I am 58. I’ve loved horses for every one of those years. In 1975, inspired by the novel The Horsemasters, I convinced my parents to send me to The Talland School of Equitation in England, a place that advertised in the back of a magazine. This was before the Internet, so all that I knew about it was what I’d read in a brochure. It turned out that my real-life experience was far better than the book. The owner, Mrs. Sivewright, was a Grand Prix dressage rider and international judge, so my first exposure to the sport was from the best.
I went on to get a BS in animal science and made horses a career. I continued to luck out and train with phenomenal teachers, including U.S. Olympian Jessica Ransehausen and Swedish Olympian Louise Nathhorst.
I had a young mare who I was bringing along, but in my early 20s she went lame and in a way, I did, too. Her ailment was blatantly obvious. Mine was not. I was slowly going deaf.
At first I didn’t even realize that my hearing was deteriorating, but I was vaguely aware that things that had been easy had become difficult. Then, even after my loss was diagnosed, and I wore aids, the impact of my poor hearing was insidious.
Hearing aids aren’t like putting on glasses. The information that comes in through the aids is imperfect. Some sounds are lost. Some are garbled. Wearing them, however, was far better than the alternative of silence.
At first, when my hearing loss was mild, I missed a word here and there. My brain filled in the blanks. Sometimes it was wrong. Once, on a riding vacation in Wyoming, I was on the lead horse. I thought that the wrangler told me to canter off, so I did, leaving everyone else in my dust. I had actually been told to halt.
One story like that is funny, but they build up, and although this one ended fine—I cantered back—not hearing on horseback can be dangerous. As my hearing worsened, I couldn’t hear when a rider came up behind me and asked for the rail. At a show, I couldn’t hear the steward’s directions. I couldn’t hear my riding instructor at the far end of the ring even if she yelled. I couldn’t hear my students.
I changed careers. My horse was sold and became a broodmare. I married and had babies of my own. I worked hard to stay in the hearing world, but it was exhausting. Sheer willpower and the best hearing aids couldn’t fix it. I had long spans of not riding, but that need to be around horses kept welling up.
Periodically I would part-lease a horse and take lessons. But my hearing worsened to the point that the only way I could hear a teacher was if we used my personal radio system and even then I missed much of what was said. Hearing aids barely allowed me to have face-to-face conversations. The banter and camaraderie of barn friends were out of reach. I couldn’t hear the clopping of horses coming up the stable aisle or the polite “coming by” from the owner. Riding became untenable. I left horses, I thought, for good.
But then a miracle of technology and medicine happened. At the age of 52 I got a cochlear implant (CI). The next year I had the second ear implanted. My hearing wasn’t restored overnight. A CI bypasses the broken part of the ear and an electrode stimulates the auditory nerve. My brain had to learn how to process this information. At first the world sounded nothing like what I remembered, but over time sounds became complex and natural. The brain is an amazingly flexible organ! Put me in a soundproof booth and I test at 95 percent. In real life there are constraints to my hearing.
For example, the microphones that pick up sound have a limited range, but my life has been transformed. For years I hadn’t been able to listen to the car radio or use the telephone. I can now do both. I can hear dinner- table conversation and even people talking in another room. I can hear my dogs bark. I can hear horses.
Not long after getting the CIs, a friend, who lives in Temecula, California, invited me to spend a day with her riding winery to winery. From the saddle I could hear her talk to me. I could hear the rhythm of hooves hitting the ground. I heard her mare snort as she walked up a hill.
Back home, another friend offered to let me ride her horse. He is a basic walk, trot, canter sort of guy, which was fine with me. I was back in the saddle and it was enough. Being around horses made me ridiculously happy. My husband noticed. He said, “Go buy a horse.” So I went shopping.
I wanted a horse with a kind eye who I could trail ride alone. I told my friends that I was never buying another pair of white breeches, that this time it was all about being relaxed on the trail.
I found my heart horse, a gelding named Tonka. I bought him for his sane demeanor and his sturdy good looks. He had a decent walk and trot and could canter to the left (the canter to the right was another story). He proved to be the perfect companion on the trails.
But once a dressage rider, always a dressage rider. Tonka wasn’t as balanced as I thought he could be. He wasn’t as responsive to the aids as I liked and his long back required exercises in order to muscle up so that he’d have riding longevity. It was time to get back into the dressage ring.
Once again, I lucked out. I now train with Grand Prix rider Kim Litwinczak. It turns out that my 14.3-hand black and white Paint is a good little dressage horse. I bought white breeches. We go to USDF shows and consistently score in the mid-60s.
With Kim’s encouragement, I’m back to teaching. I specialize in the untraditional dressage horse and the novice rider who wants that connection to her horse that the right training can nurture.
Many doors opened up when my hearing was returned to me, but the one I walked through was the stable door back to horses.
Every hoofbeat that I hear, every soft whiffle of a welcoming breath, the comforting sound of a horse munching hay—all of it—fills me with gratitude. The next time you’re in the barn, close your eyes, listen and join me in feeling fortunate that this is the soundtrack of our lives.