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Mary E. Wilson spends her free time assessing the partnership potential of two of her favorite midlevel associates: her horses Java and Charleston. At least two nights a week when work permits and on weekends, Wilson, an environmental law and bankruptcy partner in The Woodlands, Texas, office of Dallas’ Winstead Sechrest & Minick, works out with her horses for hours to perfect dressage, stadium jumps and endurance in her quest to progress a few levels in the “eventing” hierarchy. Eventing — a recognized Olympic sport — essentially is an equestrian triathlon that involves various feats and jumps. The dressage component (which Wilson calls “ballet for horses”) evolved over centuries from military training of horses and is analogous to the compulsory figures of ice skaters. It tests the horse’s ability to do complicated maneuvers and obey the rider. Stadium jumps are another competitive component. But it was the cross-country phase — where horse and rider gallop over an outside obstacle course that the horse never has seen before — that grabbed Wilson’s imagination the first time she went to an eventing show nearly six years ago. “I was standing by one of the fences where the horse came through in the middle of the woods, and it was just flying,” Wilson says. The horse navigated a jump that to this day amazes Wilson — a jump called the “coffin,” which entails racing at break-neck speed over a big fence, down a ravine, over a ditch, up a hill and over another big jump to get back on land. “It went by so fast, just seconds, but you could tell there was real communication between rider and horse. I thought that must be the most wonderful feeling and decided at that very moment I just had to do this,” Wilson says. Wilson, 48, grew up with horses in South Carolina, but she’d never done much more than casual trail riding before she started taking regular lessons with renowned eventing coach Alyce Hinkle of Conroe, Texas. Rather than buy a horse from the outset, Hinkle advised Wilson to lease until she was proficient enough to buy an upper-level horse. Wilson leased five horses in about five years before she bought Java last year and, just weeks ago, Charleston — both thoroughbred geldings. “She has a wonderful passion for the sport,” Hinkle says. The desire is there, and she enjoys the journey, she adds. But it’s not easy, Hinkle says. “Horses are a great leveler. They can take anyone’s ego down to ground zero, and if you can’t understand that, you might as well never learn to ride. You’ve got to be their shrink, and they are, in turn, your shrink.” Wilson is the first to admit that her hobby is extremely stressful. “People who do eventing are really sort of adrenalin junkies,” she says. But when you go over those complicated jumps on a horse that has a lot of power, speed and technical ability and do it right, there just is no better feeling in the world, she says. Wilson lifts weights and does cardio exercises to improve her upper body strength and endurance. People wrongly assume that the horse is doing all the work, she says. In fact, when you come off a cross-country course, the rider is breathing just as hard as the horse is, she says. “It’s hard work to stay with and control the horse.” Describing herself as a midlevel rider who’s good enough to keep herself from getting terribly hurt, Wilson dismisses her past broken leg, ankle, wrist, elbow and two fingers with a laugh. She considers herself fortunate for having an understanding spouse — personal injury attorney Paul Koks of Koks & Kangun in Conroe, Texas — who encouraged her to pursue her dream even though it meant he had to style her hair each day when her arm was broken. Not only that, but each recognized eventing competition requires Wilson to be away from home from Friday afternoon through Sunday night. Wilson tries to do five recognized shows in the spring and five in the fall. “I usually go to one show a season because it scares the hell out of me,” Koks says. “It makes waiting for a jury to come back with a verdict seem like a piece of cake. It’s a whole lot harder than it looks.” And the sport is not inexpensive, Wilson says. An upper-level horse can cost as much as $50,000, although a young horse of good breeding with little or no training can run between $5,000 and $15,000. Shows cost around $250 for entry fees. Boarding the horse at a stable can average $300 to $500 per month per horse. Horses must be shod about every six weeks, which costs about $100 per horse. And vet bills run a minimum of $300 to $400 per year per horse, assuming there are no problems. “It’s not a hobby, it’s an obsession,” Wilson says. Her goal is to reach the “one star” level — which is the lowest level of the upper level. Once there she could participate in a steeplechase, a significantly more elaborate course. “If I could get a one-star under my belt regardless of how I place, if I just finished, I would be deliriously happy because I view at my age, I’m not getting to the Olympics. I didn’t start out young enough.”

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