Apr 18, 2021

Now On Course: A Lifelong Dream Becomes a Reality

Jeanne Carley and Shannondale Fionn at the 2018 Rebecca Farm N3D. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

My mother and father moved to Woodside in 1958 when I was 3 years old. Unfortunately for them, since they were not horse people, Woodside was horse country, and my sister and I soon became horse crazy. We saw them all the time in town, at local riding stables, even bars! Eventually, we began taking riding lessons. In 1963, my mom found a home on 4.75 acres in town with a barn and the die was cast.

Sadly, my mom passed away before we moved but knowing our fantasy and our pain, my dad got a horse for me and my sister. We attended Pony Club when we could, but since we were not a horse family we had no trailer and could only show once a year at the local Mounted Patrol show grounds. We mostly rode trails and played at the Playpen, which was a mini CETA (as the Horse Park at Woodside was once called) in the middle of town with two arenas, a galloping track, and cross-country jumps. It was so much fun. All the local kids that had horses rode there. The Los Altos Hounds were kept there as well and we both were invited as kids to hilltop on Stanford land with the hunt. Then came high school and college and the horses found new homes.

Jeanne and Style on cross-country at Woodside. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Carley.

It was years before I returned to riding. When I was in my late 40s, I was given an adorable little chestnut Arabian named Copper Style. We were riding on a trail in Woodside shortly after I got Style when a pit bull broke his chain, jumped out of the bed of a moving pickup truck, and ran 30 feet down the trail to attack my horse. When the dog leaped at Style's neck, Style would rear and when he came down I was able to hit the dog with my dressage whip, but it was like hitting a fence post. There was no reaction. Style even kicked the dog, who flew at least 20 feet, but he came back angrier.

Finally, a neighbor's dog came to see what was going on and the pit bull went after him. But, before I could settle Style and get off, he was back. At that point, I made a mistake. Out of pure anguish, I tilted my head back, pleading to the owner (and perhaps heaven) for this to stop. Just then, Style kicked at the dog and my neck snapped back, breaking the second cervical bone in half. As the Stanford neurosurgeon described it, it was a hangman's fracture "because that's the bone they break and the way they break it when they hang you. You are not meant to survive." As I came out of the saddle, I also tore two ligaments in my left knee I landed head and elbow first on the pavement. Thankfully I was wearing a helmet because Style stepped on my head in his panic to get away from the dog. My recovery was several years long but I did put this in the column of dog accident, not riding accident. I was not going to let this accident deter me from doing what I enjoyed.

Style and a buddy enjoying a nap (and a snack!) in the sunshine. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Carley.

After the accident, we were out riding at the Horse Park at Woodside and I witnessed my first horse trials. I realized that this sport was something I wanted to try. When I did more research and learned about the USEA Classic Series Training Three-Day, I thought that looked particularly exciting. At the time, the Novice Three-Day did not exist, and it was a huge leap in my mind from Beginner Novice (there was no Intro level at that time) to a Training Three-Day. I was still recovering from the pit bull’s attack and needed knee surgery. Still, a dream crystallized of one day competing in a Training Three-Day.

Sadly, as much as I loved my athletic little 14.2-hand Arabian, he was not brave enough for this sport. Then, with the sudden passing of my brother-in-law in 2008, I was reminded how short life can be. So, I purchased my first event horse, a 15.2-hand Irish Sport Horse called Slew of Diamonds. Together, over the course of the next five years, Slew and I progressed from the Beginner Novice level all the way to the Training level. We even completed the Novice Three-Days together at Twin Rivers and Rebecca Farm in 2013.

Jeanne and Slew of Diamonds. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Carley.

In 2014, Slew and I were just one qualification away from the Training Three-Day when I received devastating news on so many fronts; my father was terminally ill, Slew's mysterious lameness was due to navicular disease, and my previous trainer was leaving the area. I had some major decisions to make. I felt I'd lost my moorings, but the only thing I was sure of was that I loved eventing and horses, and I wanted to stick with it.

