Becky Desmond, 70, and husband, Jim, a Vietnam vet and career Army man, have a shared love of horses and riding. They live in Idaho’s high country, a relatively flat area of temperate climate and few trees that is visually embraced by the Boise Foothills. As a young couple living in Montana they became friends with a Scottish couple, avid equestrians, who encouraged them to ride. Their friendship became the impetus of a lifelong passion for horses and jumping. After Jim was transferred to Fort Lewis Army Base, Becky and Jim traded their house for a stable with an indoor arena and small living quarter. They jumped into the horse business.
Becky and Jim are still in the horse business running Haven Acres, a boarding facility near Boise, Idaho. Jim enjoys working with green horses while Becky spends part of her day managing the barn and caring for the horses. Nearly every day Becky, a self-professed ‘adrenalin junkie’ rides her competition horse, Zida. With guidance from their trainer, Stephanie Goodman of Wasatch Sporthorses, Becky and Zida are regular competitors in the “A” jumper circuit, 1.0 meter level.
For every WARHorse who needs a reminder that we’re never too old to ride, Becky Desmond is proof positive and shares her thoughts on being an active, “older” rider.
WH: When did you first get involved with horses?
BD: I was quite involved with 4H, horses and sewing, by age 9. Through 4H I competed in western classes at the county fair. This was back in the 50’s when people didn’t have trailers to haul their horses. Instead, we rode the horses to the fairgrounds and when it was over, we rode them back home.
My first experience riding English was through 4H. Six of us were chosen for several weeks of riding lessons. There was something about how I fit in an English saddle that was soothing. The first time I jumped a cross bar, I was hooked.
Who was your first horse?
My first horse was a brown and white paint pony named Starlight. He was a Christmas pony. I can’t say I ever learned to ride him, he was more interested in not riding. He had many tricks to avoid being ridden from trying to scrape me off under low tree branches to dropping his head causing me to slide down his neck. His specialty was ‘the circus act’ where after being tacked he would lay on the ground and roll. I may not have learned how to ride Starlight but he taught me how to stick with a challenge.
Do you remember your first hunter/jumper competition?
Yes. I was 35 and rode Tony the Pony, a steady, 25 year old, ex-cowpony. The show was at a racetrack in
Montana. I was incredibly nauseous entering the ring (nerves) but by the 7th jump I felt ok and we finished without incident. It felt wonderful coming out of the ring.
How has life’s experiences and the people you’ve met influenced your passion for riding?
In late 60’s entering college, it seemed my career choices as a woman were limited. I didn’t realize that horses could provide a career. Had I known, I probably would have skipped college to manage a training stable. Instead, I became a teacher, later I sold real estate and worked at a newspaper.
After Jim and I married, we moved to Montana where we became friends with John and Jesse Ralston. Their lifestyle and passion for riding inspired my return and Jim’s introduction to horses. We enjoyed competing in the Ralston’s “Montana style” events – no dressage but 3 days of jumping. Day one was a course through the Mission Mountain woods. If your path crossed with a bear, you got a do-over. Day two was an open cross country course and day three show jumping sans the arena – the field did just fine.
Every year a group of us would go to Spruce Meadows Masters, an international show in Calgary, Alberta. We watched equestrians like Ian Millar, John Whitaker, Katie Monahan, and Nick Skelton and saw horses like Milton and Big Ben. We were so inspired by these riders and naive enough to believe ‘we can do that’. These shows were some of the best instruction I received, studying their timing, the approach to a jump and how their bodies worked with the horses. Very educational and fun.
Gene Lewis was also a personal influence. Gene was a quiet Idaho cowboy who was great with horses, a true horseman who was known internationally. His signature clinics included a lot of grid work to teach the horse and rider about balance and rhythm.
Other trainers and clinicians that I have trained with include Tami and Shaina Masters, Bob McDonald, Mary Rae Fuller, Rich Fellers, Bernie Traurig, Nicole Cobb, Karen O’Connor and Kathy Kerron.
