Debbie Van Horn is a home infusion pharmacist, and a good one. She’s an even better equestrian show jumper. Her Passion Place is in an equestrian show ring, jumping rails and fences and winning Grand Prix ribbons aboard Dewey Dare or Fletcher.
Debbie grew up in Minnesota, the daughter of a traveling salesman. “When I was very young my father would come home on Fridays and I’d immediately ask him ‘did you bring me anything, Daddy?’. Many times he had a horse figurine for me.”
Her equine passion deepened after her father took her to a horse stable. She had to “earn” her first pony. “My dad made me a deal. If I won a blue ribbon he’d buy me the front end of a pony and if I won a second ribbon he’d buy me the back end.” She got the pony. “I lost interest dance and ballet classes. I read books and watched television shows and movies about horses, like Fury, My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty and National Velvet”.
Dubbed “the best kid in the barn” as an adolescent, Debbie went on to win multiple competitions. As a teenager she continued to win, sometimes defeating teams that were better funded, involving more expensive horses.
When Debbie was an adolescent her mother passed away. Horses helped her deal with the horrible loss. Years later, on the heels of a breakup of a romantic relationship, an adult mentor knew just what to say. “I was upset about it. Bitsy came to me and told me to come out and ride. I did and I felt better. That pretty much sums up what horses have meant to me.”
Over the decades Debbie continued to ride and compete, off and on, taking breaks to earn a degree in pharmacology, to advance her pharmacist career, and to relocate to California. Now in her 60’s she no longer jumps competitively. She trains horses and mentors young riders. She’s active in equine rescue, saving unsuccessful thoroughbred race horses from extermination.
I spent an entertaining evening with Debbie and her husband Bob in their home. Scrap books of newspaper clippings, photo albums, ribbons and videos of Debbie in competition were in abundance. Her husband Bob is clearly proud, eagerly showing me Grand Prix videos. He does worry a bit because Debbie was once thrown and sustained a serious injury. Husband and wife are clearly connected. It was nice to witness it.
BY JASON LAURENZANO
Prominently displayed proudly in her home is this commissioned portrait of Debbie and Dewey Dare.
“My horse of a lifetime. Dewey had a very strong will to win, and we often did. We beat more expensive horses ridden by excellent riders. He was fearless. He’d jump anything and twist up into a pretzel to clear a fence if that’s what it took. With Dewey, I fulfilled my dreams.”
I asked her to describe her passion. “It’s hard to explain. It’s not only the riding. My emotional, and sometimes spiritual, bond to a horse can be very strong. Sometimes as strong as or stronger than my bond with people. I feel a sense of vitality. I feel an emotional and psychological lift by dressing in riding gear, driving to the farm, and walking to the barn. I feel a rush when a horse recognizes me and responds to my presence, my touch.”
I asked her about the riding routine. “I enjoy the grooming and the feel and the scent of the horse and the leather tack. In the arena we do our warm exercises and then we walk through the layout, sizing up the route and distance to the jumps. I try to gage the speed to take as we approach and jump as a team. I’m very locked in and focused. It’s thrilling to jump. When I ride I feel joyful. I feel alive I feel super happy and charged up.
When we’re done I cool down the horse and after I dismount I inspect for signs of injury. Then I bathe the horse. All of it. I love all of it. I live to ride, I work to earn money so that I can ride.”
Debbie spoke of horses generally. “They are magnificent, intelligence creatures but it’s hard to generalize. Each horse, no matter the breed, has a distinct personality and disposition. Some are sensitive and shy, others are quite sassy and the mood can vary from day to day.”
She explained to me three of the several competitive equestrian events. Show Jumping or Jumpers is perhaps best known because it is the most televised. Held in an arena with obstacles of different heights, it’s a race against the clock with hopes of a clean round (nothing knocked to the ground). The scoring is objective. Style is not judged but good form is closely related to a fast, clean round.
A Hunters competition is all about style and form as compared to established standards. Judging is wholly subjective. The appearance of the horse is closely scrutinized; leather horse tack, braided mane, head position, overall elegance and grace. Then there is the execution of the ride. The proper pace and rhythm, the distance from the jump at the point of take-off, the horse's flight pattern and its landing are critical. The obstacles are lower so that the focus can be on form.
