Friday, Mar. 1, 2024

Ringside Chat: Jessica Howington Starts New Chapter With New Ride Serenade MF

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Nurse practitioner Jessica Howington made headlines in 2021 when she and her own Dutch Warmblood mare Cavalia (Sir Donnerhall—Pearllia, I.P.S. Gribaldi) were named to the U.S. Olympic dressage team short list in their first year at Grand Prix.

With the mare, Howington, Ocala, Florida, got plenty of experience in the CDI ring, including a career high score at the World Equestrian Center—Ocala (Florida) in 2021 when they won the CDI3* Grand Prix Special with a 74.46%.

But by the middle of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Florida) circuit last year, Howington made the difficult and emotional decision to retire Cavalia, who was then 16.

Jessica Howington and Cavalia. Lindsay Berreth Photo

In December, Howington, 44, welcomed a new horse into the barn to start her next chapter in the CDI ring, Alice Tarjan’s Serenade MF, an 11-year-old Hanoverian mare (Sir Donnerhall—Duet MF, Don Principe) bred in the U.S. by Maryanna Haymon.

Tarjan, an amateur rider, bought “Shrimp” as a foal and trained her through the levels to Grand Prix. Tarjan campaigned Shrimp in the young horse classes, earning the 4-year-old championship at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions (Illinois) in 2017. They went on to win the USEF Developing Horse Grand Prix championship at the Festival of Champions in 2021.

Tarjan and Shrimp helped the U.S. team win a silver medal at the Rotterdam Nations Cup (the Netherlands) in 2022 and were named the first alternates for the Blue Hors FEI World Dressage Championships (Denmark) that year.

In 2023, the pair competed at the FEI World Cup Final (Nebraska) and on the U.S. team at Aachen (Germany) in the Nations Cup.

Alice Tarjan and Serenade MF at the 2023 FEI Dressage World Cup Final (Nebraska). Kimberly Loushin Photo

We caught up with Howington, who balances her riding goals with her career as a nurse practitioner, to learn more about her decision to retire Cavalia and her plans for her successor. 

How did you come to the decision to retire Cavalia?

We found out that she had had some chronic old changes in her neck that we didn’t know about when we bought her. None of these showed up on the X-rays. It took sending her to get an MRI to find all of this out. There were some nerve impingements.

We did an MRI, and we tried treating the neck, and it would hold for a couple of months, and then I felt like we were right back to square one.

I didn’t feel it was right to Band-Aid a horse that had given me so much already. We tried one last time, and I put her in a show [in February 2023,] and after that Grand Prix ride, I just knew in my heart it wasn’t in there anymore. She just couldn’t do it. I scratched her from the Special because she just wasn’t right.

I just don’t believe in pushing a horse to the point where they’re broken. I made the decision then, and I got her back home. I still ride her lightly when I’m home. She’s happy. She seems to be enjoying her retirement. I love that horse so much, and I couldn’t stand to know that she was in pain in any way.

Do you have plans to breed her in retirement?

She already has a colt and a filly. They’re 2 years old this year. They’re by Five Star, the stallion that Kevin Kohmann competed [at small tour CDIs]. They’re both really phenomenal. I’m really happy with them. Sadly, we did have another foal, but it died in the birthing process. It was by my stallion Lordswood Bernstein. It was devastating. 

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Last year I didn’t even try to breed her because I was so devastated by that. I decided to take a year off of even trying with her. This coming season, I think I’m ready to try to flush some embryos again. We’ll see. Hopefully we’ll get lucky.

Cavalia meeting one of her embryo transfer foals by Five Star. Photo Courtesy Of Jessica Howington

Cavalia was your first Grand Prix horse. What were some of the most important things she taught you?

Humility and patience, for sure. As much as you might want something and as much as you see a goal that you really want to accomplish, it’s not always a straight line to that goal. There’s so many different things that can happen along the way, and you just have to learn the patience and humility to take a step back and take the time to still try to reach your goal, but understand you’re working with another living being, and things happen and things change. 

She taught me to trust a horse again. I had gotten a bad apple or two, and I was really a little bit scared to ride those horses at times. She taught me that I could make mistakes, and it would still be OK. That was a huge gift that she gave me—almost to help get my confidence back with riding. 