I remembered Andrea Pfeiffer of Chocolate Horse Farm coming to my aid so many years ago at Galway Down when my trainer had to leave me during cross-country warmup in the capable, but very shy, hands of his working student. She didn’t seem comfortable entering the arena and I could not hear her. I needed help. Though Andrea was warming up her own student, she stepped up to help me during that warm-up. I never forgot that act of kindness, so it was a no-brainer to choose Chocolate Horse Farm and Andrea Pfeiffer to help me grow in this wonderful sport with this amazing community.

I really loved Slew, so when he became lame due to navicular changes I knew I first wanted to bring him back to soundness and find a perfect situation for him. After he was provided for, Andrea suggested I look on Sporthorse Nation for a new eventing partner. I wanted a horse that had successfully completed a few Preliminaries, mainly so I would be comfortable with him or her at the Training level.

Jeanne and Slew show jumping at Woodside. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Carley.

I found Shannondale Fionn aka “Dale,” a young Irish Sport Horse, listed there and saw that he was in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, not far from Fair Hill where Andrea would be coaching for the Fair Hill International. She agreed to take a look at him on the Monday after the show if I rode him and liked him first, so I booked my ticket and met Daniel Clasing and Dale in October 2016.

Though it's so hard to tell from a few test rides, Dale has been a terrific partner for me. Only 5 coming 6 when I bought him, he was very confident and I learned to trust him implicitly. Our only errors on cross-country have been mine because he can be strong and I occasionally have trouble turning him. Dale never says no to a jump and has a terrific gallop. I think the photo that Leslie Mintz took of us galloping on steeplechase in the Novice Three-Day at Rebecca Farm says it all (the featured photo). Friends were walking their course and yelled, "Go Jeanne!" You can tell from my smile that I am loving it.

Now it seemed I had the right partner to get me to the Training Three-Day, but I had some more challenges to overcome.

Back in 2008, at one of my very first jumping lessons with Slew, I was unused to his back-cracking jump and got jumped out of the tack, dislocating one of my vertebrae at L4/5. It was tolerable for many years but eventually became serious. A year after I bought Dale, my issue because intolerable. So, I had surgery in November of 2017. Thankfully it was the end of the season – good planning on my part – and I was ready to resume competing in 2018. But in the middle of that year, not too long after the Novice Three-Day at Rebecca Farm, Dale's splint became active and I couldn’t risk him getting injured. I canceled my entry in the USEA American Eventing Championships and my next event was a year later, at Rebecca Farm in 2019.

While Dale was off due to his splint and I was anxious to continue riding, I purchased a very nice horse who had more miles and training than Dale. We were trotting a cross-rail when he hit the rails with his front feet and I was literally a lawn dart. Landing on my hip, I fractured my sacrum – just a tiny break – but I couldn't take a pain-free step, so there was another delay. When you're young, some months off doesn't amount to much, but at 64 I felt my eventing time clock ticking.

Now, in my 66th year, in spite of losing precious time due to back surgery in 2017, then sitting out almost a year of competition due to Dale’s splint in 2018, after missing another several months recovering from a fractured pelvis in 2019, and having an abridged pandemic competition calendar with nerve-racking California fires in 2020, I can actually imagine my dream could be realized this year. Last year, Dale and I successfully moved up to Training and are now qualified for the Training Three-Day!

I know the stars will still have to align, that Dale and I have to remain healthy and strong (hence my commitment to Pilates six times a week!), that I have to do my best to be brave, and that Rebecca Farms has to be able to remain on the calendar. But I would not be able to see myself tackling this challenge if it weren’t for the terrific coaching from Andrea, the cheers from my barnmates and friends in eventing, and the commitment of the USEA to this sport.

I know I still have miles to go, but I feel like this might be the year I finally reach my lifetime riding goal! Thank you to Andrea Pfeiffer and the team at Chocolate Horse Farm, Daniel Clasing for my lovely partner, Shannondale Fionn, and the USEA and show organizers for persevering during the pandemic. I do hope I’m able to compete in the Training Three-Day at Rebecca Farm this July, but whatever happens this year, the journey has been terrific!

The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. The USEA's Now on Course series highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Leslie Mintz at [email protected] to be featured.

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