Amateur Showcase: Land Conservationist Gets Her Kicks From Two Kinds Of Horsepower

Jun 2, 2022 - 7:55 AM

It’s hard to think of two hobbies more diametrically opposed to each other than the quietly controlled artistry of dressage and the adrenalized, engine-roaring excitement of car racing. Heather Richards, however, loves them both.

A career in land conservation keeps her traveling throughout the Mid-Atlantic region while she pursues her upper-level goals in the dressage ring on the side. From a 10-acre farm in Culpeper, Virginia, that she owns with her husband, Kevin Richards, Heather is working her way up the dressage levels with Halcyon, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare (Sir Sinclair—Zerah) she bought as a 5-year-old with the help of longtime trainer Lauren Sprieser. The pair currently compete at third level, trailering to Sprieser’s nearby farm for weekly lessons.

Heather Richards ©susanjstickle.com
Heather Richards and Halcyon recently competed at the Mid-Atlantic Dressage Festival in Lexington, Va., earning a second and third place in their third level classes. SusanJStickle.com Photo

And if horses were not all-consuming enough, Richards, 47, recently found herself in another horsepower-fueled sport: vintage car racing.

“Why have one dangerous and expensive hobby when you can have two, right?” she said with a laugh.

She completed her first race in May and is gearing up for another in the fall. Vintage car racing revolves around well-maintained vintage cars staying in competitive shape and racing against similarly matched competitors, not unlike horse shows.

“One of the nice things about car racing is that when your car breaks, you can just put it in the garage,” she pointed out wryly. “You don’t have to keep feeding it and taking care of it every day.”

Conveniently, her husband Kevin, who works as a local firefighter-paramedic, also has a side business as a car mechanic and handles all the wrenching for their race cars, so Heather can stress over her horse’s well-being while he takes care of any sick cars. He picked up mechanics working on cars with his father.

“I started going to car races with him maybe 10 years ago,” Heather said. “Photography is a hobby of mine, and I started taking pictures. I had always said it’d be fun to try racing one day, not being entirely certain that I would like it. But I thought it’d be fun to try. And Kevin surprised me earlier this year with a car that was for me. I got to go to race school and drove in my first race. I can’t wait to do it again.

“In some ways, it’s like riding,” she continued. ”It’s always, how do I do that corner better? How do you do that just slightly differently next time so you can get a little bit better? It’s just that in racing, you’re doing it at 100 mph with other cars around.”

Heather Richards pitland
Heather and Kevin Richards in the pit lane at the 2018 Sportscar Vintage Racing Association national championships at Circuit of the Americas track in Austin, Texas. Photo Courtesy Of Heather Richards

Heather’s race car is a “cute, zippy little 1968 MG Midget.”

“It’s a really small community of incredibly nice people,” she said. “And so you go to the track, and you just have fun. There’s always somebody to race, like, I’m slow and not particularly good yet. But there are people with way slower cars, or cars that don’t have nearly as good brakes as I have. So you have fun sparring with them.”

Cars aren’t the only thing that Heather and Kevin have in common, though. The couple, who are celebrating their 22nd anniversary this week, crossed paths thanks to a mutual passion for wildlife conservation.

They met while working together on an effort to teach trumpeter swans to migrate. Richards recently had earned a master’s degree in environmental management from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, now called Yale School of the Environment, and was working for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. Kevin was a wildlife biologist.

“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Fly Away Home’? ” Heather asked, referring to the 1996 family movie in which a father and daughter try to teach orphaned geese how to migrate. “When I was working for Defenders of Wildlife, Kevin was working for another nonprofit that came up with this idea that we would use an ultralight airplane to teach waterfowl how to migrate. Geese, swans, cranes, all have to be taught the migratory route by their mothers. We were going to try to reintroduce the trumpeter swan in the Atlantic Flyway. We don’t have trumpeter swans on the East Coast anymore because they were all killed 100 years ago for their feathers. So in order to do that, you have to teach them the migratory route. Kevin was one of the biologists on the project.

“My friends actually called him the swan boy for about a year,” she added.

She credits Kevin—and good communication skills—for allowing her to balance dressage, racing and work, and for enjoying all of it on their small farm. Achieving that balance requires cooperation and, at times, frank recalibrations—like selling a horse—to maintain it.

“The agreement that Kevin and I had with each other was that the farm wouldn’t become kind of the albatross around our necks,” she said. “We weren’t going to be tied to just doing work on the farm all the time. I’m a little bit of a lazy landscaper. My grass doesn’t get mowed perfectly; this is not a showplace farm. It’s functional, it’s safe, but I ride five days a week. I go to lessons with my trainer once every two weeks, if not every week.”

They’ve prioritized their passions—horses for her, cars for him—and make sure each can dedicate hours to those outside of work.

“Honestly, I think part of what makes it happen is we don’t have kids,” Heather said. “That was a choice that we made pretty early on. But it’s allowed us to pursue our passions of horses and cars, having the farm, and having the flexibility to be able to live this kind of life.”

And it doesn’t hurt that Heather is passionate about her day job. She now works as Mid-Atlantic regional director for The Conservation Fund, a private nonprofit focused on protecting key lands and waterways across the country. One of her chief roles is acquiring land to create new public parks and forests. Last year, she was involved in the creation of three new state-owned properties, including the 5,000-plus acre Charlotte State Forest, which previously had been a privately owned timber-cutting operation for three generations.

Heather Richards state park
Heather Richards, second from left, celebrated the dedication of Charlotte State Forest with, from left, Phil Walker, president of the Stanley Land and Lumber Corp., which formerly owned the property, Kay Reed of the U.S. Forest Service and Virginia State Forester Rob Farrell. Photo Courtesy Of Virginia Department Of Forestry

“My organization was able to buy the land from the corporation, which helped the family [who owned it], and then we then turned around and sold it to the state,” she said. “Now it’s the newest state forest in Virginia, the Charlotte State Forest. It’ll probably be about 6,000 acres of really beautiful wetlands and big white oak forest in an area that previously had no real public land to speak of.”

Heather has worked from home for the past seven years, long before COVID-19, though the pandemic reduced the number of days she was on the road traveling to various conservation sites.

“The work I’m doing now is, to me, the most meaningful and most impactful work I’ve ever done,” she said. “I get to create new state parks and state forests and add to our national forest system and add to national parks. It’s incredibly rewarding, and it’s very tangible, which makes it fun—unlike the policy work I did early in my career, [where] you work in D.C., and you work on Capitol Hill, and you feel like you’re beating your head against the wall all the time. I can go visit parks that I’ve had a hand in creating, and that makes it really tangible.”

Passion for work can’t fuel everything though, and Richards has learned when to step back and reconfigure. She previously had two horses but sold one last year to focus on “Halle.”

“We’re at a point where I want to devote my time and energy to one horse and having another horse would be a lot right now,” she said. “It was a lot before [selling one horse]. Having the two horses that were both competing, having a full-time job and having a farm—it was exhausting after a while. Kevin had back surgery last year too, and I had knee surgery and with all of those things, it just got to be a lot.”

But Richards notes again that it’s not just “balance” and knowing limits when it comes to making things work. Her cornerstone is Kevin.

“None of this would be possible without the partnership I have with Kevin,” she said. “We support each other’s hobbies, and I wouldn’t be riding at the level I am, trying to work towards Prix St. Georges, without his willingness to help with the horses and make the financial decisions we’ve made, with horses and cars. We’re both fortunate now to have good jobs, but let’s face it, working for nonprofits and fire departments for 20-plus years isn’t a recipe to be rich. But we’ve figured it out together.”

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