Bloomfield photographer, firefighter, horse trainer takes retirement to a new level
By Melody Burri
At 68, Joann Long could be sipping iced tea from the Bloomfield porch of her lovingly restored 1790s farmhouse, gazing out over her idyllic 7.8-acre horse farm.
Instead, the retired computer analyst, traveling horse trainer and owner of Gentle Dove Farm now spends her days (and nights) driving fire trucks and fighting fires with East Bloomfield-Holcomb Fire Department, traveling the world with her husband, Mike, flying her drone and shooting award-winning photographs with her Nikon Z 6II.
“My life has just kind of rolled from one new adventure to another, and sometimes multiple undertakings concurrently,” Long said. “I retired in 2010 from my career as a computer analyst, but that was just so I could start my own horse training business.”
Gentle Dove Farm
At the time, Long was volunteering with the sheriff’s mounted unit in addition to working her day job — and winning international mounted competitions, to boot. People would often ask how she trained her horse and it seemed natural to create Gentle Dove Farm and share her knowledge with others. That’s how she began teaching obstacle and sensory training, mounted police style, to horses and riders at home and presenting clinics throughout the East Coast.
“It was most gratifying to watch the partnership, trust and progress develop between horse and rider, she said. “Watching others succeed, watching the transition of the initially frantic horse and rider eventually walk through the smoke or hear the loud discharge of a gun at close range while maintaining confidence and fearlessness.”
“One of the most rewarding experiences was training the Bethlehem Mounted Police at their headquarters in Pennsylvania,” she added. “I knew I was not only helping them but helping the people they served.”
At the same time she was running Gentle Dove Farm and traveling for clinics, she also launched her photography business, realizing she could “capture some impressive horse action or create a memory or moment in time for people to enjoy,” she said.
A new passion ignites
Sadly in 2020, her equine soul mate, Dillon, passed away.
“He took my heart for horse activities with him, so I closed my business,” she said. “I needed something else to focus on and a way to help others. So I walked into the East Bloomfield-Holcomb Fire Department station and asked if they had volunteer opportunities for a 65-year-old.”
“There’s a job for everyone!” answered the fire chief.
He didn’t need to say it twice.
Firefighting gave Long the perfect opportunity to continue learning, stay physically and mentally active and help others. She continues to work out frequently at the fire station fitness center, a project she spearheaded to bring health and well-being to fellow firefighters.
“I greedily sign up for every educational class I can take,” she said. “I’m fulfilling my goals to keep learning, stay active, contribute to my community, and continue with my life-long ethic of service to others.”
There are certainly less demanding volunteer options for retirees. But “easy” isn’t her style.
“I can’t really explain why I love leaping out of my warm bed at 2 a.m. on a snowy night to put my gear on and race to the station to jump into the engine to drive to the next emergency,” she said. “I just know I’ll make a difference to the people involved. Regardless of whether the call is a motor vehicle accident, fire, odor of gas, lift assist for EMS, wires down or even to pump water out someone’s basement, I know I’m needed. The look of relief on someone’s face when they see the fire department come is thanks enough.”
Three years into her volunteer firefighter career, the 68-year-old is now an external firefighter and apparatus driver-pump operator. She’s received training in basic emergency firefighting operation and first Aid/CPR/AED, lightweight building construction, emergency vehicle operations, pump operations, incident safety officer, company level operations, incident command systems and additional Monday night weekly training on various topics.
“So far, I am certified to drive three of the five fire engines,” she said. “I’m currently training on my fourth — a 34-foot-long engine that has a 1,000-gallon tank and pump capacity of 1,250 gallons. My goal is to be certified on all five engines. There are few drivers and I want to be able to help where needed in any capacity I can.”
With camera in hand
In between fire calls, Long lives life with her Nikon Z 6II in hand, paired with a versatile 24-200mm walk-around lens or a 20mm wide angle for landscapes.
“Photography is a passion I can get lost in and wonder where the time has gone,” she said. “I enjoy capturing nature and animals, but have also found satisfaction in capturing the human experience.”
Her end goal in all cases: creating images that evoke emotion for the viewer.
“I really am happy anywhere with a camera in my hand — traveling the world, walking my dog, hanging out with friends or visiting some museum or event,” she said. “If I’m not in a fire department scenario training, I can sometimes catch an image that gives a glimpse of their experience. Or if I’m out in my kayak, I can capture the serene peacefulness of the water.
“When I was with my mom, I captured the wisdom and accomplishment of her life through her hands. Life is such a journey and I relish each opportunity.”
She and fellow photography friends enjoy frequent outings to unique and inspiring places, while continuing to hone their photography skills through classes and seminars.
“And then there’s icing on the cake that my son has taken to photography and now has his own successful business beyond his regular full-time job,” she said. “It is a highlight for me to go out shooting with him. We regularly volunteer at Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, enjoying the atmosphere and experience together. I’m happy my photographic pursuits bring people together.”
Currently, her photography business is thriving and she maintains a permanent display at Cheshire Union Gift shop, participates in multiple transient exhibits in Ontario and Monroe counties, has had her work published in various magazines and has received multiple awards. She also served for a number of years as president of Finger Lakes Photography Guild, where she’s now education chairwoman.
Lifetime of learning, giving and growing
Long has packed a lot into her nearly seven decades, and some of it has been rough.
Married at 18 and living in Japan, she divorced at 29 and later attended college as a single mom while raising her 5-year-old daughter.
Her beloved daughter’s death at age 17 was devastating, as was watching her dad suffer through dementia.
Eventually, Long remarried and she and husband, Mike, recently celebrated their 35th anniversary. She’s grateful for her son, Alex, her mother who lived to be 100 and brothers and sisters who live far away but remain very close in spirit.
“I firmly believe family is my rock,” she said. “I’m so thankful for so many opportunities and highlights. I couldn’t possibly pick one thing. I’ve been so fortunate to bounce back from low points, share happiness with others in some way, and make a contribution.”
What continues to fuel her fire? What inspires her to tackle new challenges and reach for higher heights? She cites three without skipping a beat: her daughter, her mom and her husband.
“The death of my daughter, Jennifer, was shattering,” she said. “She could no longer live, so I lived on for her. Her memories drive me on.
“My mom was also a significant inspiration — she was always positive though she coped with so much, including much loss in her long 100-year-old life. Through it all she stayed active, engaged, social, helpful and lived life to its fullest — all of which I try to emulate. She had an amazing smile that was contagious; she loved deeply and was caring toward others for all in her life. She encouraged me to learn, follow my dreams, to grow, to care, and to love.
“My husband also encourages me in so many ways: helping me with my horse training business by lugging obstacles around an arena, patiently waiting while I go for that great photographic shot or keeping dinner warm while I head out to a fire call.”
Long said she’ll forever be grateful to her mom for teaching her to live her life with a “glass half full” attitude.
“She encouraged me to follow my dreams and help others through service I enjoy,” she said. “Whether that’s by solving computer problems, getting a smile from a picture I took, watching a horseback rider bond with their horse, learning more about my world from the joy of lifelong learning or saving a house from being destroyed by fire, I’m proud and grateful for it all. I learned to weather the bad times by savoring the good times.”
Just do it
To anyone who’s considering learning a new skill, taking a leap into a new field or going back to school, Long said an emphatic “go for it!”
“You’re not too old, you do have time and you can be the person you want to be,” she added. “Life has been such a journey for me and although it’s not all roses, I’ve managed to make it meaningful. So much has shaped me for what I think and what I do. I’ve found, at the end of the day, it’s what I put into it, what I give and how I feel that makes it all worthwhile.”