Horses, Life and Change: Stepping Away From the Sand Box

Photo courtesy of Phyllis Bordo


When I retired, I decided I wanted to embrace the last decades of my life in a positive manner.  I wondered if it was time, in my 70s after 40 years of equestrian competition and riding, to give up that love of my life?

It was my childhood dream to compete in dressage, which people often refer to as “ballet on horseback.” I pictured myself moving in harmony with my equine partner, stroking his velvet neck and getting lost in his eyes, like deep chocolate pools. My passion for horses only increased with time. After my third child, and to avoid further discussion about having a fourth, my husband, Paul, suggested I take riding lessons. I thought it was an impossibility with three kids under three. How could I pull that off? Well, we made it happen. With his help and support and the help of friends and family, I started my riding journey. 

My first horse was a chestnut Anglo Arab, Peacefield Spirit. His four legs moved up and down like pistons, hardly the ground covering gaits that are the mark of a talented dressage horse. But I loved him. Paul and the kids came to the barn with me on the weekends. The kids groomed him until he shone like polished copper. They shrieked with laughter when Spirit put his head in the air and smiled, showing his pink gums and huge teeth. 

And so the passion grew like a swelling tsunami. I worked with Olympians, Cindy and Neil Ishoy, who became my coaches and lifelong friends. Neil passed away seven years ago. Cindy and I have remained close friends. We have experienced life’s losses and wins together, inside the horse show ring as well as out. 

I loved the training and taking care of my horse’s needs. I was committed and it took much juggling and organization to balance my kids’ individual pursuits as well as Paul’s and mine. Each one of our children developed a passion for a sport or an art that kept them out of the malls during their high school years when as parents we relinquish much of the control we had when they were younger.

But as a family unit, we made it all happen—with no cell phones to help in the coordination!

The years went by and saw more horses go in and out of my life. Each new horse was more talented than the last. Each took me to a higher level of training. Each horse brought wins and losses, joy, and disappointment into my life. Injuries and sickness snuck up on the horse and were always heart-wrenching. 

Photo courtesy of Phyllis Bordo

Selling a horse was like parting with a family member but I was not in the financial position to keep them all—especially when my youngest daughter caught the horse bug and we leased her first pony. We found wonderful homes for our horses when the time came to sell them. They were loved as much as we had loved and cared for them.

The dressage competitions involved much more than the ten minutes in the ring. I loved it all. The day before leaving for the venue, my horse got the full beauty treatment, a bubble bath with conditioner. I could see my own reflection in his coat. The saddle and bridle cleaned with saddle soap, and the stirrups rubbed shiny with silver polish were show ring prepared. My jacket and britches were laundered to take away the last horse show’s stains. The feed and shavings, medications to cure or relieve any potential illness or injury that might occur, and riders’ show trunks were loaded onto the van the night before we set out for the venue. 

Upon arrival, and after searching for the stalls where the horses would live for the duration of the competition, everything was unloaded and set up to feel like home. We arrived a day before the commencement of the show to train and check out the areas where the classes would be held. Butterflies somersaulted in stomachs, adrenalin spiked and the johnny on the spots ran out of toilet paper. But I loved it all. 

Whether I was in the ribbons or not, the experience was as thrilling as climbing to the top of a mountain. The time spent with my horse created a closeness that rivalled a parent-child relationship. When the show was over, I packed up, tired and dirty but forever changed by the experience of spending time with my horse, and the camaraderie of like-minded people.

Author with Cindy Ishoy, great friend, coach and former bronze and silver medalist in the Olympics and World Cup competitions, respectively.

As a family, horses took us to Europe where we absorbed the sites. Our favourite place was the well-preserved medieval town of Warendorf, Germany, known as the city of horses. There we watched riders train and then compete at world equestrian events, in cities such as Essen, Germany, and Rotterdam, Holland. We not only witnessed Olympians experience big successes and win medals, but also how they could do poorly in a class and how they got themselves ready for another entrance through the start gate to compete again— leaving their failures behind. My children learned that disappointment and rejection were a part of life and that the best remedy in dealing with these devastating times is to continue forward and press on. Failures make successes.  

I am forever thankful for all that horses have taught me and my family about life, and for all the long-lasting friendships I have made along the way. I am grateful for all that horses have shared with me: their grace, their beauty, and their love.  

But now it might be time for this seventy-something to make a lifestyle change.  

I was torn between the commitment of owning a horse and the desire to spend more time with my grandchildren, who were growing up so fast. I didn’t want to miss out on that stage of life. Paul had semi-retired and wanted to spend time travelling and enjoying the family cottage while were both in good health. After much introspection, I gave myself permission to let go of that which I was so passionate about and realized that I was ready to embrace that change, move on to new experiences, and to spend more time with family. 

I have not looked back or questioned that decision, nor have I lost my love of horses. Now I enjoy volunteering at horse rescue farms, riding horseback on country trails. 

And I don’t mind standing outside the show ring, watching and still learning the fine art of dressage from afar.

Phyllis Bordo is a retired High School English teacher who writes children’s stories. She has published three picture books in her Lilly Esther series. She enjoys spending time with family, friends and her 2 dogs, Lilly Esther and Cleopatra. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Originally published July 2022 in Horse and Sport

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