BY BRITNEE STEVENS
2020 has been the most challenging, strange and quite frankly, terrible, year in my recent memory. And recently, it delivered yet another devastating blow to me and the barn family I hold so close to my heart, even after life has pulled me further and further away from my time with them. Katie Brown-Maxwell, one of the most influential women in my life, succumbed to her almost ten year battle with cancer a few weeks ago.
I remember vividly sitting in my husband’s truck about to head out for a day trip to Raleigh, looking down at my phone and just knowing… feeling the loss without even having to read the message that had just come through on my phone. She was gone, but if there is one thing this woman will never be, it is forgotten.
Losing Katie has weighed heavy on my heart ever since, but it has allowed so many wonderful memories and feelings of love and admiration to come back to the surface. Most of all, it has allowed me to reflect and realize just how much of an impact she had on me—in and out of the saddle.
Katie took me under her wing from the second I walked through the doors of Rose Dhu Equestrian Center as a sophomore in high school. She saw me for the horse crazy girl I am, but also sought to mold me into a better rider, horsewoman and person. You see, Katie was one of the most passionate and knowledgeable horsewomen I’ve ever met but she also cared about her clients.
Each of her students was one of “her kids.” You weren’t just another lesson student or horse owner in the barn to her. You were “hers,” and she was going to treat you as such whether you liked it or not (believe me some of those “trips to the office” for some one on one Katie “tough love” certainly weren’t always fun). But at the end of the day, she cared. She really cared.
When I started riding with Katie, I was a good riding junior with a good horse who—up until that point—had holes in his training that were never filled. My horse just kept agreeing to the division move ups and harder challenges, even though he was all but prepared for them. Within the first week of being there, Katie had told me that after our SC Governors Cup Medal Finals that year, which happened to be a week or so away, she wanted to “trade” horses with me for a month or two to fill the gaps for Apollo and allow me to hone my skills on some of her amazing horses. It was a type of generosity that will surprise no one who knew Katie. She always wanted the best for her horses and riders.
To make the situation more complicated, I was still riding and training with another trainer at the time until after Finals. Katie didn’t care. She was more than willing to allow the trainer who was with me through qualifying to continue to train me for Finals, even though I had already moved to Katie’s. Not long after I moved, it was decided that I would lease a horse to be more “competitive” at Finals. My previous trainer found one she thought would work and I split my time between barns, practicing as much as I could.
Soon, I was in the ring for the first day of the medal finals horse show, using the modified children’s as a warmup before doing some Eq classes the next day and the Finals on the last day. To say my warmup day went horribly wrong would be the biggest of understatements. Throughout my very short lease on this horse, I had come to learn he was not the ride I preferred. But because he had all the buttons, I was told to push through and ride him (not by Katie).
We crashed—hard. He tried to do a 4-1 in what was supposed to be a 5-2. I had no brakes, even in a big shanked rubber Pelham. Some trainers would’ve just ignored me because I wasn’t showing with “them” that weekend, but not Katie. Katie stood on the sidelines, watching, taking it all in. She was there when we crashed. The lease horse pulled both front shoes off inside of the box under the front oxer rail and I landed in the middle of the two rails. We both scrambled.
Katie observed quietly and let the other trainer have complete control. I walked out of the ring more scared than I have ever been around a horse in my entire life. Up until that point I had never refused to ride a horse or get back on after a fall, but that day, I did.
Katie calmly came up to me and gave me an empathic smile and hug. She asked what I was going to do. I told her I didn’t want to ride the horse ever again and wanted to scratch from finals and try again next year. Katie was appalled. Without a second thought, she looked at my dad and said “go to the office and see if you can get another stall, there’s an open one next to mine. Let me know and I’ll hook the trailer up and go get Apollo. Britnee is not giving up finals.”
We did as we were told and at some insanely late hour, after a full day of clients and rides, Katie made the three hour trip home and back to get me my horse so I didn’t have to give up what I had worked hard for. Not only did she drive through the night on a more than six hour roundtrip, she was sitting on my horse at 6am in the show ring making sure he was schooled and practiced for my Eq classes that day! She was, is, Superwoman.
I trained with Katie for the rest of the show, and I had a great experience in my first Medal Finals ever even if I did let my nerves get in the way of a perfect trip. But that didn’t matter to me. What mattered to me is that I felt loved and truly supported by someone who I had basically just met more than most people ever get to feel.
In the next few years of being with Katie, she taught me so many life lessons on being resilient, being confident and most of all how to be a true horsewoman. You see, in those years, my horse had many setbacks from two month long abscesses, to mystery stifle issues to a severe suspensory tear. While I would never wish those things on even my worst enemy, these events gave me something I can never replace: the gift of time with Katie and the gift of true horsemanship.
Up until these issues, I knew how to ride but I didn’t know the mechanics behind riding correctly. Through the countless rehab sessions, I learned every intricacy of feeling where each part of my horse was and how to make sure he got fit to stay sound—not just fit to go back to jumping or whatever the end goal may have been. I learned about trot sets and specific rehab guidelines and Katie was there every step of the way.
Some trainers may have turned their backs when my horse got hurt that many times or told me to send him off to a rehab center, but not Katie. She grabbed the “bull by the horns” each time and helped me not only bring my horse who, for all intents and purposes, should not have recovered from the suspensory injury he sustained, back to full work and even qualifying for the Washington International Horse Show. But the success wasn’t about ribbons or recognition for Katie, it was always and forever about doing best by her horses and her students.
I could go on and on about my stories of Katie, but instead I’ll end with this one.
In the recent past, I had not been great at staying in touch with Katie. Military life had moved me hundreds of miles away and adult responsibilities got in the way but she was always there. About six weeks ago, I texted Katie to tell her about a show my horse and I had just completed. We had won all of our jumping classes and qualified for an amateur derby in 2nd place. One handy round later, remembering all of the things Katie taught me, and we won the class. I wanted to thank her for all she had done and tell her how excited I was to still be showing Apollo after all these years.
Little did I know she was sitting in a hospital bed at the time. Instead of mentioning this or not responding, she responded with the most supportive congratulations and excitement without even hinting to her own struggles. That was Katie. In the ten years I knew her, through her cancer diagnosis and all, she never let anything get her down. She certainly never let us see anything but her positivity and zest for life, even on her worst days.
I am so thankful for that last conversation with her, and that she was one of the first people I shared the news of my pregnancy with in the same conversation. We talked about how much I was going to love being a mom, but what I wish I told her is how I want to be her—as a mom, as a rider, as a woman and as a person.
I can only hope she can see this now, and knows just how much she meant to so many people. The last thing Katie would want to hear is that I am sitting here crying my eyes out missing her, so instead I’ll tell her I’ll ride on for her and I’ll do my best to keep spreading her message to all of the young horsemen and horsewomen I encounter.
Britnee Stevens is a lifelong horse lover who splits her time between being a teacher, wife, soon to be mommy, and avid adult amateur hunter rider. She has owned her heart horse, Silence is Golden “Apollo” for the last 14 years and through the support of a ‘now converted to horse-crazy’ husband, has been able to own a few hunter projects to resell as well.