Photo: Betty Mills, right, with her protégé, Maggie, and the horse that connected them, Legacy Danseur.
A native of Virginia Beach, Va., Betty Mills spent much of her career working as a human resources manager for several big automotive groups in the Norfolk area.
When she was 52, Betty became a consultant to business owners in the RV industry. Although the industries were somewhat related, they both had unique challenges. Working as a consultant also meant Betty had to give up working for a salary to start working on commission.
“It’s like walking a tightrope without a net. To live off what I was able to make by myself was a big adjustment for me,” she said.
The situation was also a little daunting. Her husband had died six years earlier, which rocked her stability. Now Betty would be living off of an irregular commission.
“Not having the cushion of a paycheck to fall back on was difficult, especially when I was first starting out,” she explained. “I had ample savings, so I wasn’t hurting for money. Yet, I didn’t have a steady paycheck or a husband with a paycheck. It worked out very nicely for me. But, as a single woman, that was unnerving for a while.”
Helping young people
The 70-year-old widow retired 2016, which allowed her to pursue her true passion for horses and mentoring young people, especially teenagers, who want to learn to ride and care for the big animals.
“I got my first tiny horse when I was 7 or 8 years old and I’ve owned a horse ever since,” she explained. “I’ve been mentoring children since I was a kid myself.”
The level of mentorship Betty provides varies from child to child depending upon their needs. She can furnish a horse for kids to ride as well as offer lessons and even offer tack (saddles, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, etc.) plus advice gained through many years of experience. When her riders compete, Betty also provides a supportive cheering section.
“By the time I meet a child who is interested in riding, he or she has already bugged their parents a lot just to find a horse to ride. Now the child is dedicated to caring for an animal,” she explained.
“I know from my own experience that some children are born with a horse gene. From the time they can speak their first words, all they talk about is getting a horse,” she added. “They will get a toy horse and set up paper box stables in their bedrooms. They have read all the horse books they can find before they are 10 years old.
“Then I will run into a parent who tells me their child loves horses and wants to know if he or she could come to my place for a ride,” she said.
That’s how Betty met Maggie, her protégé who just turned 18 in the fall of 2021. Maggie’s family lives down the street and they formally met each other when the girl was 11.
“Maggie’s grandfather did me a favor by grading my driveway one day, so I told him to let me know how I can return the gesture,” Betty said. “He described his granddaughter as being crazy about horses and they’d all be appreciative if I could let her ride one. They brought Maggie over within a week.”
Girls just seem drawn to horses and the animals connect with them, too, Betty explained.
“I think it’s the power a 100-pound girl feels being able to control an animal weighing 1,400 pounds,” she added. “The ability to control a horse in a specific way by using her hands, legs and various aids really empowers girls.
“Horses are the noblest of domesticated animals. When you turn a horse loose in a field, he just exudes confidence by prancing, trotting and lifting his head and tail tall,” said Betty. “Young riders pick up on the horse’s confidence and it makes them confident, too.”
In fact, girls consider their horses to be a confidant and true friend. They develop a bond few other people ever enjoy. Even when the girls buy a new horse, they are often overwhelmed with emotion when saying goodbye to their special friend.
Betty estimates she has mentored a dozen kids over the years. That may not sound like much for someone who has been mentoring youngsters for 50 years. But the mentoring relationships take a lot of time and goes beyond teaching children to ride a horse.
Most of the kids Betty mentors are girls, although she has worked with several boys in the past who have shown interest. However, once boys can play football, they often lose interest in horses.
“Boys grow up and become interested in more mechanical things, like automobiles, motorbikes and four-wheelers,” she explained.
Criteria for mentorship
Betty looks for a specific type of child to take under her wing, and the parents’ attitude toward making a child’s dream come true is often a deciding factor.
“It’s just like soccer or anything else a child wants to do that requires commitment,” she explained. “Parents have to bring their child out on weekends and be willing to wait in the barn while the child tacks up the horse, completes a lesson and cleans up afterward.
“There was a young lady who was a good little rider, but every time I suggested she take part in a clinic at the stable across the street on Sunday, football was always the excuse as to why she couldn’t participate,” Betty added. “When it’s more important to stay home and watch a football game than it is to help their child learn to ride, then there’s not much chance the girl’s skills are going to improve.”
Betty has been willing to invest a great deal of time into mentoring the right kids. She’ll help parents by picking up kids from school, but mom and dad have to demonstrate some commitment themselves toward helping their child embrace the hobby.
Price of mentorship
Mentoring children who love horses doesn’t come cheap. It can be expensive for parents, but also for Betty. She needed a barn to house four horses and store equipment.
