Julie Howard: Confessions of a ‘Master’ Event Rider

Julie Howard is an adult re-rider in her 50s who hails from New Hampshire and competes her off-track Thoroughbred mare Sweetie in Area I events. She’s also hilariously insightful, and this post is a must-read. Many thanks to Julie for writing, and thanks for reading!

Julie Howard and her Thoroughbred mare Sweetie. Photo via Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

Julie Howard and her Thoroughbred mare Sweetie. Photo via Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

From Julie:

I’ve been reading blog posts on EN from eager, ambitious young riders who show an astonishing wisdom at an early age, begotten, I suppose, from all those lonely nights shoveling manure and sweeping the barn, with perhaps a few falls, bumps and bruises added for good measure. When I read these posts, I think, “I wish I had been that eager young rider and stayed with it.” But instead, like so many aspiring high school seniors in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I headed into the world chasing “Working Girl” (the movie, not the profession) success. There was no room for a horse in my vision of my future.

So, like so many of you, my life took a turn away from the four-legged world. Ivy league college, law school, marriage, children, big house, great job. Life was a whirlwind of trying to get it all done and be everything everyone needed. I was that woman everyone talked about in the ’80s who could and did have it all. I was “successful.”

Fast forward. I’ll spare you the details, but the inevitable crash wasn’t pretty. I gained my bit of wisdom not from falling off a horse, but falling off my white picket fence life. I struggled to make sense of it and to keep moving forward. It was very difficult, as these things typically are. I got caught up in staying busy, working and keeping up with my young teenaged kids. It worked, to an extent. But it seemed I was marking time waiting for my real life to start.

At that time, my daughter’s best friend took riding lessons at a local barn. I’d watch her at shows and think, “I used to do that. I wasn’t terrible. I loved it.” I’d shyly mention I used to ride, and the moment would pass. One day, we went to watch a local event (UNH Horse Trials) and, watching all the gorgeous horses pass by, I yearned to be any of the girls riding those horses. I wanted to tell everyone, “Hey, I used to do that! I wish I could do it still!” Then I’d sigh and go back to reality. Monday morning, I’d snap back to work and my life, nose to the grindstone.

One day after a particularly grueling stint that was my life day after day, I said to my friend, “I’m going to do something for ME for once.” Her daughter, who I had been watching at shows, came around the corner in her riding togs. BAM. The idea was born. I talked my friend into taking a riding lesson with me. If we both did it, and I failed, I could just say, “Oh, wasn’t that fun! What a hoot!” blame my age and move on. A fun experience.

That first lesson was memorable mostly because I rediscovered I could post and sort of remembered what aids were. At the end of the lesson, I dismounted triumphantly and promptly fell, my legs fatigued and screaming, “Excuse us, but what was THAT?! You know you are 48, right?!” There was no “Wasn’t that fun! What a hoot! … Yeah, I’m too old” moment. Instead, I was hooked again. I found myself buying boots on eBay and scouting out tack shops I never knew existed in my area for consignment deals so I would look the part on a budget even if my riding was less than polished. I was having a ball.

Eventually, after leasing a couple wonderful horses and meeting wonderfully encouraging instructors, I dared to take one of the horses to a local event. Aged rider was my name, pre-elementary was my game. I already had the black suit coat from an old business suit — just add a white shirt and a stock tie — voila: Enter “eventer.” I had kept my Pony Club stock pin for who knows what reason, but I dug it out. I even invited my parents.

I bathed, braided, cleaned and clipped my mount, scrubbed my tack as if I was going to a Pony Club inspection. I couldn’t sleep. Would I remember my dressage test? Would my horse halt? Would I look as foolish as I felt? Would I fall off?

No. I didn’t do any of that. Instead, I placed (third out of three counts, right?!). It had gone by too quickly — a walk-trot test takes about the same amount of time it takes to sneeze, I discovered — and I wanted MORE. I set a goal: I wanted to ride in the UNH Horse Trials, that event I had watched enviously as an adult and an event I had ridden in as a teenager. I didn’t know how or when I was going to get there, but if you don’t shoot for the stars, you’ll never get to the moon …

On a whim (a story for another day), I ended up adopting a then 4-year-old OTTB mare named “Isn’t She Sweet” (“Sweetie”). That was two years ago, and this past summer, Sweetie and I entered sanctioned events — her for the first time, me for the first time in 33 years. It was terrifying, exhilarating, embarrassing and, at times, I thought, completely foolish. I still mostly think I’m completely foolish. But, now in my 50s, I DON’T CARE ABOUT LOOKING FOOLISH.

