Former Olympic Jumper Helps His Retired Groom Deal With A Difficult Diagnosis

Dec 1, 2021 - 2:57 PM

Just outside of Bozeman, Montana, on a cool night in early September 2021, former international show jumping groom Tasha Houghton stood outside in the rain, anxiously awaiting the arrival of an old friend. As she stomped her feet to stay warm, she fondly reflected on the many places the two had visited together—Normandy, France, in 2014; Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2015; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016. Houghton had had a difficult year, and her friend was making the long overland journey from Virginia to help lift her spirits.

When the lights of the Brookledge trailer finally turned into the drive, it was close to midnight. But the cold, the rain and the late hour no longer mattered to Houghton.

Her buddy, retired international show jumping superstar Barron, had finally made it home.

For nearly seven years, Houghton groomed for U.S. show jumper Lucy Davis, who bought the chestnut Belgian Warmblood (For Pleasure—Vita Van’t Riethof, Nabab de Reve) in 2013. The team—Davis, Houghton and Barron, along with Davis’ other horses—competed around the world at venues including Aachen (Germany), the World Cup Finals, the World Equestrian Games and the Olympic Games. The women became close friends and when Houghton decided in 2020 to step away from grooming after a nearly 20-year career, the Davis family offered her a place to stay on their ranch in Logan, Montana.

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Lucy Davis and Barron at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, where they helped the U.S. team take silver. Lindsay Berreth Photo

“I was tired and needed a break,” Houghton says. “I always wanted to live in Montana, meet a cowboy and live a normal life.”

Houghton got a job working at a local saddlery where she sold specialty saddle pads, learned how to sew leather and about the fundamentals of saddle construction and design. She made friends in the local equestrian community and enjoyed spending time with the Davis family whenever they visited.

“I literally picked the one state in the entire world where grooming doesn’t really exist,” Houghton says. “Everybody has horses but they live in the backyard; you ride them for six hours, and you turn them out. English riding is not out here—everybody rides western. It’s definitely been a learning curve in a lot of ways, and starting over is never easy.”

Houghton, who was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but grew up mostly on the East Coast, always wanted to ride but rarely could afford lessons. At an early age, she learned that hard work could be exchanged for riding time, and she gained valuable skills along the way. Houghton began grooming professionally while still a teenager, eventually working for top show jumpers including Christi Israel, Peter Wylde and Darragh Kenny, as well as Davis, whom she first met in Germany.

“I knew Tasha for a couple years before we worked together—we go pretty far back,” says Davis. “She definitely had big goals for the sport, as I did. When you’re really hungry for it, and when you are so aligned with where you want to go in the sport and what you want to achieve, I think it’s the best of partnerships.”

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Davis, Houghton and Barron celebrate a good round during their competition days together. World of Show Jumping Photo

Houghton even went with Davis to Stanford University (California), where she groomed for Davis at the school’s famous Red Barn.

“Your groom is the last person you see before you go in the arena, big or small,” says Davis. “Preparation is everything, and I just always knew she had my back and she had done her part. Going into these high-stakes, high-pressure environments knowing that and having that security is everything to a rider.”

Houghton felt equally that Davis supported her in return.

“Lucy is a really great person to work for, and I really enjoyed that part of my life,” Houghton says. “I ended up riding quite a bit for Lucy, especially at the end, and I got to ride some really nice horses.”

Despite the rapport the women enjoyed, Houghton knew it was time for a change as the Florida season wrapped up in 2020. She briefly worked in Michigan before arriving in Montana in August that year. That fall, Houghton went for a routine physical, her first in many years. The doctor felt several suspicious lumps in her arm pits and, in October 2020, she was sent for a mammogram.

“I never went to a doctor or anything when I was grooming,” Houghton says. “You know, your health is always second to the horses.”

Not only did doctors discover that Houghton had early stage breast cancer, she also was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that begins in the lymph system. She underwent surgery to remove the affected tissue and began a regimen of chemotherapy. Maizie Houghton, Tasha’s sister, moved to Montana to help take care of her. Tasha enjoyed three months of partial remission before receiving the news that her tumors had spread. She is currently completing another round of chemotherapy and hopes that an upcoming scan will bring good news.

“I’ve got a great group of friends here—local gals who have lived here their entire lives, and they help me drive to appointments,” Tasha says. “The hardest part of the cancer stuff is that my physical abilities and my stamina are just in the toilet. I used to be able to work hard and do 90 hours a week. Now there’s days I can’t even walk to the refrigerator because I’m so tired. The mental part of that has been harder on me than the physical part.”

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Houghton with Barron, right, and Cassis 54, another one of Davis’ retired grand prix jumpers, after she and Davis went took them on a trail ride in Montana. Photo Courtesy Of Tasha Houghton

But with Barron’s arrival, Tasha had someone else to help boost her spirits. She visits him at the Davis family’s ranch, just a five-minute car ride from Tasha’s home in Three Forks, Montana, almost every day.

“He helps me so much,” Tasha says. “He has been my best friend forever. If I’m having a bad day, I just go out there, and even if I’m not strong enough to ride or do anything, he’s always happy to see me, and that’s just a nice feeling.”

