Dressage Life: Not the Usual Sunday Morning

This dressage rider took a chance, followed her heart and changed her life.
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Corinne Burt |

Corinne Burt |

It was not an unusual Sunday morning--initially. I remember opening my eyes and seeing sunlight filtering through the leaves outside my window. It was a perfect early spring day, and I was happy to be waking up in my little house in the East Bay. I loved that little house. But the first thought that popped into my head that morning was a little odd. I felt an urgency to quit my job as a lawyer like I had never felt before. There's no way I can live with myself if I turn 40 and I'm still doing this, I thought. I wanted to teach dressage and train full time. Some impulsive alter ego inside me made a split-second decision to act immediately--with no safety net at all.

What I did next was very odd. The rest of the morning felt like an out-of-body experience. I calmly watched myself dress for the barn. (Sundays were trail-hacking days.) I watched myself as I traveled to the coffee shop with calm deliberation. Then, fortified and fully caffeinated, I walked next door. I pounded on the locked door of a realtor's office until the janitor stopped vacuuming and reluctantly let me in.

"I need to sell my house," I heard myself demand. "I need a real estate agent now!" Somehow, I convinced the janitor to get me the phone number of a realtor at 8 a.m. on that Sunday morning. I calmly watched myself dial, heard the groggy agent answer and then insisted that she sell my beautiful little bungalow in the East Bay.

I was 32 years old. I was making money as an associate attorney in San Francisco. I was also making a little money teaching dressage after work and on Saturdays. But I was not making nearly enough with my teaching to live on or to pay a new mortgage. And there was no position for a full-time trainer where I was currently teaching. I had a beautiful horse, nice clothes and a nice car. But I despised my job and my profession. Lawyering had never been for me. I had no one to answer to but myself and my horse. (I reasoned I could take care of both of us even if I had to sling coffee at Starbucks for a while.)

Most of my "horsey" contacts were in Marin County, so I knew I'd have better luck finding a full-time training position there. On my way to the barn that Sunday morning, after intimidating the sleepy real estate agent, I called a friend in Marin County and asked if I could rent her spare bedroom. I explained that I was quitting my job and money could be scarce for a while. I told her that I did not have another job waiting for me, but I was going to teach dressage and train full time. How or where, I didn't know. My friend laughed at my impulsiveness and told me she'd start cleaning out her spare room right away.

The trail ride felt different that Sunday. As my horse and I walked along the ridgeline in the East Bay hills, I looked across the water to San Francisco. I could see the Bay Bridge and fog blanketing the Golden Gate. I looked at the emerald-green hills of southern Marin County, and the enormity of the decision I had just made began to sink in. My decision was as large as the view of the hills and the bay in front of me. I began to feel small and scared. What if I failed? It felt comforting to be with my mare at that moment.

The next day was Monday, and I took my boss to lunch. "I'm not happy working in this law firm," I informed him. "I'm going to work for myself." He asked me if I was going to save the lunch receipt for my records since I was self-employed and could "expense" business lunches. He was a wonderful guy but he didn't quite get it.

Over the next few days, I made contact with people I knew through my part-time dressage teaching: current and former students, barn owners and trainers. I looked for a facility in Marin County to keep my horse. One barn manager with whom I was acquainted knew a lot of people in the business and also possibly had a spot for my mare. I took him to lunch.

Over Reuben sandwiches, I told him about my rash decision to quit my safe job and sell my comfortable house. I began to tell him of my decision to work in the horse business full time. He interrupted my diatribe. His ranch needed someone like me--someone who could teach lower-level dressage and keep a few weekenders' horses tuned up. I could start working for him in a few weeks. I did just that.

In hindsight, my naivet? was embarrassing. I had no business thinking I could be a trainer. Nonetheless, I worked tirelessly and I never gave up. The learning curve was staggering--what I didn't know could have filled a very large library. I took lessons, attended clinics, read books and made mistakes. I made many mistakes. But within two months, my little dressage business was growing. I had 10 students and seven horses in training. Within the same two months, I was comfortably paying my bills, and within two months I had met Eric (my life partner who has been with me for the last nine years). Within two years, I had outgrown the little horse ranch in Marin County where I started and moved on to leasing my own dressage facility in Sonoma County. With my own facility to manage, the learning curve began all over again.

Selling my house and putting all of my belongings in a storage locker was scary. Moving to Marin County with my horse and virtually no track record in the horse business was really scary. But I did it anyway. As scary as it was, it made me happy. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made because it was what I had always really wanted to do. What I know now is that happiness opens far more doors than education, experience, money or anything else.

Several years after I moved my business to Sonoma, I ended my lease there to move to the facility I now own. It's been nine years (and counting) since my big decision that Sunday morning. I'm back in the East Bay now--very close to the little bungalow that I so impulsively sold. Eric and I live here at our horse ranch with 19 horses and a thriving lesson and training program. I'm still on the learning curve: The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. But that's the horse business. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat--naivet?, impulsiveness, fear, mistakes and all.

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