61-year-old Rider Advises "It's Never Too Late"
For Jean Proctor of Midland, Ohio, just qualifying for and competing at the 1997 AQHA World Show would have been enough. At age 61, she was competing there for the first time.
Article by Cheryl Magoteaux, originally published in the February 1998 issue of BHN.
Jean Proctor lets out a scream of delight and promptly pats her partner, Leos Lil Big Step, as they were announced as the 1997 AQHA Amateur Pole Bending Reserve World Champions.
But, the hands-down crowd favorite didn't just compete, she WON the Amateur Reserve Pole Bending World Championship!
"This is great," she said. "I always wanted to come here and finally decided I'd better go ahead and go for it."
She was amazed, and thankful, that she had done so well, but she would soon be humbled by comments from other people.
"I just called my father and told him when I get home he's getting back on a horse," she said. "I told him there was a lady out here older than him who was WINNING!"
The congratulations and comments came from all quarters, from people who wanted to compete, but thought they might be too old, to other entries in the world show.
"You've been my inspiration!" one rider confided to her. 'I'm 46 and I thought I'd be the oldest here. Then here you are. What can you tell me?"
"It was so humbling and so wonderful," remembers Jean. "I answered that woman by telling her just what I believe, to follow your heart. And, if you love doing it, don't give it up. You know, you don't have to be first all the time. That's not what's important. What is important is that you just go out there and do it."
People were encouraged by Proctor's accomplishments and, no doubt, inspired by her matter-of-fact attitude, about her age and her boundless enthusiasm for competition.
For the woman who says she has loved horses since she knew what one was, getting to ride and compete is still a privilege. "Maybe what makes it impossible for me to stop is that I love it and I'm very competitive," she said.
Even now, nearly a half century later, she can remember how badly a "city" girl wanted to be around horses. When a neighbor got a horse, Jean would clean stalls all week for one ride on Saturday. And when, at 16, she finally got her own horse, she couldn't imagine anything better (and she kept the horse until he died 28 years later!)
When Jean married Chuck Proctor in 1955, they both enjoyed competing in game shows. "We did it all, keg winding (they didn't have poles there, then), pick-up race, scoop shovel and relay race," she said. "We just grew from there."
"Financially, we were raising kids and couldn't go out and buy a winner. We had to make our own. We gradually got better horses by finding one, training him, selling him for a profit, then upgrading."
Jean babysat to earn money to pay for her first registered Quarter Horse, an AQHA mare named Clay Jean, then trained her to run barrels and poles. She trained her well enough, in fact, to earn the designation of the high-point honor roll barrel mare in the nation.
Later, she raised and trained Abe's Leo, a grandson of Leo. She has had plenty of success with the stallion's get and is still breeding him at age 27.
And her biggest success has come aboard one of his sons, Leos Lil Big Step. She delivered the good gelding, then trained him and rode him to the win of the 1989 AQHA Amateur Pole Bending Honor Roll. Also, in 1989, she won the Congress amateur pole bending and has been listed on the AQHA Honor Roll in senior or amateur pole bending every year since 1988.
At the most recent All American Quarter Horse Congress, Jeans and the 14-year-old gelding finished third in the ultratough Pole Bending Sweepstakes, fourth in the Senior Barrels and fourth in the Amateur Pole Bending at what is considered one of the most competitive shows in the nation, against riders as young as a sixth of her age. She's understandably proud of the good gelding. "I am so proud of the fact that I raised him, and I've had him all his life!"
"I;ve had people ask me 'why don't I retire, now?' " Jean laughs, then adds, "But I have so much support from my competitors. Ross Carnahan, John Arrowsmith, Janis and Brad Wagner, I can't name them all, but they always encourage me."
Three years ago that encouragement was especially needed. Jean suffered three herniated disks in her neck after a nasty fall from a horse and wondered if she would ride again. Those friends and fellow competitors were mainstays throughout.
"That meant so much," she said. But most would agree that it's easy to pull for someone with Jean's attitude.
"It's ·never too late," she said. "As long as God gives me the strength, I'll be here." So what advice does she have for other "super seniors" who are thinking about getting back into the sport?
"I know a lot of people who had gotten out of it, then, when they put the new senior categories in, they wanted to get back, into it, because they didn't have to compete against the younger kids," she said. "Those classes have created a great place for us 5O-and-over's to compete."
Jean's secret is really no secret. She works at staying in shape. "I try to stay very active. I bowl. I ride my horses every day."
Although she leaves some of the barn chores and the riding of younger horses to her son, Mark, and his wife, Bridget, Jean still does her own stall cleaning.
She candidly admits to feeling the effects of age, but offers these observations.
"If you want to get back into competing, the best way to go is to find a really broke horse, something that you can get the feel of riding on again," she said. "It takes a while to get back into the groove, where riding feels natural again.
"My balance and agility are nothing like they were when I was younger, so I compensate in other ways. For example, I don't carry a bat, wear spurs or anything that would get in my way, if I got into trouble. Beyond that, I hang on, and I have a broke horse that takes care of me."
Riding daily is important.
"More than ever, you have to be used to what you're riding and that doesn't mean just getting on and making a run," she said. "Most older people who ride, practice and just don't give in to aches and pains. My timing is not nearly as good as it once was, so I have to ride a lot to help that. Sometimes, it's just hard making my body always do what I want it to do. But, I think quitting would be harder, so I'll keep going as long as I can."
She candidly admits that sometimes getting on is the hardest part of her rides. "I have arthritis, so sometimes I have to use a stool to get on." Then, she adds, "Once I'm up there, I'm OK!"