Colorful Character

Learning as She Goes

Paint Horses and a lifelong thirst for knowledge compelled Helena Ryan to take the reins as an adult and make an impact for others.

By Allison Armstrong Rehnborg

Learning is a way of life for Helena Ryan. Whether she’s perfecting her Paint’s lopeovers for trail classes, strumming Duane Eddy tunes on her Gretsch guitar or coordinating the United Kingdom’s inaugural show exclusively for Paint Horses, the determined cowgirl from County Limerick, Ireland, transforms every challenge she faces into a learning opportunity to learn.

“When you learn how to learn at a young age, you never forget how,” Helena said, adding that it’s about understanding how to comprehend and retain the lesson at hand, not to just mindlessly repeat key phrases. “Then, you’re not afraid to try something different.”

As president of the United Kingdom Paint Horse Association and an APHA national director, Helena is a bundle of energy, determined to promote the colorful breed in the U.K. But long before she stepped into a leadership role, Helena used her thirst for knowledge to soak up everything she could about horses; growing up, she daydreamed about galloping her neighbor’s Connemara gelding over the emerald Irish countryside, but Helena was 31 before she ever sat astride a horse.

“People ask me if it was harder to learn how to ride as an adult, but I actually think it was a massive advantage. Because I was older and more mature, I was free to decide what path I wanted to follow,” Helena said. “When I finally had the chance to own horses at 31, I wanted to do things my way and I wanted to learn Western riding. If I’d gone to a local riding school, especially as a kid, I would have learned English riding because there wasn’t Western riding in Ireland.”

A Country Without Cowboys

Helena and her husband, Martin Collins, both grew up watching old Westerns, especially The High Chaparral, Bonanza and Young Riders, so it was only natural for them to dream of saddling up like their cavalier childhood idols.

“My dad loved to watch The Virginian and the original Lone Ranger movies,” Helena remembered. “The love of Westerns and the freedom and adventure of the Wild West was literally bred into me. Horsemanship and history continue to draw me to the Western life.”

But in a country without cowboys—or Western tack shops—learning to ride Western wasn’t easy. Irene Stamatelakys, APHA director of international membership and one of Helena’s closest friends, says Western riding isn’t nearly as mainstream in Europe as it is in the United States.

“Western riding is growing in popularity, but it’s still a tiny percentage of all European riders,” Irene said. “There aren’t any Western trainers in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland for Helena to take lessons from, so she really has to go out of her way to get training.”

Helena traveled to Great Britain to meet her first Western instructor—accomplished Western horsewoman Thea Lloyd, originally from Ceredigion, Wales.

“Thea actually became one of my best friends,” Helena explained. “Twice a year, she would fly or take the ferry to Ireland, which is about a three-and-a-half-hour trip from England, and she’d spend the entire weekend training with me. We’d ride all day, talk about horses over dinner and stay up talking about horses until 2 a.m. Then we’d go to bed, get up and begin all over again the next day. Between our training sessions, I read books and watched training DVDs and asked Thea questions. That’s literally how I learned to ride.”


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2019 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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