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Life is short, make it count

By Kris Blankman Western Wasatch Contributor - | Dec 26, 2020
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Youngster Lainee walks alongside her mother Sydney during an arena training session.

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Sydney and her daughter Lainee enjoy some affection from their furry friends.

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Justin Jensen and Sydney Jackson partner to run the Double Ott Ranch and Sydney Jackson Performance Horses.

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Sydney trains without a bridle to heighten the horses other senses and cues.

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Sydney poses with one of her trainees.

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Sydney performs a bridless spin.

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The positivity scale used by Sydney in her life and training program.

As I sit here in front of my computer my eyes are blurry from tears of gratitude at the opportunity I have to share this story with you. In two short phone calls and a couple of texts, my life has been touched and forever changed for the better. I hope I can adequately express to you the positivity and motivation that has impacted my life from this amazing young lady in such a short time. In this crazy world of negativity let me tell you a 26-year story of hope, healing, hard work, passion, gratefulness and the magical power of the horse.

Sydney Jackson was born into a loving family that shared many things. One of which is a is very rare genetic disorder called Li-fraumeni syndrome. From an early age she felt different than the other kids, as they were carefree and blissfully unaware of the tragedies of life. In her young life there was one crisis after another. It seemed that there was always a family member experiencing some form of cancer or they were preparing to say goodbye someone they loved. She faced one of the harshest realities of life early on her own. She lost her little sister, Alexis Hess, when she was 4 years old and Sydney was only 6. Sydney was also affected by cancer at the early age of 12 when she battled breast cancer. She is now a two-time cancer survivor.

As Sydney shared her story, there was a common thread throughout. And as I listened it became apparent that she was that little girl that loved all things horses. Though not born into a horse family, it was what she desired most. She recounted that when she was 8 years old she asked her mom for the millionth time if she could have a horse. At that time, her mom told her if she could earn 100 dollars she would buy her one. So, as most tough little cowgirls do Sydney went to work. She knocked on doors in the neighborhood and asked people if she could earn money cleaning their homes. She had found a little wooden box and as she was hired to clean a home twice a week she would keep her money in that box and tally her earnings in pencil on the top. When Sydney had earned the hundred dollars she presented her box to her mom and told her she was ready for that horse. Sydney’s mom had to tearfully tell her that she could not afford to do so yet and that she didn’t think when she offered that deal to her that there was any way she would be able to earn that much money. So, for four years as Sydney and her family continued to battle cancer and loss, she held on to her money and her hope. She checked out every book in the library on horses and prayed and hoped that someday that dream would be realized.

Her mom worked in a hospital as a nurse and one day treated a man who told her about a BLM mustang that he was going to sell. Sydney’s mom told him about her, and he said she could have the horse. So, at 12 years old she bought Belle, the mustang, for $100. She set out to train that horse with only the knowledge she could find in books and the instinct that she had felt all her life. She was bucked off many times and credits her guardian angles for keeping her alive during that time, but she finally got Belle trained. As a professional trainer, she laughs now when she says “trained” referring to that mustang.

When Sydney was a little older her dad, Travis Hess, who battled 10 different types of cancer throughout his lifetime, took her to a trainer in Bountiful for lessons. At the time Sydney wanted to participate in high school rodeo. Her older sister, who was the only child in the family not affected by the cancer gene, had expressed interest in horses as well. Sydney’s parents, in a better financial situation, bought a little appendix mare for her. It only took a ride or two for her to decide it was not her thing and so Sydney ended up with the mare. At her first lesson with Jim and Tiffany Montgomery, Sydney was told she was on the wrong lead. She was lost. She had absolutely no idea what they were talking about and even trotted over to the rail to grab her lead rope as it was the only thing she could think they meant. Jim, a feisty red-headed cowboy, saw something in Sydney. Good hands and a good seat, even though she did not have the logistics. He offered her a job riding the young horses in exchange for teaching her the logistics and honing her skills. She worked it out in high school to do packets and online classes so she could spend part of the school day at the barn.

Sydney had learned from a very young age to appreciate every day she had here on earth and to make it count. She said her motivation comes from literally appreciating that she was alive. She was told that her life expectancy might not be as long as some. She decided right then and there, if she wanted to accomplish things in her life, that she better get to work. To say she has a passion for horses is an understatement. She feels blessed to have been born with a love and a desire to share her life with them.

