This is the story of a midlife crisis. In 2012, I quit the horse training business to go back to graduate school and find a real job of the type my parents would describe as respectable (i.e. not horse-related). For the first time in twenty-plus years, I did not consider myself a professional horsewoman.
There were some good things about my new life. I enjoyed getting a steady paycheck. I enjoyed sleeping in on weekends for the first time in my adult life. I enjoyed driving a car that did not smell like a barn. I enjoyed cleaner finger nails. I enjoyed spending more time with friends I had neglected for too long. I enjoyed reading books I had been meaning to read, learning new things, exploring new challenges. I was surprised to discover that I'm a pretty decent ultramarathon runner, probably because of all the years I spent riding one horse after another from morning to after dark. And I discovered my talent for pack burro racing:
There were some things I was happy to leave behind. I did not miss the cold seeping into my bones during winter, or the last-minute cancellations. I did not miss the smashed toes, the seventy-hour work weeks, the anxious hours spent waiting for the vet with a colicky horse. I did not miss feeling sore and tired most of the time. I did not miss the pressure of showing clients' horses, or the buzz of gossip around horse shows. But in spite of all that, I was not as happy as I thought I would be because I did miss so much else.
I missed the sound of horses munching hay in the evening, after everyone else had left the barn. I missed their nickers and soft nudges, their ears like silky, sensitive antennae. I missed their eager steps, their curious glances. I even missed their stubborn phases when they said no to everything I asked because I knew they would soon have a lightbulb moment and finally say yes, yes, I get it. I missed their uncompromising honesty. Horses never gossip, never hold grudges. And after a few horse-less months, I really missed the smell of the barn. I missed the lingering horse aroma in my car and on my clothes so much it hurt. I knew it was time bring horses back into my life, little by little.
Part of the reason I quit, part of the reason for any midlife crisis, was my search for meaning. When all is said and done, dressage is an expensive hobby for wealthy people. I did not want to get old feeling like I had frittered away most of my life chasing empty dreams. I started teaching at an international school because I thought working for a worthy cause would make more of a difference in the grand scheme of things.
I was right, but at the same time I was wrong. Spending time away from the horse business has made me realize that working with horses can be as meaningful as working with human students. Changing the lives of horses and their riders for the better can make a difference in the world.
When I started training horses, I wanted to place well at shows because I thought the best trainers won the most. I also thought if I learned from the winning trainers, and worked hard enough, I would become the kind of trainer who wins a lot. There is some truth in that belief: training horses really is hard work, and good teachers are essential for learning how to become a good trainer. But other parts of the equation don't add up: Some good trainers win, but not all of them. Some winners are good trainers, but others take shortcuts. Most importantly, trainers who want to win in any discipline have to focus on working with talented horses. In dressage, this means horses with big, elastic gaits who look like they belong in the arena.
I have been lucky enough to work with and compete on a few of those talented horses. They are not easy to find, because everyone wants to work with them. Over the years, this mattered less and less because I discovered that I enjoy working with other types of horses much more: horses who, for some reason or another, don't understand what their rider is asking. Horses with physical issues or emotional hangups. The Quarter Horse with the downhill build. The Arabian with a tendency to imagine monsters lurking in the bushes. The pony with the thick neck that his owner describes as stubborn. The former racehorse who now refuses to go forward. The older horse who never learned much. The horse with trust issues, the rescue case adopted from the horse shelter. The plain, average horse, the timid horse, the quirky horse. They can't all be stars in the show ring or the dressage arena, but they can all learn to be balanced, willing, and happy.
I enjoy figuring out how to make them into the best version of themselves, and I enjoy helping their owners understand and appreciate them. Working with horses from all walks of life is not so different from working with young people from all over the world. It's about understanding each other, about finding ways to communicate across cultures, or across species. I have found the meaning I was looking for.
So this means I'm a professional again. An equal opportunity trainer and instructor, a horse-human relationship counselor. My husband says I have fallen off the wagon. I say I have gone back to my true nature. I look forward to meeting more horses and riders, to building solid foundations, to expanding my horizons. And I look forward to writing about it all.
In the meantime,
May the Horse be with you,