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New York Times / Life - Entertain

Bling Bling Had the Rings, the Pilot Her Heart

Sarah Ward and Jonathan Rupp met after she had spent the day trying to wrangle a pony at her family’s farm. She was covered in “horse slime.”
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Sarah Ward and Jonathan Rupp greeting one of her horses, Bling Bling, their ring bearer. Melissa Golden for The New York Times

In the weeks before the wedding of Sarah Ward and Jonathan Rupp in Cumming, Ga., the bride had become concerned about her ring bearer.

Onassis had grown long in the tooth at the age of 21 and for a horse that old, the condition is not just an expression. Onassis’ teeth had grown so long that it was hard for him to chew. He’d take a bite of hay and the food would fall right from his mouth. He was the same attractive Dutch Warmblood with a white face and white stockings that had carried Ms. Ward to the top of junior equestrian competitions around the country years ago, but now he was losing weight.

Ms. Ward knew that traveling to the ceremony, a destination affair on a quaint renovated former dairy farm, would be hard on Onassis. Still, she hoped that he, one of the few who had been with her through the events of her life that had led to this day, would be at her wedding.

Lily Citron held the reins for the couple’s ring bearer. Bling Bling kept his head down walking down the aisle, but when he caught sight of the bride the sounds of his whinnying filled the air. Melissa Golden for The New York Times

As some personal lives are measured in past relationships and former beaus, Ms. Ward’s life could be measured in horses.

There was the horse she rode when she was 4, the one she had to stop riding because of a compulsive need to wash her hands. (She has since been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and has it mostly under control these days.) Next was Happy, the horse her father, Bob Ward, bought her just before her 13th birthday. Happy was the one that she fell in love with, and who made her fall in love with riding — the rituals of bridling and saddling, the thrill of galloping and jumping. He was unpredictable and difficult, however, and once threw her late mother, Diane Ward, so hard that it seemed to permanently affect her short-term memory.

Next was Moose, a more patient and competitive horse, though Ms. Ward resisted the idea of infidelity. “Happy is the love of my life,” she remembered telling her parents. “I’m cheating on him. How dare I?” Eventually, she came around to Moose, and the horse excelled at her early shows; Ms. Ward was a nationally ranked junior hunter jumper less than two years after beginning riding.

The wedding took place near Atlanta on the West Milford Farm. About 70 guests, and Bling Bling, watched the couple marry. Melissa Golden for The New York Times

There were more horses — Bling, Voltaire, Onassis, Ludwig Storgaard — and spills leading to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a neck brace, too many concussions to count. Along with that came more ribbons, more prizes, more rankings. By 2008, when she and Onassis traveled to the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, she finished at the top of her class, taking home grand junior hunter honors.

“It was an incredible experience. I’ve never felt so proud of my horse,” she said. “I mean, I don’t really remember it because I was concussed, but I’ve seen video. People always focus on football and the concussions suffered there, but it has really affected my memory.”

Years later, in October 2013, there was one more horse, a miniature pony that Ms. Ward, 27, spent the afternoon trying and failing to catch in the pastures of her family’s farm on the outskirts of Atlanta. Ms. Ward had graduated from the University of South Carolina (where she was a member of the equestrian team for one year), working to become a riding teacher, but she could not catch this little wily beast. At the end of the day, tired and wearing what she describes as a tattered pair of riding breeches, a dirty outfit covered in “horse slime,” she met her sister, Mallory, at Laseter’s Tavern for a drink and some trivia games.

Ms. Ward and Mr. Rupp met at a tavern after she had spent the day trying to capture a pony on her family’s farm. As she put it, she was wearing a tattered pair of riding breeches, a dirty outfit covered in “horse slime.” He was intrigued anyway. Melissa Golden for The New York Times

Laseter’s is a casual place in Vinings, Ga. On that night, it was full of regulars, including Mr. Rupp, 34, a commercial charter pilot, and his old friends from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The bar is one of those places you don’t just know everybody’s name and what they like to drink, you know their birthdays and their old stories. You watch their lives unfold. This new woman in her dirty riding gear caught his eye. He was seven years older, wearing a blue, checkered button down and dark jeans, drinking a glass of red wine. They stayed at the bar talking until it closed.

“I wasn’t entirely sure if he was just being nice or friendly,” Ms. Ward said. “Until he, like, tried to lean in to kiss me, but he was too polite to do it. I literally said, ‘Are you going to do this or what?’ ”

So he kissed her. They went out for dinner in the weeks after, walked around Piedmont Park in Atlanta. They met again at Laseter’s, and again. The bar of regulars could not help but notice. Jennifer Crowe, the D.J. in charge of trivia nights, observed the romance from a distance, leaning in to whisper about it with friends.

“This is perfect,” they said.

“But of course,” they said.

The next chapter of Ms. Ward and Mr. Rupp’s romance was spurred not by a horse, but an opossum. Two weeks after they had met, one of Ms. Ward’s dogs, a rescued coonhound, killed the marsupial in her backyard and left a mess. It was midnight. She couldn’t bear to clean it up. She texted Mr. Rupp, asked for help, and he was soon there with a headlamp and a shovel, wearing hiking boots.

