You know those days when you feel like you just can’t win with horses? I’ll spare you the details, but I’ve been having a lot of those lately. From a 6-month long saddle-fitting drama to an unrelated week-long stay in the equine hospital, it’s already been a long winter. I know things could always be worse, but this has been about as much horse drama as I can handle.
Things seem to be finally getting back on the right track, but in short, I’ve been spending a ton of time at the barn and none of it has really been in the saddle. The plus side of this is that it has given me a lot of opportunity to reflect on things. But in that reflection, it is always so easy to get lost in the what if’s and worst-case scenarios. In an effort to stay positive, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to dwell on the good that horses and dressage have brought me, rather than the heartache. I know that I’m not alone in the challenges I’ve faced and I thought I would share these happy reminders with you, too.
So, here’s my list of things that horses and dressage (or riding, in general) have given me that I will always be thankful for, regardless of my circumstances:
1. A lifestyle that gets me outside and breathing fresh air on a daily basis. It might mean freezing in a barn when it’s 7 degrees outside or dripping in sweat when it’s 98 degrees and 100 percent humidity. Or trudging through ankle-deep mud or breaking icy water buckets with hammers. But there’s something about being outside and covered in dirt that’s just good for your soul.
2. Meaningful friendships with people of all ages. Thanks to my barn, I can say that some of my best friends are at least 20 years older than me. That might be unusual for a 26-year-old, but I’m always thankful for their perspectives on anything from work to dating to child-rearing. Of course, I love my own mom, but my barn moms have a special place in my heart, too.
3. A deeper definition of friendship. A true friend isn’t someone who will get their nails done with you or join you for an island vacation. It’s someone who goes to the barn at 6 a.m. in the winter to give your horse antibiotics when you’re out of town, or hitches up their trailer at a moment’s notice to bring your horse to the hospital. It’s someone who sits with you in the silence of that hospital waiting room. It’s someone cheers for you when you salute at X or helps you catch your breath when you’re waiting to enter the ring. Barn friends are really the best kind of friends.
4. A common language across the globe. If you read Dressage Today magazine, you might remember that I took a month-long trip to Germany to explore equestrian culture on the other side of the pond. I sure had times when I felt very much like a foreigner, but it was so cool to travel thousands of miles from home and connect with a community I had so much in common with. Although I don’t speak more than 20 words of German, we very much spoke the same horse language.
5. A home away from home. I can be anywhere in the world—Germany, Florida, Ohio—and I can walk into a barn, smell fly spray, hay and shavings and feel like I am home. That’s a true gift when you travel a lot or find yourself frequently relocating.
6. A real understanding of the word “commitment.” I think horse people have a healthy respect for what it means to be committed to something. We know that it isn’t an option to just not show up… It doesn’t matter if it’s a blizzard outside and the rest of the world has a snow day, or if you’re bedridden with the flu, you better get yourself to the barn because horses need to be fed and stalls need to be cleaned.
7. A daily activity that challenges my body and mind. I’m thankful that every time I go to the barn, I’m doing something that is good for my brain and good for my muscles. Nothing helps me sleep better at night than a long day with my horses.
8. A continuous reminder to stay humble, because there’s always more to learn. That is one of the very best (and worst!) things about dressage. Our job as students is never over. We’ll never know it all. When we find one answer, we uncover five more questions.
9. A constant sense of purpose. My happiness level seems to directly correlate with my sense of purpose. Ever since I first sat on a horse, my purpose (among other important things in live) has been to become a better rider. That’s a pretty endless pursuit, so it sounds like purpose is one thing I will never lack!
10. An above-average amount of medical knowledge. As horse owners, we wear many hats. We’re their dieticians, their personal trainers, their hair stylists and most importantly, their nurses. We know what to do when we see heat and swelling, we know what an NSAID is and we know how to give IM injections. We know what the word “edema” means. We also tend to be pretty well-versed at talking about joint health and synovial fluid. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I’ll bet you anything that’s more than what the average American knows.
11. A sophisticated vocabulary and good communication stills. The vocabulary dressage people have to describe a horse’s walk, alone, is amazing. Beyond that, isn’t it just incredible that some riders can communicate aids for an entire dressage test to a horse just through seat bones and core muscles?
12. The value of a dollar. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve looked at price tags in terms of how they equate to riding lessons or board bills. Those days of saving up money for a new Breyer horse or a new pair of boots taught me not to throw my money away as an adult.
13. How to love unconditionally. I own two mares, so naturally 95 percent of the time, I’m convinced that my horses hate me. They shake their heads and pin their ears at me when I put their blankets on. They roll in the dirt immediately after an hour-long grooming session. The one of them literally runs in the opposite direction from me in the field. I syringe medicine into their mouths and they forcefully spit it out onto my jacket (Come to think of it, that’s probably why the one runs from me in the field). And from a financial perspective, putting money into them is like forking over your life savings to buy the Titanic as you watch it sinking in the ocean.
But despite all of that, I’ll keep putting on their blankets and pointlessly grooming them and chasing them in the field and spoon-feeding them their medicine. Why? Because they’re basically my whole world and there isn’t much I wouldn’t do for them. Literally, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, they are the part of me that I like most about myself.