Airman turns off-duty hobby into AF sport

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
The numerous ribbons, medals and photos hung up on a wall next to a paralegal's desk give a glimpse into her life outside of the office.

Like many young girls, a 6-year-old Stacey Chastain enjoyed pony rides and playing with pony dolls.

On her first pony ride, the 6 year old purposely broke away from the group, trying to get the pony to a full gallop. She and the pony took off as the trail guide yelled for her to pull back on the reins.

After her mother realized it wasn't just a phase, she relented and bought her daughter a horse a year later.

"The horse bug had me so bad that I used to fake sick to stay home from school, wait for my mom to go to work, then go ride all day, hop back in bed and pretend to cough right as my mom came home," she wrote for her member story on the United States Eventing Association's website.

The now grown-up Chastain is a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. When she isn't working as a paralegal in the 23d Wing Legal Office, she is training or competing as one of two Airmen on the Air Force equestrian team.

"She is really committed," said Nanci Kendall, owner of the stable where Chastain keeps her horses. "I have never had someone take so much care of her horses. She's dedicated and focused on her goals. She gives 100 percent.

"She makes it a priority," she added. "It kind of motivates me to do more with my horses and ride more."

Although Chastain has been riding her whole life, it wasn't until a couple years ago that she started competing for the Air Force. After realizing the Air Force didn't have an equestrian team, she decided to find out why and if it could be done.

While working as a fitness specialist before retraining, Chastain saw a lot of the Air Force sports program. Her idea of starting an equestrian team ultimately ended with her talking to the Air Force sports director. He told her that to be an Air Force sport, it has to be an Olympic sport.

Eventing, which is an Olympic sport, is an equestrian event involving a rider and horse competing in three disciplines, usually taking place across three days.

Dressage is the first event, and it involves a rider and horse completing an exact series of movements. The next stage is cross-country, which is a trail with solid jumps and obstacles that would typically be found in the countryside. The last stage is stadium, or show jumping, which judges the technical skill of the horse and rider by jumping over a series of fences.

After providing the sports director with information and resources on equestrian eventing, he expressed his support for a new equestrian team.

Next, the sports program bought Chastain Air Force equipment for riding. She wears her service jacket for competitions recognized by the U.S. Equestrian Federation. At unrecognized competitions, she wears an Air Force polo shirt but hangs an Air Force flag on her stall for all events.

"It's a really good conversation piece when they see the Air Force equipment," said Chastain. "At recognized competitions, people will ask me if a family member was in the Air Force and gave me the uniform. When I tell them I am in the Air Force, they want to know all about you and the Air Force.

"People are surprised to know that I can be in the Air Force and still have time for it," she added.

Chastain added that without children or a family, she usually has plenty of time to visit her horses and practice. Like any job, though, she sometimes finds herself working long days for court sessions.

"There are 365 days in a year, so I figure it's not a big deal if you miss a couple of days here and there," she said. "If you want to do something badly enough, you will arrange your schedule to make time. That's what I do, and it works."

Although Chastain has been competing regularly for the Air Force for two years, she has competed on and off for the past eight years. Since she started up the Air Force team, she competes at least once a month.

One of her most notable events was the 34th Uniformed Services Showjumping Competition in London, which brings military competitors from around the world. Chastain was the first and only U.S. rider to compete in this competition since it began in 1977.

"It was pretty cool. Everyone was just staring at you," said Chastain. "...Not only was I representing the U.S., I was there all by myself. They wanted to take pictures and ask me about the U.S. military. They even invited me back to go on their troop ride with them, where they ride in uniform and give you a sword and everything."

Since she competed last year, Chastain has been encouraging other U.S. service members to compete in the London event. Her hope is put together a team of four other U.S. riders.

Throughout this event and many others, Chastain documented her progress through her blog. Her blog has more than 300 followers with many more readers who don't follow it. Through this blog, people also ask her for advice on equipment and training.

"The blog is basically so I can have a documented online journal with pictures of all the places and things we've done," she said. "I call it my virtual scrapbook. I started that blog when I was in Hawaii. Now, we've gone from Hickam (Air Force Base) in Hawaii to Holloman (Air Force Base, N.M.) to here. It's something to look back on and see how far you've come with your training."

One of the most popular topics of her blog is her horse, Klein, which Chastain attributes much of her success to. That breed of horse, she says, is known for pulling heavy supplies, not equestrian eventing. But, Chastain has spent countless hours throughout the years training her horse to be what she claims to be the world's most athletic draft horse.

The 1,500-pound Klein completely dwarfs the athletic-built Chastain. The horse is 17 hands tall, standing taller than even Chastain. Kendall, who owns the stable and land Chastain uses to train, also acknowledged Klein's size and athleticism. Kendall said Chastain did a phenomenal job preparing Klein for eventing, and that Chastain draws a lot of attention at shows because of her horse.

"To build an event horse, you have to train just like any other sport," said Chastain. "You have to do strength training, slow distance work, sprints and all kinds of different things. I like the whole training process. Along that training journey, you build a strong bond with your horse.

"That way when you go out there and you're jumping solid obstacles that aren't going to fall down, you know your horse is going to go over them," she added. "It takes a special horse to jump over an obstacle. I worked with my horse so much that she would jump over fire because she knows I won't hurt her."

For training, horses also receive chiropractic adjustments and massages from a certified equine bodyworker. Chastain says it is very common and stresses that horses are athletes, just like their human teammates.

"The best part is being a team with your horse," she said. "The horses are not just your equipment for the sport, they are your teammates and really must be treated as equals if you want to be successful. If you're not a team, you will never win."

Although competing and winning is something Chastain hopes to continue, she just enjoys being with her horses. She said that maybe one day she will own her own stable and conditioning business to train horses.

The stable where Chastain trains and keeps her horses is far into the countryside of Valdosta. It's a quiet, humble place, and Chastain said it's just what she needs after a court-session or a long day at the office.