Equestrian Adventuress Sarah found inner healing with horses and gained confidence to explore the world and move to Spain. It all started with endurance riding.
Author: Sarah Dimichino
My life was a mess. Big time.
My mom had died by suicide the previous winter, followed by my grandma, who’d had a stroke a few days later. Reeling, I’d quit my full-time job and gone back to school because I didn’t know what else to do. February of 2017 found me twenty-three years old and still slogging through an English degree at a state college where the four-year graduation rate hovered around 36%. I lived with my dad and worked at a warehouse. I had very few friends.
Horses Instead of Therapists
I’d been through a string of therapists, of course. There was the sad one, who got fired from her job two weeks after she’d taken me on as a client. There was the priest who had no advice except that he thought I’d make a good therapist. There was the apathetic one, and the scary one who sounded like a robot. I hated them all.
And then the Stevensons showed up.
The Stevensons were not therapists. They were endurance riders. Jen was a self-described persnickety, middle-aged horse owner with seventeen Arabians and almost as many cats. Bryn was her daughter, an eighteen-year-old endurance prodigy who’d won the toughest 100-mile race on the East Coast – Old Dominion – at age fourteen, and set a new record doing it. I came across Jen’s post one day in a Facebook group: “Looking for someone interested in joining me on weekday morning hacks on the Paulinskill Valley Trail.”
It had been a long time since I’d ridden, but I still remembered every horse I’d ever had. There’d been Lacey, with her black-tipped ears, and Phoenix – riding him bareback in a hackamore, picking blackberries in August afternoons buzzing with cicadas. I remembered Chocolate and Chester and Summer Rain; what it felt like to ride in the snow, or in June under a sky full of stars and fireflies. I remembered the pain of the last fall, the concussion, and my mom’s words: “You’re just not a confident rider, Sarah.”
I picked up the phone and called.
Thrown into Endurance Riding
When I got to the farm that day in February, it was sub-zero with windchill, my nose was running, and Jen put me on the best horse she had. She didn’t ask if I was a confident rider or if I’d ever had lessons. She didn’t even ask if I knew anything about endurance (I didn’t). She just handed me the tack, saddled her own mare and we hit the trail.
Lunar Eclipse was the smartest horse I’d ever ridden. I could tell by how he picked his way through the snow-covered rocks, catlike; and the way he carried his head with his ears pricked forward and eyes scanning the woods around us, alert but fearless. He had a big, floating trot and carried his tail like a white banner over the snow. I realized I could trust him, and the feeling spread like a warmth from the inside, despite the bitter cold.
Of course, I kept going back. All through February and March I’d make the drive up to Stillwater to ride, while the days grew longer and the weather, finally, began to get warmer. Jen had a proposition for me one day: “How about an endurance ride?”
I didn’t even pause to consider. “Yes.”
“We’ll start small – thirty miles.”
We’ll Start Small
At the end of those thirty miles in Maryland, Lunar had hardly worked up a sweat, but I felt like I’d been run over by the giant tractor trailer that Jen’s husband, Paul, had driven us down in. Jen’s horse had kicked up a fuss about electrolytes at one of the vet-ins, stepped on Paul’s toe and broken it, I’d run of out of water halfway through the ride and everyone was on the verge of heatstroke and yelling at each other. It was the most tiring, stressful and logistically complicated activity I’d ever done, and I was hooked.
“How’d’ya like it?” Paul wanted to know, as he limped around the back of the trailer with a soggy saddle over one arm. “First one can be a little rough.”
“I loved it,” I said. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever tried.” And it was. Something about the pain, the endless miles of posting trot, the sweat and the nerves combined to make it an experience that transcended all those things. Because there had been a sweetness to the breezes that blew over the meadow, and the shade in the woods had been deliciously cool, and Lunar cantered like the giant, magic rocking horse I’d wanted as a child but never had. Because I’d been exhausted but I’d finished, and because I hadn’t been afraid.
“Great,” said Paul. “There’ll be a lot more.”
The “Saddle Club”
Jen, Bryn and I started competing in rides together – endurance rides, competitive trail rides and hunter paces up and down the east coast. Paul drove the rig with Jen riding shotgun, and Bryn and I lounged on the bench in the back, eating lukewarm hotdogs from gas stations. Jen started putting me on her green horses, to get more miles on them, she said. Most of them had come from auctions around the country and had unique sets of behavioral issues. I still thought I was a crummy rider, but Jen never said anything, except to give advice. “Hold your hands more like that, a little higher. Change your diagonal once in a while.”
The final addition to the team was Faye, a college sophomore taking a year off school to sort out some health problems. The group dynamic was awkward at first, each of us dealing with our own issues and not willing to talk about them, but we had the horses in common, and that was enough. Every weekend we’d go down to the barn to clean tack, prepare for the next ride or just hack up to White Lake. We crammed into the back of the tractor trailer and gorged on Fig Newtons while Paul stoically drove us from New Jersey to Maine and wondered out loud if he should consider getting a bigger trailer with more beds.
Horses Changed My World
Something changed. My problems didn’t disappear overnight, but by late spring, I felt like I’d started to thaw along with the frozen New Jersey trails. There’s a limit to how many secrets you can keep from people you roadtrip and ride with for days at a time. We shared baby powder. We traded underwear recommendations. We lost our tempers with each other and we stank. And I could finally talk about my mom, and no one thought it was weird or pitied me. They listened, and they talked about their stuff too, and I realized I didn’t have the corner on suffering. Slowly, the image I had of myself as a broken-down, depressed English major with no future began to change. “Sarah’s a great rider,” I heard Jen tell a friend once. “I can put her on anything.” I began to wonder if it were true.
There came a summer day when Faye, Bryn and I took three horses for a canter along a fence line near the farm in Stillwater, and then paused at the top of the hill, surveying the mountains and the hayfields blown into little patterns by the wind. Faye spoke up suddenly –
“I always wanted this, but I never thought I would have it.”
“You mean, like – Pony Pals?” offered Bryn.
“Yeah. Like – best friends. And horses.”
I wanted to reply but couldn’t, because of the lump in my throat.
At the end of that summer, I graduated college with top honors. For the first time in five years, I no longer hated New Jersey. But I knew it was time for me to go.
Jen, Faye and Bryn knew what my plans were. They’d known for a long time. “Listen,” said Jen. “If you get there and it’s a mess – just get on a plane and come home. Okay? Don’t try to stick it out. We’ll be here.”
“She’s hoping it won’t work out,” Bryn confided to me later. “She doesn’t want you to leave.”
I didn’t know if it would work out. I only knew that for the first time in my life, I’d found the courage to follow a very old dream. Hundreds of miles on horseback over some of the most unforgiving terrain in America had revealed a strength of character I didn’t know I had. Jen, Faye and Bryn had shown me that it was okay to live a different sort of life. Even if everyone else thought it was weird or didn’t understand, once I realized that, there was no going back. In late September, I quit my job, packed two suitcases and moved to Spain with no job, no apartment and no knowledge of Spanish.
I still haven’t bought that plane ticket home.