Why I Ride by Katie Wood
Requirements for the Outstanding Youth Award given by the American Saddlebred Horse Association of Alabama include academics, extra‐curricular activities, community service/volunteerism, and an essay about one of these topics: 1) What riding means to you OR 2) Ways in which you have promoted the American Saddlebred. Minimum of 250 words for Senior Applicants and 100 words for Junior Applicants. Prize is $1500 or a new saddle.
This is the winning essay in the Senior (13-17) Division. Katie rides at Stepping Stone Farm. Welcome Katie:
When I was young I was a dark haired, green eyed ball of boundless energy and mild anxiety. My days were spent flitting from one thing to the next, stopping only to eat and sleep. However, much to my parents’ consternation, my slumber rarely lasted more than four hours a night. I lived with the constant threat of my parents putting me up for adoption if I didn’t figure out how to sleep for at least eight solid hours. My parents wanted to encouraged me to focus—and hopefully expend—my excess energy on something worthwhile. Something productive.
They weren’t fooling me. They were really just hoping to wear me out. Maybe if I was exhausted I would sleep longer. They eventually settled on trying t-ball. Because what could be better for an overactive four year old than t-ball? I’m pretty sure my dad had visions of me following in his footsteps and being a ballplayer. My mom’s dad was convinced I’d have his speed (he was a high school baseball legend, circa 1967), and my dad’s father’s throwing arm was, you guessed it…legendary. So you can imagine the collective disappointment of the men in my life when my time on the diamond was spent running the bases, at great speed—in the wrong direction—stopping every now and then to dance with an umpire. No amount of practicing, cajoling, or bribing (four year olds love ice cream, and candy, and puppies) improved my performance. I’m pretty sure the coaches asked my parents not to bring me back, so I may be the only t-ball player to ever be ejected from the team for dancing.
Dance! My parents thought. “She should dance,” they said. Visions of tutus, tiny pink slippers, pirouettes, and tap routines filled my mother’s head as she sought to turn me into a dancer. There is one thing all dancers have in common. They are graceful, light on their feet. I am not. Ball field dancing requires no such talent. Dale Serrano’s best preschool dance teacher spent a year trying to get me to calm down, pay attention, and learn the simplest of routines. In the end, all I have to show for my life as a ballerina are several adorable pictures of me in my tutu’s and a former dance teacher so traumatized by the experience that even fourteen years later she recognizes me on sight, quickly averts her eyes and changes directions faster than you can say, “first position.”
It eventually became painfully obvious to everyone that I was never going to be a ballplayer like my dad and grandfathers, nor was there going to be a spot for me in anyone’s production of “Swan Lake.” The time had come to move on. Find something new. I’m not sure when it was suggested, but one Saturday afternoon I found myself standing in front of the biggest building I had ever seen. I don’t think I said a word. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. As I clutched my mother’s hand, I walked into the first arena I’d ever seen.
Horses had been part of my family history long before I was born. My grandmother had owned, according to her, the meanest Shetland pony ever born, and mom and her sister had grown up with horses in their backyard. The stories of their riding antics had been entertaining me for as long as I’d been alive. However, while they’d ridden quarter horses as preteens, at the age of fifteen my aunt had discovered saddleseat and never looked back. She drifted away from the sport during college and law school. There’s a good chance she saw me as an excuse to get back in the saddle, so to speak.
While the idea of riding a horse thrilled my five year old heart, the actual animal scared me nearly to death. I had always shied away from unfamiliar situations and people. The older I got the worse my anxiety became. Eventually the time came for my first lesson. While I don’t remember the minute details, what I do recall vividly is not wanting to go into the horse’s stall and groom it. I was convinced I wouldn’t survive the experience. I have no idea how I talked myself into it, but I can remember taking that first step into Annie’s stall. Annie was the most popular lesson horse at the barn. She was the epitome of calm and gentle. Maybe she sensed my hesitation and was trying her best to put me at ease. All I know is that after that first meeting I was hooked. I was still scared to death, but the desire to be with these gentle giants was more powerful than my fear.
Showing in the leadline classes and “winning” blue ribbon after blue ribbon was a thrill. I got to ride my horse, and my trainer, usually my aunt, was in the ring with me. Having her close allowed me to relax and enjoy the ride. Unfortunately, that couldn’t go on forever. Eventually I’d have to give up the safety of the leadline. With every year my anxiety became worse and worse. I was terrified of being left alone. If I couldn’t see someone I loved and was comfortable with I immediately panicked. I didn’t like strangers. This made school attendance almost impossible, even in kindergarten. To this day there is no explanation as to why I had this problem. Although riding helped manage my anxiety, and what was eventually diagnosed as severe ADHD, it never fully went away. Nor did the sickening dread that overcame me anytime I was faced with a stressful situation. As you can imagine, this made showing difficult. My lack of confidence was obvious in the show ring and was reflected in the ribbons I received. For what ever reason I kept going. Then disaster struck.
One of the worst days of my life was April 11, 2007. Most of you are familiar with the story of the barn fire that took the lives of eight of Stepping Stone Farm’s horses. Two of those amazing animals had played very important roles in my young life. Annie was the sweet mare that had calmed my fears and introduced me to riding, but it was losing Twisty that broke my heart. Although my aunt only leased her for me, as far as I was concerned Twisty was all mine. My ten year old heart and mind couldn’t imagine that I would ever want to own another horse. There wasn’t a horse on the planet that would take her place. And there wasn’t. A girl always remembers her first love.
But life goes on, and even a life spent in a dusty, musty barn is no exception. As the months wore on Stepping Stone Farm slowly recovered from the devastating loss and moved forward. Late that same year a new horse came into my life. And I fell in love all over again. As it turned out, he needed a little girl as much as I needed a new horse. Miss Courtney had been tasked with finding him a new owner. My life changed forever when she presented me with Jamoca at the barn’s annual Christmas party. Surrounded by all of my favorite people I joyfully accepted this amazing animal into my life.
Jamoca was a 13 year old spirited chestnut gelding. So spirited in fact that my second ride ended with me in tears. His random spurts of energy rivaled my own. But that was to be expected; he was a retired show horse after all. He loved the attention acting out would bring him. In the beginning, his tendency to hop, sidestep, speed up, and occasional attempts to put me into the fence made me anxious. However, instead of walking away and letting my fears get the better of me, I pushed myself to keep going. Turns out my love for him far out weighed my fear of his circus stunt horse antics. With time I discovered that the more I rode him, the more comfortable I became. My confidence grew by leaps and bounds, and I started placing better at horse shows. With time I became aware that I know longer feared his previously scary behavior, I began to look forward to his unpredictable spirit. Those traits were what made him Jamoca. And I loved Jamoca. Heck, I still love that crazy gelding.
My days of letting my fears control my life are over. Naturally, there are still situations that make me uncomfortable, but that overwhelming feeling of anxiety is a thing of the past. Is it due entirely to my life at the barn, the experiences I’ve had with the horses? Maybe, maybe not. There’s no way to be sure. What I do know without a solitary doubt is that I would not be the person I am today if I’d never been given the privilege of loving and being loved by these amazing creatures. These animals and this sport played an integral role in making me the person I am today. And the future is only something to look forward to.