By Jennifer Heck
What could the National Football League and the United States Dressage Federation possibly have in common? Helmets? High performance athletes? Gallop steps?
It is, in fact, all of these things, but the NFL and USDF have also provided a team and community for my family.
I am an avid amateur dressage rider and my husband, Andy, has been working in the NFL for 25 years—12 years as an NFL player and these last 13 years as a coach. As a result of his career, our family of six has made six major cross-country moves. We have lived in Seattle, Chicago, Washington DC, Virginia, Florida, and we now reside in Kansas City (Go Chiefs!). With each move, the role of the dressage community has become increasingly important to me.
This adventure began after Andy and I graduated from the University of Notre Dame together. Andy was captain of the Notre Dame National Championship football team that fall, and was looking forward to starting his professional career with the NFL. I was ready to begin a career as a high school English teacher – a job which offered flexibility in terms of where we could reside. That spring, I remember sitting anxiously with a few friends, watching the NFL draft on TV and wondering when the phone would ring with news about where Andy and I would be starting our life together. Andy was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks that day, and off we went to Seattle. It was the first of many surreal moments, and perhaps the first inkling that teaming up with the NFL would require us both to relinquish some control over some major aspects of our lives.
Andy and I started a family. We were blessed with a son and, two years later, we were blessed with (not to mention bombarded by) triplets – two girls and a boy!
When Andy signed with the Chicago Bears, we left Seattle and returned to my hometown of Chicago, where we moved into a house only a few blocks away from my parents. We had a huge support system during those busy years, when the children were all so young. But our time in Chicago would only last for five years, before our next move. Undoubtedly, the most difficult move for me was leaving behind my friends, family, and home in Chicago to head to the unfamiliar DC area with a five-year-old and three two-and- a-half-year-olds in tow.
But that was also when my real love for dressage began. As hard as the move was, we ended up living down the street from an equestrian center in Great Falls, Virginia. Although I had not ridden consistently since high school, I felt drawn to the horses. One day I drove up to the equestrian center’s front office, walked all four kids inside, and tentatively asked if I could begin taking riding lessons.
The woman at the desk stared at all five of us before she stood and enveloped me in a hug. “We will make this work!” she said. “This is just what you need.”
That moment was truly a turning point for me. Riding became a joy that fulfilled me on so many levels—the absolute consuming focus while riding allowed me to shut off all other stresses and distractions. I made friends that shared a common interest, and I was challenged both physically and mentally. Riding was a lifesaver.
We only lived in DC for a few years but, by then, I had grown savvy about the art of moving. I was initially a little jealous that whenever we moved, Andy literally joined a team in our new city, complete with all the benefits that any team provides—a community, a support system, and friends, to name a few. I remember wishing that I, too, could have a team to join when we moved. But one day it struck me that the dressage world actually is a team—with a national, regional, and local structure already in place.
Gaining access to that team was as simple as doing a little computer research. Before our next move, I explored the USDF website, found the local GMO, and soon had the names of barns, trainers, farriers, and veterinarians. USDF became an immediate connection and resource with every future move we made. While there are certain aspects of this life that I cannot control, enjoying the journey and building my own “team” is something I can do.
I have been fortunate to connect with some of the most wonderful horse people across the country this way. The horses that I have learned from and loved span the country as well. We had a nine year stay in Florida, which enabled me to obtain a true dressage education at the Poulin’s School of Dressage. That was also where I formed a partnership with my now 22 year old FEI school master, Luxor. Luxor is one of those rare equestrian treasures – an energetic, hard working, enthusiastic, wise teacher and teammate. He has quietly “listened” through the ups and downs of my often hectic life and was more of a trooper about leaving Florida than my teenage children!
We now live in Kansas City where the horsemanship, local training, and dressage opportunities exceed all of my expectations. Lilo Fore, George Williams, Betsy Steiner, and many other elite clinicians teach in the area, on a regular basis. I am currently Vice President of the Kansas City Dressage Society and head of the Horse Show Committee.
I have benefited greatly from this wonderful community and hope to help others make connections as well. Like anything in life, the more I put in, the more I get out. And I know I will find a dressage “team” each and every time we move.