As a teenager half a century ago, I was fortunate enough to ride in local hunter/jumper shows in the Tryon, N.C., area. Last September, after a long hiatus from riding, I returned to Tryon, this time as an eventer in a national competition.
Competing in the USEA American Eventing Championships at the brand new Tryon International Equestrian Center was one of the highlights of my life. Three weeks later I turned 64.
This unexpected adventure started with my intention only to take a few dressage lessons. Instead, I discovered eventing, and the remarkable trainer and steady horse who got me there.
As I approached my late 50s, I realized that all three of my grown children would be college educated, married and gainfully employed. Fifteen consecutive years—30 semesters!—of college tuition payments would be done. I could afford a hobby. I decided to get back into horseback riding. I figured if I didn’t do it now, I never would. The proverbial clock was ticking.
As a Pony Clubber in the 1960s, I had been exposed briefly to dressage, competing in two Pony Club rallies—badly, I might add—as a member of a C2 team. In addition to the riding phases, there were also white-gloved inspections of horses, stalls and tack and a written test. Excellent learning experience, but not something I cared to repeat as an adult.
My introduction to dressage wasn’t exactly encouraging. At a Pony Club rally in 1966 in Black Mountain, N.C., I was riding a big bay Thoroughbred named Kingsport. As soon as we entered the dressage arena, Kingsport took one startled look at the judge’s trailer parked at the other end and promptly wheeled around and stepped out of the ring. The judge was kind enough to let us come back in and continue the test.
“That was a nice ride once you got going,” the judge told me. “But you do realize you were eliminated.”
Kingsport and I didn’t fare much better in cross-country. Our horses had never seen running water and he refused to cross a small creek that was part of the course. Again, eliminated. We had a clean round in stadium jumping, but our team placed last.
Fast forward about 20-plus years since the last time I had hopped on a horse, and I thought I’d take another stab at dressage. Besides, at age 58, surely my jumping days were over.
It seemed most of the dressage barns were at least a 30-minute drive from my home in western Virginia. Hour lesson, hour commute, hour of grooming, another hour of fooling around: Barn time, in other words. With a fulltime job, I couldn’t figure out how I was going to manage it.
I discovered by happenstance that a riding instructor, Caroline Atherholt Dowd (now McClung), recently had moved with her horses to a nearby farm. She trained, coached and taught dressage lessons. It took me a month to get up my nerve to contact her.
“I’m almost 59,” the email said. “I used to ride hunt seat, but it’s been a few years. Is it too late for me to learn dressage?”
Silly question. Some of the world’s best dressage riders are middle-aged or older. At age 67, Hiroshi Hoketsu represented Japan in the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong; four years later he competed in the London Olympics at age 71. That gave me hope.
For the first few months I rode Wicked Good, “Wick,” Caroline’s schoolmaster mare. Wick didn’t much like me. I jerked her in the mouth. My legs were wobbly. I was out of breath halfway around the ring at a posting trot. Caroline had to alert me when I was on the wrong diagonal. Sheesh.
But, oh… how glorious it was to be back on a horse again! It was the most natural thing in the world. Why had I waited so long?
I couldn’t believe I had found an instructor of Caroline’s caliber almost in my back yard. A four-star eventer, Caroline competed at both Rolex Kentucky and Badminton in the late 1990s. The Chronicle published a Horse Of A Lifetime feature story about Caroline and her legendary mare, Lazy Dot, in its April 20-27, 2015 issue.
Several weeks of slow progress ensued. Wick was not happy with me. During one lesson she lost her temper and reared. Wick had had enough.
“This is a little scary,” I told Caroline. “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll dismount.”
“I have another horse I think we should try,” she suggested.
Jay is a 16-hand chestnut paint with four impossible-to-keep-clean white stockings and a big blaze. A former barrel racer who came to Caroline to be a trail horse, Jay had never done dressage. Neither had I, to any meaningful degree. We could learn together.
Jay and I hit it off immediately. He didn’t know much, but he was willing. Caroline proposed that I lease Jay, since we seemed to be getting on so well.
“Let me try it for six months and see if it works out,” I told her. That was almost five years ago.
Jay and I worked on basic skills, like 20-meter circles and transitions, while I had to re-memorize the location of all the letters in the dressage ring.
Caroline began adding ground poles to help establish our rhythm and balance. Next thing I knew, one side of the pole was raised, then the other. Soon we were trotting over cross-rails, then verticals. I’d forgotten how much fun that was. Jay was clearly enjoying himself. So was I.