She purchased nine saddles of varying sizes as well as saddle pads, blankets and a collection of brushes and bits. Her tack room included 12 bridles and everything else kids needed. She had to buy a horse trailer and pickup truck to haul the animals. Betty’s investment in horses and equipment was well over $100,000.
Yet having all that equipment was a big relief for parents because it meant they didn’t have to shell out a lot of money upfront just to see if their daughters would really like caring for a horse.
“It’s funny because I’ve been sitting at a dinner table in a restaurant with three or four other trainers and barn owners. Then someone will make a comment about how their son is involved in traveling sports and how we’d never believe how expensive it is,” she laughed. “We’d look at each other, roll our eyes and think, ‘Are you kidding?'”
Not only do the kids Betty mentors learn how to ride and control horses, but they have to clean up after the animals as well. Betty requires kids to clean the tack and put it away before sweeping the barn.
“It’s not that I need help because I hire people to do that,” Betty explained. “It’s important to me that kids understand horses are expensive and require a lot of care. Children must earn the ability to ride. So, yes, they wash out buckets, clean stalls and clean out the horse trailer to earn the right to use one of my horses.
“Caring for horses is much different than having a son who likes to use dirt bikes. In the off season, a parent can drain gas out of the bike and store it in a garage,” she added. “There’s no garage for a horse. He has to be fed twice a day, 365 days a year. His stall has to be cleaned every day with new shavings put in at least once a week.
“He has to be blanketed in cold weather and have flat sheets put on him in the summer. He needs to be groomed regularly,” said Betty. “It’s an everyday proposition to own a horse.”
Through it all, Betty has seen many changes in the girls she mentors and the biggest one is increased assertiveness.
“It’s hard to tell whether I’m contributing to that or if it’s the horse,” she explained. “I believe in teaching girls to be assertive – not aggressive – in speaking up for what they want.
“I insist my charges be assertive,” she added. “As a society, I don’t think we sufficiently teach girls to speak up and insist that they’re treated fairly.”
After years of Betty’s mentorship, Maggie is making horsemanship a career. She spent the winter of 2022 at the World Equestrian Center working as a professional groom and doing warm-up riding.
“That is super satisfying for me,” said Betty. “She’s a very talented young women and a good person. Maggie has been an encouragement to me as well.”
Writing your own eulogy
Betty said there is often a little voice in the back of someone’s head nudging them toward things they’re really interested in doing and, in the same regard, what they need to do to serve others. That’s why Betty’s mentoring isn’t confined to horses.
There is a 16-year-old girl who lives nearby who loves assembling jigsaw puzzles. But the teen has a 3-year-old sister who wants to participate in the activity as well. But, the child unintentionally tears up the puzzles and drags them off the table. So, Betty invites the teen over to her home every other week for a puzzle night.
“The teen and her mom come over and I fix dinner. Afterward, we sit around a table chatting while putting together a puzzle,” she explained. “It doesn’t have to be something big to make a difference in a child’s life. It could be as simple as listening to them while putting together a puzzle. You just have to step out and make the effort.
“Years ago, I heard a story about writing your own eulogy and imaging what you want people to say about you when you’re gone. Once you figure that out, then it’s a matter of working on becoming that person,” said Betty.
Growing up in 2022 is really hard for children and teens. They routinely experience pressures and influences people over 50 rarely had to endure. Just having the ability to talk freely with another trusted adult about their fears, concerns and frustrations can have a tremendous impact on the youngster’s life.
“I do tell Maggie things her mother would not tell her, and her mom will tell me the way I interact with Maggie works to provide balance,” said Betty. “They probably don’t agree with everything I tell Maggie. But I had an adult friend when I was a teenager. Sometimes she would reinforce messages my parents were giving me. Other times, she opened my eyes to different ways of seeing things. I really appreciated that.”
For people over 50, Betty recommends they get involve in Facebook groups where they can serve as wise sages to people wanting to learn what they already know.
“I belong to some gardening groups where people have greenhouses and that’s helping me to build one of my own,” she said. “Facebook is a great vehicle for getting involved in your community and with people who have similar interests to yours.
“You can also find people who need mentoring on Facebook because they’re just getting started in a hobby that you’re already proficient in,” she added. “Someone might say they’d love to have a vegetable garden, but don’t know where to start. You could invite that person to join you in planting one.
“People think it’s dangerous to let others into your life, but that’s not true,” Betty explained. “The world is full of wonderful people who would like to learn something from you or for an opportunity to teach you something. Just use some common sense.”
People can connect with Betty on Facebook at www.facebook.com/betty.c.mills.
After closing his business and enduring several painful years of uncertainty regarding what to do with his life, Greg founded Forward From 50 to help men and women over 50 to live more purposeful lives by pursuing things they are passionate about. A Wisconsin native, Greg currently lives in Arizona.