Horses might go above, under or through a jump, but with Maria Bogdanova-Peifer—they will somehow get across it. Bogdanova-Peifer applies the same determination in the jumper arena as she does her entire life—which she has fought “tooth and nail” for—every step of the way.
Last week, she showed for the second time at the Devon Horse Show in the adult amateur jumpers on Djust Berlin, her 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Berlin—Quit Caya).
Bogdanova-Peifer has come a long way from her upbringing in Moscow, Russia, to a busy working, family and riding life in Oley, Pa., but all the while, she’s always been “absolutely horse crazy.”
Bogdanova-Peifer recalls a picture of herself as a 1-year-old in Russia on her favorite toy, which was a rocking horse. Her parents had to hide the plastic and metal hinged animal, because she rode it so much that it would ruin the floor as she rocked back and forth, pushing the toy forward as it scooted across the ground.
But Bogdanova-Peifer didn’t ride a real horse until she was 12 at the Bitsa Equestrian Center, which was a part of the 1980 Olympic Complex built in Moscow for the Games. She was faced with challenges every step of the way, from finding the address of the complex without the yellow pages to help look it up, to demanding a spot in the program although the enrollment period had ended.
“They sent me to the jumping coach, thinking he was tough and would refuse me, but he finally gave in. Then he sent me to the director of the whole complex, who was the toughest. I told him I wasn’t leaving and that I would stay until he gave me a chance, ‘All I’m asking for is a chance,’ ” she recalled saying.
After four hours of waiting and refusing to leave, she was finally accepted into the riding program, but that didn’t mean everything got easier. Once her training began, she was thrown from horse to horse, all the while competing with the boys who “always took precedence over the girls.”
“I fought for my place there tooth and nail and had to be tough with the boys—that’s how I learned how to ride. They couldn’t back me off. I used to stick on [to horses] like a tick—you couldn’t get me off,” she said.
With enthusiastic persistence, she started in longing lessons, and after just a week, she moved up to the more advanced “sport” group. A month later she was a team leader and riding everyone else’s horses for them.
Bogdanova-Peifer, 48, always had a knack for riding the tough horses that nobody else could handle.
“I am a very bold rider. I like starting new horses and bringing them up to give them bravery. The young horses need confident rides to make them feel like they can do it,” she said. “Way back when, that’s how I unintentionally got into young horses—because I could always handle the bucking and would always get them to the other side of the jump.”
Although Bogdanova-Peifer was jumping horses at eventing competitions in her late teenage years, it was jumping at a track-and-field event on foot where she blew both of her knees at 19. She turned her focus to getting out of Russia, which presented her with an entire host of additional challenges.
Leaving Moscow was no easy task.
She had heard of the mysterious “Land of Opportunity” in the United States and was granted a visa—which she had to fight for. On a one-way ticket, with $50 in her pocket and without knowing a single word of English—she landed on Christmas Day in Philadelphia in 1991.
In three years, she found a place to live, finished her physical therapy degree, which she had started in Russia, at the Arcadia University (Pa.), and became a licensed physical therapist. After a series of lay-offs, she braved her biggest fear yet—computers.
“I was terrified of computers and didn’t know how to save a document to save my life,” she said, but she knew she’d benefit from a computer education.
She banked on the right marketable skill, because Bogdanova-Peifer was soon the top student in her class and helped tutor the rest of the school for computing. As a Microsoft certified engineer, she had a series of jobs in technology and also computers for healthcare systems, which led her to buy her first home in the foreclosure market.
“That’s how I got into real estate,” said Bogdanova-Peifer.
Although she doesn’t consider herself a “traditional” real estate agent, because she only does it for people she knows.
“I’m unconventional,” she laughs.
She vividly remembers a time she went to Devon with a friend to watch the competition, before she’d found a way to get back in the saddle. “I wanted to ride so bad. I wanted to be right there with the riders and not on the bleachers. I will never forget that,” she said.
Finally Back In The Saddle
It was during a walk up a road near her home with a double stroller—holding her two children—that a retired attorney named Bernie Gerber offered for her to hop on one of his horses. Gerber knew that she was eager to get back in the saddle. So Bogdanova-Peifer mounted and rode around for about 10 minutes in shorts before her kids started to fuss.
“Anyone who rides like you should ride full time,” he told her, and then said he had several more horses that she could ride.
Bogdanova-Peifer bravely rode Why Not, who was a 5-year-old green Appendix Quarter Horse, because the owner was giving her away when she was acting dangerously and pulling tricks around the arena.
“The mare loved jumping, but the scope just wasn’t there, and she became a well behaved kids pony with no spook or buck,” she said.
Once her husband Andy—who she met line dancing—saw her ride this mare and turn her into a child-friendly animal after being a “problem” horse beforehand, he built her a barn and arena on their property in Oley to make sure that she had a place to ride and follow her passion.
To The Racetrack
Still, Bogdanova-Peifer wanted to jump. After starting with an off-the-track Thoroughbred, her collection now tops out at five.
