ABERDEEN - It's less a mid-life crisis and more a rekindling of an old love.
When Stephanie Aas' husband, Greg, bought her a horse for her 50th birthday, it wasn't her first rodeo, but it was the first horse she had owned since she was in high school.
Aas grew up on a farm in Iowa with a father who didn't have much time for horses, but like most little girls, she wanted a pony. When she was in the fourth grade, a neighbor offered to give her a horse to ride, provided her father fed it. Surprisingly, he did. It shut me up for a while, Aas explained.
Later, her grandmother gave her $50 to support her horse habit. She might have done it just to aggravate my father, Aas said. She used the money to buy a pony at an Easter Seals auction.
She bought another horse along the way, and she mainly just rode them around the farm. As she grew older, high school and college got in the way, and she let her passion for horses smolder for a while.
Aas studied restaurant management at South Dakota State University, and after college she found herself working for the Casa del Rey Mexican restaurant in Bismarck, N.D. After a few years there, she moved to Aberdeen to become the assistant manager at the restaurant's franchise here.
While working at Casa del Rey in Aberdeen, she met Dave Guhin. Guhin owned Arabians, and he let Aas ride his horses. She started out on an old quarter horse and worked her way up to an Arabian mare.
Her love for horses was reawakened, but she wasn't ready to own one yet. Her professional life was busy, and after managing the local Pizza Hut for years, she found herself working for Bonnie Golz at the Canterbury Limited deli on Main Street in Aberdeen.
Aas knew Pearl Holt, with the Aberdeen Area Horsemen's Association, from their days in college together. Pearl's sister Mary London owned horses in Rapid City, so Aas and Holt would take Holt's horses west and meet up with London and her horses to go trail riding in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
While there, Aas met Tex, the second love of her life. Tex was one of London's horses. He was a Doc O' Lena bred horse that had spent his life riding trails and doing team penning. Aas was in love, and she begged her husband to let her buy Tex. Pearl Holt and Mary London showed up with Tex at Aas' 50th birthday party to the delight of her city friends.
So for the first time since she was a young woman, Aas was a horse owner, but she didn't have time to compete in events. Tex was stabled on Pearl Holt's property, and Aas rode him when she could.
Roughly a year after Tex arrived, Bonnie Golz wanted to retire, and she gave Aas the Canterbury Limited. She knew she would make pennies on the dollar selling off the business at auction, and she knew it was my passion, so she just gave it to me, Aas explained.
As a new business owner, Aas was busier than ever before, but she quickly found her stride. She wanted to start training with Tex, so she took him to Amanda Dauler at Big Dreams Performance Horses. I wanted to train him as a working cow horse, Aas said, but there was one problem - I didn't have any cows. With that option off the table, Dauler decided to train both Aas and Tex for barrel racing.
Amanda trained me riding Tex, Aas said. That's an important point.
Dauler, who trains about 20 riders, depending on the time of year, has training horses that many of her students use. However, she decided to train Aas while riding Tex. Dauler said, Stephanie had never raced before, and neither had Tex. She's going to be competing on her own horse, and it's really important to have that bond between you and your horse.
Aas found the training difficult, but she attributed that to being an older learner. Amanda would give me six things to do, and I'd only remember three.
Dauler said that while she has trained other middle aged riders, Aas was the first one who wanted to compete. Dauler said, She said it was on her bucket list. Stephanie had that drive.
Despite the difficulty of the training, Aas was determined. Dauler said it only took about a year to get Aas and Tex ready to compete.
When she was 53 years old and Tex was 18 years old, Aas began competing in barrel racing events in May 2011. She admits to being anxious at first. It's gone from being terrifying to a lot of fun. I knew it was going to become fun eventually. I just didn't know it would take as long as it did. You hope that your horse running 18-20 miles per hour will turn when you ask him to and hope that you're a good enough rider to stay on if he doesn't.
Aas is a good enough rider. She recently won two belt buckles in the District 4 NBHA final standings for the summer, one in the Senior 3D and one in the Open 4D.
It takes more than time, dedication, skill and a good horse to earn success in barrel racing. It takes money. Aas said, My husband jokingly told me, '$22,000 later, you have achieved your goal of a buckle'.
When asked where she finds the energy to both run a business and train for barrel races, she mentions it is easier now that her son is grown and out of the house, serving in the Navy. Also, she said, I like being busy. The more things I have to do, the happier I am.
Though Aas has had a good season with Tex, she is retiring him at the age of 19. It's been a little rough on him, she said.
Aas has a second horse named Jet, a paint horse with unknown breeding. Jet is stabled with Amanda Dauler, who has permission to race him outside of Brown County. Aas is still training with Jet, and she's starting slowly by only riding him in local races. He's a bit more horse than Tex. He's still terrifying, she said.
Terrifying or not, Jet is already becoming a large part of her life. A new sign outside of Aas' restaurant features a painting of Jet above the business's new name, Canterbury: A cowgirl's deli.
Stephanie Aas, obviously satisfied with this merging of her life's two great passions, is finally living a cowgirl's dream.