The following summer Caroline proposed that Jay and I enter the informal starter trials at the Virginia Horse Center over Labor Day weekend. We could ride the combined test —dressage and show jumping—in the “green as grass” division for beginners. The jumping course would be over cross-rails, not more than 18 inches high.
Clever Jay started anticipating the simple movements of the introductory dressage test, so I practiced it on foot in my living room. Good thing I can close my blinds.
The show jumping course we wouldn’t know until we arrived. That was a little worrisome, since my short-term memory is pretty much shot.
The day of the trial, as Caroline and I were walking the show jumping course, I noticed large placards with numbers next to each jump. “The jumps are numbered?” I had no idea. Memory problem averted.
There was one glitch: It took me a while to reconcile myself to the fact that several riders in my division were 10-year-olds wearing pink ribbons in their hair, with matching pink saddle pads and leg wraps. Still… when you’re a beginner, you’re a beginner.
Despite my badly executed dressage test—at least I remembered it!—and being out of breath halfway through the show jumping course—I forgot to breathe—we placed fourth. That did it. I was hooked.
After that first event, Jay and I continued to compete in horse trials, adding cross-country to the effort. Although I’m old enough to be Caroline’s mother, she’s inspired me to move up from one step to the next, often without my realizing it.
“What would you think about trying beginner novice?” she slyly suggested after we had completed several horse trials. “Oh, no,” I replied. “I’m happy where I am. Advanced green is plenty challenging.”
With that subliminal message firmly implanted, I approached Caroline a few weeks later: “I’m getting bored with those puny fences on the cross-country course. I want to gallop across an open field and jump a ditch or a stone wall.”
On to beginner novice, where the jumps are 2’7”, the dressage test a little more difficult and the competition a bit tougher.
When our daughter’s friend, also an eventer, saw my name on a competitors’ list in a beginner novice division, she texted: “Your mom is such a bad-ass!” Coming from a millennial, that’s a compliment of the highest order (also probably the coolest thing anyone’s ever said about me). It’s a label I wear proudly, along with “Galloping Grandma,” as Caroline fondly calls me and her other over-60 students. I’m not the only one.
Dressage remains our biggest challenge; it’s the most exacting thing I’ve ever tried to do. When it comes to jumping, however, Jay is all business. It amazes me that this former Western horse will sail over ditches, trahkeners, banks, even fluorescent orange coops, without hesitation, and, unlike Kingsport, he happily splashes through water. He has truly become my partner.
We placed well enough in two recognized horse trials to qualify for the AEC, where we competed in the master amateur beginner novice division, for riders 40 and older. Not exactly a senior citizens’ division, but close enough. I’ll take all the help I can get.
We didn’t finish in the ribbons, but we did finish. We were next to last after dressage and too slow on cross-country, garnering 7 time faults. Despite dropping a rail in show jumping, Jay and I enjoyed our 85 seconds of fame, broadcast bigger than life on the huge Jumbotron in the imposing George Morris Arena.
Jay and I placed 26th out of the 40 riders in our division. I was absolutely thrilled.
I couldn’t have managed it without a support team: My husband of 42 years, decidedly not a horse person, videotapes many of my rides. He says he hasn’t seen me this happy in a long time. Our daughter, an equine vet in another state, and our sons and their families have attended a few of my shows and provide long-distance encouragement. Caroline and her family, including her husband and two young daughters, are there not only to coach and cheer me on, they pitch in by mucking out stalls, picking feet, tacking up or braiding.
“What have you gotten me in to?” I often laugh with Caroline, usually as we’re warming up for cross-country. “All I wanted was a few dressage lessons!”
Not long after Jay and I qualified for the AEC, I discovered a photo album kept by my mother, who died in 2006. It includes a black and white photo of me at age 15 on my off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding, Calypso, jumping a fairly impressive fence at a Pony Club show in November 1967, at Harmon Field in Tryon. Forty-eight years and 10 months after that picture was taken, I was jumping over similar fences on a different horse at a new venue just down the road. I think my late parents would have enjoyed watching me ride…. probably with their eyes closed.
Jay and I have qualified for the 2017 AEC, to be held at the TIEC again, and we’re here ready to give the beginner novice rider division a go.
I’m semi-retired and barn time is flexible. My husband and I have six grandchildren with a seventh on the way. One of them is bound to be horse-crazy.
I have a bursitis-afflicted right hip, occasional bouts with vertigo, can’t see five feet in front of me without my glasses, and in the summer I have to take drastic measures to deal with the heat. If I never make it past beginner novice, that’ll be OK. None of that matters. Pony Club, I’ve decided, was never this much fun.