That night, after he had shoveled away the opossum remains and hosed off the blood, she talked with him about her parents, the story that anyone might know if they simply Googled their names. In 2011, her father had been convicted of second-degree murder in the death of her mother and sentenced to 30 years in prison, a high-profile case covered by local and national news media. Reporters relentlessly detailed the Wards’ wealth and the circumstances surrounding the death.

Diane Ward had died from a gunshot wound to the head one night in 2009. On the 911 call the night of the incident and in the years since, Bob Ward has maintained that this was an accident. “I love my dad and support my dad,” Sarah Ward told Mr. Rupp.

The tables featured a rustic theme and fresh-cut flowers. Melissa Golden for The New York Times

Mr. Rupp did not respond the way that others had. “He was patient,” she said. “He didn’t judge me. He didn’t judge my family, not once, and he let me tell him in my own time, which was very important to me. He’s the only person that’s done that.”

In the following months, they began a mutual tutelage. He brought her to the hangar in the mornings and got her in the cockpit. He explained the flight deck, the instruments, the pitch and bank, the push and pull, the endless buttons and lights and instruments. Once, he took her up and let her take the control column. “I pulled so far back that the plane went,” she said before making the whizzing sound of a nose dive. “I felt like I was going to crash into a bridge.”

He told her about growing up in Minnesota, watching the takeoffs and landings at airports, how he’d always known he’d be pilot, how he went up for his first flight as a teenager, and moved to Florida to attend Embry-Riddle. It wasn’t so different from her experience with horses.

Graham Kennedy, a friend of the couple, reads a letter from Ms. Ward’s father, who could not attend. Her father, Bob Ward had won an appeal for a new trial after being convicted of second-degree murder in the death of her mother in 2009. But he was not allowed to leave Florida for the wedding. Melissa Golden for The New York Times

“We balance each other so well,” Ms. Ward said. “He’s good in crowds, I hate crowds. He didn’t grow up with animals, and he even loves my stupid dogs. We’re never anxious about the same thing at the same time.”

She brought him to the barn and showed him how to bridle and saddle. He took to grooming and riding Moose. He would leave for days to fly and then return to cook dinner at her place. He picked up a recipe for steak and salsa verde. She liked his simple, comforting take on pasta carbonara. Some weekends, he’d drive her down to Florida so she could see her father in prison. Mr. Rupp was such a constant presence that Mallory, who lived with Sarah at the time, did not hint lightly that they needed their own place.

Instead of moving in together in Atlanta, they moved together briefly to Ocala, Fla., then relocated to San Diego in 2016. Before the end of the next year, they were engaged. Ms. Ward started working for Mr. Rupp’s mother, Michelle Serafini, at her real estate firm. Mr. Rupp now works for Jet Methods, a charter company often used by celebrities passing through Southern California.

Guests dine at dusk. Melissa Golden for The New York Times

As the day of the ceremony approached, it became clear that Onassis would have to sit this one out. Bling Bling, a horse Ms. Ward describes as Onassis’ best friend, stepped in to take his place.

A little after 4 in the afternoon, 70 or so guests had arrived at West Milford Farm. The groomsmen waited in charcoal suits, gathered in an old dairy barn converted into a warm, glass greenhouse. The crowd assembled outdoors, filing into folding chairs past a bucket of carrots, treats for the ring bearer. Bling paced nervously, tearing clumps of grass from the turf. Gusts of wind blew in hard and cold from the far green pastures. The ceremony began.

Lily Citron, a former riding student of Ms. Ward’s, led the horse down an aisle spread with flower petals. He behaved, kept his head down, and lined up patiently with the groomsmen until he caught sight of the bride in her white Vera Wang dress, her long train following behind her in the flower petals. He neighed and neighed, his high whinny carrying with the wind.

At the end, Robert Grant, a Universal Life minister, asked: “Do you, Jonathan, swear to take the reins with Sarah and love her forever and ever?” and “Do you, Sarah, promise to always fasten your seatbelt and love Jonathan forever and ever?” They said, “I do.”

Later, after drinks and photographs, dinner was served. A friend of Ms. Ward’s since childhood, Graham Kennedy, stood up to read a letter from the bride’s father. Mr. Ward had won an appeal for a new trial and bonded out of jail in Florida earlier in the year, but he had not been allowed to attend. The letter told of horses and teenage car wrecks and his pride in what Sarah and Mallory Ward had accomplished. He added: “You went through four years of college without a parent, and I know that damaged you in ways that I’ll never know.”

Mr. Kennedy continued reading: “You don’t need me giving my permission to marry, although Jonathan being the gentleman that he is did ask me. So dear Sarah, your parents have always respected your decisions, now go forth with your flying groom and God’s blessing with a mandate to love and nurture each other. Your children will learn by example and you will then understand how your mother and I always felt about you and your sister. Signed: A father’s love is unwavering, Dad.”

Ms. Crowe, the same D.J. who had been there that night at Laseter’s when the couple first met, hurried over to her booth to press play. The bride and groom danced and, as they did, the groom wiped away the bride’s tears.

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