The Unorthodox Way: An Unlikely Pair’s Journey to Upper Level Eventing

EN values adult amateurs as representative of the heart and soul of our sport — no one works harder to find the start box than this demographic, who must balance riding with other life obligations. We love sharing adult amateur success stories, and this one will be a special inspiration to those who got a late start to eventing or found themselves clicking with an unlikely equine partner. Enjoy! Have a story to tell? Email us at [email protected]

Jeff and LeeLee at Galway Downs. Photo by McCool Photography.

I am writing to basically give props to my husband — Jeff. I don’t do it often enough and thought it was an appropriate time to do so – publicly – as he embarks on his journey to “upper level” eventing.

I have known Jeff — or known of Jeff — for decades, way before I was actually ever introduced to him. We grew up in a smaller city in central California and even though we didn’t know it, our paths crossed in so many ways before we even knew each other.

Fast forward to 1996, we both had gone away to college and had returned home to continue on with adulthood. Jeff worked in the construction field and I worked in the insurance industry. As indicated before, we have mutual friends and we were officially introduced at a festival. We chatted a bit, Jeff was a good single guy — or so I thought — and let me do all the talking. The festival ended and we went our separate ways. I asked my friend if she knew if Jeff was dating anyone and she found out he was living with a lady. So I wrote him off.

Low and behold, one year later at the same festival (must not have been much to do in our city), we met up again and this time he was really single and we started dating. I learned Jeff had grown up around water – liquid and frozen – and was an avid skier. Actually he speed-skied competitively. Just think going 80-90 mph behind a boat in the ocean or on a lake. He had a serious water skiing injury prior to us meeting and basically broke his ankle – external fixator and all. He had attempted to return to competitive water skiing but his legs/ankles couldn’t hold up. He still water skied and snow skied but just socially.

I had grown up as the town kid that had a friend that had horses and lived in the country. While I participated in usual sports growing up, the only one that stuck with me was horses. I rode in grade school and high school, rode during the summers while in college and knew a barn owner that always had horses for me to ride after college.

When Jeff and I started dating, I was not riding but through work I met a gal that “had a horse that wasn’t working out for her.” I started riding again and a truck, trailer and horse later I was hooked … again. Jeff wasn’t into horses and probably had ridden a handful of times in his life. And like most people had that “one experience” where a horse brushed them off in the trees. He was not afraid of horses, just didn’t know anything about them.

I wanted to spend more time with my horse so moved her to a boarding stables which was closer to town. There was a bay mare next to mine that I never saw the owners and kinda felt bad for. I left a note on her stall door asking if they wouldn’t mind if my husband groomed their horse — thinking it was a win/win/win for horse, owner and groomer. The owner contacted us and was so open to whatever Jeff wanted to do with their horse – Tuffy! Little did we know but quickly found out, Tuffy was an 18-year-old “colt” that was barely trained, trotted everywhere and had a bit of Jeff’s attitude – let’s go!

Jeff, Tuffy, my horse and myself fully immersed ourselves in horses. Camping, team penning, sorting, still the hunter/jumper thing for myself and team roping. Yep – team roping. We had penned and sorted and Jeff got the crazy hair that he wanted to team rope – the heels. So he and Tuffy started that discipline.

It wasn’t until we moved to Montana that Jeff got into riding English and ultimately eventing. In California, I could be at a show in about two hours and be home the same day. The same does not go for English events in Montana. I would drag Jeff along to horse shows and he would be bored out of his mind. After the first one or two shows, he informed me that I needed to teach him how to jump and to find him a horse.

So the quest was on. There have been several horses since Jeff started riding English and most were totally inappropriate (my bad). Enter – a small (15.2 size 0 shoe), bay OTTB mare. I found her about two hours from where we live. She was a brumby – fat, hairy, pony mane, lived in a field with no blanket and no shelter – but was super cute. I thought to myself she would make a cute kids hunter so I bought her very cheaply and brought her home. She was anything but a kids horse. Fiesty, opinionated but loved to jump so much so that she put herself through the jump chute. She liked jumping so much she was just a handful when you pointed her in the direction of a jump. I got her started and tried to sell her. Good luck with that – small opinionated mare with no record.

What LeeLee looked like when we got her. Photo courtesy of Julie Goodwin.

I had signed up for a clinic with another horse and something happened (as always does) so I was going to scratch the clinic. Jeff offered to take the mare (LeeLee). I thought what the hell. I wasn’t going, wasn’t going to get a refund and wasn’t going to be there to witness the carnage. Both survived the clinic (Jimmy Wofford of all people to have to deal with green and greener) and when they got home, he said they were going to make a go of being a team.

LeeLee after her first clinic, with Jimmy Wofford. Photo by Jeff Goodwin.

Their journey is not like most. Sure she had no training except track training and he was green, but how often do you get a middle aged stocky guy who has been riding maybe 7-10 years but western, you know the saddle with the horn, team roping off of good quiet trained quarter horses, and a small hot mare. He often gets asked if he is walking around his kid’s horse – like a good horseshow dad!

Jeff and LeeLee at Galway Downs. Photo by McCool Photography.

They have had their struggles and have hung out at the Preliminary level for a while (along with a mandatory drop down back to Training) but are about to make the huge leap to Intermediate. Who knows how it will go or if they will be successful (however you want to describe that) at the level but I just want to say – Way to Go – as it hasn’t been easy and they both have persevered. Many, many thanks to the coaches who believed in both of them, Carol Nichols and Jil Walton.

Here’s to doing things the very unorthodox way! Good luck Jeff and LeeLee at Rebecca.