Last weekend at the Chagrin Hunter Jumper Classic in Ohio, Teri Kessler won the historic Cleveland Grand Prix aboard her 11-year-old Holstein mare, Lascana III. The victory is exceptional for a few reasons, not the least of which is that Teri, at age 54, competed in her very first grand prix this spring.

In recent years, Kessler has discovered a renewed passion for show jumping and a community that’s been not just a source of support, but inner strength, sometimes in seemingly small and insignificant ways. In her own words, Kessler describes her road from the Adult jumpers to the grand prix ring at a time in life when most riders are moving down, not up, and the four simple words that altered the course of her journey in the sport.

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I started as a hunter rider with Katie Monahan Prudent when my daughter was her big student. Katie trained my husband and me as well as sort of as a favor, and I started as a hunter rider before I switched to the jumpers. It was a bit of a hard switch.

In the hunters, I’d been champion at Devon, Grand Champion of Washington and Harrisburg in the Amateur-Owners; one week at WEF I won all five classes. When my daughter started doing the jumpers exclusively with Katie, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to go to the hunter shows anymore. So my hunters were just standing around and I was going to shows with them in Europe, and I wasn’t riding and really missed it. So I sold the hunters and retired the oldest one, and got an Adult jumper to start at the very bottom.

I was in my late 40s at the time, and honestly, it’s not that easy to do when you’ve kind of been a hot shot in one ring—you don’t want to go be a bobo in the other ring. But it’s a little bit of our family’s adage to go in there and fight the good fight, so I did it. I did the Adults and over time, I slowly moved up to the Low-Amateurs. I did shows like Spruce Meadows, and I went to Europe and I won a 1.15m class in Arezzo [Italy] out on the field, jumping a bunch of derby jumps, like the grob and the liverpool and the Irish bank. I had some big adventures at places like the Gucci Masters in Paris, and I won some classes, but they were really small jumps.

“I started thinking maybe there’s more to me than I realized, and it lit a fire in me. I didn’t know I was mentally strong. I wanted to find out what else I was.”

It was there, at the Gucci Masters in Paris, when I had a turning point. McLain [Ward] was there with Katie Dinan, and I was doing the 1.15m on a really fast horse. I made a slick inside turn that involved jumping a decoration that no one had thought of, which Katie had recommended. I did it and won the class. When I finished, McLain said to my husband, ‘That was great. Your wife could do more.’

That’s all he said. He didn’t say, ‘She’s a genius’ or ‘She’s a talent’, he just said, ‘She could do more.’ It was four words that carried me for about four years, and he didn’t even say them to me.

It’s funny, when you’re older in this sport, it’s not really about you. It’s about the juniors and the people with talent that are coming up. So you kind of look for little bits of inspiration and things that people might say in an offhanded way. I had in my mind that when my daughter grew up and went off on her own, that maybe I would try to do more. I didn’t really tell anyone that, but inside of me, I just kept thinking, She could do more.

When my daughter went to ride with Marcus Ehning, I asked her what she thought I should do for training, and she suggested Pablo Barrios. I hardly knew Pablo. I thought, Pablo Barrios? Isn’t that kind of like, the odd couple? I’m like Susie Cream Cheese—some suburban Muffy—and Pablo is a very South American man with a very physical style of riding. But I went with it.

At our first show together, Pablo told me he’d get on before my class and make sure the horse was jumping okay, but I said I’d rather do it myself. We walked the course in all the adds in case I was nervous, and then we walked all real numbers in case it was going okay. Pablo told me, ‘You don’t have to go fast.’

The mare I was riding schooled well and when I went into the ring, she felt solid, so in the end, I did all the leave-outs and the inside turns, and I won the class out of more than 100 people. When I came out of the ring, Pablo didn’t say anything like, ‘Pull the right rein,’ or ‘Pull the left rein,’ he just stood there looking at me like he’d never seen me before. Then, he pointed to his head and he said, ‘You are mentally strong.’

When you’re a wife and a mom, you’re not really the center of attention, and you just don’t hear things like that very often. It was just like McLain’s four little words, and I carried what Pablo said around with me—I still carry it around with me—until I started to believe it. I started thinking maybe there’s more to me than I realized, and it lit a fire in me. I didn’t know I was mentally strong. I wanted to find out what else I was.

I’m 54 and ladies my age, usually what you’re doing is moving down a division. You go to book club, you don’t carry your own groceries anymore, someone else grooms your dog. You kind of fold things up and pack them away, and life gets a little smaller year after year. But because of the way this sport is, I was able to find out more and more about myself at a time in my life when most other people my age are shutting things down.

