It took Shannon Davis nearly 20 years to get back in the show ring after life circumstances forced her to give up horses, but 2017 was a year she’ll never forget, as she got back in the show ring in an entirely new discipline and succeeded.
Davis picked up riding when she was 24 after a boyfriend bought her riding lessons. Six months later, and she was the proud owner of Dakota, a Quarter Horse gelding that she competed on the Michigan and Ohio hunter/jumper circuit.
“We had fun, but my goal at shows was just to not fall off!” she said with a laugh. A job change meant Davis moved from Toledo, Ohio, to California, but she eventually realized it was too expensive to live on the West Coast and moved back to Ohio.
On her way home her car engine failed, and the money she’d set aside to ship Dakota was needed, so she put the gelding up for sale.
Davis, who’d started a music major studying opera at college but never finished, then joined an all-female KISS tribute band for 10 years, which helped keep her occupied on weekends as she pursued secretarial work. Her tack got put away.
“For 14 years I think I rode maybe once or twice, just trail riding,” she said. “I missed it every day. I had worked at the barn to pay off my board. On weekends, another girl and I cleaned 45 stalls to pay our board. I dragged the arena, I stocked hay, pretty much everything at the barn on weekends. Because I’d been doing it every day for six years, it had been such a big part of my life that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I think that’s why I dabbled in music—it was something to do, and it was fun, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do.”
Davis had back surgery in 2009, and her husband Derek didn’t think it was safe for her to get back into riding, but after a couple of years, she knew she couldn’t ignore her desire to find another horse.
“It was never a good time. After I had my surgery and everything was great, after a couple of years I found myself looking at horses on Craigslist [in 2015] like, ‘Maybe I can find that diamond in the rough for a couple hundred bucks.’ I found Conway on Craigslist, and I showed him to my husband. He was only $900. He thought he was really pretty,” she said.
With her husband convinced, Shannon bought the gelding. Conway, or Blonde Ambition as he’s known in the show ring, was a golden Palomino of undetermined breeding, but likely a Quarter Horse cross, and between 10 and 12 years old.
His young owner said she’d had him for two years, but Shannon did some digging on social media and decided it was probably much less time.
When she got him home and started riding him, it quickly became apparent why he was for sale—the gelding had a big buck in him and was quite resistant to work.
“He had a dominance issue, and he didn’t want to work. If he didn’t want to work he would buck, and he would continue to buck until you got done or he got tired,” said Shannon. “For the first year I owned him, just getting him to walk once around the indoor took an hour because it was like going to the rodeo. It really helped me improve my seat!
“I said out loud, ‘Conway, I’ve got the rest of our lives to get where we’re going. If it takes an hour to get around the arena once at a walk, that’s what it’s going to take,’” she said with a laugh.
At first Conway wasn’t interested in learning to jump, but once he realized it was fun, Shannon decided to try a combined test, and they earned a sixth place ribbon this summer.
Shannon was also inspired by other riders at her barn to try dressage, and now she’s fully on the path to competing at training level this year. She and Conway finished as champions in the intro senior division of the Queen City Dressage Circuit this year.
“Dressage is one of those things that can benefit anyone. It’s the basics—teaching proper mechanics, getting the horse in the contact and engaged with their hind end. I thought it was a great idea, and I really enjoyed it. It was a totally different way of riding for me. I feel like I’m a much better rider now,” she said.
Ohio trainer Jennifer Flory has helped Shannon learn the ins and out of dressage over the last two years.
“She’s been phenomenal. She has a way of explaining things and breaking things down. If she can’t tell it to you with words, she’ll come up and grab your hand or your arm or you leg and put it where it needs to be, and say, ‘This is what it should feel like,’” she said.
Coming back to riding after a long break came with physical fitness challenges, but also mental and monetary ones.
Shannon, 44, said she realizes most people she competes against have nicer horses and equipment, but she tries to focus on herself.
“Sometimes it’s a choice of lesson or grain? That’s a big part of the mental game, because I walk into these really, really nice stables for these shows, and I’m going, ‘They have top of the line equipment and clothes, and I’m here in my hand-me-down breeches and my $35 dress boots and $20 dressage coat I bought off Ebay,’ ” she said. “I look good, but I always judge myself on, ‘Oh these people paid more for their coat than I did for my entire outfit!’ Sometimes I feel totally outclassed, but I just have to go in there and do my best. I am so happy with how we did this year in our Intro senior division because we came out with champion for the year. That made me pretty darn happy considering I haven’t shown in 20 years and never in dressage.”
Shannon’s also enjoyed the camaraderie of other adult riders at her barn. “I’ve missed having friends that understood how much horse meant to me. My husband doesn’t understand—he tries, I give him credit, but he doesn’t understand my love the way my friends do,” she said, adding that Derek does have a “husband horse” now so they can enjoy riding together.
Shannon recently started a new job working technical support for Citibank’s website, which keeps her busy Tuesday through Saturday, but she’s made sure to allow Sundays for showing.
“I missed [riding] everyday, but it wasn’t until I started riding that I realized just how important it was, physically and emotionally. When I’m having a bad day, I can go out to the barn, even if I just clean stalls, and that’s my therapy,” she said.