Ah, the days of our youth when life was moment to moment, and the world revolved around one’s self and your closest friends. Our global interest could be calculated in hours spanning the distance from first through seventh period at school with the daily summit meeting being held during lunch.
In our minds anyone over the age of 30 was surely on Social Security, and those cresting the next decade were standing perilously close to the grave. The turbulent and challenging times of the 1960s along with the British Invasion of music and long hair left many adults gob-smacked as to the actions and reactions of their teenage children to our changing world.
At this particular time in my history Walter Cronkite and other reporters chronicled all of the newsworthy concerns of the day broadcasting over three channels and viewed in black and white.
Dressed in my bell-bottom hip hugger jeans and fringed suede vest, I stood firm in my convictions that it was wrong on a myriad of levels to deny someone the right to participate in something on the grounds of their being a girl. Gloria Steinem and other like-minded brave women of the time preached their feminist rhetoric concerning the rights of women, and I held the banner of equality high in my heart. I agreed with the premise of burning one’s bra, but as I recall I only had two and in reality was much too conservative to go unharnessed.
From an early age I had a strong artistic side, loved sports and the outdoors. Perhaps the quirkiest piece to my personality puzzle was that I was absolutely horse-crazy.
To the best of my memory, I was around 5 years old when I first realized horses to be perhaps the greatest of God’s creations. When asked what I wanted for any gift-giving occasion, my reply was always the same, a horse of course. I accepted early on that that wish would most probably not be granted due to where we lived and the logistics involved in boarding a horse. However, the response never wavered, and my dream remained steadfast.
Much to my amazement, what I thought to be an unattainable fantasy became a reality on my 16th birthday. I’m sure there were many reasons for the gift, but the fact that I could now drive myself to the little barn just a handful of miles down the road and that my parents most probably could listen to no more stood somewhere in the top five. Most teenagers dream of a car on their 16th birthday, but I couldn’t imagine how anyone could prefer four wheels to an equal amount of hooves.
I grew up in a small town in the center of North Carolina. Everyone knew everyone, at least one neighbor knew where you kept your spare key, and chicken pie suppers at church were such fun. We all went to the same school in the same building first through 12th grade.
There was no riding facility close by and thus no opportunity to have riding lessons or participate in horse shows. Several boys in the area also had horses, and occasionally we would ride together. That was fun, but I knew I wanted more. I dreamed of riding like the equestrians in books and on television. How absolutely grand Elizabeth Taylor was in “National Velvet” riding her valiant steed Pie!
After graduating from the newly constructed consolidated high school in 1969, I was off to college. I honestly don’t remember how it came to pass that my horse and I were allowed to share the journey, but we were, and I was thrilled. I attended Peace College and Mr. French was stabled at Meredith College. If you know anything about Raleigh, North Carolina, you understand the distance between those two schools to be minimal. It was an easy drive over to the barn for a ride.
As life progressed I got married, had children, taught art in public school, and was a horse show mom for years, but I never gave up dreaming.
I lived vicariously through my youngest child and her 18-and-under riding career. This was extremely educational and actually reinforced my desire to ride. When she turned 16 and no longer needed me for transportation, I decided this was my window of opportunity. I discussed my wants and needs with the trainer, and a plan was put in place.
My equestrian offspring was horrified to learn that said tutelage would take place at the barn where she had ridden for years, in the daylight hours, and would be under the watchful eyes of God and everyone. Thankfully that upset was quickly softened when she realized my being there would not interfere with her comings and goings.
At the age of 46 and in the gentle care of a Steady Eddie school horse, I took my first true riding lesson. What a glorious day that was. After a year or so I found Sailor, a wonderful teaching horse, and we were a solid match from the beginning.
I also decided my life had become too hectic with teaching all day and trying to get to the barn in time for a lesson after school. My trainer and I agreed I should move to a different barn just a few miles down the road. For the next 10 or so years, that dear horse and I enjoyed a wide variety of experiences.
In the long shadows of one late April afternoon, my heart shattered into a million pieces when my treasured sorrel Quarter Horse passed away. That horse held all of my secrets, kept me grounded when life threw me a curve, and loved me unconditionally. My barn friends offered their support and mounts for me to ride, but I needed time.
As the months marched on I began to come out of my deep sorrow. I collected all of my tack and trunk from the barn and said my goodbyes. Not to my friends, just to that piece of property. I knew I had to ride and that it was not a betrayal to love another horse. After some thought, I remembered a young woman who used to come to that barn to give lessons. As an educator I recognize excellent teaching practices when I see them, and this young woman had that gift in spades. I got her number.
Later that evening I made a phone call that changed my life. I realize that statement defines dramatic in epic proportions, but it’s true. The young trainer was Catherine Tucker, owner of High Standards Farm in Huntersville, North Carolina. “Cat” told me she had only one horse available, and her name was Drew. She added that she could and would find a spot for me.
Our first few lessons were interesting to say the least. Day 1 was a “Let’s get to know each other” with Cat asking what I had done, how long I had ridden, and so on. I replied with a list of here, there and everywhere, adding the most recent information about Sailor’s passing and our years together. In the telling it sounded somewhat impressive, but in my sudden dose of how-do-you-do reality, it was not. So many years had passed since I had had a serious approach to my riding that this was going to be rather like starting over.
On the upside of my first day at HSF, I recognized a familiar smile offered from a petite lady walking down the aisle. It was Lauren from my former barn. How comforting it was to find an old acquaintance amongst new faces. Lauren and I have become the dearest of friends. She is perhaps one of the sweetest people I know, and that was very helpful in learning the ways of a new place. A complete list of barn mores is not always posted on the tack room wall. As with any community, there are many unwritten rules, and I had enough to worry about with my riding issues. I didn’t want to make an avoidable mistake before even getting started.
