Adult amateurs face distinct challenges that may include juggling a full-time job with riding and show schedules, scrimping to save extra cash to make the trip to a horse show, or trading labor for lessons or catch-rides. For Kira Pearce-Dean, 31, the list of obstacles also includes her own body.
Pearce-Dean suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating disorder that causes brain fog, insomnia, joint pain and fatigue that worsens with activity but doesn’t improve with rest,
“I was a very active child—I ran track and swam—but when it started, I had to stop all physical activity because any amount of activity made it worse,” she said. “It’s a yo-yo, peaks and valleys, trying to figure out what you can and can’t do. You have good months, bad months, good weeks, bad weeks, good years and bad ones. I spent many years being fairly depressed about not being able to keep up.”
As a child, Pearce-Dean was fascinated with horses, but she didn’t come from a family with hands-on horse experience. It was her dream to one day have a horse of her own. When she was in high school, she found a nearby barn where she could trade work for lessons. A month in, her fatigue—which had been cropping up intermittently through middle school—crescendoed. Suddenly, she struggled to keep up with friends who were participating in sports and spending late nights at parties. Riding was out of the question.
There’s no cure for CFS, and no single drug addresses all its symptoms. Instead, Pearce-Dean has settled on a schedule and management program that works for her, while accepting that sometimes there are going to be flare-ups. In those cases, pushing through isn’t an option.
“I have had to give up comparing myself to my peers,” she said. “When I try to keep up it only ends in disappointment and a CFS flare-up. I must allow my path to be what it is and only push myself as much as my body can handle. I listen to my body and make sure it gets what it needs.”
By her 20s, Pearce-Dean was on a better footing with her illness, and she decided she wasn’t going to let CFS keep her out of the saddle any longer. She turned to Clearwater Training Stables’ Rebecca Snavely, who was willing to take on an adult student with essentially no experience.
“I understand the process of learning as an adult,” said Pearce-Dean, who is an elementary school teacher. “Sometimes, yes, I feel like I missed out on the whole barn rat experience, but I encourage anybody who didn’t have the opportunity to ride as a child not to let that stop them. I’ve always said this has helped me understand my students’ frustrations. I get it—it’s hard to learn something new.”
One afternoon, Snavely put her on a chestnut Quarter Horse named Sum Phun Seeker, aka “Sophie.” Snavely started Sophie as a young horse and took her back as a sale prospect. It didn’t take Pearce-Dean long to fall in love.
“The goal was I eventually wanted to own my own horse, but I didn’t have a solid plan otherwise,” she said. “I went home and discussed it with my husband, and a week later we bought her. She was a green horse, and this was only about a year after I’d started riding, so it was something a lot of people said wouldn’t have worked. Green plus green equals black and blue, and while it wasn’t always easy, I was committed.
“I always tell people that I’m really glad that when I bought her I wasn’t aware of any of the stereotypes of chestnut mares,” Pearce-Dean added with a laugh.
Pearce-Dean treated Sophie like a puzzle to solve, discovering her likes and dislikes. Sophie doesn’t fear new things, as Pearce-Dean learned in a few trail obstacle clinics, and she especially seemed to enjoy the small jumps that were sometimes part of the challenge. Sophie also wasn’t a natural western pleasure mover, but she did have the longer, ambling gait that hunters like. After a few schooling rides with fences, Pearce-Dean switched from riding western to English to let Sophie have the career she wanted—hunter/jumpers and low-level eventing.
The most important thing about Sophie (now 13), however, is her ability to stay relaxed. There are still days when Pearce-Dean doesn’t feel well enough to take a lesson, but she will drive to the barn for grooming sessions or quiet walks with Sophie. After five years together, Sophie seems to know when Pearce-Dean is having a rough day and adjusts her behavior accordingly.
The pair began competing three years ago on the Kansas Hunter Jumper Association circuit, and they’ve done starter level at three sanctioned events. Pearce-Dean looks forward to moving up to beginner novice sometime this year after losing much of last season to a broken collarbone.
The accident happened when she had a miscommunication with a friend’s horse in a busy warm-up arena, and she admits it left her a little shaken about riding horses who aren’t steady-Eddie Sophie. The obvious solution? She just bought a new horse in November. Thirteen-year-old Irish Sport Horse Colonel Sherman T. Potter (“Sherman”) has the aptitude to go farther in eventing than Sophie.
Pearce-Dean has a good support system to help her take on the challenge of keeping two horses going. She teaches science, technology, engineering and mathematics to elementary schoolers in Manhattan, Kansas, on a contract that allows her to limit her classroom hours. She also earns extra cash for shows at a tack shop owned by her trainer. She keeps her horses in full training with Ann White at Vermillion Valley Equine Center, ensuring that even during weeks when her CFS is limiting her, Pearce-Dean’s horses will continue to progress. Pearce-Dean’s husband, Kevin Dean, also pitches in, offering support, grooming sessions and cookies to Sherman and Sophie.
Pearce-Dean hopes she can inspire other adults to have the courage to begin their equestrian journeys, even if they feel they missed the boat as children.
“I didn’t start this until I was 24 years old, so I always tell people it’s never too late to follow your passion,” she said.