I’m sitting in the airport in San Antonio, Texas, reflecting on the incredible week I’ve had while I wait to get on the plane. It will bring me back home, back to normal life, and also back to my passion—life in the saddle.
I’m in San Antonio because I was one of 10 higher education professionals in the country to be recognized for efforts related to student success and retention. In addition to being invited to this national conference, I will be featured as an award winner in The Chronicle of Higher Education. While I’m incredibly grateful to have been nominated for the award and to be selected as a recipient, at the end of the day I’m just a girl trying to do the best she can in her job working among a sea of dedicated colleagues who are doing the same. A perk of my job is that I get to help people, and to be honest, as I help people I’m helping myself.
When I got off the plane in San Antonio to accept my award I received a Facebook message with a photo that for a moment brought my life full-circle.
The picture is of one of my students, Dominick Merritt, aboard a Thoroughbred at Bonita Farm in Darlington, Maryland.
I met Dominick when he was a shy, second semester student. He came from Baltimore and had not yet found his niche at the college where I work. When one of my colleagues was getting to know him, she asked him the question, “What are you passionate about?”—a question that I love. When he responded by saying his passion is Thoroughbred racing, she told him, “You have to meet Jennie Towner.”
My colleague brought Dominick into my office and told me about our common interest. Although I’ve ridden horses for almost 30 years I really don’t know much about horse racing aside from my love of Thoroughbred horses. I asked Dominick, “What is it about racing that you love? Is it the thrill of the thundering hooves, the gambling aspect, the care of the horses, or is it the business aspect?”
He said, “All of it. I want to own and train race horses one day.”
I know what it’s like to love all of it—for me it’s the thrill of jumping a huge oxer right out of stride, the light feel in my hand galloping seamlessly in the countryside, the gleam of a freshly cleaned bridle, the order of a tidy stall I’ve recently cleaned. I love all of it as well.
Dominick further explained that his favorite vacation was when he and his uncle went to Saratoga (New York) to see the racetrack. When Dominick told me about Saratoga, his eyes lit up. It reminded me of how I felt when my grandparents took my brother, sister and me to Saratoga. There truly is something magical about the August place to be.
I knew I had to see what I could do to support Dominick in his passion.
Horses are something I actually know a thing or two about, and I was in a unique position to truly help. I reached out via Facebook to Chris Boniface, wife of Kevin Boniface, one of the head trainers of the famed Bonita Farm. This farm is right in our little county and has nationwide fame due to the famous 1983 Preakness win of Deputed Testimony. I wanted to give Dominick the opportunity to meet the very best.
I know Chris Boniface from years ago when I briefly pursued the hunters after college, and Chris’ daughter rode a game, bay Thoroughbred gelding. I loved to see how the racing community merged into the show world for this family. I messaged Chris about Dominick’s interest in horse racing and asked if they needed any grooms on the farm. I’ve learned the most about horses by grooming and being around horse professionals, which is why I sought this out for Dominick. I wasn’t sure where it would lead. I’m so grateful that it led to Dominick touring the farm, learning the daily chores, and even riding.
As my professional work has opened my eyes to inequities in our society I’ve often wondered where the equestrian world fits into the bigger picture. And where do I fit in?
I am a staunch advocate for access, equity and inclusion in my work, and yet I spend countless hours each week in a sport where the competitors are for the most part not diverse and are blessed with extreme privilege. I’m drawn to our sport because the connection between horse and rider penetrates reality. Our sport is one where effortful practice eventually leads to success, even if it is only fleeting.
It reminds me of the Emerson quote, “Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and once it has done so, he will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.”
I’m impressed by Dominick’s courage to break through cultural barriers to pick up the phone and call Chris Boniface to introduce himself. I’m thankful to have horses in this world to transform us and encourage us to keep on challenging this life in the pursuit of our dreams.
I received another lifetime high once I was settled into my hotel room in San Antonio. A friend texted me and asked if I had seen the picture of me aboard my beloved gray mare, Britta Of Berga, in The Chronicle of the Horse’s American Horses In Sport issue. I was shocked! To be pictured in The Chronicle of the Horse is an exceptional honor.
The picture is so much more special when I reflect on the story of how Britta Of Berga came into my life. Kind-hearted trainers (Kenny Krome, Jen Newman, Kate Stoffel Oliver and Danielle Menker) made it possible for me to partner with a world-class horse. The special people that arranged for “Britta” to be mine meant that a once-bareback riding child could now compete as an adult in the rings at the Pennsylvania National and Washington International (District of Columbia). I am forever grateful for the opportunity to ride Britta Of Berga, and once again I’m reminded of how a passion for horses can transcend the socioeconomic constraints that are present in our sport.
It’s been one of those weeks you just have to savor. It’s rare that The Chronicle of Higher Education meets The Chronicle of the Horse, and I’m humbled that the two worlds came together for a moment in time for me.
Jennie Towner competes in the adult amateur jumpers with her mare, Britta Of Berga, and teaches at Harford Community College (Maryland), where she serves as the director for student success.