Wednesday, May. 22, 2024

Throw Back 40 Years… No, Wait, I Want Them All!

One year ago, I sat in the seats overlooking the arena at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show struck by the sharp memories of the last time I’d been in that location—exactly 42 years earlier.

Four decades ago I was a teenager, with equitation finals glory as my goal. Last fall, I returned to the Farm Show Arena to compete in the NAL Adult Jumper Finals.

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One year ago, I sat in the seats overlooking the arena at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show struck by the sharp memories of the last time I’d been in that location—exactly 42 years earlier.

Four decades ago I was a teenager, with equitation finals glory as my goal. Last fall, I returned to the Farm Show Arena to compete in the NAL Adult Jumper Finals.

After several frustrating years of horses that didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, my new trainer, Scott Gentry, paired me with Avanz R, or “Ava,” a wonderful leased mare who was just supposed to keep me riding while my own mare rehabbed. She turned out to be my ticket back to Harrisburg. After just seven successful shows, we qualified for the NAL. 

To say that I was having crazy flashbacks to my 17-year-old self is an understatement. I vividly recalled how convinced I was that doing well in the Medal Final was a life-or-death situation. I’d worked hard “my whole life” to prepare for that moment, and it had taken on enormous importance. Unfortunately, my horse picked up a nail in his hoof a few weeks before the finals, and I had to borrow a horse for the Medal.

Needless to say, things didn’t go as I’d planned. No fame. No glory. And seemingly, no future. I genuinely thought my life was over.

Emotionally crushed by the experience, I stopped riding altogether, made a split decision to go to college (instead of pursuing riding as a career), and ended up finding two new loves—my patient, supportive, selfless husband John Nitschke, and a fun, challenging and rewarding career in advertising.

So here’s the first lesson I want to share with all those 17-year-olds in their last year of competing at the Medal Final: Even if you blow it, your life will go on. And it will be awesome.

Twelve years after that fateful day in Harrisburg, I decided to start riding again. It didn’t take long to flip the switch. I was hooked all over again. 

But now, as an adult, I had to buy my own horse, pay my own board, squeeze together the money for show entries and most challenging, maneuver around a demanding career to fit in my riding. Therein the dilemma: Working provided the money to horse show but not the time. If I didn’t work, I’d have the time but not the funds. I had to juggle both.

Lesson #2 for the youngsters: None of us truly appreciates how grateful we should be to our parents for enabling us to participate in this incredible sport. What a gift. 

During the next three decades (Really? How is that even possible???) I had a series of average horses and one great one. The great one took me into the high amateur-owner jumpers and enabled me to check a big one off my bucket list—to compete in a grand prix and NOT hear someone say as I walked out of the ring that I had no business being in that class. Mission accomplished. I rode in four grand prix classes and had 4 faults in each. What a thrill.

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Also during those decades, I progressed in my career, working for large global agencies, running global consumer package goods brands. And ultimately moving to a great, privately-held agency, MARC USA, as chief marketing officer and president of the Chicago office. 

Lesson #3: Embrace a multi-dimensional life.

Advertising taught me to be a better rider, and riding made me a better ad exec.

Both rely on great teams. Teams that trust, complement, compensate for and enjoy each other are the teams that win. It’s that simple. 

Learning how to ride a hot, sensitive mare taught me how to curb my type-A tendencies and made me a more effective, patient leader at the office. The intense focus required to prepare for a big new business pitch sharpened my ability to zero in on my plan for a jumper course and execute it well. 


Ava and I at the 2015 NAL Adult Jumper Championships. Photo by Al Cook

We live in a world of metaphors. If you open your thought to the parallels, you’ll be rewarded with inspiring insights you can use in all facets of your life. 

Lesson #4: Love your years. Honor your experience.

OK, this next one is not for the youngsters. It’s for my 50-something peers and anyone who’s bemoaning their advancing age. 

I’ll confess I’ve looked in the mirror and wondered what happened to my face more than once. And whose bright idea was the reverse camera on the iPhone? Does ANYONE look good in that thing? I always jump back three feet when I see myself. No amount of selfie practice is going to solve that problem.

Having said all that, I’m a far better rider now than I was at 17. Not because I’m stronger or more flexible, but because I’m more experienced. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s the honest-to-God truth. I’m not paralyzed by nerves anymore.

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I have empathy for my horse. She’s not just the means to my glory—she’s my partner. I have a much greater capacity to enjoy the moment rather than pinning all my joy on the outcome. 

Which leads me, full circle, to the Pennsylvania National Horse Show…

Sitting there last fall, about an hour before reliving my finals experience, I’ll admit I was a little nervous. But it was happy energy, not that gut-wrenching worry that I’d screw it up. My plan was to notice, enjoy, be grateful for and claim for my own every single moment of that experience. My goal was simply to ride my best, and while I’d be thrilled if I did well, I was happy just to be in that ring. What a gift.

Postscript:

That trip to Harrisburg, with its stark contrast between my 17- and 59-year-old selves, stands for me as one of the real epiphanies in my life. With our society’s fear of aging, it’s easy to get sucked in and feel that you’ve lost something. But in that moment I had a new appreciation of how much we gain as we age.

Ava and I ended up with 4 faults last year, but I honestly didn’t mind. I finally understood (and believed!) that the honor of participating isn’t just “enough.” It’s everything.  

Jump ahead now to 2016. Ava and I had a great summer winning team gold in the USHJA Regional Adult Jumper finals after which, at 19 years of age, Scott and Josey Gentry decided to give her a well-earned retirement.

In the meantime, Scott found me an incredible new horse, Snow Day, and once again I have qualified, so I’m heading back to Harrisburg. I just turned 60 on Oct. 11, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be the oldest competitor in the class.

And I say, “BRING IT!”


I’m headed back to Harrisburg for the NAL Adult Jumper Finals this year with Snow Day. Photo by Andrew Ryback

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