Hitting Their Stride

When she was a little girl sweeping aisles and mucking stalls to pay for her weekly riding lessons, Jennifer Padovani made a promise to herself: To buy a horse and compete at the top-level shows as an adult. In 2004, the Greenwich resident made good on that promise when she bought her first show horse. As she started competing in—and winning—at shows around the East, Jennifer discovered she wasn’t alone. She was part of a growing trend of adult riders—mostly women—who have come back to their childhood passion or who are finally in a position to fulfill a childhood dream.

Nowhere is the phenomenon more evident than in Fairfield County, where an elite group of women are not only riding but also competing year-round. For many of them, riding is an escape, a way to relieve the stress of their busy lives. Others appreciate the social aspect; they love being part of a like-minded community of adult equestrians. Although most of these women no longer have the freedom to just hang out at barns the way they did when they were younger, in truth, most have no desire to return to the days of mucking, sweeping and cleaning tack. They are happy to leave that to a younger generation of eager barn rats.

Horse shows have undergone a seismic shift in the past couple of decades. Where once the options were limited—in general, a rider who wanted to compete had to be a wealthy amateur owner or turn pro—the adult divisions are now geared toward riders who still enjoy the thrill of showing but at less-rigorous levels. There are classes for riders who can confidently negotiate a course of three-foot three-inch-fences and who feel more comfortable jumping two-foot fences. There are equitation classes (those judged on the rider’s style) with point systems that culminate in end-of-season medal finals and championships. At some of the bigger horse shows, adult divisions are divided into at least three different age groups to level the playing field. “The whole circuit has changed dramatically,” says Naomi Garuder, an adult rider, horse show secretary and owner of BHC Management, which runs horse shows throughout Connecticut, including the Greenwich Horse Show. “It’s geared toward working moms. You can now have a nice, normal, regular horse that you can share with your daughter, and both of you can have the fun of showing it.”

As those in the equestrian world know, inside every adult rider is a horse-crazy kid. Here, three Greenwich women who rekindled their childhood passion for riding.

Heidi Driscoll: For the Thrill of the Sport

Growing up, Heidi Driscoll had what she describes as a typical Virginia horse experience that included foxhunting, three-day eventing, pony clubbing and dressage. She collected model horses the way some girls collected Barbies. Misty of Chincoteague was her favorite book. “I was obsessed,” says the mother of two and a resident of Riverside. “I took the bus every day after school to the barn. On weekends I was there all day.” She was a senior in high school when her family moved from Mclean to Greenwich, and Heidi reluctantly set aside the sport she loved. “Fortunately there were plenty of distractions,” she says. From there she followed a conventional path—college, Wall Street, marriage and children. Occasionally she’d dip a toe back into the sport—riding on vacation with her family, for instance. “My husband thought it was too scary. He couldn’t tolerate the thought of me getting hurt. He didn’t relish the idea of changing diapers on his own,” she says with a laugh.

Athletic by nature, Heidi pursued other sports—tennis, swimming and cycling, which she chose in part because it was “the closest to riding a horse. It has that same exhilaration.” Seven years ago, she decided the time had come for her to get back in the saddle. “I figured my kids had enough balance in their lives,” she says. “I could finally pick up something that was meaningful to me.” At first, she took lessons on the sly at a barn in Bedford. “I wanted to see if I still loved it as much as I used to before fessing up to my husband,” she says. The trainer, Cynthia Williams, was in Wellington, Florida, at the time, competing on the winter show circuit. She set Heidi up with a dressage instructor who worked with her predominantly on the flat. “It was a brilliant call,” Heidi says. “It gave me a chance to focus on the basics. Lots and lots of flatwork is what makes you a good rider over fences.”

Soon, she was back jumping courses. She got the chance to lease a talented 17.1-hand German warmblood named Paradigm, whose nickname was Rex. “My husband was really gracious about it,” Heidi says. She started competing at local shows. Within a year, she bought her own horse, a youngster named Legato, that she showed for two years. Although she qualified for the Marshall & Sterling Adult Hunter Finals in 2008, she couldn’t go because Legato was injured. “I tried to bring him back last spring,” she says. “But now he’s retired in New Jersey.” In the interim, she leased several horses, including Dante, on whom she qualified for the Marshall & Sterling Adult Hunter Finals and Medal Finals in 2010. Her most recent ride is a black warmblood named Gridiron, or LT for short, whom she plans to take to the World Hunter Champion Rider Finals at the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Maryland this fall.