She’s worked with several horses over the last few years including her beloved Kangaroo Kid—an OTTB who she sold in January. She currently owns Djust Berlin, a broodmare who lives in California, a sensitive Thoroughbred mare and Bold Gold—a 5-year-old Thoroughbred.
She jokes that she has a Seattle Slew fetish, because so many of her horses have descended from that famous stallion.
“I take the extra time with my horses. People call my horses oversized puppy-dogs,” she said.
She is a firm believer in praise, carrots and good ground manners.
“Horses do try so much harder when they love and respect you. And with anyone the more ways you reward your partner, the better your relationship will be, and the harder they will try for you. And it’s not just the physical abilities that come into play when you work with young or green horses, it is mental too. They have to be able to handle and process the task you are asking them to do and as riders, we sometimes push too hard especially the ones that are ‘pleasers’ by nature,” she said.
“At first it was buying babies because it was cheaper, but now I’ve found whatever you put in a horse early on, they always revert back to the. Say the horse has a long break, they go back to the basics of what they started with,” she explained.
Her key traits in training are patience and sympathy, which she has learned through videos on natural horsemanship and by learning how horses act in the wild.
Although she still considers herself “ballsy,” as she was in her youth in Moscow, in the last few years she has learned to go back to the more classic dressage basics. To Bogdanova-Peifer, riding is a combination of everything.
“It’s a huge puzzle. Every discipline has something to contribute. They are all applicable to every type of riding. Like in Western—they often know more about horses and how they react, listen and process better than English riders,” she said.
Just as she values each of the disciplines, she also values the weaknesses and strengths of riding in different countries.
“I’ve learned to ride with finesse in the last six years of riding in the United States, but I did learn how to sit and get the job done in Russia,” she said.
In American riding, she says that equestrians focus on function and form. In Russia, the priority is to go fast and just “getter done.”
Although she missed out on many years of riding during her challenging transition from Russia to make her life, career and family in the United States—she hasn’t missed a beat. She loves to learn by reading, watching and analyzing and has found a jumper coach, Dianna Babington, at Kevin Babington LLC in Blue Bell, Pa.
“I love her. She’s incredibly knowledgeable, beautiful, and has great intuition,” said Bogdanova-Peifer, who makes the near 90-minute drive to the Babington’s farm as often as she can. She also tries to catch lessons with Jim Wofford when he’s in the area. Some of her other mentors include Wendy Staub, Tobey McWilliams, Andrew Ross and Teri Lee. Her 9-year old daughter Elta is also taking lessons at Valley Mist Farm with Tobey McWilliams.
One way Bogdanova-Peifer makes her schedule fit is by working from home.
“Thank God for the computers,” she said, which make her schedule much more flexible. For her, it’s all family, work and riding. “Horses have been my passion all my life and being able to get back in the saddle, having two beautiful children and a family—all my dreams have come true.”
Although she’d ride every second if she could, she must balance bringing up Elta and her son Jake and dedicating time to their interests so they will be successful adults and achieve their highest potential.
Bogdanova-Peifer has brought up a series of stepping-stone horses. She found Djust Berlin, or “Boo,” through Facebook three years ago and knew immediately that he was the horse she wanted.
“Oh he is gorgeous. He’s my brave, alpha horse—the one that bosses everyone around,” she remarked. “When he came, I called him a freight train, because he was trained to go on the forehand and would just pull,” she said.
Last year was Boo and Bogdanova-Peifer’s debut at Devon, where they ended up in the middle of the pack in the competition.
“His eyes were bigger than a dinner plate, and so were mine, with all the commotion,” she said.
This year at Devon, they prepared by showing around the mid-Atlantic area and Bogdanova-Peifer said Boo was doing the best he’d ever done in her years of owning him, as he put down one solid round after another in her lessons. At Devon, she and Boo placed 11th in the Adult Amateur Jumper Classic with just 1 time fault in the first round.
“I was pleased with my partner, because he was the star of this show. The thing I was most proud of at Devon is that we still held our own, we belonged there. Though we are still learning, he is the horse I am bringing up myself with the help of my support team and things I am learning from different clinicians, riders and trainers,” she said.
She had one rail in her first two classes and just missed ribbons in a speed class before the classic. “All of the mistakes were mine, but my Boo was phenomenal,” she said,
Although Bogdanova-Peifer didn’t sweep every blue ribbon in sight at Devon—she was riding, and not sitting on the bleachers, as she did so many years ago. Rather than crying tears of longing, she experienced the delight of showing, and she’ll be back, because Bogdanova-Peifer doesn’t give up.
When asked her best quality as a rider, she answered, “Determination. Get ‘er done. I don’t quit without stirrups. I just drop both and keep going. I am competitive, but sometimes that gets a little too fast for the line. When my horse also gets very excited, it makes for a rail to come down. I have to pace myself for that.”
Thanking God and the people who helped her along the way—Bogdanova-Peifer is a living, breathing, riding example that if you really want to ride, you’ll make it happen.
And that’s exactly what she did.