It’s liberating to be a “woman of a certain age.” You don’t have to impress anyone. You realize no one is really looking. If on the off chance anyone you care about is looking, they are just happy you’re up and taking nourishment. When we finally competed at the UNH Horse Trials last summer, I smiled (somewhat crazily I suppose) at everyone I saw from the back of my gorgeous bay mare. I WAS that person I envied years before. The competition wasn’t the important thing. I was just plain happy to be there, to be living my dream. Every time I get on Sweetie, I remind myself, “You are just plain happy to be here.” It changes the experience, and I am much less likely to worry about the result. (True confessions — I do worry about the result despite my best efforts to quell that competitive me inside.)

But this experience, this adventure, of being a horse owner, my own trainer (with excellent professional guidance of course), and my own horse boss is an experience filled with huge highs and lows. The highs of completing an event, of going clean, of finishing in one piece so I can continue to go to work — to fund my eventing of course. The lows of fear and self-doubt are particularly numerous now that I’m in my 50s. Owning a horse is so different when mommy and daddy aren’t there to fall back on. I am responsible for it all. Not to mention I have to drive the dang horse trailer alone. I feel like putting a bumper sticker on the trailer a la the “Partridge Family”: Careful — nervous mother driving.”

As an adult rider (a “master” rider, oh Lord), I worry. Constantly. I worry about injury, my joints, my strength, my hearing, my eyesight (can/should I wear eyeglasses on cross-country?), my memory for dressage tests and stadium courses. I also worry about what I can’t see or feel — my insides and the health of my innards. I worry about my family, my children’s reactions to my newfound passion and my bank account  (especially my bank account, but we won’t go there right now).

I way, way, way overthink horse care. The flakes of hay that as a kid I used to throw so carelessly to my horses and ponies I now examine for mildew, dust and any mysterious foreign matter that I should know about but don’t. I read ceaselessly all the magazines advising “feed this, don’t feed that.” When my horse sneezes, I immediately contemplate switching her feed yet again or adding some supplement that will result in the perfect combination of health, weight, coat, hooves, muscles, respiration and a horsey calm mental state that will allow me to stop worrying.

I read books and listen to CDs about horse behavior, horsemanship and “reading the horse’s body language.” I’ve studied books on dressage, hand carriage, leg position, balance, posture, head position and shoulder position. I devour Denny Emerson’s posts on Facebook and constantly take to heart what he says (especially don’t let that lower leg drift, people!). I’ve tried my darndest to ensure my position looks like that of the masters, and I beat myself up if it doesn’t. I want to do it absolutely correctly now that I’ve finally rediscovered this horse thing. I do what I’ve been trained to do by college and law school: research, study, examine, analyze. I drive myself crazy and then crazy again.

What does it all mean? It means I’m LOVING LIFE. I have dear friends now of all ages. I stay active and strong. I get to give back by volunteering at horse gatherings. I travel (to events and to watch at Fair Hill International, but that counts, right?). I have interests and passion. I laugh, a lot. I get to scare myself silly galloping cross country on Sweetie and flying over jumps. Best of all, though, I have the most wonderful soft horsey nose to kiss after a long day in the office. Walking into the barn, smelling that smell, is the best therapy I know for what ails ya.

What got me thinking about all this, my journey into where I am now, was something that happened tonight. I was helping out at the barn where I board Sweetie, sweeping the aisle before graining. It’s a huge barn, some 60+ horses in total. The aisle is long. It was freezing cold, I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes, and the sweeping job seemed endless and discouraging. I mentally cursed every horse owner in the place. Why did they leave a brush there? Why can’t they pick up their blanket straps? Why can’t they put their tack away? Why can’t they pick up every scrid of manure? “Why?” turned into mental whining, and darned if I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself.

Wait, I said to my critical self.  Three years ago, you had no horse, yet you were sweeping a barn for nothing in your precious spare time just so you could be around horses. As you swept, you were looking at every horse owner in the place with envy. You prayed fervently — I wish, oh how I wish, I had a horse myself. How can they do it? How do they have the time? What is it about them that they can do it? Will it ever be possible that … I … might do it? There seemed to be no way.

Yet here I was, a horse owner. Freezing, achy, tired and whiny, but a horse owner. I gripped the broom and forced myself to be in the moment. Feel the broom. Hear the broom. Feel your muscles pushing and pulling the broom. Focus on that square-foot spot. Clean that and move on. Take a deep breath and smell that horsey smell. You would have given your eye teeth three years ago to be where you are now. Appreciate it. Love it. Be grateful. Look down the aisle to see your very own horse watching you and nickering when you look up. Your real life has started. You are happy, so happy, just to be here. And I was.

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