Lindsay Stafford Mader 2015-08-25 16:30:17
RIDING FREE A Cypress attorney’s life in the saddle. Cruise along Swansbury Drive in the Houston community of Cypress, and among the brick suburban homes you’ll happen upon a 15-acre farm with horses grazing in green pastures by two large sand arenas. These animals aren’t the compact muscle-packed American quarter horses owned by many Texans, and the arenas are used for much more than exercise. Attorney Rebecca Pennington owns six of the 23 warmbloods, Arabians, and Dalmatian-spotted knabstruppers on her property, and she shows and trains these European breeds in the equestrian sports of dressage and working equitation. Pennington’s grandfather was a cowboy and rodeo rider in the small community of Charleston during the 1940s, and she picked up his love and respect for horses. Throughout her life, Pennington has been equine-involved on a variety of levels, including barrel racing, participating in Western pleasure competitions, and jumping and eventing. “But then I got old,” Pennington said. “I don’t bounce when I hit the ground anymore.” She also spent two decades in the business of breeding, which can be fairly dangerous due to handling the 1,000-plus pound horses, especially excited and sometimes unpredictable stallions. Five of her six horses were born into her arms. Once a busy litigator, Pennington now pracitces equine law part time from her home, which gives her more time to be outside under the Texas sun, wearing a hat and boots and working with the animals she loves. What makes horses special? The idea that these huge prey animals would be willing to allow the ultimate predator to get on their backs and carry them across, through, and over whatever we ask them is just amazing to me. Their calmness and sense of peace is contagious. They keep me sane. What do you enjoy most about being around them? When I am with the horses, time slows down and a wonderful sense of well-being comes over me. And I love it when, in training, a horse suddenly “gets it” and happily acknowledges its understanding to me. For those who aren’t familiar with dressage, can you explain what this is? A lot of people say the best way to describe it is ice dancing—only your partner is a horse instead of a person. They play music and you get artistic and difficulty scores and you’ve got certain mandatory movements. But when you break it down, “dressage” is just a fancy French word that means “training.” All the movements come from when we conducted wars on horseback and the horses had to be able to maneuver through the chaos. You might need a horse to step over bodies on the ground and that became a piaffe [an elegant stationary trot] in dressage. When we stopped using the horses for war, the cavalry didn’t want to give up their horses, and they certainly didn’t want to give up the fun of training them. Eventually it became an Olympic discipline. You have had several horserelated injuries over the years. Do these experiences deter you? If you ride, you are going to fall. It’s only a question of when and how badly you’re going to get hurt. I’ve seen people who have been stepped on and had their foot cut in half. They’re very strong, powerful animals, and because they’re also prey animals, they’re flighty and fearful. Probably the most serious injury I’ve experienced was in working with a young horse over a course of fences. He sort of freaked, and I ended up with a concussion, broken jaw, cracked ribs, and broken hand. I suffered short-term amnesia and have no memory of the actual incident—only waking up in the hospital. Sometimes, you lose confidence. A dedicated horse person is going to always find a way to get back on and stay involved at some level. My husband says it is a sickness. He is probably right. What are the most important safety precautions to take? Always wear an approved safety helmet without exception. And never work around horses without wearing proper footwear. When frightened, horses try to get away if they can, or if they cannot, they will kick to protect themselves. That means you should try not to spook them. Let them see you approaching. What’s it like living and working on a horse farm? Horses have to be fed twice a day, water buckets cleaned, horses turned out and brought back in, stalls cleaned, aisles swept, tack cleaned, arenas groomed, horses groomed, fences maintained and repaired, and the list goes on and on and on. It must be done rain or shine, in the Texas heat and the winter chill, and even when you are sick. I am lucky to have a farmhand who has lived on my property for more than 20 years. I worked hard, hard, hard for a number of years and saved as much as I could. I did oil and gas litigation, commercial litigation, some professional malpractice stuff. And when I had made a couple of big hits, I said, “OK.” I still practice law, but I live for taking care of my horses and dogs. You have to think about eating ramen noodles so that you can do some of the things you love. How does your law practice fit into the horse lifestyle? There’s a need for lawyers to be involved in equine matters because these stretch from contract law to malpractice—you name it. But there are few attorneys doing it. About 80 percent of what I do is pro bono because there are not a lot of people who can afford it. The law has been good to me, so I do what I can. Do you have a most cherished memory from your years spent competing? It was one morning in the freezing rain at an eventing competition when I was astride the best show horse I have ever owned, Modern Jazz. I was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet and hands. We were waiting in the start box to go onto the cross-country course, and I was thinking, Why am I doing this? I should scratch. Then the starter pistol sounded and off we went. By the third jump, I was having a blast, and by the time we came out of the woods miles later to cross the finish line, I was thinking, It just doesn’t get better than this!
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