This is the story of a professional event rider on the path to the Olympics (she was reserve for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games), when life takes a turn and causes her to retire from the sport, leaving owners, sponsors as well as the limelight.
I found Paige Wilde’s article fascinating (you rarely hear what happens to pro riders after they stop competing at a high level) and particularly loved this part:
“The beautiful and noble pursuit of an Olympic dream is endorsed by sponsors, cheered on by fans, coached by mentors and supported by a team. The ‘average’ person is very much alone with their stress, floundering without mentors or a clearly marked path to follow.”
Paige now runs Wilde Ridge Farm in Rutherglen, Ontario.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Paige!
Jumping off the Pendulum: In Search of a Balanced Life with Horses
I am a 42 year old mother of three boys from the small town of Rutherglen, in Northern Ontario. I grew up on a horse’s back, graduated Pony Club as an ‘A’, brought home a team bronze in Eventing at the NAJYRCs, was a reserve for the 1992 Olympics and a short or long listed member of the Canadian 3-Day Eventing Team from 1990 – 2002. I always assumed I would be a professional in the horse industry at the top end of the sport for life. Well, we all know the funny saying about ‘ass’uming and most of us have learned that life rarely turns out to be the fairy tale we imagined! I have discovered that princes are in the eye of the beholder (I have 4 of them!) and that any life touched by the generosity of horses and surrounded by the good people who love them, is a privileged life indeed!
I recently spent a morning rediscovering treasured belongings that have been mothballed and packed away in an old tack trunk for the past ten years. In the trunk, the custom made show blankets in Lockton Farms navy and royal blue, the immaculate white bandages and the brass fittings turned dull with age, all have stories to tell. They represent some of my greatest memories: striving for excellence, a youthful sense of optimism, camaraderie, a sense of single-minded purpose and a shared direction with my peers. All of these memories feature my mother playing various roles as groom, driver, confidant and later, as Nana chasing my first son Zack around horse trials in the Southern States.
And yet this trunk full of beautiful memories has been shelved under a set of stairs for ten long years. Anyone who has lived by Claude Thomas Bissell’s motto; “Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible”, will not be surprised to learn that my trunk also contains memories of great pain, risk and tumult. If you are are a Three Day Event rider you might also expect to find death, catastrophic life-changing injuries and near bankruptcy lurking at the bottom of this musty, old trunk. The fact is, that when you put yourself out on such a long and shaky limb in such a high risk sport, you open yourself up to these things.
I have come face to face with different versions of this harsh reality and left the sport twice to seek balance, yet despite all of that, I still found myself excitedly packing my old trunk for another fresh start.
I was 25 years old and pregnant the first time the weight of this reality crashed down around me. I was engaged to marry Mike St.Denis, who was riding my absolute favourite all time horse O’Reilly, in Mike’s first series of Advanced level Horse Trials. I was coaching him and we worked beautifully together. The wedding invitations were sealed and addressed, awaiting delivery to riders from Ontario, Alberta and BC. On Friday May 5th 1995, just 5 days before Mike’s 3 star debut at Checkmate, he was kicked in the head by a young horse and the man I knew died.
He didn’t die then and there. He clung to life with every fibre of his being, like only Mike could and he survived against all odds. The person that emerged after a month in a coma, six months in hospital and another year of constant therapy, sadly, was not Mike – a remarkable person, but not the man I knew. Realizing that the neuro-rehabilitationist’s declaration of 100% recovery did not mean that I would ever see the Mike I knew again, I returned to my home town of Callander with my ten month old son Zack to recuperate and start a new life. As a single mother, raising her son in Northern Ontario and renovating a farm to host camps, I couldn’t afford to take risks. I sought safety. The pendulum swung.
Three years later, what I ended up with was some strange version of myself that I didn’t recognize. I had made a safe choice in men. He didn’t like my old friends and I would hazard a guess the feeling was mutual! I hung around with people who had no idea what made me tick. I went back to school to become a teacher – a sensible career. Zack started school. Eventually, a moment of disillusionment lead to the inevitable breakup and in the period of vulnerability that followed, the pendulum swung once again.
Much was made of my subsequent comeback: local TV interviews, sponsorship and a Practical Horseman cover after a successful run around Fair Hill International. I had three horses – two up and comers and a 13 year old mare with a reputation for being hotter than a jalapeno. I was surrounded by like minded friends and supported by a great group of people.
Three very exciting years later, after logging thousands of kilometers around the US with my young son back and forth between my winter base in the States and my parent’s home in Canada, I announced my retirement. I was so close to the level of success I was aiming for, but pursuing this sport I loved so much was taking a toll. My son Zack was paying the price.
My retirement announcement took all of my supporters by surprise. My sponsors and owners were not happy. My mom was devastated – this was her life! Zack, however, had been getting more and more out of control. He needed and deserved stability.
As a workaholic event rider, I had to work hard to achieve some semblance of balance in my life – I can tell you it did not come naturally! I am more of a pendulum type, swinging from one extreme to the other. Not a big surprise, I suppose, for someone whose father’s most often quoted truism remains, “I believe in moderation. I just don’t practice it“. I am my Daddy’s girl, no doubt about it!
I spent the next ten years focusing on my family, raising two more wild and willful boys with my husband Alex and saying no to business if it meant that my weekends and evenings would be busy. It is pretty hard to stay in the horse business and not work evenings and weekends! I have been basically on the fringe of the industry; working off farm as an energy advisor, renovating our new farm, running summer camps and watching students progress to other coaches who were available full time.
No horses of my own, no riding for myself and no nice horses in the barn for ten years. Very sensible life, all in all. What no one ever tells you, is how hard that life really is. The beautiful and noble pursuit of an Olympic dream is endorsed by sponsors, cheered on by fans, coached by mentors and supported by a team. The ‘average’ person is very much alone with their stress, floundering without mentors or a clearly marked path to follow.
Drowning in stress, financial worries and martyrdom, I was thrown a lifeline by my mentor Edwine Hugenholtz. My lifeline has a name and a pretty serious attitude! Noblesse Oblige or ‘Nova’ is a home-bred Oldenburg gelding who has enjoyed status as Edwine’s ‘favourite’ since his beloved dam died foaling him. He is an opinionated eight year old who inherited athleticism and a great buck from his grand sire Zucarlos. Riding him is a privilege and a joy!
Although honoured by the opportunity Edwine provided, I was equally daunted by it. Could I ride well enough again? Would people be disappointed in me? Would it still be fun and satisfying if I wasn’t a star? I have spent the past year learning how to accommodate this passion back into my life, without another swing of the pendulum; an interesting exercise for an athlete, who to this date has only understood the concept of 100% commitment to sporting success.
Back to that old trunk under the stairs …
I dragged it out of retirement to attend a clinic with the very famous coach Pat Burgess, at my old friend Arthur Tateishi’s farm, on my mentor’s lovely horse Nova, with my mother Keitha in tow and good friends all around me. I felt whole for the first time. I found that despite all of the curve balls life has thrown me, any life with horses, family and friends is an exceptionally privileged one indeed.
The challenge now is to pursue my sport responsibly and to risk less. There will be some obstacles: I can’t ride every day of the week; I can only justify about three shows per year; I live in Northern Ontario, far from coaching and competitions; I do not have an indoor arena or a truck and trailer and I have a very limited budget. I suspect this is the reality of most horse lovers. I hope to share stories and support other like minded friends, new and old, along the way.
All the best,