She taught me to learn how to let go at some point, to not keep pushing, and that it’s so important to do the right thing for the horse. As much as I wanted to keep showing her and riding her and pushing to get to the goals that I would love to accomplish someday, I had to learn to just say, I can’t do this to my horse. I would never do that to my horse. I just had to let go.

What’s going on with your breeding program at home right now?

I have too many horses! I think I have 22, and pretty much everything is for sale. I have a 3-year-old Jameson foal out of a Grand Galaxy Win mare. He’s getting ready to be backed. 

I have two other 3-year-olds, four 2-year-olds, five yearlings, and then I’ll have four babies this year as well. We have a lot going on!

I’ll probably keep all of them until they’re 3 and at least have some sort of relationship with them and see how they feel when I can actually sit on them and then make a decision on who I want to sell and who I want to keep. The goal is to keep one out of every year. 

I own Lordswood Bernstein [Bonds—Sunshine M, Quaterback]. All of our foals by him are phenomenal. I’ll probably just keep breeding to him. I purchased him when he was 3 from Denmark. He is now 6, so I’ve done all the training on him. I’m planning on bringing him out at third and fourth level this season.

I also have a Glamourdale that’s 2 years old that’s really amazing, and I have another Glamourdale on the way. Pretty much the rest are “Bernstein” babies.

How did purchasing Shrimp come about? 

I knew the horse and Alice, but I didn’t know Alice really personally at all. We always see each other and say hi at the horse show.

I found out Shrimp was for sale through my longtime trainer Andrea Woodard. I went over immediately and tried her. Literally the second I put my butt in that saddle, I knew that we totally clicked.

Funny enough, she really reminds me of Cavalia. They also have the same sire, Sir Donnerhall. The feel she gave me in the saddle really reminded me of that. It was a very familiar feeling.

I’m really grateful, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity with Shrimp, and a huge part of that goes to my parents [King and Melanie Howington] who continually want to be a part of everything I do in the horse world. To have their support is such a blessing. 

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Jessica Howington welcomed Serenade MF to her barn in late December. Photo Courtesy Of Jessica Howington

What are your plans for 2024 with Shrimp?

I just want to make sure we’re fairly solid before we get out and show. I have no huge expectations but no limitations either. I just want to get a good relationship going with her, make sure she’s happy in the work, and then see where it goes. I want to avoid any pressure in that sense. I want to get to know her more than anything and see how the pieces fall.

Is Paris a goal?

It’s a question mark. I don’t want to say yes, and I don’t want to say no. I’ve only had her in my barn since Dec. 30, and I haven’t had that many rides on her. I just don’t know. Yeah, that would be phenomenal and amazing if I could work towards that, but I’m not going to push myself or her.

How is she settling in?

I absolutely love her. She is so sweet. She loves to have her face scratched. She settled right in.

How does life as a nurse practitioner and professional rider work? 

My weeks are crazy. I work as a nurse practitioner all day on Thursdays and typically all day on Mondays, and I also work half days on Saturdays and then one other day; it just depends on what my ride schedule looks like. If I have patients having an emergency or there’s someone I really need to go see, I’ll go see them when I’m done riding.

I was doing telehealth for a while, but now I’m working back in hospice and palliative care. I drive to most of my patients’ homes, but some are facilities.

It is really tough because you get to know these patients on a personal level, and it can be very sad, but on the palliative care side, some of them get better, and that’s very rewarding. But on the hospice side, it can definitely be tough. The horses are definitely my mental escape—that and going to the gym and walking the dogs.

What sort of goals do you have for yourself in your riding career?

I love being a nurse practitioner, so I don’t think I’ll ever stop working as a nurse practitioner, but I do have some pretty intense riding goals. My stallion is really amazing, and I would love to see how we are a few years down the road as far as training with him. I also have another 7-year-old that’s really phenomenal too. I’m just kind of enjoying bringing them up the levels and seeing where they can go. I’ll do the same with the babies I have coming up.

For my whole life since I was really young, I backed my own horses and brought them up through the levels by myself with my trainer. I kind of missed doing that, and now I’m having the opportunity again. I just want to see where things go.

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