Although she’s a better equestrian in many ways than she was as a kid, it hasn’t all been a walk in the park. Several years ago she was involved in a freak accident that sent her to the hospital with a severe concussion. It was months before she could ride, much less show. “The first time Cynthia gave me a course in the ring, I couldn’t really keep the fences straight,” Heidi recalls. “I was in a horse show, and I was in the middle of a course and it was like all of a sudden I realized where I was. I remember thinking, ‘I’m back.’” Her go-for-broke spirit intact, the woman who used to jump her horse over picnic tables as a kid still craves speed and big fences. “As a teenager I was inherently gutsy,” she says. “There are lots of times now when I think I should be way more afraid than I am.”

Which brings us back to LT. When Heidi first started riding him, the former grand prix jumper wasn’t as courageous as one might expect given his background. “I seem to attract the horses that lack the bravery gene,” she says. “I have it for them.” But now, after a year of working with him, LT is like a different horse. “He marches right up to the jumps; he’s got a beautiful rhythm. To see him now, you wouldn’t recognize him,” she says. “It’s been the most gratifying transformation.”

Jill Mastoloni: A Peaceful Place

On a breezy morning in late March, Jill Mastoloni arrives at JT Farms in South Salem where she stables Raise the Roof, or Blue as he’s known around the barn. A thirteen-year-old Dutch warmblood, Blue has been on bed rest for a few weeks recovering from a sore hoof. When she arrives, he’s in one of the paddocks nibbling hay from a metal manger. He seems happy enough, so Jill sets aside a plastic baggie full of carrots and apples for later, and says hello to Siena, a pretty chestnut mare that she is leasing through the summer.

“We’ll start outside today,” her instructor says. Jill leads Siena to the mounting block and once astride, she heads for the ring. She spends about twenty minutes warming up—trotting and cantering in both directions—in preparation for jumping some fences. Jill looks at home in the saddle; her body moves with an easy grace.

It’s this natural aptitude that has led her to countless award-winning rides at horse shows throughout New England. For several years running, she was ranked among the top-ten riders in the Zone IV Ariat Medal standings. Among the highlights of last year’s season: She rode Blue to the Amateur Hunter Championship at Old Salem Farm and placed first in the Ariat Medal Equitation Class, also at Old Salem. This show season got off on a high note when Siena won the Amateur Owner-Hunter Championship at Old Salem Farm in July. Jill also qualified for the Connecticut Hunter Jumper Association Equitation Finals (CHJA) to be held at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in August. “This horse is the polar opposite of Blue,” she says. “She has a big stride and she moves forward without a lot of leg. On her, less is more.”

Jill has a lot of practice when it comes to riding different types of horses. She was four when she first sat on a pony at Round Hill Stables in Greenwich, where she rode with multiple trainers, including the legendary Ray Molony. She loved it from the start, and though her parents encouraged her to participate in other sports, she spent hours at the barn—“just hanging out.” A gifted athlete, Jill was recruited to play field hockey and lacrosse at Cornell, but was sidelined by an injury her freshman year. It wasn’t long before her thoughts turned back to riding.

“I went to a local barn and offered to clean stalls if they’d let me ride for free,” she recalls. “I’m pretty small, so they let me ride all the ponies.” After she graduated, Jill got a job in the financial industry and moved to Norwalk. She bought a horse, Bella, which she kept at Fairfield County Hunt Club. “I was riding a lot,” she says. “Three to four days a week.” Marriage, two kids and a move to Old Greenwich followed. “I couldn’t get to the barn as much as I wanted,” she says. “I decided to lease Bella out and focus on my career and my family.”

