Rancho Santa Fe resident overcomes adversity to win national equestrian title


By Kelley Carlson

It was about a year ago when “Joy” returned to Rancho Santa Fe resident Helen Reed’s life.

After suffering from a nearly three-year bout of depression and selling her promising Arabian show horses, Reed recovered and was reunited with her beloved 11-year-old gray mare, SV Justajoy.

It was a victory for the 67-year-old, who had been a horse lover her entire life and suddenly had trouble even leaving her house.

“It’s the most isolating thing you can imagine,” Reed said. “You feel like you can’t do the smallest things, like drive to the post office. ... I hope nobody has to experience it. It’s just horrible.”

After defeating depression and rediscovering her passion for equines, another win was just around the corner — in the form of a championship. Reed and Joy placed first in the 2011 Arabian Country English Pleasure Adult Amateur Owner to Ride 55 and Over Class at the U.S. Nationals in October.

“If I never win another show, it won’t matter — I’m so happy,” Reed said.

In the beginning

Reed said she loved horses from the moment she opened her eyes.

“I asked for horses every day,” she said. “I crawled around on my hands and knees (pretending to be a horse). I put bridles on my sisters and drove them around.”

One evening, Reed’s mom opened her bedroom door and found her daughter sleeping standing up.

“I didn’t want a horse, I wanted to BE a horse,” Reed said. “Every minute of my life was about horses.”

While living in Spain as a young teen, due to her father’s career in the Air Force, Reed would ride in the countryside, paying 25 cents an hour.

But when she returned to the States, Reed said “it was too expensive” to ride.

Hooked on horses — again

For Reed’s 50th birthday, a friend — who had two horses — gave her a trail ride as a gift.

Reed’s passion for horses was reignited.

Because at that point Reed was working full time as a paralegal for her lawyer husband, Mike, she wasn’t able to dedicate her time fully to equines, but “I rode when I could,” she said.

Post-retirement was a different story.

Reed bought her first horse in 1993, a 6-year-old nicknamed Mikey.

“He was my favorite horse ever,” Reed recalled fondly. “He was a beautiful gray Arabian, just as pretty as Joy. He and I were in love. He would put his head on my shoulders, take a (gentle) hold on my sweater or skin, and blow in my ear.”

Reed started showing Mikey in 1994, and four years later they participated in their first nationals.

Mikey lived to age 15, and died of cancer on the first anniversary of 9/11. Reed was heartbroken.

“It was a suitably sad day,” she said, as she twisted a bracelet on her wrist made from his hair.

Depression hits

When the depression began in 2007, Reed had just taken some Arabian show horses to Stachowski Farm in Ohio.

“It just came upon me stealthily,” she said. “My mom had died, my other trainer left me (moved), my favorite horse died — I just felt completely detached from everything, I just didn’t care about anything. I became emotionless.”

Feeling disconnected with the world, Reed’s first visit to the hospital was around Christmas 2007. She was in and out of the hospital four times in nine months.

“She is so joyous and a passionate person,” said Dolly Toler, a longtime friend of Reed’s who works with horse trainers. “To see her not care about anything was hard.”

Reed said she tried all kinds of medications, but nothing worked. She finally turned to shock treatments, which she initially resisted — she was afraid that with electroshock, she would lose her memory.

“I didn’t lose a single memory about my life,” Reed said. “In fact, I’m better now than before. I lost my fear — now I’m not afraid of anything.”

It was after the shock treatments when Reed started feeling some emotion again.

“You don’t realize that you got better until you have a tiny bit of joy in your life,” she said. “Suddenly, one day I got a pang when I saw my grandchildren. Also, I couldn’t cry when I was depressed, and I’m a huge crier. When I saw ‘Marley and Me’ on TV, I thought, ‘I’m coming back!’ ”

Meanwhile, Toler and another friend, Michelle Harris, a nurse practitioner, kept working with Reed.

“Dolly and Michelle wouldn’t give up,” Reed said. “They kept urging me on and supporting me. Everything I did, they did with me.”

During Reed’s depression, she sold her three Arabians in Ohio. Jim Stachowski sold two of them within his own barn — one of them being Joy— so that if Reed decided she wanted them back, the possibility existed. The third horse went to a friend.

Back in the saddle again

Toler and Harris had a feeling that horses would be key in lifting Reed’s depression.

“We knew where her joy and passion was,” Toler said. “She put on a happy face. We’d say, ‘Come on, Helen, let’s go ride.’ Finally, the horses broke through that dark cloud.”

“It was slow, arduous work,” Reed said. “Saturday after Saturday, in the rain, cold, she (Dolly) would drive us (to Temecula). I thought, ‘What am I doing? Why am I not in bed?’

“(When you’re depressed), you have to have someone who really wants to help you, and if you say ‘no,’ they won’t listen to you,” Reed said.

Eventually, the opportunity came up to buy Joy back, and Toler showed Reed videos of the mare. Something clicked, Toler said, and once again, Reed owned Joy.

As soon as Joy returned to Reed’s life, in October 2010, things turned around rapidly, Toler said.

“Horse therapy is really a phenomenon,” Reed said. “Having a warm horse, you look in that big, brown eye ... it really helps. They’re nonjudgmental. There’s such power when you’re on the back of a steed like that.”

The ride of her life

Reed started preparing for the beginning of the 2011 Arabian show circuit, and drove to Scottsdale, Ariz., for about six consecutive weekends in January and February, until the start of the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show. Reed and Joy began earning points to earn their way into the nationals, and continued to accumulate them through local shows and regionals during the year.

Meanwhile, Reed began to rebuild her stable and bought two more Arabians: Lady Ava Isabela, 6, a two-time national champion; and GSF Exclusive, 3.

In June, Reed moved Joy to Stachowski Farm’s new San Marcos facility, headed by Jon Ramsay.

“He’s got a head on his shoulders that you wouldn’t believe,” Reed said. “He’s so calm and organized, and the horses love him.”

“Helen worked really, really hard to get here,” Toler said. “The minute Jon and she got together, she started winning everything.”

Reed traveled from Rancho Santa Fe to San Marcos several times a week to ride Joy.

”I would not have had all the success that I’ve had if I couldn’t practice, practice, practice,” she said.

A happy ending

This year’s U.S. Nationals were held Oct. 21-29 in Tulsa, Okla. Reed and Joy competed in an Arabian Country English Pleasure class, in which the horses must look like they’re a pleasure to ride, have perfect manners, and be soft in the mouth.

“You’ve got to have luck, work hard, and have a good horse who gives all,” Reed said.

She and Joy overcame all obstacles, and brought home their first championship.

Jim Stachowski rode Reed’s other two Arabians, Ava and Exclusive, and both finished in the top 10 in their classes. Ava competed in the open 1/2 Arabian English Pleasure class, while Exclusive participated in the English Pleasure Futurity.

Ironically, one of the horses Reed bred and then sold during her depression was also crowned as a champion at the nationals. RA Alliza, owned by Marlene Leichtfuss, won the Half-Arabian Country English Pleasure AAOTR Maturity.

“At 67, I feel like I’m 16,” Reed said. “I’m happy, joyous, free — I never knew my life could be so free. I thought at 67 I’d be in a recliner and moaning.

“I truly believe it’s (the depression) gone.”