Take a second and think about who some of the most influential people in your life have been. For me, my parents and grandparents come at the top of the list. Also at the top of the list are various women who have each played a major role in my life with horses. They are the strong, ambitious horsewomen who, in a sense, also raised me. These ladies have taught me as much about life as they have taught me about horses. I’ll bet you know some women who have done the same for you.
One of my early riding instructors, Kathy, was the first to teach me what it meant to be strong—to learn how to take criticism and grow from it. She taught me that riding is a privilege that is earned—it’s not something that is handed to you. She taught me that the barn isn’t a place to sit around with your friends and chitchat—it’s a place where we come to sweat, build muscles, get blisters and do work. You think you’ve done all of the barn chores? Nice try. Pick up a broom! Make yourself useful! If I ever learned what it meant to have a good work ethic, I surely learned it from her.
Then there was Jennifer, a lively, yet laid-back woman from California. She was the first to introduce me to jumping and to eventing. In the ring, she would launch into long explanations of theory, and she was always full of creative analogies, usually broken up by a few funny jokes. She was also the first to help me experience how much fun I could have with horses outside the ring. She took us on trail rides, to gallop on the beach, to 4-H shows, pony costume contests and hunter paces. She was the brave soul who would load up a trailer full of horses and a truck full of middle school girls and haul us hours away for a weekend of showing. Looking back on it, sometimes I think I learned the most about life from conversations we had in that maroon-colored Dodge Ram, driving on the winding red-dirt roads of Georgia in the summer heat. The best piece of advice she ever gave me was right before I went to college, when I knew I was about to meet a slew of riders who were a lot better than me. “You can’t compare yourself to anyone else,” she said. “You’re all coming there from different backgrounds and you all have different goals.” They were wise words that I remind myself of literally every time I enter an arena. Jennifer has remained a close friend, and we get the old barn crew together for reunions each year.
When I got to college at Otterbein University, I began lessons with a woman named Kari who has an incredible ability to make complicated things sound simple. If you have a problem, she always has an answer. When I would hear the clink of the metal pin as she raised the jump cups, I would give her a worried look—but her cool confidence always consoled me. I had complete and total faith in her knowledge. If Kari said I could do something, I knew that really meant I could. Kari is incredibly perceptive and has an amazing ability to know when you need tough love and when you need a confidence boost. When I would stew over my competition anxieties, she’d remind me of a sentiment often repeated by horse people: You make your own luck.
My current instructor, Vanessa, has serious hustle. She runs both of her 20-stall barns herself and is always on her way to teach someone, ride or take care of some kind of animal—whether it’s a horse, cat, human or dog. She’s someone who laughs a lot, which I think is especially important in the horse world. Vanessa has competed through Grand Prix dressage, bred some lovely horses and spends a lot of time working with her daughter, Courtney, who is eventing at Intermediate Level. For as busy as she is, she manages to be super accommodating. She meets me for early-morning lessons before work and teaches late into the day for other riders. She teaches professionals on fancy-moving horses and she teaches us Adult Amateurs on whatever we’ve got. She doesn’t care about the breed of horse or the bloodlines or conformation—she focuses on what we can improve. She halts my overthinking brain and coaches me to “Just do it!” When I talk about my hopes for the future, she simply says “Why not?!” Those are refreshing words when there are always so many eager critics.
These four professionals are only the tip of the iceberg of influential women I have encountered in the horse world. If my stories aren’t case-in-point enough, just take a look at the FEI Dressage World Ranking List. Women occupy nine of the top 10 spots. We literally run this.
Horsewomen don’t bat an eye at taming a 1,200-pound animal, and surely don’t shy away from blood, sweat, tears or heavy machinery. Before most people have even made a pot of coffee, horsewomen have brought a herd of horses in from the field (in sunshine, rain, sleet or snow), fed 30 mouths, thrown 50-pound bales of hay, emptied and refilled an entire barn’s worth of water buckets, dragged an arena with a tractor and swept the barn aisle—and they do it every single day…Twice. If something is broken, ask a horsewoman. We can fix it as long as we have bailing twine or duct tape. We know how to use power tools, too.
We gently treat our horse’s wounds. We carefully braid their manes. We handwalk ailing ones at odd hours of the morning. We practice grace and finesse in the saddle, but possess the brute strength to fix fence lines and lift bags of feed. We are a force to be reckoned with.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, there’s a lot that that could be said. But my main point is this: In a larger world where women are often short-changed, I am so thankful to have grown up in the horse community surrounded by the strong, independent women who are the go-getters, the wise teachers, the ambitious entrepreneurs, the disciplined athletes. And, much like our mares, they don’t take any crap from anyone, either.
If you’re looking for a strong, brave woman, you will most likely find her in a barn.
Happy International Women’s Day! Rock on, badass ladies of the equestrian world. Rock on.