The hectic pace of 62-year-old Bonnie Stedt’s so-called “retirement” makes her working years seem serene by comparison.
The former executive vice president of human resources for American Express now pursues her passion–eventing–full-time.
But it’s giving back to her beloved community of Pine Plains, N.Y., that consumes her and inspires her busy days.
Fernanda Kellogg, organizer of Fitch’s Corner Horse Trials in nearby Millbrook, summed up Stedt’s dedication by awarding her the first-ever “Fitch’s Corner” award at the 2005 horse trials, recognizing “a member of the community who has long supported horse sports.”
“Bonnie has been passionate about horses all her life, and her own horses bring her supreme joy,” Kellogg’s award citation continues. “She is both cheerful and generous about sharing her wonderful facilities with all of us.”
A vice chairman of the Millbrook Hunt, Stedt also serves on the board of directors for the Good Dog Therapy Program and recently became certified to work with hospitalized, hospice, and disabled patients with her 4-year-old Welsh Corgi, Lucy. She’s an active supporter of the Dutchess Land Conservancy.
“Bonnie just immerses herself in whatever it is she’s doing,” said John Ike from Millbrook, an honorary whipper-in at Millbrook. “Having Bonnie take on your cause is what any proponent would wish for, since her involvement will enhance any effort. She’s brought her long and distinguished business career talent and applied it to the commu-nity in all sorts of mutually beneficial ways.”
A Fateful Day in September 2001
After a 15-year career with American Express, Stedt negotiated for an early retirement from the company in January 2001 and announced that
she would work through November. She loved her job but had grown weary from the stress of incessant travel, managing thousands of employees worldwide, and working 70 hours a week.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Stedt did something she never does–she took a day off. The American Express Tower stood next to the World Trade Center and was connected to it by two causeways; Stedt normally bought coffee in the North Tower every morning.
On that fateful day, American Express had almost a dozen employees working in the North Tower–all lost their lives. Stedt went to 11 funerals within the next few weeks for friends she had lost in the tragedy. She honored her commitment to the company by working with Chairman Ken Chenault on a consultant basis. But she felt her life crumbling around her as she was diagnosed and treated for posttraumatic depression for the next year.
Fortunately, Stedt had discovered Millbrook in the early 1990s, when a friend invited her there one weekend. She became enamored of the region’s foxhunting and decided she needed some balance in her pressure-filled New York City work life. She bought a small house in the area in 1993, then purchased 60-acre Foxrace Farm in nearby Amenia a year later.
Foxrace Farm became not only Stedt’s full-time home in early 2002, but also her sanctuary from that traumatic time. Married and divorced in her 20s, Stedt has been on her own throughout her career. “But this community just took me in and embraced me,” Stedt said. “By getting involved here after I retired, I was able to find a purpose in my life again.”
Stedt later bought 160 acres in Pine Plains, where she eventually built a home and created her farm, Homestedt. She went through three architects, however, before she could find one to create a house that settled unobtrusively into the landscape.
“Whenever a ‘mover and shaker’ type like Bonnie moves into an established sporting community like Millbrook, most old-timers are anxious to see how they will treat the land,” said Ike.
“But in Bonnie’s case, her involvement here has been a hand-and-glove fit,” Ike continued. “She’s given the hunt community carte blanche use of her land. She’s built courses on her farm for hunter trials and horse shows and helped with fund-raisers for just about every good cause in the community.”
Riding Dreams On Hold
Although horses always played a pivotal role in Stedt’s life, her career ambitions always prevented her from pursuing her competitive riding goals.
Stedt remembers riding “sloppy Western” as a kid growing up in California, riding in the occasional gymkhana.
“I knew even at a very young age that horses would always be important to me,” she recalled. “Coming home and having something to care for and love was critical to balancing my self-esteem, as I was the kind of kid that never seemed to make the ‘A’ team.”
She married her college sweetheart and followed him to the East Coast, where she continued her retail career at Filene’s in Boston. She became the first woman senior vice president of human resources at Filene’s. Although she could only ride on weekends, she “bought the first horse I saw” on the day her divorce was finalized.
She began taking dressage lessons from Karl and Cindy Mikolka (now Sydnor) in the late 1970s but remembers the day someone suggested she watch a riding competition taking place down the road at Groton House Farm in Hamilton, Mass.
“I remember vividly watching a horse and rider galloping by,” she said. “The horse’s ears were up and the young rider had a huge smile on her face. I came back to the barn and said, I want to do that! I was in my early 30s and had never jumped a horse in my life.”
Stedt moved to Flying Horse Farm in Hamilton and began working with Tad Coffin, the Olympic gold medalist in 1976. She rode in one novice event and finished eighth in 1985. “I thought I was going to die–every fence looked scary. But I was hooked,” Stedt recalled.