Six years ago, after the birth of her youngest daughter, Jill felt the time was right to get back in the saddle. She was lucky that her kids wanted to ride, too. “It’s tough to find a barn around here that has lesson ponies,” she says. After a few false starts she discovered JT Farms, one of the country’s top show barns. The setting is bucolic: A sweep of pasture is divided into small paddocks; in all directions there are horses grazing. A weeping willow-edged stream separates the upper barn from the lower barn; there’s a grand prix field, a hunt course and a large outdoor ring.

“I love the peacefulness of it,” she says. There she trains with owner Jimmy Toon and his assistant Kate Cardalico, who lives on-site. “I needed a place that if the head trainer is going to Florida for the winter there are still people here,” Jill says. It’s not easy juggling a full-time job and a family, and for now, Jill can only manage to ride one to two days a week. Although she loves competing, Jill works hard to keep it all in perspective. “This is my escape time. When I got here this morning I had seventy-six voicemails. I get on the horse and everything fades into the background. Nothing else matters.”

Jennifer Padovani: Bliss & Joy

A few months before her October 2010 nuptials, Jennifer Padovani’s fiancé asked her where she wanted to go on her honeymoon. “I said, ‘Why don’t you buy me a horse?’” she recalls. “We’ll go on a first-anniversary trip instead.” Horses have always come first for the Greenwich resident, whose love affair with riding started when she was just two years old. “My babysitter brought me home on a pony,” she says. “I was all smiles; my parents were horrified.”

Jennifer was hooked. From the time she was five until she went away to college, she rode whenever she got the chance. As a teenager, she spent most of her free time at a barn in Katonah, not far from her home in Somers, New York. The youngest of five children, she learned early on the value of hard work. “There wasn’t a lot of money for me to ride,” she says. “So I mucked stalls and swept aisles to work off my lessons.” She longed to compete. And though she couldn’t afford the extra expense of horse shows, she was determined to earn enough money to buy a horse when she graduated from college and ride the adult circuit. After earning a business degree at SUNY Albany in 1995, where she was captain of the equestrian team, she got a job on Wall Street. “I didn’t have time to ride,” Jennifer recalls.

In 2000, a friend introduced her to trainer Cynthia Williams, a trainer whose New England Farm leased space at a barn in Bedford. Jennifer started taking the train from Manhattan for a weekly lesson. A year later, she leased her first horse. In 2004, she and a friend bought a Hanoverian warmblood hunter named Quality Time. Almost immediately Jennifer started competing—and winning—in the adult hunter and equitation divisions. “I wanted it really badly,” she recalls. “I was making up for lost time.”

In 2005, she bought a flashy but green three-year-old Oldenburg with the intention of showing him in the three-foot, three-inch amateur owner-hunter division. “For a long time he didn’t have a name, so whenever one of the grooms would go out to the field to bring him in, the barn manager would say, ‘you’ll know which one he is because he’s the most handsome—guapo—of all’. The name stuck.” Guapo was soon joined by Pilot (since sold), a jumper Mariposa Blanca; another hunter, Believe You Me; and most recently the “honeymoon” horse, a young jumper named Honeymoon Z.

It’s not easy keeping up with one horse, much less three as well as her step daughter’s junior hunter, Eclipse. Given the demands of her career, Jennifer’s hard-pressed to get to the barn more than one day a week. If she’s lucky, she leaves the city by 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoons and rides until 8 p.m.

In 2005, Jennifer started sending her horses to Wellington, Florida, in order to ride in the World Equestrian Federation series, one of the country’s premier equestrian events. She took a break in 2009 and resumed again the following year. This past season, she rented a condo near the show grounds and every Friday she left her office, flew to Florida, showed on Saturday and Sunday, and flew home so she could be back at her desk first thing Monday. The season was a success by any stretch: She and Eclipse were champions twice in the low adult hunter division. She continued her winning ways this spring with her five-year-old, Believe You Me, with championships at Princeton and more recently at HITS Saugerties.

“It is a commitment,” Jennifer concedes. “But nothing makes me as happy. Riding is the one thing that puts a big smile on my face. The same smile I had when I was two. If you can get that passion as an adult, it’s a gift.”

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