I don't really know how to start a post like this. This past weekend I was informed that my riding trainer of over 10 years, Julie Eaton, passed away. Even though riding is no longer something I currently get to enjoy, it has shaped my life in ways I will never be able to quantify in words. Julie Eaton was an enormous part of that shaping, and an integral part of that decade of riding.
For my tenth birthday, my parents got me a gift certificate for four riding lessons at Eaton Equestrian Center. My birthday is in the middle of the frigid Alaskan winter, so I layered up with a huge puffy coat, and had my first lesson on a cute little appaloosa named Sunny. Little did my parents know, that was the most expensive birthday present they'd ever get me. Four little lessons turned into a huge passion and almost a decade of riding, caring for, and showing horses.
Needless to say, competitive hunter/jumper showing isn't something people usually think of when they envision Alaskan sports. The Eatons run one of the only hunter/jumper show barns in Anchorage, and we only have about 4 major shows during the short summer. The Eatons, however, were dedicated to creating a barn and show circuit of the same high caliber as larger shows in the Lower 48– something I deeply respected, especially after showing outside ("outside" is how Alaskans refer to the rest of the states). Julie was tough as nails, and the best instructor in the state. Interestingly, though, the entire time she trained me, she was a quadriplegic. When I had just started my riding lessons, Julie had a riding accident and was thrown from a horse, resulting in her paralysis. She didn't let it stop her for a minute. She would drive her electric wheelchair into the arena to teach in the summers, and in the winters she taught via microphone from a windowed loft built above the indoor arena for her. At shows she would be driven to the edge of the arena in the Eaton's pickup truck and teach from the passenger's seat. Never being able to demonstrate or physically alter my body position on the horse, she taught me how to jump 4 ft oxers, turns on the haunches, half-passes, counter canters, and more. The respect I have for Julie, and Dana and Britta–her daughters (also trainers), is inarticulable. Without the Eatons, the horse show scene in Alaska would not be what it is today. If you guys want to read more about the Eaton's and their contribution to the horse community in Alaska, you can read this great article.
Riding at EEC gave me a work ethic, strength, and fearlessness which nothing else could've. I remember showing one winter down in Indio at the HITS circuit, seeing girls hop of their horse, hand it to a groom and never touch it again. I was appalled! At shows I was accustomed to getting to the showgrounds hours before my classes were scheduled to feed, walk, and groom my horse, I always tacked up my own horse and after my classes I spend just as much time cooling down, cleaning and taking care of my horse. Being responsible for a huge animal was something which, at the time didn't really seem like a big deal, but looking back, I was just a kid taking care of this huge animal who relied on me to keep him healthy and happy. It was empowering, and the Eatons never pandered to you. They always expected your best, and didn't hesitate to call you out if you were half-assing.
(This was the day I got heat-stroke in Indio... it was 95º...)
This past Christmas when I was in Alaska I went up to the barn with Dan to say hi. Unfortunately I didn't get to see Julie as she wasn't out teaching. I don't have any photos of Julie here in Tacoma (though, that's her daughter Dana in the photo above listening to me recite a jumper course). Though I know there are some back in Alaska, amongst the hundreds of riding photos and home videos taken over the years.
So, goodbye Julie. You have touched countless lives, but I can only speak to the deep imprint you left on my own life. Your strength and passion spoken through your actions have helped shape me into the woman I am today, and you've left behind two incredible daughters with that same strength and passion to carry your legacy forward.