Late In the Game

One Rider’s Journey to Get Into the Sport Later Than Most


By Jill Donovan

I don’t remember who I was talking to or where I was, but her statement stuck with me. She said, “You should try riding horses. If you’re not 100 percent in the moment, you’ll risk killing yourself.” Ding ding ding! This is what I needed: a true ultimatum to disconnect.

I was a 32-year-old, career-obsessed woman who could not disconnect from my job. I had been a devoted yogi for 10 years at this point but could no longer savasana without mentally compiling at least four to-do lists in those five minutes.

My search led me to try other outlets as well: running, painting, and all the newest trends, such as mediation, but nothing was cutting off my job. Enter horses.

Jill and Kirby celebrating
Kirby has taught Jill to stay present in the moment.

Getting Started Riding

At the time, my husband and I were spending a lot of time on our Wisconsin farm. A quick Google search pulled up multiple small- to mid-sized barns with riding instructors. Knowing absolutely nothing about the sport or what it entailed, I started my calls with general, somewhat ignorant questions for these instructors, such as:

  • How long have you been riding?
  • What type of lessons do you offer?
  • How much do they cost?
  • How many do you recommend before we know if this is something I could actually do?

I settled on a 20-something girl in a neighboring town who focused on barrel racing, a sport I didn’t even know existed before that call. I took five lessons from her in total. First impressions were along the lines of: How can someone post for more than 30 seconds? Will I ever stop bouncing? How in the world do you keep your hands quiet when you need to actually steer?

Those first lessons were brutal for the ego. Previously, I had always excelled at most any sport I took up, but now I had the element of a 1,000-pound, sentient animal to maintain.

First Horse

Very quickly, I learned the only way to get better was to practice, and the easiest way to practice is to get your own horse. I’ve made a lot of mistakes with horses over the years, but none compare to the first horse I bought off Craigslist.

I had absolutely no business picking out a horse for myself to ride after five lessons. The price seemed right, the horse wasn’t “jumpy” or “excitable,” and the current owner said he was used for trail riding. Why wouldn’t this make a great starter horse?

No pre-purchase exam was done because it never even crossed my mind that someone would bamboozle you to offload a horse. I found a boarding facility close to the farm and signed the contract to enlist me and my new steed in training.

It turned out he was calm because he was sick and full of worms; he didn’t eat a lot because his teeth were bad. Once we got him feeling better, his anger due to years of probable poor training and care come down upon me. Now I was too scared to ride my own horse.

Words can’t express my disappointment in my decision making. The only good that came out of this situation was where we ended up for boarding and training: a small, family-owned facility that was exceptionally well-run and the owners beyond friendly.

Their daughter and the trainer took this poor horse and turned him around. In the meantime, she taught me to ride on her lesson horses and occasionally on my own Craigslist mistake.


Pushing Through

Little by little, the bouncing decreased and my ability to post properly increased. I got comfortable at different speeds. While I tried to learn to use my legs, but to this day I still hear my trainers shout, “Use more leg!” I worked on staying off the horse’s mouth and guiding my mount with my body.

This took about a solid six months of weekly lessons, four days a week of saddle time, endless bottles of Advil, and countless massage therapy sessions. It was an incredibly slow but rewarding journey in hindsight. At the time, it was humbling and frustrating.

Around this time, my husband and I moved to Southern California. My Craigslist horse just wasn’t the ride I needed, and moving him didn’t make sense. He was sold to a company that did horse yoga. It was a good fit for him, so I was all right with letting him go.

With a better understanding of my riding ability and comfort zone around horses, I started to look for a partner that I could enjoy. At the same time, my wonderful young trainer back in Wisconsin was selling her Paint show horse.


I rode him and loved him immediately. I remember sitting at the dining room table in our California home and my husband saying, “If you don’t buy that horse, I’ll buy him for you.” So I did. Three weeks later Kirby arrived in California, and I was officially in love.

For the next three years or so, Kirby was my escape from reality. He taught me gratitude for a good and safe ride. He taught me to challenge myself and about dedication for learning this new sport. I learned I cannot excel at everything, even if I try really, really hard.

A horse has a personality, and every day you saddle him up, you get a slightly different outcome. Some days it’s really positive, others it’s really frustrating. This is what keeps me coming back to the sport—the unknown factor of a new day and the challenge it brings.

