Back To My Future: Haflinger Adventure

May 17, 2018 - 3:33 PM

The entries are done and mailed. I used two Wonder Woman stamps for luck and dropped it at the post office today, thereby sealing my fate and setting a date with horse-show destiny for this July at the Kentucky Horse Park, located a mere 1,886 miles away from my home in southern California.

How did I get here, committing to a cross-country trek with a horse, a dog, and six fabulous Wonder Women equestrians to spend a week together in Lexington at the Haflinger National Show? Here’s my story.

Lia and Suzi
Lia and I will be heading to Kentucky in July.

Like many Chronicle readers, I love horses; they’ve been the pole star that has pulled me like a magnet from birth to age 56. But with all the chaos of the last decade of my life, I started this year not even sure I liked horses any more. The glue that had held together almost every aspect of my life no longer stuck, and I felt adrift from the world of equines and the joy I used to find with horse people and the familiar rhythms of riding and caring for horses.

As 2018 dawned, I found myself suddenly retired with time on my hands and a hole in my life that needed filling. After 39 years running a small equestrian-related manufacturing business I’d sold that business to a fantastic new owner, and I’d recently escaped from almost seven years of soul-crushing divorce litigation after what I thought was a solid nine-year marriage grenaded. In the space of a couple months last year, the legal hemorrhage stopped; the business changed hands, and I began to clean up the financial disaster I’d been living in. My terrific teenage son was thriving in school, and life was stretching before me like a smooth lake filled with possibilities.

But the horses didn’t suddenly pop back up to fill that time and space in my heart. After years of not riding much, after all my excuses to not enjoy the horses at my lovely barn right out the back door—I also own and run a 60-horse boarding stable—could I/would I ever get my horse mojo back? And sadly, I asked myself from time to time over the last couple years, did I even want to be a horse girl again?

The answer now, I think, is yes. After several months of letting down this spring like a recently-raced Thoroughbred that learns to graze again, I’ve transitioned from the race track that was my very full life, to whatever life is going forward. And I’m very happy to say it now feels like horses will have a place in that life.

That’s my current personal story, one of mid-life experiences and big changes, but the horse part of the story is a bit brighter and lighter, and it revolves around my potato chips.

That is, my Haflinger mares.

The Object of our Desire
One of my potato chips, Lia.

I was hoping after my recent rocky-road past to reignite that horse-centric security that was lost when my essence was crushed by betrayal and sadness. I was now a very adult rider with some unfamiliar fears, and despite a showgirl past with a touch of success with different breeds and riding disciplines, none of that show ring glam really appealed to me anymore.

I thought I’d need something quite different this time around if horses were going to stick again.

That difference ended up being the potato-chip colored Haflingers that were so tasty to me. Like chips, I couldn’t have just one. In short order I researched the breed, found some wonderful Haflinger mentors and bought two mares, young half-sisters that are green but have excellent training to ride and drive.

Lia and Delaney
Lia showing off one of her many skills with junior rider Delaney Van Horn.

So here I am, an older-and-wider-rider hoping to recapture some of the equine magic. Magic that took me from a Shetland pony delivered by Santa, to show rings around the U.S. and Canada, to being a barn owner who didn’t ride. Now I’m trying to find my way back to my future with a group of like-minded horsey girlfriends, a little golden mare, and a plan to go all the way to Kentucky for a horse show. It’s Lexington or bust in an attempt to touch our childhoods again. And we’re cautiously having a great time.

I’ve decided (and my barn buddies are joining me) to have one final horse show fling, one last chance to grab that brass ring I caught so many times in my past. We’re planning a 4-H worthy adventure with a ton of show classes (some of which, like obstacle driving, are a stretch), a rented house, a cross-country drive and most of all, an adorable little mare name Lia.

Some of us have known each other more than 30 years, and some of us met last month. But it feels right, and it feels fun, and we’re going to give it a go.

Lia and JoAnn
JoAnn Jackson takes Lia for a drive.

Team Lia’s planning is well underway. Our entries are winging their way to the show secretary, and I wonder if there are other COTH readers who might both enjoy reports on our adventures, and perhaps identify with some of the complex emotions and bittersweet memories we’re all stirring up on our Haflinger Adventure.

I’ll introduce Team Lia, update our planning, and share what I’ve learned about Haflingers in my next post.


Suzanne Vlietstra is an older-and-wider-rider who lives in southern California with her teenage son, dogs and horses. She is rich in friends and stories from her past charmed existence, with a large bucket list ahead still to pursue. 

Follow Suzanne’s Halflinger Adventure.

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