Tasha learned early on in her relationship with Barron, now 17, that he was a character who demanded that things were done his way—or no way at all.

“Barron is definitely the most sensitive horse I’ve had a partnership with,” says Davis. “They talk about how genius-type people sort of have a different way of thinking and doing than the rest of us. He is sort of like that.”

“In the beginning he was quite difficult,” Tasha says with a laugh. “Everything you did, you had to make him think it was his idea.”

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Barron deciding what he thinks about wearing a western saddle for the first time. Photo Courtesy Of Tasha Houghton

One year at Aachen (Germany), Barron simply refused to come out of his stall for the vet check.

“I will never forget it,” Tasha says. “We’re there with Beezie [Madden] and McLain [Ward], and I’m late for vet check because he wouldn’t come out of his stall. He just wouldn’t come out. I had to walk away, come back and try again, and finally he decided it was OK. He just has a personality.

“You’d be grazing him, nothing would happen, then all four feet are off the ground,” Tasha continues. “I always had a longe line just in case. He’s very sensitive, and he taught me a lot about patience and understanding. He’s such a funny character, and he’s exactly the same now.”

With Tasha helping to mitigate Barron’s anxiety in the barn yard, Davis could focus on managing his energy in the competition ring. The strong bond between the horse and his groom also meant that Tasha was quick to notice subtle changes that signaled trouble; in particular, the sensitive horse was prone to random bouts of colic, often at the most inopportune moments—such as just before the Olympic Trials.

“She could catch it straight away because she just knew his ins and outs so much,” Davis says. “I think it’s because she as a person is so empathetic and really has deep emotions. She is a really empathic person.”

After returning from the 2016 Rio Olympics, an old injury in Barron’s left front leg flared up. The condition was managed under veterinary supervision, and Davis elected to compete him in Barcelona, Spain, at the Nations Cup Final later that year. But after the first day of competition—“one of the best rounds he and Lucy ever had,” according to Tasha—Barron’s leg appeared more swollen. A scan revealed that the fibers of the suspensory branch were stretched, and Davis immediately withdrew him to begin rehabilitating her longtime partner. However, as usual, he had his own thoughts about how that process should go.

“In hindsight, if we had just turned him out for a year, I think he would have been back,” Tasha says. “He was so horrible to rehab—that sounds bad—but he’d be good, then he’d just freak out in his stall.”

Davis ended up retiring Barron after Florida in 2020. Though Davis already had several retirees living on her family’s Montana ranch, she was hesitant to send Barron out there to join them.

“Barron is so particular,” says Davis. “He has pulled so many random acrobatics in paddocks, in stalls, just feet over his ears. We didn’t want him out in the Wild West without much supervision.”

Instead, she opted to send Barron to Dr. Tim Ober’s farm in Virginia, where she knew an experienced crew could oversee his transition to living outside and “just being a horse.” But when Tasha moved to the town right next to her family’s Montana ranch, Davis began to reconsider. And when Davis learned of Tasha’s health challenges, the decision became simple.

“We felt not only would he enjoy being with her every day, but if that could be a source of comfort and happiness in a time where she needs the strength she can get where she can get it, that was everything,” says Davis. “Most importantly for all of us, with Tasha out there, he could live a good life in the Montana fields and make that transition with the best supervision possible.

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Barron’s living situation in Montana may not bear much resemblance to his life on the circuit, but it has no shortage of turnout. Photo Courtesy Of Tasha Houghton

“She and Barron were the two consistent forces in my life for some very critical years,” Davis continues. “Their bond is incredible, and I feel like it is incredibly fitting they are living their retired days together.”

“I’m so grateful to the Davis family to still allow me to be part of his life,” Tasha says. “It’s an amazing thing for them to do for me. He did so much for me and my career. The opportunities he gave me—I just hope that I can give him the best retirement. He’s the best, and he deserves the best. Having him close is amazing.”

When she is feeling well enough, Tasha enjoys riding Barron. But in keeping with the local equestrian culture, Tasha is riding the former Olympic and World Equestrian Games medalist in a western saddle.

“When I first put the saddle on, he was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ ” she says with a laugh. “The saddle weighs maybe 50 pounds, and I thought he was going to freak out with the back cinch, but he didn’t do anything. I rode him in a round pen, then opened the gate and went on a nice trail ride. He was perfect.”

“Never in a million years did I think that Barron, who spooks at every squirrel and imaginary things behind every bush, would be doing this,” says Davis with a laugh. “She’s got him in a good mindset.”

Today, the former show jumper lives out in a large field with a run-in and six other horses, including two of Davis’ other retired grand prix horses and a few cow ponies. And for Tasha, learning to live life with health issues, far from the elite show jumping arenas has been about finding new priorities.

“I would like to use him to be a little bit of a cow pony,” Tasha admits with a chuckle. “Lucy’s neighbors have 600 head of cows and an operation, and I help them move cows once in a while. I think he would enjoy it. It’s pretty easy-going work. I think he still likes to have a purpose.”

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