At 54, to say, ‘Can I canter up to that jump with a 1 next to it and stay focused and do this, or have I reached my limit?’ You don’t know, but then you walk in there and you think, I’m going to find out.

My first grand prix was at Country Heir in Kentucky. The Welcome was going to go under the lights, and my horse was already kind of spooky, so we skipped that and did a 1.40m professional class to get ready. I’d never done a 1.40m professional class before, so I thought Pablo would tell me to go slow and have a nice little warm-up class. But in true Pablo fashion, it started that way, and then by the time we got to the gate, he was like, ‘You can win this one!’

My horse Lascana is naturally fast—she’s the fastest horse in every class—and I like to ride fast. In the end, I did win it, which felt good, and gave me confidence, and I thought, Well, maybe I can jump this grand prix.

It was just an exciting feeling to wake up that next day and say, ‘I’m jumping the grand prix.’ Then you’re walking to the gate, and it’s just you and the horse, and you walk in, and you leave all your friends with all their good wishes for you outside. And, at 54, to say, ‘Can I canter up to that jump with a 1 next to it and stay focused and do this, or have I reached my limit?’

You don’t know, but then you walk in there and you think, I’m going to find out.

People talk a lot of trash at the horse show about each other, and the horse show society in general. But my experience through this has been incredible support and camaraderie; so much kindness, so much positivity. I mowed a couple jumps down in that first class very nicely, and when I came out of the ring, you would have thought I’d just won a gold medal, there was so much cheering and applause. It’s an extremely beautiful gift that horses can give you, and if you’re with the right people, horse people can give that to you too.

Pablo has been really important for me in that way. He doesn’t have this idea that I’m not a junior, so I don’t matter, or I’m not buying grand prix horses, so I don’t matter. He’s just interested in what he does, and it’s very genuine. So when I look like I can do more, like I did that week in Kentucky, he lets me do more—and he’s very secure with himself. If I go in the ring and make a mess out of it, Pablo Barrios doesn’t go home and say, ‘That was embarrassing.’ It’s really just on me, which is a huge relief. It sets you free to try more.

Lascana has also been a huge part of allowing me to compete at this level. She was a sales horse Pablo was showing for Dietmar Gugler, and he was leaving for the World Equestrian Games that summer. I was looking for a horse, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just try her at your leisure while I’m away and see if you like her?’ Which is like, the ideal way for an amateur to buy a horse.

In truth, she was sort of an unlikely choice for me, because she’s very long and tall and spooky. But there was something about her personality and my personality and we just sort of hit it off. Everyone who’s ridden Lascana will watch her go with me and they’ll say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have imagined this, but it’s a perfect match.’ We understand each other’s vulnerabilities and we kind of protect them in each other.

“You kind of fold things up and pack them away, and life gets a little smaller year after year. But because of the way this sport is, I was able to find out more and more about myself at a time in my life when most other people my age are shutting things down.”

I think you have to look at this sport like a Rubik’s Cube. You have to turn it over, and turn it over, and move the pieces around and play with it until you find a place for yourself in it. When I got that first jumper, and I put my hunter career aside and I started over again, I didn’t start thinking I was going to jump a grand prix at Kentucky. I was like, I must be out of my head, I can’t even remember which order these jumps go in! But then, you start in a small way, and the sport unfolds for you. Eventually, you find a path forward.

For me, I always lived with a lot of goal setting; that’s how we rolled as a Kessler team. But my only goal right now is to keep jumping the bigger jumps, as long as it doesn’t take away from my horse’s confidence, and to see if I can become more comfortable doing it, and a little more competitive without doing any damage to my horses.

I’m 54 and the insurance company tells me I probably have 25 years left—it’s statistics. Do I want to get to the end of those 25 years and have them look exactly like my first 50 years? No! I want them to be a banging 25 years. When people say, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll just practice until I’m a little bit better…’  Do you think I’m going to be better at jumping grands prix when I’m 60? It’s a matter of diminishing returns. Okay, I could practice longer and maybe be a little bit better, but I won’t have the physicality. It’s really about embracing the fact that this is my chance—this is my time.

I think people understand that for me, and I’m grateful for this sport and that the horses are so giving. At some point, I’m going to say okay, that’s it, I’ve hit my limit. But that’s not yet.

-As told to Nina Fedrizzi. Photo credits: Anne Gittins (2); Isabel Kurek (1), courtesy of Teri Kessler.