Discovering Eventing – A widowed mom of two is living her childhood dream

We are so excited to bring you another writer, Dana Hodges from Tyler, Texas. She has just taken up Eventing in her late thirties and will be sharing her adventures as well as keeping us up-to-date on the Eventing circuit in her area. Get to know Dana a little better with this humbling and entertaining story of how she discovered Eventing.

 

A widowed mother of two, I am a late bloomer to riding. As a child, I dreamed of owning a horse – I can’t even think of how many times I asked Santa for one until I finally accepted the fact that the jolly guy in red was not going to give in to my requests. That dream gone dormant, I turned to competitive gymnastics instead. I tried to revive my dream in my early 30’s, where I signed up for lessons with a local trainer who was doing equine therapy lessons with my son. My husband, however, did not support my dream and I was forced to quit as soon as my three month prepaid lesson program was over.

Fast track about eight years later….I had been widowed about a year and had moved out to a 40 acre ranch in East Texas. It was the anniversary of my husband’s death, and I sat there wondering what I wanted to do with my life now that my entire world had changed. It dawned on me that this was my opportunity to pursue a dream I had harbored since childhood – riding!

Although I live in Texas and I am surrounded by western disciplines, I have ZERO interest in barrels, roping, or sorting. I wanted to learn to ride in English tack, and I wanted to learn to jump! How hard could it be, right? One thing I didn’t count on was the lack of reputable trainers for the English discipline. After extensive research, I started lessons at a barn in Tyler (about an hour drive from my home). One lesson and I was completely hooked.

The concentration and athleticism required to learn to ride as an adult brought out every competitive instinct I had, and I was determined to master it. Let me just say, learning as an adult is HARD! I get so jealous watching little kids sit the trot with ease….they don’t know to tense up and grip with their knees, or how hard the ground is when you fall. (And I have had some EPIC falls….you would think that being ejected from your horse in front of 200 people would have resulted in at least one video!) It is also a humbling experience to show in the 2’ hunter and equitation rings, and to get beat by a bunch of kids who are 25-30 years younger than you! (Not to mention being given a lesson on a horse who is tacked up with an eight-year-old child’s saddle. Really makes you want to go home and hit the treadmill because your butt is feeling a tad big at that moment.)

I competed in the hunter world for about six months, and held 1st in my division until my horse required hock surgery. After that I competed on a few lesson horses, but was starting to feel restless. So much work for a three minute round – wasn’t there more out there?

Dana with some of her winnings in the hunter ring, before she joined the Eventing family.

Dana with some of her winnings in the hunter ring, before she joined the Eventing family.

I had started dressage lessons to help round out my riding education, but the thought of something more still nagged at me, and then the American Eventing Championship came to Tyler. Standing on the cross-country course watching the riders flying by; I was instantly mesmerized. That is what I wanted to learn to do, and far more of an adrenaline rush than the hunter ring!

Expressing my interest in cross-country to my h/j trainer, she agreed to let me begin some cross country schooling. I will never forget that first time! I was riding a trusty little school pony named Teddy, and we were warming up by cantering around the cross country field. My trainer had asked me to ride a big circle around an undecorated jump, so we set off at a slow, easy canter. Everything was going great, until we came about chest level to the side of that jump….   Apparently, bombproof Teddy saw an invisible, horse-eating monster – and bolted – with me clinging to the back. Thinking back, I think I handled the gallop pretty well, all things considered. I managed to stay on and get him brought down to our previous slow canter, whereupon I experienced what I now consider a cardinal rule of riding – “Lean Back”! You see, I discovered that being perched forward during our gallop resulted in my body being pitched over Teddy’s head when he eventually slowed down. In a desperate move that I can only attribute to my lifetime of gymnastics training, I somehow managed to cling to Teddy’s right side. Unfortunately for me, Teddy didn’t really appreciate my antics, and decided to give me a little hop to help fully dislodge me. What a sweet little lesson pony. I hit the ground, barrel rolling at what felt like 20 mph (seriously, it was probably only 5 mph but in this aging body, and no protective vest, it knocked the wind out of me and I felt like I had been steamrolled by a Mack truck!) Thank God for helmets, and I will NEVER ride without one! My trainer somehow missed all the action. She just saw me walking along to retrieve Teddy, who was standing in the field with that innocent expression – you know the one. I promptly got back on, and now that Teddy was warmed up, it was off to the log fences.

Let me just say that up to this point, I had never jumped anything over 2’3”. Ever. Yet here I was in the middle of a cross country field looking at what seemed to be a 2’6” log jump, on a horse that had just seen a boogeyman lurking behind the last fence. My body said “no way”, but my brain said “okay”. I fully admit, I was terrified! I’m sitting there looking at the biggest fence I’ve ever been asked to jump while the bruises on my backside were just starting to form. This isn’t just a little rail in jump cups that’s going to fall if we bump it, and I’m on a pony! That log looked bigger than he was!   Depending on how you look at it, however, I do have one asset/flaw – you will never know if you never try. Cantering into that jump, I put my faith in Teddy, and he did not disappoint. He loved to jump, and as we went soaring over that log as if it never even existed, I fell in love with Eventing.

I separated from my hunter barn in late November of last year, and began dressage lessons 3 days a week. Truth is, I have soooo much to learn. Contact, keeping a horse on the bit and in a frame, finessing the outside rein – no sooner do you master one technique only to realize you have 1,000 more to learn. I also began lessons with Ellen Doughty-Hume in December (who completed Rolex last weekend) I love lessoning with her – she is always positive but makes me work hard. (I cringe to think of no-stirrup days – that is the type of soreness that lasts for days, and I haven’t devised a clever way to stretch those muscles out!!) I’m obsessed, and I’m just getting started.

Every time I ride, I’m overwhelmed with the connection to the horse that I experience. The trust factor, the bond you develop…it replenishes my soul every time. Something about jumping with your eyes closed and hands out to your sides like an airplane leaves you no time to think about that laundry you left on the couch, or if you need to pick up milk on the way home. It allows me to disconnect from the world and focus on the NOW.

I had hoped to compete in my first cross-country event in June, but an unscheduled ankle surgery set me back a few months. I go back in the saddle in just under 2 weeks, so I will be working hard and riding a lot to make up for what I perceive as lost time.   I worry that I will have forgotten everything and have to start all over, but everyone tells me it is like riding a bicycle, and it will all just come back to me.   Last time I checked, my bicycle wasn’t lazy with the occasional attitude! My trainers will let me know when I’m ready, and so help me, that WILL be before I hit 40! I’m hoping to make my debut in Area V this fall, so if you see me then say “hi”, offer some encouragement, or just let me know that I’ve completely lost my mind. After all, Eventing is thought of by some as a pretty insane sport, so I ought to fit right in!

 

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