I’m a deputy probation officer for Riverside County, California, and work primarily in a city called Desert Hot Springs.

I check in on gang members after they’re released from prison and it’s my job to ensure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which, many times, they are not.

I like what I do, and I like being on the street. My mom was a police officer, too. But some days can be rough.

Sometimes it’s particularly hard to clock out at the end of the day. There have been times when I’ve had to remove young children from dangerous parents who were keeping illegal drugs and weapons in a hazardous home. Sometimes those cases and the detachment the comes along with them weigh on me long I take off the uniform.

But I’ve found a way to help let that go—at Kim McGrath’s barn in Redlands, California. With Kim, I build a better connection with my 19-year-old Trakehner gelding, Baltimore. But beyond learning how to ride, Kim and everyone at Sunset Hills Dressage has helped me feel balanced and connect over something that brings us all together. When I show up there, I feel the utter freedom of shedding drama at the door.

Baltimore is a nice horse and I think most people just assumed I knew how to ride him because he knows how to move in the dressage arena. He’s a dazzling schoolmaster with all the right buttons. We’d consistently score in the 70s up to second level but after that, his glitz and glamor didn’t cut it anymore. I had to rise to his level.

Kim helped Cristina fine-tune the basics in order to help her move up the levels and achieve her goals with Baltimore.

Whenever I saw Kim at a show, I noticed her attire. She dressed well regardless of how much dust was in the air, how many horses she’d ridden or bathed that day, or how many amateurs like me she’d been coaching. I watched all of her students enter and exit the ring smiling, her horse’s ears pricked.

Yeah, they could ride, and they looked as put-together as Kim did, but the thing I appreciated most was the drama-free fun they all exuded. That’s what I needed.

When I left a voice message for Kim inquiring about lessons back in February 2019, she returned my call immediately and asked me, before anything else, what my goals were. She asked about Baltimore, sure, but she wanted to know about me and made me feel comfortable enough to tell her about my work and the challenges on and off the streets. She understood and built a weekly lesson plan for me that suited my unique situation.

I knew Baltimore and I wouldn’t be in full-time training with Kim, we’d go once a week, but she still treated us like family from day one.

A week after that phone call, I hauled Baltimore the 65-mile-trip from our farm in Joshua Tree to Kim’s barn for our first lesson. It was eye-opening. She showed me I was not understanding my job as a rider, so she ushered me back to the basics. I gladly took that trip. She told me if I couldn’t walk, trot, and canter well, nothing else was going to work well.

It was at that moment the light snapped on behind my eyes. I had this wonderful, fancy horse with all the buttons, but I never really learned how to ride him. I had never learned how to feel his movement. Kim took me back to the basics to teach me how to feel him.

Cristina competing on Baltimore. Photo by Terri Miller.

I distinctly remember her telling me, “I don’t care what type of horse you ride, it could even be a donkey. But as long as you try, that’s all that matters.”

So that’s what I did. I couldn’t wait to do my homework with Baltimore and get back to lessons with her each week.

Last August, my scores rose as I graduated to new levels. Kim was the first trainer to help me master a double bridle. Baltimore knew how to go in one and he was comfortable with it, I had just never really learned how to do it. Kim taught me the tools and how to use them and it helped improved my connection with Baltimore, which improved his understanding of my directions.

Kim coaching Cristina during a recent lesson.

I remember grimacing at photos of myself riding before Kim’s instruction. She completely changed my image of myself as a rider.

When I pulled up to Kim’s barn with Baltimore the other day, my stride lengthened as I led him. It always does because I know I’m walking into a drama-free world. I know that when the lesson or show doesn’t go as I had planned, Kim and the others will be there to laugh at before-and-after pictures with me. I don’t have to carry any weight on my shoulders. I think everyone needs some good-hearted connection after a rough day whether it happens in the barn or on the street.

My goal is to compete at the Prix St. Georges level with Baltimore. My mother, even at my age now, is ever the horse show mom. She said to me, “Just imagine if you had met Kim five years ago. You’d be riding Grand Prix by now!”

Thanks, Mom.

Story edited by Emily Daily & Josh Walker/Athletux.