We moved into a Southern California stable with well over 100 horses. Some days I would just sit with Kirby and watch the young kids take their lessons, envying how easily their bodies adjusted to the shift of the horse beneath them. Or worse, how they seemed to bounce right off the ground and jump back up after a fall, whereas I tend to lie in the arena like a dead person’s chalk outline, mentally checking to make sure I’m still alive while the horse looks on.

I’ve probably come off a horse more times that any human needs to. Most of the time, it’s just me bailing on the inevitable and not wanting to risk injury.

Wakeup Call

After two years with Kirby and weekly lessons, I admit I started to slack on ground manners and small things since I knew Kirby’s personality so well and trusted him.

It was January 2015 and I wanted a break from work, so around lunchtime I drove to the barn and planned to just walk with him for an hour or so before I tackled the afternoon work schedule. The company I worked for had just been sold and we were going through a restructuring. Everyone was stressed and apprehensive about their future, myself included.

Kirby and I were walking down a trail outside the boarding facility, a trail we walked often. My mind absently went directly to work, and the next thing I remember was flying through the air and landing on my knees.

Somehow Kirby got in front of me, spooked and kicked me. I was hit in the chest, off to the right side, about diaphragm level. Luckily we were walking in sand, so landing on my knees was soft. I looked up saw him run away as I gasped for air alone.

I remember thinking, “Stay calm breathe slowly.” I was struggling. At the same time, my horse galloped back to the barn at full speed. A friend caught him, put him in the cross-ties and immediately started looking for me.

Noting the general direction Kirby came from, one of the trainers, mounted, directed his horse down the trails and ran to find me still on my knees gasping for air. It’s a blur how I got off the trail and into the ambulance. I remember very little of lying on the gurney while the trauma team cut off my clothes and yelled things over me like I wasn’t even there.

I remember seeing my husband’s face while I was being wheeled down a hospital hallway. It still pains me to have seen the look of fear in his eyes that day.

My lack of attention to the task at hand cost me four broken ribs, a lacerated liver, ICU time, months of pain, and ribs that permanently stick out. Wearing a two-piece bathing suit is no longer emotionally viable. Whomever originally told me to be present or die was right on the money.

Jill and Kirby at a horse show
Jill riding Kirby with a friend at a horse show.

New Mindset

My first stop after being discharged from the hospital was to go to the barn and see Kirby. I didn’t blame him for what happened; it wasn’t his fault that I didn’t pay attention. Had I been, he probably just would have needed a little bump with the lead rope to knock off whatever he was doing.

I remember the ICU nurses asking me if I was going to “put him down,” as if he were expendable. He wasn’t, this wasn’t his fault—it was mine. I was supposed to be his leader and I failed. By nature he isn’t a mean horse or even a difficult horse. I am his owner, protector and leader. It’s what we sign up for when we make them part of our life.

I was back in the saddle well before I should have been, now outfitted with the latest and greatest chest protector, thanks to my loving and supportive husband who had every right to ask I leave the sport but never uttered a word.

Jane Smiley said it best when she stated, “I discovered that the horse is life itself, a metaphor but also an example of life’s mystery and unpredictability, of life’s generosity and beauty, a worthy object of repeated and ever-changing contemplation.”

I’ve been riding for seven years now. I’m an “old” beginner, but I’m OK with that. I still watch those little girls riding ponies for the first time with total bliss on their faces. I’m still jealous of the teenagers who post beautifully and stay in a two-point for eternity, thinking about how they will never know the struggles of picking up this sport later in life.

My love for these animals and the sport continues to grow with each day and each challenge. When I see a picture of myself riding, I see perfect happiness on my face. I see myself in the moment and the teamwork Kirby and I have built over the last six years. I am grateful I gave this lifestyle a chance and never gave up trying.

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


  1. I loved this story. I am 51 years old and started with three Tennessee Walking Horses five years ago when we moved in the country. I had ponies and horses up to age 10 and my parents tore the barn down and replaced the field with fruit trees. Wow was this a was disappointment. I never lost the love and the love of the smell of horses. I don’t get to ride much because my husband works long hours and I don’t get them out by myself. I also have advanced osteoporosis so the fear of falling scares me. My doctor said not to be climbing on a ladder. The first thing that I ask her was what about my love of horse riding. She saw tears in my eyes and said I can’t tell you not to.


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