For Christine Walker, her 40th birthday was something of a goal post. She’d grown up riding hunt seat equitation, getting on whatever horses she could find—usually off-the-track Thoroughbreds—into her early 20s. She’d been on the hunt seat and stock seat Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association teams at Midway College (Kentucky), and she purchased a horse from the college when she graduated.
But then life got in the way, as it does for many equestrians. By the time she was 27, Walker was married with a toddler at home, and she came to the reluctant conclusion that she could no longer keep her horse legged up while balancing work and parenthood. She sold her horse to a good home and promised herself that when she turned 40 she would get back into riding. For a while, she wondered if she’d make her goal. She had her second son, and the family moved to South Bend, Indiana, with “not a horse in sight.”
She was 39 when she decided to take a few dressage lessons, just to see how she felt.
“It was just like the child who wants riding lessons, and the parents think it’ll be a fad,” she recalled. “Anything I could do to get back in the barn, I would do it. It was like being a child all over again. And once you get back into that world, it kind of takes over.”
Lessons turned into working around the farm a few days a week, and then one of Walker’s friends from Midway called. She had a 3-year-old Thoroughbred that had been sitting in a field for a year, and she wondered if Walker would be interested in him.
What better way to get back into riding after a break than with a semi-feral 3-year-old?
Although it sounded crazy on paper, it wasn’t too far off from what she’d envisioned when she thought about her return to horse ownership.
“I wanted a baby that I could do everything with,” she recalled. “I wanted that blank slate. I knew it was going to be a challenge because I hadn’t ridden as much. Part of me was unwilling to recognize that I’m an adult now; I’m not as flexible as I was when I was in my 20s. But I also have more patience than I did.”
The gelding, whom Walker dubbed “Steve,” was timid around people. He was sweet on the ground, but under tack he was incredibly green, even after some basic refresher training with her college pal. Whatever under-saddle work he had before going through Keeneland’s 2-year-old auction had evaporated in his time in the field. What he’d developed instead was an impressive bronco hop.
“I saw the potential in him,” Walker recalled. “He was this fat ragamuffin who had been living in the field for two years. I saw the diamond in the rough.”
Walker has taken her time with Steve. He’s now 6, but Walker says his under-saddle skills are more akin to a 3-year-old. Most OTTBs come from the racetrack with the basic walk-trot-canter and some ground manners installed, but Steve didn’t have consistent reinforcement while he was turned out.
Still, Walker is happy with his progress. Last year she moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where she trains with Jane Fucinaro of Coda Cavallo Riding Academy. She’s schooling training and first level. Depending on when the show schedule rebounds following COVID-19 cancelations, she hopes to compete Steve in his first schooling show this year and is eager to get judges’ feedback. But if it doesn’t happen, Walker is OK with that too.
“When you look at social media, and in the horse world right now, you have FEI horses doing the 4- and 5-year-old tests. And I think, my 5-year-old is able to walk/trot/canter and is not killing me,” Walker said. “There is a stigma that you’re supposed to be at a certain level when they’re a certain age. So it has definitely taught me patience. It has taught me that I may see what others are doing, but this is what is best for us, and to be OK with that. It’s OK to establish our own goals and take our time. He’s taught me to take the rush out of the equation.”
Steve has also provided Walker with great lessons about balance. When she first bought him, she was juggling his care with looking after her two sons and working for herself as a massage therapist. Now, she’s the remote director of education for wellness center Therapeutic Indulgence in South Bend, and while her children are older (Rory Walker is now 7, and Ewan is 15), her days are still full.
“You have to learn to schedule everything. Even your downtime,” she said. “It was a challenge at times. You find yourself at the barn at weird times. You find yourself exhausted, but it’s 7 o’clock at night, and it’s time to go out there. That was the silver lining of him being so green—short spurts of work were actually better than long spurts of work for him.”
Although it’s relaxing to lose yourself in a good, long grooming session or particularly challenging ride, Christine believes it’s important to make time for other types of self-care besides just hanging out at the barn. After all, caring for your horse is still an obligation—quite a weighty one, actually—even if it’s one you enjoy. It’s rarely perfect or convenient.
“You can’t think, ‘Oh, do I really want to go to the barn?’ You have to, because your horse has to go outside,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she would have it any other way.
“It’s like having children; it’s a dedication that you love,” she said.
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