Galloping a race horse down the track, and teaching a discouraged adult to read; could these two things be related in any way? They could if your name is Jeannie Spence, a race horse owner, trainer and jockey, plus professional teacher. Let me explain.
Spence grew up in Williams Lake, B.C., where almost every child had a horse of their own. She and her friends would ride to school, and then play hide ’n seek, or tag on horseback.
At age 11, Spence was galloping her pony at the Williams Lake Rodeo Grounds when a race horse trainer called out to her. The trainer’s jockey had tipped his elbow a few too many times that day, and was no longer fit to race. “Would you like to ride a real race horse?” the man called. That stopped Spence in her tracks. What horse-crazy kid would say no to such a request?!
“We won the race,” Spence laughs. “But it wasn’t me; it was because I was on the best horse.”
That win was the start of Spence’s career as jockey. The word quickly spread, and soon Spence was riding race horses for a number of Williams Lake families. The next few years were a blur as Spence traveled the racetrack circuit around B.C. and Alberta, plus rode her own horses in barrel racing and pole bending.
The proceeds of barrel racing and jockeying put Spence through university. “I had planned to be a vet,” she says. “But a local vet talked me out of it, so instead I took education.”
When Spence graduated she bought a Thoroughbred, and continued with life on the track. But once her first child was born, things began to change.
“Years earlier I had broke my neck when involved in a four horse pile-up,” she says. “Once I was married and a mother, I lost my nerve. A mother can’t afford to be injured, so I quit jockeying but continued to own and exercise my racehorses.”
It was during this time that Spence became aware of the numerous people at the track who couldn’t read, and didn’t know what to do about the problem.
“I was working with a groom that told me ‘I can’t learn to read and no one can teach me,’” Spence says. “We worked together for two years before he would allow me try to help him, and even then he was very secretive. We had to work out of sight; in a tack room, or in the car.”
Within six months this groom was reading. Soon the word spread, and others from the track appeared, asking Spence to help them, too. Spence’s days were packed as she cared for her two sons, trained her horses, taught full-time plus tutored jockeys, grooms and anyone else that asked for assistance.
A few years later Spence’s teaching career came to a halt after her inner ears were damaged. “A mower flung a rock onto my car’s windshield,” Spence says. “I thought I had been shot, the noise was so intense. My balance was affected, and sounds were overwhelming.” Spence had to stop working in the classroom, but was able to continue tutoring one person at a time.
Eventually the Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver developed an on-site Learning Centre, where track employees and their children could go for assistance in reading, computer skills, upgrading their GED or learning English as a second language.
“The racetrack is a world of its own,” Spence says. “There no one cares about the colour of your skin, your sex or your religion, instead you are judged on how well you treat your horse, and what kind of person you are. These people are there 24 hours a day, and sometimes they need a bit of help. We try to do whatever’s necessary, whether it’s teaching them first aid, or providing healthy snacks.”
“Some of the people we’ve taught have left the track and gone on to different jobs,” Spence says. “We’re proud that the track gave them a foot up in the world. And many of the employees that continue here have also been very successful. One of our students went to the Olympics twice as a groom. And an ESL student, jockey Mario Gutierrez, recently won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness on Thoroughbred I’ll Have Another.”
“At the end of my life, I don’t want people to say ‘She sure had a nice house,’” Spence concludes. “I want to do something that actually makes a difference.”