by the Mustang Heritage Foundation. “I admire wild horses, wild animals and wild people,” she says. “But you have to learn to melt around these animals.”
While the rider is obviously important, Willcox thinks mostly about what’s right for the horse. “He’s got to enjoy it,” she says.
Established in 1958, Tory Hill is inspired by Willcox’s philosophies and managed by Emily Dugan, a long-term apprentice and equine body worker. The two work closely with visiting riders and their horses to ensure an understanding and mutual relationship between the pair—so-called natural horsemanship. “For her, this is a good ending—though I don’t want it to be an ending because I don’t want this to be an end for her or me,” Dugan says of her mentor. “If not for her, I may not be able to do this.”
While the human atop the horse is obviously important, Willcox thinks mostly about what’s right for the horse. “He’s got to enjoy it,” she says.
Willcox endured a torn and tattered World War II childhood in England and came to America in 1954 at the age of 22 to chase cowboys. “There was a spirit about it,” she says.
Soon, she found herself positioned between the cowboys of her dreams and the foxhunters and other “posh people” of her reality. She married into money after meeting Mark Willcox, an attorney. His family was known for the famously successful Ivy Mills and what’s now a national historic district in Concord Township adjacent to Tory Hill. Dating to the 1700s, Ivy Mills is home to the second oldest paper mill in America, known for printing Colonial and Continental currency. A 1730 mission chapel there is also the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Pennsylvania.
Willcox describes Ivy Mills Mansion as a “money pit.” It was left to their son, Mark III, and his wife, Anne, when her husband died. Other family acreage there has been donated to the township as open space. Willcox kept about 50 acres at Tory Hill, which is home to two donkeys and 14 horses—five are her own. The herd grazes the property freely, using run-in sheds and the indoor arena, unless there’s a lesson in progress.
Jill Forbes Willcox was on the beach with her mother and sister in Troon, England, when she saw her first pony at age 3. She wasn’t as impressed with the ocean and the seagulls. “It was that pony,” she says. “I’ve still got that in my memory, and I’ll never forget. It was the way it shook its mane. I can still hear and feel it.”
Willcox’s mother was a podiatrist, and her father worked in petroleum sales. As such, they “galloped around the planet,” living in at least five different locations before Jill turned 3. As she grew older, World War II chased the family in even more directions. The first bomb she remembers landed at the school playground next to a house her family was renting. “Once you’ve heard one bomb, you wake up dreaming of bombs,” says Willcox.
Her family was evacuated to Wales, and Jill was left with a recurring dream of a cockerel sitting on a fence gate, mimicking alarm sounds. At 9 or 10, she was instructed to set up a pile of clothes for an emergency exit. On top was a gas mask. There were underground safety bunkers, buried corrugated iron chambers, and practice runs with sirens blaring. Gym classes featured jumps from a hay barn loft to simulate leaping out of a plane.
A multisport athlete, Willcox left school at 17 without a degree. But she’d gradually acquired experience working on the farms of British elite, managing cows and shearing and dipping sheep. Then came the rough January voyage to the United States on the SS America. Having come more or less full circle, she’s very much at home these days. In winter, she paints at her easel in the living room, surrounded mostly by her acrylics of her family—horses and humans.
For 57 years, her concept of family began with her late husband, who was 18 years her senior. Mark passed in 2013 at the age of 99. “He was worth it,” she says. “That man was too good to let go. I wouldn’t have married anyone else.”
History abounds at Tory Hill. Longtime friend Andrew Wyeth gave the Jill and Mark Willcox a painting as a wedding present. Married in England, they returned to find it on their doorstep. It’s since been sold at Sotheby’s to keep Tory Hill afloat. “It was a wedding present that I loved and looked at for 50 years, but now someone else gets to look at it,” says Willcox, giving her assurance that the auction windfall went into helping needy horses. “I think I’m part healer, part horse.”
Of the two Willcox sons, Billy has passed. There are two granddaughters—Annie, an artist, and Elizabeth, who’s latest fascination is bees and saving the planet. “I used to think that way too,” says Willcox. “Then the war started.”
Longtime friend Andrew Wyeth gave the Jill and Mark Willcox a painting as a wedding present. Married in England, they returned to find it on their doorstep. It’s since been sold at Sotheby’s to keep Tory Hill afloat.
In Tory Hill’s indoor arena, Willcox mounts a miniature stuffed horse she calls Costco. “It’s where I bought him,” she shares. Costco resides next to a horse skeleton with a mounted human skeleton. “It’s how we learn where a horse is hurting and why,” she says, in reference to the importance of contact and proper weight on the horse’s reins without using a bit. “Applying pain to a horse’s mouth to make it stop—why?” she poses. “Sit on the horse and let the horse work through you. Keep it quiet, and then the horse learns what to do with the body on it. This is the way you give the horse permission to be on the planet.”
Willcox’s novel approach led to one patent some 40 years ago. It’s a device placed around the shoulders of the rider. Springs leading to the reins teach students how to feel soft contact with the horse’s mouth. In early childhood, Willcox had problems with her motor coordination and speech. She thinks it was autism, though no physician ever said so. “I never met a doctor who was up to par,” says Willcox. “Horses know more. Horses know what we don’t know.”
These days, Willcox puts her health first—“life care at home” without doctors—so she can continue to “appear on deck.” Earlier this year, she was told she had a small stroke and rushed to Riddle Hospital. She’s still not buying it. Her second priority is being tolerant with others. She and Dugan don’t always agree, and both acknowledge that. Willcox declined the first horse Dugan wanted to bring to Tory Hill. A few months later, a paint Arabian named Koda arrived. Purchased on Craigslist for $300, Koda cost more to transport from his dirt lot in New Jersey. “They said I could have him if I could catch him,” Dugan says.
And catch him she did—after conning him with food and corralling him back into the barn after he first broke loose from the trailer company’s handlers. In his escape, he smashed his head on the trailer door hitch and broke a tooth. “Now the mustangs arrive worse than he did,” Dugan says.
At 32, Dugan is married to her job. She began riding at age 5 at Radnor Hunt. She hated it. When she found Tory Hill, she dropped out of nursing school at Widener University. Now, after living on the property for the past decade, her plan is to stay forever.
Meanwhile, Willcox isn’t done exploring. “I hope to still learn what I don’t know yet,” Dugan says, insisting she’s not up there with contemporaries like Mrs. Nancy Penn Smith Hannum. “I could’ve been, I guess, but I’ve never felt that I was in competition with people. I’m just jolly lucky to do what I love, and I’ve escaped that way.”