BY ANNE SHERWOOD
I wake up to my daughter tapping my shoulder. “Mama, do good dreams come true?”
“Sometimes,” I reply as I soothe her back to sleep at our home in Los Angeles. I glance at the clock. It’s 3:30am—five hours until I have to walk Karen Healey’s first round course of the 2022 Whitethorne Equitation Challenge on the Grand Prix Field at the Oaks. It’s where 70 riders (mostly juniors) will navigate a technical pattern of 14 jumping efforts.
I rode as a junior back East—first in Maryland and then Connecticut, but I never owned fancy horses. Though I had some great training, I never made it to indoor medal finals. Instead, I traded my tall boots for cleats at 16 and played lacrosse. I managed to get recruited by Princeton and played Division I lacrosse for four years. I promised myself I would return to riding; I just didn’t know when.
When I was in my early 40s, we moved from Montana to Los Angeles for my husband’s work. Now that I had children, my travel as a photojournalist was limited and I needed something to feed my sense of adventure. I googled barns and booked a lesson. With horses I found community and friends, but I also found the competitive spirit I loved in college.
Riding is one of the rare sports you can continue throughout life. Because the sport is so mental, age can be an advantage. The juniors have grace and agility, but us amateurs have life experience. Equestrian sports put kids and adults, in addition to males and females, together in the same class. People outside the sport think it’s odd that I compete against teenagers, but I know the juniors are the pinnacle of the sport—especially in the equitation. Beating the juniors means I am riding well.
Last year at the Whitethorne seminar after the first round, one of the judges noted my number and asked who I was. When I stood up, Jimmy Torano said, “We thought you were 14!” Because getting mistaken for a teenager is the biggest compliment in our sport, Archie Cox leaned over and whispered “You might as well retire now.”
I was 51.
I am so grateful that Georgy Maskrey-Segesman included all ages in the Whitethorne when she created it. It is an incredible opportunity to ride against some of the best riders on the West Coast over very technical courses. It is the perfect preparation for medal finals because the competition is stiff and the rounds are challenging. This year, 70 riders competed in the Whitethorne. Of those, 15 were amateurs: four of the amateurs (including me) were over 35, and one of those, Margaret Munkdale, ended up in the top 10.
My barnmate, who also rode in the Whitethorne, is 16. I am old enough to be her mother, but it doesn’t feel that way. We are teammates. At the shows, the juniors and I discuss the course, the rounds and our horses. But when we aren’t talking about all things equine, they are teaching me how to do something on Instagram, or playing the latest music, or explaining current fashion trends. The juniors keep me young.
Perhaps if you polled the juniors about whether the class should be open to amateurs, they would feel differently. I think back to when I was a junior and have no recollection of ever riding against adults. Maybe it was the era or maybe it was the region, but in California today, juniors and amateurs often end up in the ring together. I’d like to think it benefits all of us.
There have been several times in a lineup after a class or medal final when I asked the other riders their ages. Even in amateur classes, sometimes the oldest rider is in her mid-20s. Often life interferes with riding as it did for me and we can’t come back to it for many years. But once we have established our families and careers, the horses beckon us back. We bury our noses in their necks and with one whiff, we are hooked again. As soon as I cantered a crossraiI, I knew I had to compete in the equitation ring again and chase my unfinished dreams.
Rarely do I think about age when I’m riding. I sometimes joke with my trainer, Michelle Morris who is 20 years my junior, that I stopped riding at 16. Now I’ve been riding for seven years so in my mind, I am a 23-year-old-rider.
Of course, there are issues now I didn’t have to deal with as a kid. Sometimes my knees hurt and I can’t read the prize list without my glasses. My core isn’t as strong after two pregnancies. I am tired from work and family responsibilities and I always have to pee before I get on—no matter what.
But I also have perspective I lacked as a junior. I am much better at riding through mistakes on course. I have a deeper understanding of my horses and their needs. I see competition as an opportunity to shine rather than something to fear. And, if things don’t go as planned (as they didn’t for me in round two this year), I know it’s not the end of the world.
If luck will have it, I’ll be back next year galloping across the grass with lots of juniors and a few amateurs, jumping the brightly painted jumps under the California sky and knowing good dreams do come true.
Anne Sherwood is a freelance photographer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic Adventure and Sports Illustrated among others. She took a nearly three decade break from the show ring, but is now back and having a blast as an amateur in the equitation.