Amateurs Like Us: For Kellie Benn, The Night Shift Plus A Shoestring Budget Equal Time In The Saddle

Nov 21, 2017 - 8:55 PM

“When I start to complain about money to my non-horsey friends, they’re like, ‘Why don’t you just sell the horse?’ I have to say, ‘That’s not an option!’ You don’t say that to a horse person! She’s my friend, and I’m responsible for her. I’m willing to put up with a lot to make sure I keep her happy and that I have her in my life. It’s not something I can imagine my life without. Other horse people understand,” Kellie Benn said when she reflected on fitting her mare, Penny, into her busy life.

Kellie Benn on her mare, Penny. Photo by David L. Justis

Benn works as the deputy night editor at the Daily Press newspaper in Newport News, Va., spending her nights making sure the next day’s paper is ready for print in the morning. She works from 2 p.m. until 11 p.m., then sleeps a few hours and gets up to go to the barn and ride Penny. “The nice thing about my schedule is that I get to spend my mornings at the barn,” she said. “Every time I think that I don’t want to work nights anymore because I miss doing things with my friends or I don’t have normal weekends off—I have Fridays and Saturdays off—I realize that I probably wouldn’t get out to ride as much as I do now.”

Benn estimated she rides three to five times per week. “I don’t worry about running out of daylight or anything like that,” she said. “I spend a couple of hours at the barn in the morning and then I go home, have lunch, relax a bit, and go to work.

“When do I sleep? That’s the thing,” Benn added with a laugh. “There’s a small catch there in that I probably don’t sleep as much as I should. I think one of the other things I’ve had to realize in the past couple of years is that sometimes I just have to sleep in. I’ve always been very structured and scheduled with my riding, and I always feel bad about a day that I don’t get out there to see her on a day when I think I should be riding. I’ve had to let go of that a bit and say, ‘Sometimes, if you’re tired, you just need to sleep.’ That’s also part of growing up, that sometimes you have to take some time for yourself. And that’s OK! It’s totally OK!”

Kellie Benn and Penny.

Benn grew up riding, inheriting the love of horses from her mother, who also rode. “She’d take me and my brother to the barn, and it didn’t really stick with my brother, but it stuck with me,” she said.

Kellie Benn riding as a child in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Kellie Benn

Benn evented through her high school years, but once she graduated, the horses got put on the back burner when she joined the Army. Benn served in the Army as a Russian linguist for eight years, and even though she didn’t have a horse of her own, she found ways to ride no matter where she was stationed.

“I just rode whatever opportunities I could find. I’d catch ride anything,” she said. “I’d ride other peoples’ horses, I’d take lessons, I’d go clean stalls at barns. I always found ways to keep up with the horses.”

Kellie Benn (left) celebrated her re-enlistment into the Army on horseback. “I made the major who did my swearing-in get on a horse. He was very unsure about it, but he did it! Re-enlistment is one of those things where they tell you you can do it anywhere you want, so I wanted to do mine on horseback. We had a stable there on the base, so we rented a few horses and did it,” Benn said.

When she left the Army, Benn dove right back into the horse life. She took a working student position with an eventing barn outside Ocala, Fla., and stayed there for 1½ years. “I call that my detox period from the Army,” she said. “And then I realized that I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life because it wasn’t going to pay my bills. So I went back to college [at Trinity University (Texas)]. I double-majored in communication and Russian. Journalism was my fallback career if the Russian didn’t work out, and it didn’t. The first job I got was at a newspaper, and that’s where I’ve been ever since. I enjoy it a lot. There’s not a ton of money in it, but I really like what I do, so that makes it worth it.”

While she was in college, Benn took the plunge back into horse ownership and bought a 2-year-old Dutch Warmblood-Quarter Horse cross, Pinot Noir, or “Penny.” Penny is now 11, and Benn has brought the mare along herself. While they evented a bit at the starter level, Benn is focusing on dressage now. “I think this is part of adulthood, too, that I had to admit to myself in the past year that my heart is just not into jumping anymore,” she said.

Penny and Kellie Benn in their eventing days a few years ago. Photo courtesy of Kellie Benn

“My horse loves to jump and is brave, but I just couldn’t get myself past the puddle jumper stuff,” Benn continued. “I’m just not that brave anymore. It’s been a really hard thing to accept about myself, but I think I was starting to make her nervous. So I decided to back off the jumping. We jump some little stuff here and there, because she likes it a lot, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll be able to do competitively again.

And Benn is having fun in the sandbox. “There are a lot of people who think dressage is boring, but I’ve always liked ring work and the training aspect of it. So, it’s a good fit,” Benn said. She’s taken Penny to some schooling shows, but her schedule has interfered with showing in recent years.

Kellie Benn and Penny at a schooling show. Photo courtesy of Kellie Benn

Benn takes lessons with local trainer Sue Mullen. “I was starting to get a little bit frustrated with not really knowing what I was doing. I still enjoyed going out there and doing stuff with her, but I felt very directionless,” Benn said. “I like to have goals; I don’t like the feeling of being aimless. I’ll do trail rides and have fun with her, but I do like to be working toward a goal. I feel like getting regular lessons again has given us that opportunity, and hopefully we’ll get back in the show ring next year.

Benn’s goal is to do at least one recognized show by the end of the year. “I’m not going to worry too much about levels right now—the goal is for Penny and me to have a good experience as we get back into it, and if that means just doing training level all year, I’m going to be OK with that—for now,” she said. “There will be time to worry about working our way up the levels later.

“It’s disappointing right now because I’ve had my horse since she was 2, and she’s the nicest horse I’ve ever owned,” Benn added. “And I don’t get to show her as often as I’d like to. I finally have this nice horse who can do all of the things I want to do, and I can’t seem to find the opportunities to do those things.”

Kellie Benn schooling Penny at home. “I sold my last dressage saddle a few years ago to help get some extra money for one of my career moves and have been making do with just my jump saddle until now (seriously the definition of a shoestring budget!). But I just bought one a couple weeks ago, and now I feel legitimate and ready to go,” Benn said. Photo courtesy of Kellie Benn

Part of the problem is the lack of shows in Benn’s immediate area in southeastern Virginia, but she’s thinking she might have to change that. There’s a public arena at a local park, and Benn wants to organize a schooling dressage show there in the future. “There’s definitely a need for it around here, although I think I’d organize it and then wouldn’t be able to show in it because I’d be too busy!” she said. “But I think I could get enough interest to make it successful because I know there are more people around here than me who would benefit from it.”

Benn is single and has dogs in addition to Penny. She notes that she’s of the age bracket when people start asking about marriage and children, but that’s just not the life she envisioned for herself. “When I was younger, I thought, well, I’ll grow out of this whole not wanting to get married and have kids thing, and I just never did,” she said. “I really like my life, and I like not answering to anybody. Well, beyond answering to my pets, which can be demanding!”

Benn has to make financial sacrifices to support Penny on her newspaper editor’s salary, and she’s had to compromise her competition goals, but she doesn’t regret any of it. “I can’t imagine my life without horses,” she said. “It’s therapy for me, it’s stress relief, and it’s a couple of hours out of the day when all I have to think about is me and my horse. I can always feel it when I have to go a few days without riding—I start to feel very stressed out.”

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