By Britney Grover
Portraits by Angela Peterson
The words “writing” and “riding” can frequently sound the same — which can get confusing when talking to someone like Erin Richards who has devoted her life to both. Fortunately, both stories in Erin’s life follow similar lines: She discovered the passion early on in life and never even thought of doing anything else; she worked hard and creatively to develop her skills, overcoming obstacles and taking advantage of opportunities.
As a rider, Erin grew up working alongside her mother and brother to scrape together a small but successful hunter-jumper training barn outside St. Louis, Missouri. She finished her equine science degree while studying at a top riding school in England, where she was forced to drop her stirrups and learn dressage. When she returned, she took a totally untrained, stumbling 4-year-old and turned him into a schoolmaster with a gaggle of former-lessee-fans.
Erin took to writing just as easily as the saddle: Always a voracious reader and top English student, she discovered journalism in high school and never looked back. Her freelance articles have appeared in The Chronicle of the Horse and US Equestrian magazine. She earned her undergrad and graduate degrees, thrived as an education reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for over a decade and completed two prestigious fellowships.
Now, Erin is enjoying her dream job as a national education reporter for USA TODAY, with articles getting over a million views. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 45 minutes from Courtney Hayden-Fromm’s Seoul Creek Farm where Erin boards her 21-year-old “everything horse,” Hobbes — show name Front Page News. She’s living her best life both writing and riding, including doing both around the world.
The Riding Life
Erin was first introduced to horses by her mother, who always loved them and dreamed of owning her own horse. “My mom did the classic scramble through motherhood in her 30s, and in her 40s, she decided she wanted to do something for herself, which meant getting back into something she really loved, which was horses,” Erin said.
Half-leasing a horse at a local “little bit of everything” barn turned into teaching Erin, then 6 years old, the basics of walk-trot-canter. A few years later, Erin’s brother, Jake, also expressed interest in learning how to ride; they both attended a riding camp at a hunter-jumper barn, both got hooked and both began taking as many lessons as they could.
“We were a lower-middle-income family,” Erin said. “My dad was a freelance photographer, my mom was a community college professor and we were getting into this expensive sport. We were quite good, though — my brother’s really tall, about 6-foot-4, and really good with some of the stronger jumpers. I was better at hunters, so we both started working for our riding lessons.”
Erin babysat for her trainer to cover her lessons; Jake baled hay and worked around the large farm. Their mother started giving up-down lessons to the little kids at the barn. Together, the three of them earned enough money to buy an off-the-track Thoroughbred for Jake and a hunter for Erin. When Erin was in middle school, her family broke off to start their own business: Legacy Stables.
“My mom and I went to the livestock auction and bought a little black-and-white 3-year-old pony that I could train to be gentle for the youngest riders,” Erin said. “We secured a somewhat dumpy but functional barn where we could board our own horses with extra stalls for students, and we got a deal because my mom and my brother and I did the labor ourselves.
“My dad got more involved later, when my parents bought their own place in Missouri, but for many years it was my mom, my brother and me as a pretty tight unit,” Erin continued. “That was our gig: It was how we spent our time and our money, and we were really, really close. We were this scrappy family that managed to cobble together a side hustle. By doing that, we made enough money to go to more A-rated shows, and then we started taking more clients with us, so it grew from there.”
The Writing Life
While she was riding and working at home, Erin discovered journalism at Lafayette High School. She took an introduction to journalism course as a prerequisite to write for the school paper the following semester. “Our paper came out once a month, and I knew after a year that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” Erin said. “I never had a plan B: I was very focused on plan A, which was journalism and horses, and how to keep doing both.”
Erin studied journalism and equine science at Murray State University in Kentucky, and on summer breaks she’d return home to help buy, train, show and sell horses like she had all through high school. To earn some extra cash in addition to training and teaching lessons, Erin began writing freelance articles for horse magazines. “It wasn’t a ton of money, but it was a way to stay closely connected both to the intellectual side of the horse business and journalism,” Erin said. “After I was done dumping buckets, mucking eight stalls and riding three horses, I was ready to sit still and crank out some research.”
When she graduated from Murray State in 2004, Erin went straight into graduate studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia and dove deeper into journalism. She discovered her love of long-form narrative, and received guidance from a Pulitzer-prize-winning mentor that led her to an internship at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which led to a temporary education reporter assignment, which led to being hired full time in 2007. “Education reporting kind of chose me because that’s where an opening was, and then I leaned in because I found it interesting,” Erin said. “Suddenly I look back more than 10 years later and I guess I’ve been doing this for a while.”
Seeking to deepen her skills, Erin applied for and won the prestigious Spencer Fellowship for Education Reporting at Columbia University in New York City, where she spent a year from 2015 to 2016 auditing classes and working on an in-depth magazine article about the legacy of the longstanding school voucher program in Milwaukee. Two years later, she won another reporting fellowship at Marquette University in Milwaukee to study the damaging academic and social effects of students repeatedly switching schools.
As Erin contemplated her next step, USA TODAY announced an opening for a national education reporter —someone who wanted to write in-depth stories about schools and teachers and education policy, as well as some breaking news. Erin was the perfect fit, and started in January 2019.
“When I was interviewed by my now-editor, Chrissie Thompson, we were in such alignment on how we wanted to translate these complex topics — we know there are parents in every state, every city, every school district, so how do we look across the landscape of U.S. education and give families things to think about that week no matter where they live?” Erin said. “I feel like I’m contributing something to the conversation, and I’m constantly challenged and driven by my own curiosity about what’s happening in schools and how we’re teaching kids to learn.”
The Dream Life
While Erin was on her study abroad at a riding school in England, her mother found her a 4-year-old Thoroughbred-Trakehner project horse who was prone to tripping after years of improper hoof care. “I took him back with me during my final year of undergrad,” Erin said. “He didn’t even know how to canter. I took him down to the basics, played with him at Murray State and took him to grad school with me.”
As Erin used the dressage and eventing training she’d received in England to bring Hobbes along, he blossomed into a handsome horse and a great mover who could also be a lesson horse back home with her mother whenever Erin’s studies became too strenuous to give him the time he deserved. As the last remaining horse of Legacy Stables, Hobbes is now 21 and in great health, though he’s comfortable now jumping 2’ instead of 3’6” as he did in his prime. “It’s been really special to be able to have him through so many of these different iterations of my journalism career,” Erin said.
Hobbes has quite the following of those who have leased and loved him, which is convenient for Erin whenever she’s working or following her wanderlust around the world — and when she underwent major surgery last June in order to correct a badly herniated disc in her neck.
“I was incapable of getting through a day without pain; I couldn’t even lift my own suitcase. I’d just gotten hired for my dream job and had to take six weeks of medical leave,” Erin said. A surgeon replaced two discs and inserted a plate and three bolts to fuse a section of her cervical spine. After six weeks in a neck brace, Erin returned to work; it took several more months of recovery and physical therapy before she was cleared to ride.
“Now I’m pain-free, I’m back to doing the job I love and I can ride my horse again — I just started jumping again in January,” she said. “Hobbes was a perfect gentleman. Yes, we’re only jumping 2’. But the fact that I’m not feeling pain and I’m able to show up unprepared, knock out a course of fences and walk out of the arena on this horse I’ve had for my full adult life is a really special feeling.”
Photos by Angela Peterson, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel