Like all pony-crazed little girls, I was convinced that some day I would ride in the Olympics when I was young. I was going to bring home the gold for the USA in stadium jumping – at least I realized at an early age I’d never have the patience for dressage, nor the stamina for eventing. And continuing along a well planned and researched career path, I was going to parlay my Olympic success into my future as a professional horse trainer. (To be clear, a few years later I also thought that I would attend Harvard Law and become a rich trial attorney. That might have been a bit more realistic, but still relatively far-fetched.)
Oh, the joys of youth, when we are told to “dream big” and “you can be anything you set your mind to.” Sorry to break the news, but sometimes your parents lie to you. See: tooth fairy, Santa, basketball stardom…
Anyway, when I was still sure of my Olympic caliber talent, I idolized Katie Monahan Prudent. She was tight in the tack and made the most fire-breathing jumpers look like they were short-stirrup ponies, in my mind at least. She was awesome. She still is. And I was going to be just like her.
Clearly this wasn’t my destiny, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to be just like every amazing horse woman (and a few men) that I encountered. I wrote papers in school about them, I shadowed them at horse shows, I swept barn aisles and rode every wild horse or pony for them. When I wasn’t riding or at the barn, I was reading horse books and making my non-horsey friends play horse show. I was inspired by women who tamed horses, who taught them to accomplish the unthinkable.
As I grew up and now spend less time worrying about winning a blue ribbon and more time trail riding, I’ve come to really appreciate all the “cowgirls” in my life. Those women who obsess and spend hours at the barn, some days never actually tacking up their horse. Those women who now find that success is in the safe completion of the entire course, either at home or away, not the color of the ribbon. Women who love a diamond in the rough or a half-broken former show star with equally reckless abandon. They are brave both on a horse and in their everyday lives. I want to tell you about a few of them…
Women like Hillary, whom I became friends with in my Junior years on the local show circuit in Wisconsin. She’s bold and funny, and has managed to keep horses in her life through some pretty serious highs and lows. A little over a year ago she took a huge leap and started her own private tutoring business, which has become wildly successful but took tremendous amounts of courage to do and I’m so proud of her. She’s always there for me when I need something – a stall in Vienna? Done. Six references for dressage trainers in Richmond? Done. Checking in every few hours when she knows I’m going through some hard times? She’s always there. I appreciate our friendship more than she probably knows.
And there’s Jodie. Jodie and I have been friends pretty much since I can remember, growing up riding together at Somerset Farm and on to Oak Hills. While we may have lost touch for a while when she went off to college and I moved around the country, about five years ago we realized that we lived 5 blocks from each other in Milwaukee. She was kind enough to give me free “rein” to Emmit, her OTTB, while she was pregnant and I had just started riding seriously again. Jodie and I obsess – and I mean OBSESS, about horses and their care. We can spend hours and hours talking about the quality of hay or how much turn out a horse should get and what one of ours is/is not getting. Since we grew up together with the same trainers and many of the same experiences, we tirelessly compare notes on what we learned back then and what we have changed since. She’s always good for a call on a long drive home from the barn, sometimes just a rant about some barn drama or how bad our horse was that day. Jodie and I are kindred spirits in many ways, and if I were to open a barn (with my mom, of course), she’s the first person I’d call!
And Emily. Emily who has an uncanny ability to bounce back from every situation and take it all in stride. The girl who was back in the saddle a little more than 3 months after breaking her pelvis in three places after a horse flipped on top of her. A friend who got in the truck with a then-pregnant friend to bring my beloved Mouse to me in Virginia. Emily taught me the sheer joy of an Open Show and pretending our hunter horses could go western. She is great at spending my money J and I always come home from any tack sale with sparkly and obnoxious colored apparel for horse and rider. We’ve spent hours trail riding and schooling each other and dragging every jump out into the arena just to drag it all back again. Sometimes I get so mad at people, but Emily just shrugs it off and moves on. I could use a bit more of that in my life.
There’s Jen. My favorite memory of Jen is from a horse show at the Wisconsin Equestrian Center (where she now boards years later). It had been absolutely pouring the previous day and night. The footing was knee deep, but Jen wanted to show. I looked out through the rain and there was Jen – on foot – cantering in her tall boots through the corner. I’m pretty sure we all were still drunk from the night before (except Hillary, she probably drove us home). I feel like Jen and I were the friends who “bridged the gap” between show barns. Back in the day none of us were allowed to hang out with girls from rival farms on our own time. But I really liked Jen, so covertly our moms would shuttle us from house to house. The group ebbed and flowed, but Jen and I remained friends, even living together in college for a number of years. She has always been one of my most supportive friends. She was there for me in so many ways when I returned to serious riding again, supporting me going “pro” and lending me her truck to pull my trailer so I could afford to show. Jen is a truly good person that I’m lucky to have in my life.
Then there’s Charlotte. Charlotte and I have only known each other for about 7 months now but she has proven to be an unbelievable friend. Charlotte owns the barn where I keep Jorge. She was the unfortunate one who had to make that call to tell me my Mouse had passed away. Even though we had only been there for a month, she innately knew how special The Mouse was to me. Charlotte and her fiancé Wes could not have been any kinder or more understanding. They took care of details that I could not emotionally handle and made sure that my best friend was properly laid to rest. Beyond all that, Charlotte is witty and relatively unhinged – she would like to add an elephant she found on Craigslist to the menagerie at the barn – and is a blast as a friend. She knows that I’m a bit neurotic about Jorge’s care and always makes sure he is treated like one of her own. Sometimes we spend more time chatting than I do riding, but she’s made the barn feel like my home away from Wisconsin and for that I’m so grateful.
There is Nancy, my first official trainer, a woman who has forgotten more about horses than I could probably ever learn. Nancy has the barn I grew up in, then called Somerset Farm now called Crossroads Farm. She holds a series of local schooling shows every summer and I’ve both judged and competed in many of them. When she first asked me to judge it was a little weird – here I was as an adult at the barn I basically grew up in. It felt a little awkward, if I’m being honest, because this was a woman who I sought so hard to impress as a child and now she trusted me to judge others. But those feelings quickly dissipated as I came to know Nancy as an adult. Years back she started breeding her stallion, Ironman, with much continued success. Given the chance, Nancy will take you on a full tour of her barn and all his offspring, and you can sense the pride she takes in this endeavor. As a child and a student you often regard your trainer with awe and reverence, in many ways keeping them at a distance. However, I’m so glad that I got a chance to get to know Nancy in a different light and I’m proud to call her my friend.
This list could go on and on and on… It should include those women I grew up with that have taken the leap to make a living out of their passion for horses, like Courtney, Emily, Sarah, Chrissy, Cara and others. It must encompass all of the trainers I’ve learned from through the years who taught me how to be a better rider, who had their own unique styles and techniques, who encouraged me to push myself. It needs to have special shout-outs to all my friends who are in the same boat that I’m in, whose encouraging emails and facebook comments lift me up when times are rough and celebrate my successes when we’ve had a good day. Women such as Kate, Katie, Ardi, Denise, Gina, Debi, Marcy, Jill, Darlene, Jude, Sam, Ally, Katy, Sara, Kori, and many others who follow along and cheer me on. It includes every single woman who loves her horse unconditionally, whether she shows or trail rides or just comes out to groom every day.
But I dedicate this to the one cowgirl who has taught me more than I could ever hope. The woman who washed four grey ponies at a time while I half-heartedly hosed one. The saint who polished my boots til midnight then got us up at 3:30a to be at the show on time. The best friend who, along with my father, sacrificed so very much to make my dreams come true. My mom. If you haven’t ever met my mom, you really should. While she runs a successful retail business in Wisconsin her true calling in life was to become a vet. She has more compassion and love for animals than anyone I’ve ever met. She makes friends with everyone she meets and can find the good in most any situation. My mom showed a bit when I was much younger, but for her the joy of horses isn’t in the ribbons it is in the care. She’ll clean stalls and groom and sweep and pick pastures for hours. For her, success is in a relaxing ride. And it doesn’t matter that she isn’t preparing for the show ring, she always wants a “lesson” when I’m home or she participates in the clinics at her barn, spending the day enjoying learning from watching others as much as she likes to ride. My mom is my first call when something is wrong with my horse or someone else’s horse for a diagnostic consultation. She was quick to get to Virginia when I lost my Mouse. She’s always been there for me, both with horses and in life, and I could not be any more grateful. She’s my best friend, my confidant, my favorite trail riding buddy and the most amazing cowgirl I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
So my heroes have always been cowgirls. Fact is, there are still so many more in my life yet to meet…
At the Washington County Twilight Open Show in July of 2012. My last horse show in Wisconsin. And while my horse was a total brat, it was so much fun to be with my friends!