A Sensible Work Ethic
I’ve always been proud of being a hard worker. For many years, decades even, I thought working more was always better than working less. I did not question the wisdom of this statement. Putting in longer hours, riding more horses in a day than other trainers, has always been my superpower. My younger self operated along these lines: “I may not have as much natural talent or outside support as other horse trainers. I have no control over that, but I can control how much I work, so I will work as much as possible.”
For all these years, I rode ten to twelve horses a day, sometimes seven days a week. I neglected the rest of my life - friendships, relationships, simple pleasures. I did not take enough time to enjoy or even notice all the moments of beauty and kindness that add up to a good day: the smell of coffee, the sound of horses munching their hay, the sun setting in a blaze of red and purple behind the barn. I worked so much that days blurred together into a long assembly line of riding one horse after the other. Ten years ago, I ended up burned out, my mind overloaded, my body demanding rest. I walked away from horses completely, but soon recognized that I could not live without them. I need horses like a plant needs sunlight or water, so I started redefining and rebuilding my training business, with a better understanding of what I am trying to accomplish through my work, and why. I resolved to put the horses’ needs first from now on, instead of their owners’ demands, or those of my own ego.
Listening to my horses has made me think about finding a more sensible, more sustainable work ethic. Horses thrive on consistency, true. Riding a horse for eight hours on a Saturday and then letting him stand around for two weeks does not build the right muscles over his topline, or a good partnership with his rider. That said, consistent work means: a flexible, varied kind of consistent, not a rigid, demanding schedule. A little bit of work almost every day is better than none, but it’s important to end every ride on a high note, which might be sooner than I planned. There comes a point of diminishing returns in a training session, when I know I will undo progress if I keep going. In other words, if I want my horses to learn, I always want to quit before the horse quits on me.
When I’m working with a horse, I try to find the magic zone between too much and not enough, the zone where physical and mental fitness builds, the zone where their minds and bodies are actively engaged, but not stressed to their limits. I know I’ve found the sweet spot when a horse starts every ride with curious, happy energy. I know I’m overdoing it when horses become cranky or dull, when their backs get sore, when their tails start swishing. I know I need to back off at the first sign of such behavior. Otherwise, I teach a horse that it hurts to do what I’m asking, which is the opposite of what I want him to learn.
The difficult part is to apply the wisdom our horses teach us to our own lives. I still work a lot. All good horse trainers work a lot. There’s no way around that. Horses don’t recognize weekends and holidays. They require care and feeding 365 days a year. If we expect them to become responsive, athletic riding partners, they also require a lot of one-on-one time with us. Good horses are trusting and confident, but they are also fit, supple, and strong. There’s truth in the old saying that a good horse is made from many wet saddle blankets.
But at the same time, our horses also teach us that more is not always better. They teach us that mindless drilling of the same movement leads nowhere, that monotony is poison to a happy spirit, that easy days need to follow hard days, that pushing through fatigue leads to injury and stagnation.
I love my work, which makes it easy to lose sight of my own magic zone. Though I still put in long hours, I now try to do it in a sustainable way, with regular days off and a less rigid schedule. I’m still a lot harder on myself than I would be on any of my horses, but, I’m learning from them at least as much as they are learning from me. The concept of self-care sounds like self-indulgence, but it’s not. When I feel stressed or exhausted, I need to take some time to recharge and rest. Otherwise, I will not show up for my horses as my calmest, healthiest, most patient, most present self. I am not doing them a favor by working them when I feel frazzled or run down.
I want to treat myself more like I treat any of the horses I work with. It’s an ambitious goal, but I know I have to get there if I want to still love my work ten years from now.