“I just consider myself blessed,” Jean Kiefer-Wood said of her return to eventing. “I never thought I would be in a position to ride again.”
Sixty-one-year-old Kiefer-Wood took about 25 years off from riding before bringing horses back into her life and competing in the 2016 Nutrena/USEA American Eventing Championships (N.C.) on 22-year-old Liffey Star, a Connemara/Thoroughbred (Hideaway’s Erin Smithereen—Genesee Star).
Kiefer-Wood and Liffey’s collective age at the competition was 83. Not quite a century ride, but impressive in the hardcore sport of eventing.
“It’s been rewarding for me to watch the two develop a partnership,” said Carol Kozlowski, who matched Kiefer-Wood with Liffey.
Kozlowski herself is known not only for her longtime partnership with famed eventing stallion Hideaway’s Erin Go Bragh, but also for her current position as the U.S. Eventing Association president. Liffey is a half-sister to the famed Connemara stallion that Kozlowski campaigned at the advanced level.
And Liffey was no slouch in her youth either—Kozlowski competed her through CCI* in the long format—a background that Kozlowski said she thinks might have intimidated Kiefer-Wood when she first took the ride on the little gray mare, but now she says her student has moved from a more passive role to “actively requesting, pressing for better work. It’s been fun to watch.”
Kiefer-Wood, a social work supervisor in a state psychiatric hospital, competed as a Pony Clubber in her youth. In 1972, she took her Appaloosa/Throughbred Asterisk to the U.S.Pony Club national rally in Middleburg, Va., where her regional team placed fourth out of 15 teams. “No medal, but certainly a respectable outcome,” Wood remembered.
She competed through the B level in Pony Club, but Kiefer-Wood was unable to keep riding in college. “Real life got in the way, and I didn’t ride for 25 or 30 years,” she said.
About 10 years ago Kiefer-Wood started taking lessons once a week, then leased a horse. After that she bought her own horse, a 6-year old Connemara/Arabian/Quarter Horse she owned for four years and brought to the beginner novice level under Kozlowski’s eye.
When he began bucking, twisting and rebelling when she increased the work, she donated him to a college program where he is “happy as can be being doted on by college students,” and doing walk-trot-canter.
Kozlowski then matched Kiefer-Wood up with Twain, an Irish Sport Horse/Thoroughbred that had been competed through the two-star level. But not long after Kiefer-Wood began riding him, Twain was kicked by another horse in the paddock and had to be euthanized.
That same day, Kiefer-Wood starting riding Liffey and fell in love with her. They spent 2015 getting the retired broodmare back in shape and getting acquainted. It was 2016 that everything came together according to Kiefer-Wood.
Kozlowski’s pairing of Kiefer-Wood with Liffey matched the trainer’s philosophy on the type of horse a returning adult rider should look for. “The fancy horse you craved as a young rider will likely not suit your lifestyle now, “ she pointed out.
“Most busy, working adults want to ride for fun; some even enjoy bringing horses along and being quite hands-on in their training,” she said. “It’s always best for everyone involved [instructor, student and significant others] if the horse has a good attitude, is happy to work and doesn’t demonstrate behavior that could get somebody hurt.”
She added, “Look for the steady, sturdy models, the sports cars are often best left to the pros.”
Liffey’s youthful career had been sidelined by a fungal infection in her sinuses. The illness left the mare with a little dent in her forehead, Kiefer-Wood said, and she became a broodmare instead. But Liffey didn’t lose her love for the jumps.
“I don’t have to worry about Liffey stopping or running out,” Kiefer-Woodsaid. “She locks on the flags and is ready to go.”
Liffey, once a sports car and now a steady model, took Kiefer-Wood to their first event together in June 2016 at beginner novice at New York’s Genesee Valley Riding & Driving Club Spring Horse Trials, and they qualified for the AEC.
So, she told Kozlowski, “I’m 61, and she’s 22, and we may not do very well, but [the AEC] will never be any closer than Tryon, North Carolina, so let’s go.”