Her competitive riding plans were relegated to back-burner status just a few months later, when she was transferred to Los Angeles, and them moved again, this time to New York City for the American Express job, in 1987. She rose from senior vice president to executive vice president there, but her job allowed only weekend riding and foxhunting.
An Eventing Passion Realized
Stedt’s retirement also meant that she could, at long last, focus on a passion she’d long held at bay–eventing.
“Once I began riding daily, in 2002, it was clear to me that I’d never really established the basics of riding, especially jumping,” Stedt said. “I kept my balance by grasping my reins even though I thought I was using my legs.
“I was astounded to understand how inadequate a rider I was. I have an enormous respect now for amateurs who work five days a week and compete on weekends–I don’t know how I ever did it, or how they do it, many so successfully.”
Stedt found her two current eventers–Clancy Himself, an Irish-bred gelding who formerly show jumped, and Jasmina, a Holsteiner mare, now 10 and 11 respectively–in 2002. She also committed herself to training from two top instructors, Trish Helmer in dressage and Olympian Kerry Millikin for eventing.
“For two years I experienced every frustration with my new horses,” Stedt recalled. “I am not a talented jump rider by any stretch of the imagination, so I ran into immediate difficulty with Jasmina, who needs a sensitive and confident rider and certainly didn’t get that from me. We usually did well in dressage, but she often ran away with me when we jumped.”
Stedt bought the enormous, 17.3-hand Clancy sight unseen from a dealer and found some kinks to work out with this horse too, when he stopped cross-country during his first few events.
By the fall of 2004, Stedt had established partnerships with both horses well enough to be safe and jump around novice-level events with confidence. But top ribbons often eluded her due to her competitive inexperience.
“I forgot my tests lots of times, forgot to salute another time, and lost first place at yet another event for crossing the starting line twice,” she said. “I’ve lost my way on cross-country and had to circle and retrace my steps. I’ve carried my whip into dressage (when it wasn’t allowed). I had such a reputation for making mistakes that I don’t think anyone placing behind me were worried they wouldn’t move up.”
With Millikin’s help and her own persistence, Stedt overcame her competitive demons and won five 2005 novice-level events on both of her horses, with one often placing second behind the other. She qualified both mounts for the area novice championships at Fitch’s Corner and there, in front of a cheering hometown crowd, finished fourth on Jasmina and won the division on Clancy.
“I could have been a grandmother to half of the kids in that division,” Stedt recalled of her win that August afternoon. “I just couldn’t believe it.
“Winning the championship said to me that for at least one day, in front of all my friends, I could put it all together,” she said. “I didn’t ride perfectly; but when that last jump in stadium stayed up, I couldn’t stop smiling and thanking my lucky stars to be on a horse who loves to jump despite being ridden by an amateur in every respect.”
Her 2005 season ended with an honor Stedt never would have dreamed possible years before. She tied for third place in the master novice rider division of the U.S. Eventing Association’s national high-score awards, and she tied for fourth place, riding Clancy Himself, in the Area I year-end awards at both the senior novice open rider and the master rider categories.
“What we tried to do was harness the abilities and tactics she used during her stressful, high-powered business career and transfer those skills to her riding,” said Millikin. “Transferring the mental concepts to physical ones takes an enormous amount of practice, and it all came to fruition at Fitch’s Corner.”
Stedt has to deal with physical adversity too. She battles constant back and shoulder pain from old injuries. In 1993 she shattered 16 bones in her hand and wrist in a foxhunting accident.
After four operations and months of therapy, Stedt cannot close her right hand or move her wrist. “I still put Vetwrap on my reins to help get some leverage in both dressage and jumping phases at events, ” she said.
A Matter Of Perspective
Bonnie Stedt rides two horses a day, foxhunts during the season, and takes regular lessons.
“Bonnie has attacked her avocation–eventing–in the same serious way she approached her business career,” said friend John Ike.
Despite her competitive success last year, it’s not winning that fuels Stedt’s insatiable love of training and horses.
“I never want the sport to be defined by first-placed ribbons or year-end awards,” Stedt said. “I want to enjoy the journey and forgive the mistakes I inevitably make. I’m old enough to be able to put life in perspective, and I’m influenced by how quickly and unexpectedly life can change.”
“If my back hurts, if I think the ground is too hard for the horses, if I don’t feel prepared, I can decide the day before an event not to go,” said Stedt. “At my age, I allow myself to make those decisions without thinking less of myself.
“I spent more than 30 years working very long hours in positions where I had to be ‘on’ at every moment,” Stedt said. “As one of the few senior women at my companies, I felt the pressure to be successful and gain the respect of my colleagues by doing outstanding work and achieving results.
“I don’t ever want eventing to be that stressful. As long as I stay at the lower levels where I belong, keep my perspective, and know that I am not defined as a rider alone, it will all work out for me.”