Jennifer Hardy’s new life as a competing equestrian in the state renowned for the Churchill Downs racetrack and the Kentucky Derby is a dream come true.
But the retired teacher’s new life is not just about galloping across the bluegrass meadows of her new home in Lexington, Kentucky; it’s about hard work. Hardy spends six to seven hours a day in classes with her adopted thoroughbred, Joy, and faces the challenges of jumping and dressage lessons four times a week. Dressage, the art of movement and communication between horse and rider, requires Hardy to guide Joy through complex maneuvers with only the slightest movements of her hands, legs and body weight.
The highly skilled form of riding, says Hardy, is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s very technical and disciplined, with rider and horse in one movement and the rider subtly communicating with legs and buttocks.”
After each day of lessons and practice, Hardy bathes, grooms and feeds Joy before turning her out to pasture for the night. Then she cleans Joy’s stall and gets everything ready for the next day. Until the pandemic, she was also competing.
Hardy served most of her 18-year career as an elementary school teacher at PS 146, the Brooklyn New School, in Carroll Gardens. In 2017, when her husband retired, Hardy took early retirement and they relocated to follow her dream — actually a dream deferred.
As a student at the University of Kentucky, Hardy landed a morning job breaking in and caring for young race horses. After three years — and to her family’s dismay — she dropped out of college to follow the horses as they moved to Florida in the winter, back to Kentucky in the spring, and on to New York for the summer racing season at Belmont Park on Long Island and Saratoga Race Course in upstate Saratoga Springs.
In her late 20s, after the death of her father, Hardy gave it all up. She headed back to Little Italy in Manhattan to work in the family bakery. “I quit cold turkey,” she said. Over the next 30 years, she got her degree at Pace University, became a teacher, married and raised two children. She never looked back. She never even went for a horseback ride again.
When Hardy began searching for a horse to adopt and saw Joy, it was “love at first sight.” “I loved her looks and the way she moved,” Hardy explained. “Horses have great personalities and are fun to be around.” When Hardy returned after being away for a few days, “Joy couldn’t stop sniffling me. Is it you? Really, really you?” Hardy said.
With Joy, Hardy competed as an “adult amateur” in cross-country, dressage and show jumping and sometimes in eventing, or triathlons, an equestrian discipline in which competition in those events is held over three days. Eventing was a real test of Hardy’s growing skills.
In March, Hardy adopted another horse, Ferdinand, to give Joy a rest from their busy schedule.
“As an older equestrian, I love the physicality of riding. It keeps me fit and agile,” Hardy said. “My brain is constantly stimulated learning new disciplines.”
And she loves the companionship of her horse. “I love the fact that I have bonded with my horse in a way that is reminiscent of motherhood,” Hardy said. “I am her caregiver, but we are also partners in our riding adventures.”