A third event, Equitation, judges the rider as he or she directs the horse around the course. The elements being scored include the rider's attire, posture, balance in the saddle, hand position, elbow angle, knee bend and overall presentation. This event is not an international Olympic event.
On a warm day in July, 2019 I joined Debbie at the Dreamland Farms stable in the rural town of Dixon, California. There I met owner and operator, Andrea. I sat with her under a shade canopy and listened as she called out instructions and words of encouragement to the riders, Debbie included. I watched Debbie, under a hot California sun, work with three horses.
Watching these events on television is one thing. Being only a few feet away is quite another. The size and musculature of the thoroughbred horse is stunning. The rhythmic sound of hooves on dirt is hypnotic. I watched transfixed from only a few feet away as the horse rose up, tucked its legs and floated over the top rail, landing its thousand pound body on skinny front legs. There is a distinct sound if its hooves hit a wooden rail, and another sound if it falls to the dirt.
At Passionsillustrated.com I write about how one’s passion can effect overall mood and impact the outlook on life. I discussed this with Debbie. She obviously loves horses and the activity of show jumping and all that is associated with it. But what does it “do” for her? “I love life, my husband, my family and friends, but my equine passion makes me feel something special about my life, it seems more worth living. Even when the challenges and setbacks seem difficult to endure I always have something to wake up for.”
Her passion is felt daily. “My passion is always with me, even away from the barn. I’ve studied the historical role that horses have played, both good and bad, in human history. I socialize with people who share my love or horses and horse lore. I gravitate towards recreational and cultural activities that involve horses in some way. I appreciate the species. I seek out equine-related artwork, lectures, and opportunities to learn about different riding styles. And I maintain a minimum level of physical fitness so that I can keep riding and training.”
The emotions are not always happy ones. “I feel really sad and deflated if on a given day the horse and I are not communicating clearly and not working well together. And I suffer when the horse is ill or physically suffering. And I have to exercise patience when my horse is rehabbing from injury.”
I mentioned that Debbie has retired from competitive show jumping. This was partly due to the diminished physical ability that coincides with aging, and partly due to the fact that she can no longer count on prize winnings that are vital to subsidizing her passion. This adjustment has been difficult at times and, to her credit, she’s taken a spiritual approach. “This is a huge personal growth metaphor involving letting go.” Yet, the passion is a strong as ever. She recently sold her horse but is already looking forward to her next one, be it a thoroughbred “or a mustang if I feel brave.” Owning a horse is not imperative. “Even if I do not own one, my body and spirit craves the interaction that I find as I work with horses owned by others.
She will continue to go to Dreamland Farms regularly to exercise and train horses including those that are soon to be sold to enthusiastic riders. The mentoring of younger riders is a form of paying back the kindness shown her as a youngster. “I feel like I contribute to wellness in the world if I am able to convert an untrained horse into one that can be ride-able that others can safely enjoy.”
Her horse rescue activity, at local racetracks, reflects her compassion and her objection to the euthanizing of horses out of economic convenience. [See Author’s Note, below].
“If the world only included horses I’d be plenty happy.” Her husband Bob understands her meaning, and smiles.
The sad fate of the vast majority of thoroughbred racehorses is well documented, with a plethora of information available on the internet. Until 2007 when banned in the United States, the U.S. slaughtered tens of thousands of horses every year, of which many were ex-racehorses. Now these horses are sent to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. A University of California, Davis study of 306 horses destined for slaughter found that 60 of them sustained serious injuries during transport.
Fortunately there are multiple organizations and individuals who are devoted to rescuing former racehorses from extermination. The non-profit organization Rerun, serving New York, has as its mission the rehabilitation, retraining and adoption of horses once their careers on the track are over. www.rerunottb.com
Galloping Out is a similar organization created by the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. www.itharacing.com/galloping-out
The Thoroughbred Adoption Network assists rescue organizations and individuals place horses in healthy environments rather than having them slaughtered. Read more about it at www.thoroughbredadoption.com.
There are other organizations like them, but the number of rescued horses is very small compared to the number that are euthanized for economic convenience or injury.