At the age of 18 and right out of high school Sydney took a job on a ranch in Nebraska to continue her equine education and learn all she could. Even though that opportunity did not work out quite like she had planned she says she loved being there and learned so much. While there, she received a job opportunity to work for a high-end reining trainer, Stefano Calcagnini, in Collinsville, TX. While living on a ranch owned by Casey Hinton in Whitesboro, Texas, Sydney worked from 2 am to 6 pm seven days a week for Calcagnini. It was challenging and she said she learned a lot! During that time, her dad was on hospice care. She talked to him and told him she wanted to be there for him. He told her she that had worked too hard to get where she was and to stay. He passed away shortly thereafter. Sydney says that one of the reasons she shares her story with people is so that she can share the story of her family. Her dad was an amazingly inspirational man who started a foundation of his own, while going through all his own challenges, so he could help others.

While still in Texas working, Sydney’s little brother Dallin was facing his own health issues. His cancer had spread to his spine. During a conversation with his doctor, Sydney expressed she wanted to have time with her brother, the doctor told her to come home. So, she moved home to share experiences and make memories. Her brother was her best friend and hero and at 15 years of age was writing his bucket list. On that list he mentioned that he wanted to share lemons with people. Smith’s heard of this and donated lemons. Dallin, along with family and friends, passed out lemons in Farmington Square teaching people how to make lemonade when life gives you lemons. He passed away a short 3 months later.

During all her life challenges Sydney was still working, learning and loving the horses. She worked for trainer, Travis Wigen, for two and half years before starting out on her own with her own program. Around that time, she bought a gray mare whom she labeled neurological. She said she was twitchy and goofy and a little crazy. The mare who was bred phenomenally was a challenge. She wanted to see if she had what it took to start a horse and finish with her in the show pen. She said it took a full season to get her relaxed in the show pen and enjoying her job. She found out later that the mare who had been with a different trainer in the beginning had had her neck broke when she was a 3-year-old. She really was neurological. Sydney said she has learned so much and has had so much fun with this mare who has so much try and who is super athletic.Her mare, Pearl, or “Red Berry Chrome” is a daughter of Custom Chrome and out of a Miffilena mare. She says that she is one of her favorite all time horses and is in foal this year to HF Mobster.

Positivity in the face of a cruel world is a gift that this talented young woman wants to share. If she had not already gone through enough in her young life, Sydney lost her husband to suicide. While trying to navigate grief and all the other emotions that come from such a loss, Sydney came up with a “Positivity Scale.” She said she needed a way to gage her responses at the end of each day. She said that no matter what she was working through she tried to have positive reactions.Not every day is her best and she struggles like we all do. However, as she journaled her emotions and used the scale she noticed as time went on that she was reacting more positive each day which has helped her to keep living her best life. She has plans to soon have a workbook out and someday, a foundation to help families and friends that lose someone to suicide.

Sydney also shares her life with her 5-year-old daughter, Lainee. Lainee has an inoperable brain tumor. There is no cure and no good treatment. They estimated that she may only have a year to live. That was a year and a half ago. She is doing amazing and living a totally normal life with no current symptoms. Truly a miracle! Does Lainee share the same horse passion as her mom? It seems that she does. Sydney does not want to force anything on her, but Lainee loves to ride and show and be involved. This is where the magic of horses continues to be a blessing in their lives.

I asked Sydney what her horse goals were? First, she just wants to be a good person and help people. Second, she said she loves to win and has had success thus far in her career. She won the Limited Open in the Intermountain Reining Horse Association and others. But, winning is not her most important priority.

She said, “At the end of the day your lifetime earnings don’t go on your headstone.” She finds joy and accomplishment in schooling her non pros and watching her clients succeed, connect, and communicate with their horses. While many reining trainers have their sites set on the NRHA Futurity, Sydney has her sights set on winning the NRHA Derby. She says it is more respectful on the horses and that she credits the National Reining Horse association for doing more to create longevity for the reiners.

Her life goals are right in line with her horse goals. While she is loving being at the Double Ott in North Ogden and Sydney Jackson Performance Horses is doing great, she would love to someday have her own facility.

Justin Jensen, her other half, is a phenomenal trainer. He shares the chores and his life with Sydney and Lainee and she is so grateful for his patience and support. They make an incredible team. They would, someday, love to run some cows, train some dogs, and continue their horse program on their own place.

This is not a story of tragedy, although she has had more than her share. This is not a story of sadness, even though there has been lots. Sydney does not want people to feel sorry for her. Just the opposite is true. She wants to help others. She was starting to get into some motivational speaking and had some amazing venues lined up when COVID-19 canceled them this year. Sydney’s story is about life and life is short. Her’s is a story about finding your passion and making it count. This is a story about the solace and healing power of the horse. Sydney has faith in a higher power and her guardian angels and is truly grateful for every single day she has on this earth.

Until you can catch Sydney speaking or watch her in the arena you can find her at sjperformancehorses.com.

If you are like me, amazed at her story while still sitting on the fence thinking, “I wish I were more like her.”

Get off the fence! Life is short, get to work and make it count…..and if you need an amazingly inspirational trainer, give Sydney a call.

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