What traits do you look for in a good hunter jumper?
I’ve had two great mares and two great, quirky geldings. Over the years we’ve mostly had several Thoroughbred/warmblood crosses and all have competed in the A circuit.
I look for an intelligent face, even stride, good jumping form and horse that knows where his feet are. I tend toward horses with a slight uphill build simply because they are more comfortable for my physique and me, but Zida is definitely not an uphill horse. It’s important for the horse to show an eagerness or willingness to jump – they need to like what you ask of them. But if I just like the horse and feel a connection, all that goes right out the window.
Tell us about your current competition horse Zida, what is she like?
She is such a good-natured horse, she really doesn’t have any vices. She is consistently good and works hard. She can be a little sluggish doing flat work but she perks right up when jumping. Her pasture time is limited because she suffers from an inconsistent, mysterious allergic reaction while outdoors on grass for too long–her throat swells. So she goes out for a few hours each day and is usually worked (ridden or ground work) five times a week by our trainer or myself. She has a great work ethic and gives 100% once she’s figured out the game. She loves to jump and trail ride. If she trusts you, she’ll try anything.
What would Zida say about jumping?
Bring it on! She loves to jump.
Does Zida have a favorite treat?
Her favorite treats are bran cookies with a peppermint inside.
What is your greatest equestrian accomplishment to date?
Competing at the Thunderbird Show in Langely, B.C. three times. Last year at age 69 we competed in the 1-meter classes. We won an open jumping class with 50 riders entered. We went clear and with the fastest jump off time. This was my personal Olympics. Our prize was a bag of the peppermint bran cookies. As far as Zida was concerned that was the best prize she ever won.
Are there jumps you find particularly challenging?
A tall vertical is difficult. You have to know the right spot to propel you upright and over. Zida doesn’t seem to care too much about jump designs but she is a bit cautious with dark areas, shadows like with a Devil’s ditch. Given her build, narrow jumps can sometimes be tough. She does best with a 6-8’ wide jump.
Drop jumps scare me. Jim and I went to Ireland for a clinic at Clonshire Equestrian. I told our instructor I was afraid of drops. He had me do every drop jump on the estate. It worked, by the end of the afternoon, I was more comfortable with the landings.
What do you most enjoy about competition?
I like to do as well as I possibly can. Jumping right is like a good tee shot or smack of a tennis ball. When my horse and I are in the right spot, it is very fulfilling.
What keeps you riding at 70?
I am very competitive and I’ve never been afraid to make a fool of myself. In 2017, I was at a show and as usual had carefully studied the course, which included a tough turn to the left to go through the timers. As I rehearsed the course in my mind and reached that tough left turn, I kept telling myself “don’t turn right, don’t turn right”. We entered the ring, began our ride and when I got to that last turn, what did I do? I turned right. Zida and I smashed into the timer breaking it to pieces. Obviously, my clear ride was disqualified.
Things happen. I’ve learned through decades of showing that you can go from hero to zero in an instant. I’m ok with that because I loving riding and plan to continue for as long as I am physically able.
How do you manage the physical challenges faced by older riders?
I recognize that my energy level is diminished, morning are toughest. I deal with the usual muscle aches and arthritis. I have degenerative cartilage in my spine so my vertebrate tends to freeze up. Bi-weekly injections are helpful as is keeping active. When I’m riding, nothing hurts. When I’m not riding, everything hurts.
What benefits do you see having horses at 70?
Physical activity of course, and mental stimulation. Being able to listen to my trainer and apply her instructions to my riding keep me thinking. Memorizing a course at a show is good stimulation. There is always something to learn about horses, they are good for my brain.
What advice can you offer older riders interested in taking up jumping?
Do it. Find a good instructor and a good horse but do not do it on your own. Invest in good equipment that fits well. Know that you don’t start right off jumping, there is a learning process that starts with learning balance. I can’t stress enough the need to commit to your horse. That means making time to care for them, ride them and be with them. And you must always try to do well by them, even on days you may not feel well yourself. And have fun!