Day 2 proved to be one of revelation for both of us. My Sailor was a bombproof Quarter Horse who would put me back in my tack if need be. My new mount Drew was a beautiful Thoroughbred mare who would not return my butt to the proper place, suggesting that to be my job. It gave Catherine the information she needed to go forward and allowed me the opportunity to stare down the barrel of comeuppance. At 60 years old, this endeavor was going to take some serious time, determination and perseverance.
I fell asleep that night thinking, “Well Jane, you’ve always said you wanted to have steady lessons and go to shows, so here’s your chance.” I quickly added a postscript to my first statement of resolve praying that I had enough vertical years left to get the job done.
I was, and still am, the oldest rider at HSF, and that gave Catherine a few additional challenges. Kids just do whatever their trainer asks. Adult amateur riders often reply, “OK, but before moving on, let’s review.”
When she asked me to sit up straight I replied that she was witnessing my top vertical. Heels down, thumbs up, shoulders back, eyes up were the following request. “At the same time?!?” I questioned. “You want me to do all of that at the same time?”
With a smile, Cat responded in the affirmative. I went on to explain that at my age the only thing I could retain with any degree of regularity was water. I continued by adding that perhaps it would be more productive to begin with her top three key objectives.
A few months later, a young HSF rider signed a year’s lease on Drew, and I moved on to Champ, a handsome bay Thoroughbred who had retired from his job as a children’s hunter. Champ had some aging horse issues, and I had a heavy heart, so we were perfect for one another.
I continued to grow as a rider, and Champ found his last hurrah with me. He was a big guy, and we could cover some ground in a skinny minute. I was absolutely horrified at first but eventually relaxed enough to enjoy the ride. He took me to my first handful of horse shows, and we won his last championship. It was in cross-rails, but the height of the fence was immaterial in comparison to the depth of the accomplishment.
I had gone to several horse shows in my late 40s, but that was a very long time ago. In the two years I had been at HSF, hard work, Jack Russell tenacity, and Cat’s patience got me to where I stood that day.
It was also nothing short of amazing that I had beaten a handful of little girls and a few just starting out teenagers. It’s tougher than one might think to place ahead of a cutie pie bouncing around the course on an adorable perky pony. I looked like their grandmother on a great big horse. Lining up with our back numbers facing the judge, I ended up in the middle of the equine chorus line with braids and bows to my left and right, their heads measuring just even with or slightly above my rusty stirrups.
Waiting for all riders to find their place, the results of the over fences classes were called. Champ and I were awarded a first and second place. With a gentle stream of joyful tears cascading down my cheeks, I gave him a pat and a tickle around his withers whispering, “Good boy, buddy!”
Champ, or Oh So Suave, as he was known on the showgrounds, was a pro for sure and twitched his ears recognizing the crackle of the loudspeaker as the announcer returned the microphone to his hand. I gave him a little tap with my heels when they called our number, and he proudly walked forward out of the line to collect our blue ribbon in the under saddle class.
I will always believe he knew what we had done. Champ had amassed many championship ribbons and trophies in his day, but I think he wanted to have one final top honor to his name before hanging up his horseshoes.
Shortly thereafter, Champ was retired, and I could tell he was ready for a much deserved quiet life. The HSF young rider decided to move to jumpers, and Catherine offered me the lease on Drew. I took her up on her offer. Over the past four years I have learned how to better ride that beautiful Thoroughbred mare, and we are truly two hearts sharing one soul. Just this past December I was given the best Christmas gift ever. Cat agreed to sell me my dream horse. As we passed checks and paperwork I had a flashback to my childhood whispering internally, “All I want is a horse, of course.”
Tryon International Equestrian Center is a frequent destination of High Standards Farm and my absolute favorite place to show. It’s convenient to home, Drew loves it there, and it’s perhaps the most well thought-out showgrounds I have ever seen. I have participated in a handful of TIEC horse shows.
While waiting for my class a lady and I were chatting, and she asked which division was mine. Without missing a beat I replied, “low and slow” and was not ashamed to say so either. I’m not sure when I lost it, but my ability to bounce back to my feet after a tumble is no longer in my skills bag.
It takes several strides for me to regain my composure every time I enter the ring and the announcer calls my back number followed by: “Black Pearl, Jane Rankin owner and rider from Huntersville, North Carolina.” I can dream big but never big enough to imagine my name and that of my treasured horse being in lights at the end of the ring of an AA horse show.
I have no doubt many of you can relate to bits and pieces of my story. Horses and riding aren’t just something we do; they are a part of who we are. Some of our better memories center around a horse, a barn family, or perhaps it was a perfect ride with dear friends. The joy we feel walking across the pasture and seeing that beautiful animal quietly grazing brings a smile to one’s face. A soft nicker in response to your hello while opening their stall door is better than buttercream frosting on a freshly baked cake. Swinging your leg over and finding your spot in the saddle invokes a rush of excitement. It has nothing to do with showing or ribbons or honors. It is simply the euphoria of the ride and the deep connection with your horse.
The unwelcome thief of our youth, better known as aging, occasionally results in the need to adjust our thinking or dial back on the physical difficulty, but we do it willingly for the love of our sport. Speaking for myself, and hopefully many of you, I say life is good. I’m 66 years old and while metaphorically and chronologically my stirrups are rusty, the sheer delight of the ride will never tarnish.