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Sometime in 2017, I got my ass in gear and decided that instead of longingly watching other people ride horses and wonder if I’d ever get to do it again, I was going to finally suck it up, find a barn and do it. There were probably a lot of other larger image issues at play there – thinking things like, I’m still too tall, I could be skinnier, I’m out of practice… but what it all came down to was – how am I going to know if it’s possible if I don’t just show up and try?

So I searched barns in the area, and found one that I thought kind of fit my aesthetic. I wasn’t looking for a place that valued clean aisles over horsemanship, or who had more ribbons than sense. If the barn cat did more sun bathing than mousing than that was fine by me — what counted was the horses, and how the people made me feel.

Horseback riding can be an exclusive and expensive sport by nature – owning horses isn’t cheap, and kitting out to ride can be costly. When you factor in lessons, boarding, arena time, or competition it can be kind of daunting. A lot of the time we associate horseback riding with having money, with being rich, with affluence – and that in turn leads the sport to come off as kind of snobby and exclusionary. But when I competed in rodeo as a teen and rode horses back in my youth, that was never my experience. So as an adult it was something that I was actively searching for – that same calm, genuine feel – where we embrace one another and lift each other up. Where the brand of your breeches doesn’t matter, but how you treat your horse sure does.

And you know, I found it. I found this great barn where they don’t judge me for being really tall or not being waif-thin or not having Hermes boots. Sometimes riders come in jeans or sweatpants, they have helmets you can borrow if you can’t afford your own, riders will sometimes donate their old outgrown breeches to younger, new riders that need them, and as long as you have footwear that keeps you safe in saddle, you can ride. They care about how I treat my animals. How I talk to the other riders, how I coach new people, how I help out when they’re short-staffed. I don’t yank horses by the bit, I don’t get angry when we don’t do well in the ring, I don’t over-whip my horse, I take care when I’m picking feet to check everyone’s shoes and gently feel their soles and frogs for tenderness. I come early and stay late to help, and I never shy away from a difficult task.

They challenge me – I’ve traded out my cowgirl boots for tall boots, and my Wranglers for Breeches. Made the comical switch from a competitive rodeo rider to a beginner English rider. It’s tough having to start all over and relearn things and to this day I will ALWAYS fall back on neck-reining in a pinch because it’s what I did in barrels.

Heels down is the bane of my existence, and I think the only reason I’m so advanced after a year of weekly rides is because I spent 10 years in ballet so no one has the kind of balance I do and I’ve had years of madams prodding my lower back to arch higher, my shoulders to drop lower, and my spine to lengthen as I cant my hips forward.

But now I just have to do it on 1200 pounds of absolute Bag-Of-Cats and the only way to control it is by an incredibly soft touch on leather reins and gentle legging.

Oh and while you’re at it make sure you post up in the saddle, drop your heels, but in rhythm with the horse’s gait, DROP YOUR HEELS, and steer them into tight corners, figure 8’s, 10 meter circles, and occasionally bring them to a full stop.

To say horseback riding is madness is selling it a little short I think. But it’s the most fun I’ve ever had and I can’t get enough. If I could I’d ride 3 days a week and spend half my time mucking stalls to cover it. There’s nowhere I feel more comfortable, more at home, more in control and more at peace than when I’m in a saddle. Learning to communicate with a horse, read their motions, talk to them through touch, and have them trust you implicitly is such a pleasure. I adore my regular lesson horse, and I look forward to every weekend for the time I spend at my barn with him. Blazing heat of summer, bitter cold of winter – we’re still out there.

It’s been a year and maybe I’m not jumping oxers yet but I’ve taken a horse that when I started enjoyed snatching the reins out of my hand and who didn’t quite like doing the fancy dressage angles I asked for … to now, I can stand in a half seat and whisper “trot” and he voice commands around the ring for me and will follow me around the barn without a lead.

As it turns out he just likes a challenge, doesn’t want to be bored.

Same, Monty. Same.

Heels Down, Shoulders Back

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Publication Blues

Back in the dark ages of my last museum job, publication and writing about our work was the bastion of the PIs and I didn’t quite rank up there. I still got the illustrious job of presenting our work at conference and representing us at other meetings and being one of the few people who is still, to this day, able to recall the findings of the grant research with perfect clarity but still – there was something about having your name on a paper and being able to say “cite me” that was exciting and out of reach.

Fast forward – new job! new me! Same old lack of publications. It’s not that I don’t have the ability to write or that there’s a lack of people out there who have approached me but at the same time I’m often stuck in this wasteland of ‘things I’m invited to write’ versus ‘things I actually want to write’ and the third circle of this Venn Diagram from hell ‘things I’m allowed to write’. Blogs don’t count. What I really wanted was my name on a paper and I know that’s shallow but everyone is doing it now and I felt left out. Also there’s only so far you go in your career with zero publications before people start to wonder “what’s her problem.”

That should also be pointed out as an issue with academia writ large – that we judge people based on their ability to publish and that their quality as a professor/professional is measured in qualitative data like number of papers in x level journal. That doesn’t actually make you GOOD that just means you got lucky. Anyways… I was looking for the right fit and I finally found it.

I was given the chance to write for the Informal Learning Review and was published with my article on the front page. It was kind of a big deal to me and my mom actually has my hard copy at her house in her Cabinet of Oddities (aka with the real nice china that we only pull out for company and special occasions) because it was a huge thing. I think she might be rubbing it in our neighbours’ faces … they probably deserve it.

If you’re jonesing to read it, check it out on over on my work site.

The content matters, obviously, but to me it was about reaching that milestone and saying “I DID IT.” I have a few other things co-authored in the works too and of course there’s the looming dissertation that’s standing over my shoulder and glaring at me typing away on inconsequential verbiage instead of putting in hardcore study time. But that’s for another blog post.

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The Blog Begins

This blog actually should’ve started in 2013 when I got a job with the Science Festival Alliance as that seemed to be the confluence of many things changing in my life all at once, radically. I went from living in a guest room with very few possessions and almost no money to being the second in command of a national network of science festivals and finally getting to use all that hard-earned knowledge I’d gained from my job with MOSI and the UCSC team on an ISE (now AISL) grant that studied informal science learning in museums.

I’ll be honest, it kind of sucked to go from the program manager of a grant that you’d put your heart and soul into for the better part of four years to being a part time Disney lifeguard and Starbucks barista just to pay the bills. I never once viewed those jobs as ‘lesser’ and if anything I think I gained an immense amount of respect for the people making my coffee in the morning (and how difficult it is to pull a perfect shot) and of course I got the chance to go through Disney Traditions which is the top tier of the customer service training experience so.

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” – Pelé

All that said it’s been five years and I’m a different person. Writing in the retrospective sense is a little weird and I don’t really want to do that but on the other hand there’s definitely some trips I went on that I want to document and there’s things out there in the wide world of museums and science communication that I feel compelled to comment on that are perhaps just over their sell-by date.

I also learned from some adoptive travel parents in Killarney, Ireland that it’s important to spend every day of your trip writing and I used a little hand-written notebook on that trip, but I’d sort of like to follow in my Aunt and Uncle’s footsteps and record things in the cloud – in a place that I can revisit anywhere and that I can link people to if the spirit moves me that direction.

So I guess take this for what it is, an introduction.

My name is Julie Ann. I travel the world. I ride horses. I’m a science communicator. I love wine. I can’t resist a good shopping trip. And if it all goes up in smoke tomorrow, then tell my friends I had one hell of a good time.