And so it begins, my bucket-list journey to Ocala. The drive on Dec. 20 from our farm in the Shenandoah Valley, 90 minutes east to Keswick, was the official start. That’s when I dropped off my horse, Jules, at Brooke Kemper’s farm to be picked up by MJR Horse Transportation for the 12-hour ride to Florida. But this journey began long before that. Ten, 20, perhaps 30 years ago. But who’s counting?
I’ve been wanting to show my horse in Ocala for longer than I can remember. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I’d watch with great envy as my trainer, Peter Foley, and his gang headed south. There was always a reason I couldn’t do it. Kids, money, broken horse, broken human.
This past year as I’ve watched the world grapple with COVID-19, seen several of my contemporaries die way-too-early deaths and struggled to keep a beloved horse alive after he foundered, I realized on a profound, gut level that now is the time to hit my bucket list hard. I’m 68 and, let me tell you, physically negotiating the 60s is like walking through a minefield, given all the illnesses and deaths that have befallen people my age.
It was a vibration in my arm that pushed me to commit to digging into my old-age nest egg to finance this bucket-list trip. And believe me, it’s a deep dig into that fund. Genetics are not on my side when it comes to certain things. So the tingle/vibration in my arm was alarming, given that my father had high cholesterol and blood pressure, and a series of mini-strokes that left him unable to speak. The specter of that happening to me was scary on so many levels, but unable to speak? Who would I be without my big mouth?
Even before the doctor reassured me the vibration was nothing to worry about, I was on the phone with my girl Carly Williams committing to send my boy, Jules, to her to ride/train and show in Ocala and, if all went well, help me show him in the weeniest of divisions. I’ve known Carly since she was a little kid. While she’s still little, she’s no longer a kid. She won the Emerging Athletes Program in 2014 and now is Brooke Kemper’s assistant trainer.
Finally getting to Ocala has been a back-and-forth tango between broken horses and a broken me. Every time I’d thought I’d found the year to do it, either I broke or the horse broke. The last time I was poised to go, with Jules’ mother, she suffered a suspensory injury. Then I imported a horse, hoping he’d be my Ocala ticket. EPM and a general mismatch between challenging horse and timid rider put the kibosh on that. The next horse, my Cabardino homebred who foundered badly this year, developed irreversible back problems that led to his early retirement.
That left Jules, my heart horse—who is also a bit of a knucklehead—as the one to take me on this bucket-list adventure. I pulled him out of his mother seven years ago, come April 1. But my attachment to him goes beyond him being a homebred and the cuddliest horse you’ve ever met. His omentum slipped out after castration, twice. That long red streak of tissue hanging from the castration site acts like a wick for bacteria, and the resulting infection often is fatal. Jules spent more than a month in the hospital the first time. The second time he was there another 10 days, after five hours of surgery. His touch-and-go recovery and intensive care continued at home with me for at least another six weeks. To say we are bonded is an understatement.
So, dropping him off Dec. 20 at Brooke’s felt a little like dropping off my elder son, Ben, to the University of Chicago. I have a funny picture of me sobbing and Ben beaming as we parted. At least with Jules, I knew I’d be down there in less than two weeks to join him.
But back to his knuckle-headedness, which threatened to preclude ticking Ocala off my bucket list. Lead changes have been a struggle. Without them, it’s a waste of money to go anywhere to show, let alone Ocala. But of bigger consequence to me as a rider was his reactiveness.
Two years ago, he spooked and spun me off, which broke a spinous process in my back. I’ve written for the Chronicle about returning to riding after injury. The biggest hurdle for me is fear and how to move beyond it. It’s no fun riding scared, and it makes an already reactive horse more reactive.
After many hours in the saddle with him; many, many lessons with my patient trainer Heather Weaver; a clinic with Tik Maynard and Andrea Waldo; and practically memorizing Andrea’s book, “Brain Training for Riders,” I’ve gotten back to feeling mostly secure on Jules. Thanks to all the aforementioned, I had tools to use should he react, which he did routinely. But it still made me anxious to ride him. While anxious is better than scared, it’s still no fun.
Ultimately, realizing Jules might have ulcers and changing his saddle helped his reactivity the most. Late this fall, I treated him for 60 days with omeprazole. My vet promised I’d know in two doses if ulcers were creating or contributing to his reactiveness. She was right. By the second dose, he could walk down the scary side of the ring without bolting or jumping. But there were still times when he got big and puffy on that side, which triggered me to get tense (fearing another spin), which made him get bigger and puffier, thus making the cycle stronger and seemingly unbreakable.
Then I read a post on Facebook by nearby trainer, Jenn Fessler, about the success she was having with Tad Coffin’s saddle and his Thera-Tree (a mini-version of the saddle for stall use) on a former pasture ornament. That lead me Olympic eventer rider Will Coleman’s Facebook post about his success with the saddles, which lead me to Randolph College (Virginia) biology professor Amanda Rumore who conducted what she called “a large-scale study that generated more than 3,000 data points.” She found that horses wearing the Thera-Tree had a lower resting heart rates and showed fewer stress-related behaviors compared to an untreated control group. When I talked to her, she said she’d ride in that saddle, especially if she were on an overly reactive horse like mine. That was enough for me to give it a try, so I rented a Thera-Tree and got a demo saddle to ride in.
Everyone saw the difference in Jules: my trainer, Heather; my good friend and trainer Carolyn Williams (Carly’s mother); my husband; my riding buddies; and me. Jules walked down the scary side of the ring like an old school horse, with not even an ear flick. And something also happened with the lead changes. He got them at home, when Heather came to school him, and he got them at a nearby farm to school for a show.
Will it last? I hope so. It was enough for me to feel confident to send him to Florida, confident that this is the year to do it, while I am still here on this Earth, and he is sound.
I don’t know if he will show at the World Equestrian Center—Ocala. We will see what happens when Carly starts riding him at Brooke’s farm in Ocala. For me, it will be enough to get in the car with my husband, drive south and spend January in Florida; taking lessons on Jules and watching Carly ride him. Of course, the dream is to watch him show in Florida and, if all the stars are in alignment, show him there myself. But this is the first real step in a very long line of steps to Ocala and finally ticking off this trip off my bucket list.
Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. As a journalist, she was on the Charlotte Observer team that won the Pulitzer Prize, and her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Washingtonian. She lives on a farm south of Lexington, Virginia, with her husband, John Muncie, and too many horses.