When I turned 5, I took my first riding lesson: a trail ride down the road to see the neighbor’s new foal. About 10 minutes in, my ancient pony decided he’d had enough exercise for the day and turned around to trot back home. I bounced off and sat in a disoriented heap as he disappeared around the bend. My instructor, finally realizing I was no longer behind her, looked down at me and said, “Well, you better start running. He’s got a good head start.”
I was hooked.
I grew up riding in Leesburg, Virginia, the heart of hunt country. I was lucky enough to show when you could still ship-in to the big prestigious venues one day, then return home and chase foxes the next. Even though I didn’t own the trendy saddles or apparel, I was an effective rider and could pin at places like Upperville or the Middleburg Classic in good company. I was an active 4-H member and learned all I could about horse care and management. Still, I had a nagging suspicion there was a level of horsemanship just out of reach, both financially and educationally.
I rode through high school and college, reading every publication and book on horsemanship I could find, but money, time and the increasing pressure of the real world took precedent to childhood dreams. Then, right after moving back home to start looking for a job after college, I decided to spectate at the Capital Challenge Horse Show happening just down the road in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
In retrospect, it might have just been the outrageous amount of coffee I consumed that morning, but I felt an electricity I hadn’t felt in years as I walked around the Prince George’s Equestrian Center and saw the bustling ecosystem that was a top-level horse show. The reality was I loved horses, and I decided that if I was going to give this world a try—the one I sensed had been just out of reach as a kid—it was now or never.
So I went back home, read through my collection of The Chronicle of the Horse magazines, and started cold-calling all the people I wanted to work for. After a few days, I received a call from a man asking if he was speaking with Sophie Ballo. I said yes, and he said, “Hi, this is Chris Kappler. I received your name from Carol Thompson over at Quiet Winter Farm. She said you were looking for a job, and I need a manager and a rider for the upcoming season, so tell me about yourself.”
Two days later, I was driving up to New Jersey to manage and ride for Hunterdon, Inc.
Throughout the amazing years I spent on the circuit, I was lucky enough to continue working for some of the most talented horse people in the business. I established myself as a freelancer, doing just about anything that was required of me, from riding to managing to teaching to grooming. I had some great days, some terrible days, some days when all I managed to eat was the pint of Ben & Jerry’s I picked up from the 7-11 on the way back to the hotel from the show, and some days when I pinched myself for working at the places and for the people I had only read and dreamed about as a horse-crazy little girl.
As my 20s neared my 30s, though, the lifestyle I envisioned no longer matched my reality. I rode 8-10 horses a day, but I couldn’t afford one of my own. I traveled to all of the top horse shows, but I never got to actually show there. Relationships were near to impossible without a steady zip code, and family time was rare. The path from freelance jack-of-all-trades to owning my own operation was arduous, and, when I was truly honest with myself, it wasn’t something I was willing to sacrifice enough for to make happen.
So I hung up my stirrups and entered the “real world” with a job in marketing, thinking my time with horses was over.
Thankfully, in the largest sense of that word, I was wrong.
Fast forward to now: Exactly 10 years later, I rejoined the sport as an adult amateur with a spicy, opinionated, loving mare named Callie. I found her on Facebook. She is an 11-year-old Paint-Appendix cross (unfortunately with Thoroughbred feet). She jumps the moon and only does flying lead changes when she feels like it. She will stand and happily be brushed forever, raising her hoof and arching her neck with pleasure. She will “smile” on command. I’ve had her for a little over a year now and am more in love every day.
She is not one to keep company with the horses I used to ride, and I will still never have the money to show at the venues where I used to work. But with her, I’ve internalized the old trope that being a good horseman has little to do with your bank account. I apply all of the knowledge I gained as a professional to her care and training, and I delight in seeing her progress within her own abilities. I love having my own amazing trainer that I can turn to for support and advice, and I love being a part of a barn community in a way I couldn’t as an employee.
So that’s my story. From sitting in the middle of the road watching my lesson pony trot away to sitting on extremely expensive horses at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida to sitting on my own little spirited Cal Pal, I hope to share with you the lessons I’ve learned along the way, and the ones I’m still learning now.
Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur with a little APHA mare named Callie, who has a passionate love of peppermints and jumping with her knees to her eyeballs. She resides with her increasingly horsey husband and three cats in Boulder, Colorado.