Just Call Me Jumper Girl: Being Brave Enough to Try a New Ring in My 60s

Photo courtesy of Donna Nelson

It was one of those occasional, beautiful northeast summer mornings. Though it was early August, the temperature was low, there was zero humidity and the sky was a cloudless blue. I stood in a perfectly manicured field looking over the deep green grass punctuated by jumps of bright colors and shapes that would please the eye of any 5 year old. 

With Missy, my trainer, and about two dozen other riders of varying ages and sizes (mostly tall), I walked over the gentle swells of grass. They all had that rider purpose you see at shows—long, forward steps to measure strides—and a stance to view the center of the jump to judge whether to take the inside turn. 

I followed dutifully behind my trainer, watching her do the same. Although I couldn’t see her mouth moving as she spoke to me, her words didn’t quite register over the thumping of my heart that pulses in my ears. You see, I stood in a jumper field.

Walking a jumper course. 

And you see, I am a hunter girl. 

Photo courtesy of Donna Nelson

A little history here. I rode as a kid. The wild, crazy, crash test dummy kind of riding that kids do when they are young and invincible. I’ve had my share of injuries, but at 5 feet tall, I still did pretty well at staying in the saddle. As with many young riders, economics and parents prevailed. After getting an education, I worked a job that took me far from the horse world. 

But many years later, I lost my job, got cancer at 58 and sadly lost my career. What I found again, in the aftermath of what was, was horses. I lucked into a student-trainer relationship with my amazing mentor, Missy. She found me the perfect little red headed mare, and as a team we worked hard and became a fairly successful 2’6” Adult Modified Hunters. 

There is something comforting about doing Hunters. The classy look of hunt coats and white shirts, the cadence of the horses and the even ‘outside line, diagonal, outside line’ courses that my 64 and 3/4 year old brain can manage. Even the opening and ending circles have a kind of polish I enjoy. 

So why, you might ask, was the hunter girl standing in a Jumper field? My trainer claimed it was something my mare and I would enjoy, but really I helped to fill the 2’6” jumpers at a charity event. 

Which is why I walked a jumper course, trying not to embarrass my trainer. 

“So you need to be sure you take this inside turn, and look right after the uphill jump…” she said, but I started to wonder if I would be able to remember where I needed to go. Weren’t there supposed to be numbers on some of these jumps? Those of us over 60 can tell you that the decline of cognitive function is never as acute as when you are trying to remember a course. 

But the walking calmed me. Just as I was ready to tell Missy that I think I’d gotten it, she turned to me and said “ Now let’s talk about not rushing after the buzzer.” 

Buzzer? BUZZER? I’m on a red headed mare in a field early in the morning and there is going to be a buzzer? 

When it was time to warm up, I put on my hunt coat (I can still look like a hunter girl, right?) and headed to the schooling ring to pop over a few jumps. We schooled fine, and my posse was ready. I was, well, not quite sure yet, but Missy looked at me and said, “If you change your mind about going in, no problem.”

She knew me well. Never say die. I watched the rider that was in the ring and looked over the ringside crowd. Like I always do, I thought to myself, What’s the worst that can happen here? I’ll go out and do my best. 

I took a deep breath and walked into the field. I felt strangely calm. My horse and I walked, and as I looked over the field from my higher vantage point in the saddle and felt quite, well—serene. 

Then the buzzer went off. 

Loudly. 

I felt a jolt up my spine and realized that I was about to start, so I asked Hanalei to trot. Then we cantered around the turn and past the starting timer and off to the first jump. 

I was in my hunter mode (slight two point, trying to look composed) and we took the jump cleanly, but on the second, downhill jump to the right, I was too far forward and she balked. I heard Missy say ‘Sit Up”, so I did. And Hanalei took the jumps cleanly and beautifully. I can honestly say that the first round passed in a flash, and I couldn’t even tell you what happened other than we ended up with a remarkable and respectable 121 seconds. 

But I didn’t feel that in-the-moment ride I was expecting. I didn’t feel that exhilaration I’d heard Jumpers talk so much about. Maybe I really was a dyed in the wool hunter girl. 

Then Missy said “Ready to go again?” 

I get to go again? Yes Please! 

Photo courtesy of Donna Nelson

As I started into the ring for the second round and began my trot awaiting the buzzer, I started to think about what a great opportunity this was, what a great little horse Hanalei is, and how I needed to just let go and get on with it. Be in the moment and allow my little mare do what she does best—jump. 

The buzzer went off (I was better prepared this time) and we cantered off. We turned to the first jump, and I looked up and ahead and allowed my breath to come deep and easy. I think Hanalei felt the difference, and I could feel her lock on to the next jump and move up in her stride. I looked to the next jump, sat up and aimed for the center. We jumped the next two jumps cleanly, and headed for the triple (not something I get to see in the hunters) and jumped them evenly. 

I was distantly aware that it was deeply quiet with the sound of her hooves and my breathing pretty much all I could hear, but I was calm and happy. After the 6th jump, we went up a hill and then down over a three rail vertical, and although I’ve jumped downhill in our field at home, this was something else entirely. Then there was a bending line to a roll back, and I suddenly, sweetly, felt my 17 year old self get in touch with my 64 and 3/4 year old body. It felt like this was a perfect moment. My mare and I were in perfect sync, and my brain was quiet and focused. 

Hanalei and I made the jump, the roll back and then left around to the final jump. We passed the final timer, and came back to an easy canter up the hill to the exit. I was grinning ear to ear. 

I still was in an endorphin rush when I dismounted, and was still pretty up when Missy told me we shaved 7 seconds off our first time by doing the horse strides. My little mare knew she did a great job, because she held her tail high and gave me a few snorts as if to say, “What else you got?”

A half hour later we were back at the barn, reliving the round when my phone rang. It was a friend who was still at the show watching. “Get back here! You won the Jumpers. Come get your ribbon!”

At the In Gate, I was given a ribbon, a beautiful saddle pad and a bag of SWAG (most of which went home with my dear friends). I was silly giddy, and all of the tall, kind, Jumper folks were so happy for me. It was such a different feeling from anything I could remember. 

In that one day, the vision of myself and the options for me and my little mare didn’t end with the 2’6” Hunters. We trusted each other. She could do more. I could do more. Not being young doesn’t mean not being brave. I loved that my trainer would challenge me regardless of my age. 

On that beautiful Saturday, I wasn’t just Hunter Girl. 

That day you could call me Jumper Girl. 


Donna was once a time designer of Enterprise Wide technologies, and now consults in the mergers and acquisitions space. She lives in Norwalk, CT with her husband and dog, and hopes to teach kids how to love and ride horses when she retires. Donna is currently writing a book called Grown (Groan) Girls Riding—a humorous book for adults who are trying to get into, or back into the saddle after a long hiatus!

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