Kiefer-Wood and Kozlowski stepped up their lessons, and she found herself thinking, “Oh boy, what did we get ourselves into?”
They prepped for the big show with an event at Millbrook Horse Trials (N.Y.), where Kiefer-Wood and Liffey finished seventh out of 17. Competing in that event’s big atmosphere and finishing well meant Kiefer-Wood felt that she belonged.
At the AEC in August, Kiefer-Wood and Liffey started out with a 40 in dressage. “Dressage is our weakest phase anyway,” she said of the ride. But it didn’t get much better after that. After being told all season to slow down on cross-country, Kiefer-Wood “froze” and had time penalties instead.
Then there were the three rails in stadium. “I was just a passenger; I let her get flat,” she recalled.
Kiefer-Wood and Liffey finished 30th out of 40 in the AEC Master Amateur beginner novice group. “By the end of our time there I was most worried about being an embarrassment to Carol,” she admitted.
But when the women got in the truck to head home, Kozlowski immediately told her, “No not at all!” and reminded her student where she was a year ago.
And Kiefer-Wood celebrated. “We completed! Mark that off the bucket list!”
Looking forward, Kiefer-Wood is planning to move up to novice and work on their flatwork. “She’s certainly capable and knows how, but she’s smart and unless I make her, she doesn’t do it,” she said.
“I’m tickled at myself that my life these days is rather similar to life as a teenager,” Kiefer-Wood reflected. “I go to work, change clothes, and I ride.”
Kozlowski said for older adults, “returning to the sport safely means being realistic in your goals. Most adults don’t have all day, every day, to chase their dreams. I’m a huge fan of setting reasonable goals, achieving them and then resetting your sights,” and acknowledging the goals have changed as riders age is “also a reality.”
And as USEA president, Kozlowski said, “It’s been very encouraging to see the USEA embrace the lower-level adult rider and give them a larger platform. As important as our elite athletes are, and as inspiring as they may be, every adult rider I know appreciates the camaraderie and just plain fun of competing at the lower levels.”
Returning as a master rider has been much more of a challenge for Kiefer-Wood. When she first started back, her brain would tell her body to do something but her body was just not always doing it, and it took her a long time to get in shape. That meant she began yoga, pilates and working out at a gym.
And the sport itself has changed since when she rode as a child and teenager. “The muscle memory I have now is a lot of bad habits!” she said.
Liffey herself, also an older returning athlete who will be 23 in the spring, gets her hocks injected and Adequan. “Other than that, she’s still game,” said Kiefer-Wood.
Looking ahead, Kiefer-Wood is hoping to retire in the spring “I’m really hoping to do even more with horses. I don’t know how much longer Liffey and I will be a pair—as long as I’m physically able I’m looking to have horses in my life,” she said.
Kiefer-Wood said her long-term dream is of finding a horse of her own — maybe 8 or 10 years old — and have it for 20 years until she’s no longer able to ride and the horse no longer able to be ridden. Also on her long-term bucket list is to do a long format event, like she did in her youth and to do a century ride.
She laughed, “I would go be a working student if any one would have a geriatric.”
Kozlowski has plans for Kiefer-Wood as well. “My goals are for Jean to continue the process of gaining confidence and consistency in her rides.” She said that to her, “competitions are merely measurements of training,” and she tries not to train her students to compete but rather to compete to test their training.
“I know that Jean will keep working hard to improve their teamwork in dressage,” Kozlowski said. “And I like to tell my students that the balance and connection that is developed on the flat will always strengthen the jumping performance. I get a real kick out watching this play out with Jean and Liffey!”
“It’s immeasurable the debt of gratitude I owe Carol. The last two mounts I’ve had she’s said, ‘Here, you can ride this horse of mine. [She’s] supportive and encouraging and whatever progress I’m making is all due to her,” said Kiefer-Wood. “I’m not sure what the future holds but I intend for it have horses.”