Dana Goedewaagen has spent her career working in two very different occupations. For the first half, she cared for some of the top horses in the hunter/jumper world, traveling seasonally between the Northeast and Florida. In the second, she cared for humans in a busy city hospital as a respiratory therapist.
“I really went from living in the snow globe of the horse show world to this real-world job at a hospital with gunshot wounds and overdoses and all kinds of rough situations,” she said. “You can’t get much more opposite, from the show world to a major medical center in a major city dealing with the most difficult population. I very often think, ‘Wow, there was no place in the middle for me!’ ”
Growing up in Westport, Connecticut, Goedewaagen never imagined a life beyond horses. She can’t remember what drew her to horses, as no one else in her family rode, but she started taking lessons at Nimrod Farm when she was young. At age 8, she began riding at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she learned how to ride and care for horses under the legendary trainer Emerson Burr.
“To have grown up learning from Emerson Burr… there’s just no greater gift in life,” Goedewaagen said. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I’m 62 years old, and I still hear his voice in my head every day. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone in my life that had more impact on more people than he did.”
Goedewaagen rode ponies, then horses, at Fairfield, earning her keep by grooming. When she was in her last few years of high school, Leslie Burr (now Howard) showed up to ride professionally for the club.
The Glory Days
“When Leslie came along, I really realized I had no talent at all,” Goedewaagen said with a laugh. “For the first year or so we were just friends, and we just rode all day long together. Then I graduated from high school, and I really realized that I didn’t have the financial resources or the talent to make a career out of riding. I can remember thinking, ‘I’d rather be a really good groom than a not very good rider.’ ”
So Goedewaagen went straight from high school graduation to grooming full time for Fairfield in the mid-1970s.
“It was such a golden era at Fairfield,” she said. “Leslie won everything in the hunters and jumpers, and we had such wonderful owners. It was insane, the amount of amazing horses there at the time. We took four or five trucks and trailers to the major horse shows, and they were all winners.”
It was during that time that Goedewaagen’s horse of a lifetime, Chase The Clouds, came along. A gray Thoroughbred that rocketed to the top of the grand prix ranks with Howard, “Freakie” was incredibly special to Goedewaagen, so when he died of colic complications in 1981, she was crushed.
“I can still remember Leslie calling me and telling me he was gone,” she said. “I remember where I was standing, what she said to me. I was so young. It was my first heartbreak. That horse was my life.”
Goedewaagen found it too difficult to continue at Fairfield after Freakie’s death, so she moved on to another grooming job at Sunnyfield Farm in Bedford, New York, caring for horses for Karen and Sandy Nielsen, two of the top junior riders of the time. There, she was responsible for some of the top hunters and equitation horses of the day, including Watership Down, Master Dan, Taxi and French Leave.
“I was so lucky; they’re still family to me,” she said. “They’re the best family, and they had the best horses on the most beautiful farm. I was with them for a long time.”
When Karen and Sandy aged out of the junior ranks and stopped riding, Goedewaagen took a job grooming for Mary and Harvey Waller at Orleton Farm in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, caring for both hunter/jumper and driving horses.
“I really only had three real grooming jobs in my life, which was Fairfield and then the Nielsens and then the Wallers. I was very lucky to work for amazing people who were so good to me. Not everyone is that lucky indeed,” she said.
Making A Break
But when she was in her 40s, with decades of grooming under her belt, Goedewaagen decided to make a big change and leave the horse world. One of her cousins was a respiratory therapist and told her about working three 12-hour shifts a week.
“I’d been working 16-hour days, six or seven days a week my entire life,” Goedewaagen said. “I thought it sounded pretty good! I was very lucky that there’s a good community college here, Berkshire Community College. It took me a while, but I got my degree and then my job as a respiratory therapist.”
For the first time, Goedewaagen had true time off, four days a week! “For the first time in my life, I got hobbies,” she said. “I started hiking and kayaking and biking and all these things that when horses are your world aren’t even on your radar screen. It was really such a new world for me.”
Goedewaagen kept in contact with some old friends from the show world, but she had nothing to do with horses for a number of years. Then seven years ago, in a quest to create some holiday gifts, she took up photography. She took her new DSLR to the Wallers’ Orleton Farm one day and snapped a few pictures of Mary driving her horses. And Goedewaagen found a way to bring horses back into her life—through her lens.
Goedewaagen now shoots horses whenever she can, spending some of her days off at horse shows where she has the blessing of the official photographer. She credits photographers James Leslie Parker and Alden Corrigan with providing her support, encouragement and advice.
Through photography, Goedewaagen has made a connection back to her roots, shooting images at shows for The Groom’s Award, the brainchild of her friend Andrea Mewhinney. Her particular interest is capturing the bond between a groom and their four-legged charge. She also volunteers her photography skills to Equine Advocates, a nonprofit equine protection organization. She has a particular interest in creating portraits of people with their dogs. Her own dog, Bear, is her constant companion.
Long walks with Bear and the photographic creative process have been a welcome respite from Goedewaagen’s professional life for the last year. In the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Goedewaagen’s been on the front lines fighting the virus.
“I can honestly say that I’m not the same person I was a year ago,” she said. “And I think that most of my coworkers would probably agree with that.
“It’s really taken a huge toll on everyone,” she continued. “It’s been a long year of holding the hands of dying people with no family there. The frustration of having no interventions has, I think, been for us the hardest thing as healthcare workers. We intervene. That’s what we do. We have an answer for everything; [it] may not [be a] perfect answer, and it may not always have a good outcome, but we always have an intervention for every single thing that might arise. But in the last year we’ve just been standing there staring at patients dying and looking at each other knowing we have nothing to offer this person. It’s been awful.”
But Goedewaagen has seen the best in people as well. Neighbors left her food, supplies, flowers and care packages.
“I will say that I really learned in the last year to just focus on the good in people,” she said. “I was the recipient of unbelievable kindness in the last year.”