The world lost a true original when Richard “Skip” Shenker of Mercer, PA, died on Wednesday, September 13, 2023. When the renowned horse trainer departed for the great horse show in the sky, he left behind his wife of 40 years, Margaret “Peggy” Shenker; daughter Jessica (Cory) Abbey, and grandson Luke Abbey; his ex-wife Helene “Trudy” Alexander, son Todd Shenker, daughters Kellie Shenker, Christine Shenker, and Jennifer (Tim) Curci, grandson Frank Curci, granddaughters Kate Curci, Josie (Craig) Rothschild, and Lily Curci; his sister Carol Duda; many nieces, nephews, cousins and other family members; and countless friends. He was predeceased by his mother, Marian, his father, George, his brother George (“Sonny”), and his sisters, Marian (“Honey”) McKnees and Georgia Murphy.
He was born in New Castle, PA, in 1941 and doted on as the baby of the family. He looked up to his big brother Sonny and loved the Christmas villages his mother created under their tree every year, complete with tiny houses, people, cars, lights, fake snow, and ice-skating ponds made out of mirrors. He hated going to school but enjoyed skipping it so much that the truancy officer nicknamed him “Skip.”
Skip loved horses and started working them when he was young. He worked at farms in Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia before starting Little Lexington Farm in Mercer, Pennsylvania, with his wife Peggy in 1979. Skip could always be found there in his signature look: Bib overalls, a backward baseball hat, and a cigar (which became jeans and suspenders, minus the cigar, in later years). He became a nationally known and respected horseman and horse show judge, and he bred, trained, and developed many stellar ponies, including Reedan’s Namesake, Mark of Success, LLF Top of the Mark, and LLF She’s Unforgettable. He also bred, trained, and exhibited many great Saddlebreds and was Carson Kressley’s longtime trainer.
Skip was a persuasive salesman who could—and very often did—sell almost anything to almost anyone. These things included but were not limited to hogs and cattle (live or frozen), horses, chickens, ducks, sheep, tack, horse supplies, horse medicine, hay, straw, shavings, furniture, clothing, brooms, buckets, snaps, harness, carts, and whips. He once convinced a horse show friend to buy a bunch of tickets for $5 apiece. Only after the man walked away and realized there were no stubs did he figure out that Skip was doing precisely what he said: Selling tickets!
He thought big and lived large, so it was dangerous to tell him you needed or wanted something. When a fellow horse trainer friend said he was having trouble finding straw on a hard-to-reach mountain farm, Skip said he had it covered. He showed up two days later with a massive load of 130-pound bales of straw that was so big that some of the property’s fence had to be taken down just to get it anywhere near the barn. And once, while driving through Georgia, he called Peggy and casually asked if she would like him to bring some pecans home. She said sure. Two days later, a Rodeway truck full of pecans arrived.
Skip had a penchant for practical jokes, and his horse show pranks were legendary. He would steal the doll that decorated one friend’s golf cart and run it up the flagpole, hide a friend’s viceroy in the barn rafters, or come in to head a horse or judge a show dressed like a Viking. As one of his friends said at his UPHA roast, “Everybody has a good time with him, and he’ll have a good time with you whether you want to or not.”
While driving a truck and trailer to horse shows in the days before GPS, he knew every route (and where to find ice cream along the way) and never, ever used a map. But if you asked him where he was going (or where he was taking you in his truck), he’d use vague descriptors like “pretty near,” “over yonder,” or “just up the road,” which sometimes meant two or three states away.
Skip could talk to anyone and handed out nicknames like other people give out Halloween candy. Among many infectious nicknames he gave his friends, he christened Rodney Hicks as “Hicksy;” Tom Oxley as “Tommy Turtle;” Lynn Peeples as “Peep,” and Brendan Shupe as “Bobo.” His wife was “Maggie” when he wanted her to do him a favor and “Warden” when she didn’t go along with it. His son Todd was “T-Ball,” his second-oldest daughter, Chris, was “Sis,” and his youngest daughter, Jessica, was “Kid.” (Although to be fair, since she was his fifth kid, he might have occasionally forgotten her name.) He nicknamed his grandson Luke, who looked like a mini-Skip when he was a baby, “Little Big Man.”
And nicknames weren’t just for people—he also gave them to horses and ponies (a particularly stubborn pony was “Bullethead”), cars and trucks (his truck was “Gray Boy,” and his dirt-colored Caddilac was “Brownie”), and even the cane that was almost always in his hand for the last 15 years of his life (he used his “stick,” to walk, point things out, and occasionally as a weapon).
Skip frequently broke the rules. Small ones, like sneaking bags of bulk candy into the movies and staying for a second show without paying. Medium ones, like bringing home yet another dog after Peggy told him, “Absolutely not, no, no more, Richard, I mean it!” And large ones, like “borrowing” his friend’s car and driving it to Canada without telling him (and then getting in trouble at the border because the car had been reported stolen) or encouraging 4-year-old Jessica to pull the lever of a slot machine when they were at a casino in the Bahamas (which resulted in both of them getting swiftly booted out.)
He was happiest when he was either at rest (watching TV in his armchair) or in forward motion: Riding a horse, driving a pony, driving around in his truck, mowing the lawn, or tooling around the farm or a horse show on his golf cart, preferably with a friend in tow or his beloved dogs Moby and Smitty running alongside.
He fondly remembered the people who helped him move forward in the horse business, and other horse people felt lucky when he became their mentor and advisor. Driving around a horse show on a golf cart with Skip felt like being with a celebrity. Everyone knew him, everyone liked him, and if he’d had a nickel for every exuberant hello, backslap, and handshake he gave and received, he would have been a millionaire.
Throughout his lifetime, Skip told it like it was, encouraged his horse show family to remain calm, and taught his kids to stand up and be counted. He was stubborn, determined, and truly one of a kind, and his friends and family will miss him fiercely. Just as Frank Sinatra sang in My Way, Skip lived a life that was full; he traveled each and every highway, and more, much more, he did it his way.
He said many times that he didn’t want to be buried because no one walked on him in life, and no one was going to walk on him in death. So, instead, his ashes will be scattered at the place he built and loved—Little Lexington Farm. Per his wishes, there will be a party for his family and friends to celebrate his life later this fall.
Instead of flowers, please donate to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a charity Skip supported with the proceeds from organized trail rides for many years
Funeral Arrangements have been entrusted to Rose Simplicity Cremation & Funeral Center, INC. 200 S. Erie Street, Mercer.