Thursday, Jul. 25, 2024

Amateurs Like Us: Horses Have Helped Catie Cejka Heal From War

Catie Cejka juggles her career with her riding just like any amateur, but for many years, her job wasn’t just any job. She was a nurse in the Army Reserve, deployed overseas multiple times. Despite the difficult schedule, Cejka never stopped riding, and today she’s out of the Army, in a regular nursing job, and eventing seriously.

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Catie Cejka juggles her career with her riding just like any amateur, but for many years, her job wasn’t just any job. She was a nurse in the Army Reserve, deployed overseas multiple times. Despite the difficult schedule, Cejka never stopped riding, and today she’s out of the Army, in a regular nursing job, and eventing seriously.

Cejka’s introduction to horses is a familiar one. She started out trading her time cleaning stalls for time in the saddle. Through Pony Club she started eventing, a sport she would stick with into adulthood. “It was like a big party. You went to an event and you set up a tent and it was like Pony Club at a horse show,” she recalled.

Eventually she traded pony club tents for North American Young Rider Championships, which she competed in as an 18-year-old.

After college, Cejka moved to take care of her grandmother while relying on her skills as a horsewoman to support herself. “I galloped racehorses for two years, I groomed for one and rode for the next while I was trying to figure out what I was doing and while I took care of my grandma,” she said.

A Forced Sabbatical

Cejka figured out what that next step was: joining the Army Reserve. “I wanted to do something bigger than myself, I wanted adventure, and I needed money for nursing school,” she said. “I figured I would get my LPN nursing degree in the military, be gone for a year and a half, then come home and do my horses. However I got deployed to Afghanistan and it changed everything. It was a forced sabbatical from horses.”

The balance between work and horses is hard enough, but for Cejka it was worsened by a string of bad luck and a job overseas. When Cejka found out she would be spending 18 months in Afghanistan training to be a nurse she quickly tried to place her mare, who she had developed to the preliminary level, in a new home. But a potential sale fell apart after Cejka had shipped out. Already gone, there wasn’t much Cejka could do except lease the horse out.

Cejka’s deployment schedule for the next few years didn’t allow for consistent riding or competing. “I came back and I was home for nine months, and I started getting my mare going again and then I got my deployment paperwork and I had to find her a home again,” Cejka said. She quickly found another set of people to lease her horse before she went back to Afghanistan. “I was in the Army Reserves but I ended up doing so much active duty it was unreal,” she explained.


Catie Cejka (second right) with some children on an Army humanitarian mission in Panama.

Cejka came home from Afghanistan in 2008, but being home presented her with a new set of challenges. She spent a year trying to adjust back to civilian life while struggling with PTSD. “My buddy and I had a guard tower get hit and I saw fresh causalities, people I knew and people I didn’t know. So I took a year off to try to get my head back on,” she said.

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She also spent that year in school finishing up her Registered Nurse degree. She credits horses with helping her adjust to life at home. “You kind of go through this period where you have a really hard time adjusting. But the horses force you to get up and go out there to feed them and kind of grumble through that. And then you’re like ‘Oh well, I’ll go ride them,’ and they kind of give you a sense of purpose. And then ‘Oh, I have to get a job,’ because I have to feed the horses.”

That doesn’t mean that getting back in to horses was easy. By this time, her mare was older. And, sadly, she got loose and was hit by a car, forcing Cejka to hunt for a new prospect. “I had a fresh start with new horses whether I wanted to or not,” she said. Despite this, Cejka wasn’t deterred. “I had to start in beginner novice, then move back up, and it took a while for me to get them going again and get myself back.” Cejka persevered, breaking and starting her horses herself and slowly building her string back up.

Cejka was deployed twice more. She spent three months in South America and five months in Indonesia, serving as a nurse or medic for both. She still managed to ride and compete in between deployments.

Effort Paying Off

In 2011 Cejka started working full-time as a registered nurse. At first working a few shows in to her schedule was easy, but as her horses started to progress she began spending more time on the road. Flexibility in her nursing schedule allowed her to have as many as eight days off in a row, but it came at a price.

“If I have a horse show I would try to work six 12-hour shifts one week and six the other so that I could get eight days off. I work night shifts, so I would come home, ride in the morning, do chores, and then go straight to bed,” she said.

Cejka is lucky enough to have help with her horses. In 2014 she married her girlfriend of three years and long time friend, Samantha Arnold. Cejka and Arnold shared a military background, and while Cejka was in Afghanistan, Arnold was stationed in Iraq.

One background they did not share was an involvement with horses, but Arnold picked up on it quickly. “She can do everything! She’s been forced into the life. She grooms them, she braids them now—apparently I don’t do a good enough job!” she said, laughing. Cejka taught Arnold to ride, with Arnold later competing in a few recognized events.  


Catie Cejka (right) on Light In The Dark and Samantha Arnold (left) on Lady

Arnold even ships the horses to events for Cejka. “She helps haul them to California with me, because we compete in California in the spring now that I have a really good prelim mare. The closest event is about 14 or 15 hours,” Cejka said.  

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While Cejka got out of the military in 2013 after serving for nine years, Arnold did not and has been deployed since. “I got out and she went away for a year and I went to California twice that year in the spring. I showed, and groomed and did all my horses by myself. I can do it by myself but it’s a lot rougher,” she said.

All of Cejka’s hard work and determination paid off in a big way in the fall of 2014. She won the Adult Team Championships division at the preliminary level at the Nutrena USEA American Eventing Championships (Texas) with her horse Light In The Dark. “I bought her right after I got back from deployment and she was the light in my dark time,” she explained.


Catie Cejka and Light In The Dark competing in the 2014 Nutrena USEA American Eventing Championships

Cejka also brought the mare along herself and even used her to teach Arnold to ride.

Despite her complicated path back to riding, Cejka has some pretty straightforward advice for other amateurs trying to balance work, horses, and a personal life. “It’s all about planning,” she said.

“I do the work with my horses so I know them really well. I’ve established good manners, and that helps because I’m in a hurry a lot of the time,” she said. “So my horses load without me doing anything half the time. It’s just planning, because when the farrier comes I have to be here. Finding a job that can work around your horse life is good to do, versus the other way around.” 


This is part of our “Amateurs Like Us” series of articles about amateur riders juggling busy careers with show ring success.

Read all the stories in the Amateurs Like Us series 

Are you one of those inspiring amateurs? Do you know one? Email us and tell us more and maybe you’ll be next in the series!

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