Horses, Heartbreak and Why We Still Can’t Live Without Them

Reflections on the highs and lows of life with horses
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Can someone please remind me why we actually like horses? In the midst of the endless cold-hosing, stall rest and crippling vet bills, it seems to have slipped my mind. 

I've recently been spending a lot of time in this position, cold-hosing my horse's mystery injury that we think was in her shoulder. (Not pictured is her angrily stomping around, splashing water on me and trying to bite me.)

I've recently been spending a lot of time in this position, cold-hosing my horse's mystery injury that we think was in her shoulder. (Not pictured is her angrily stomping around, splashing water on me and trying to bite me.)

I’m mostly kidding, but there is a grain of truth to that statement. Horses are such mysterious, unpredictable creatures and it often feels like the only thing about them that is certain is uncertainty. Oh, and vet bills. Lots and lots of vet bills. 

In the grand scheme of life as a horse owner, I have actually been incredibly lucky. I have two mares in their senior years, and they’ve both stayed remarkably sound and healthy, considering their age and mileage. Sure, they’ve both had their share of freaky health concerns, but we’ve always—knock on wood—come out alright on the other side and been able to continue with our business as usual. 

So maybe that’s why I live my life always waiting for the real heartbreak to happen—for the other shoe to drop. For that sudden, merciless colic episode. That career-ending suspensory injury. That unforgettable call from the barn manager. You know what I’m talking about because either you’ve gotten one of those calls before, or you live your life dreading it the same way I do. (By the way, it’s worth noting that it’s not a good way to live. Zero out of 10, would not recommend.)

Yet, we still choose life with horses and all of the worries that come with it. And we choose it over and over again. I know riders and horse owners who have experienced incredible heartbreak, and then they just keep at it, fighting to pick back up where they left off. But, why? 

I’ve had a lot of time to think this through, as I’ve recently spent a lot of time cold hosing not just one but BOTH of my mares who happened to bang themselves up pretty badly within the same few-week time span. When it rains, it pours, eh? Some people do all of their heavy thinking in the shower. I do it in the washstall, holding a hose with cold water running down my arm and a grumpy horse trying to bite me. Very meditative. Really helps the creative process.

During these cold-hosing and hand-grazing sessions, I started listening to some podcasts to pass the time. I happened to stumble upon one particular episode that explores our culture’s obsession with happiness—and how we should be more interested in pursuing meaning, instead. Then it got my wheels turning. 

At least we've spent a lot of quality time together, pondering life's big questions during our hand-grazing sessions.

At least we've spent a lot of quality time together, pondering life's big questions during our hand-grazing sessions.

Aha! Lightbulb! Horses aren’t a valuable part of our lives simply because they are a source of happiness. Sure, happiness is part of it, but if we relied on horses solely for the happiness factor, we’d be pretty unfulfilled. There are too many emotional ups and downs for all of this to boil down to a matter of happiness. There’s more to it than that.

Stay with me here. In this podcast episode, author Emily Esfahani Smith talks about what she believes are four components of a meaningful life. They include belonging, purpose, transcendence and story-telling—which I will tell you more about in a minute. As I was listening along, I couldn’t help but notice how these ideas also happen to be automatically built in to horse life! Coincidence? I think not! Let’s discuss:   

According to Esfahani Smith, a sense of belonging is a critical component of a meaningful life. We need to have relationships and feel valued for who we are. 

I don’t know about you, but the barn and my equestrian community certainly provide me with a sense of belonging—even through the highs and lows. The barn is a place where I can be myself. I can make horse jokes that people actually understand. (Dressage humor, am I right?) We all live the same lifestyle and we have similar priorities. We might have our differences, but we all speak the same language.  

Purpose is the second component. Esfhani Smith says that purpose is less about what you want and more about what you give. She says that a sense of purpose can come from using your strengths to serve others. Purpose is something to live for, some “why” that drives you forward, she explains. 

This is an easy one to apply to life with horses! When you’re in this sport for the right reasons, you’re there to serve the horse. Boom! Instant purpose! If you add in training goals and competitive ambitions, the sense of purpose becomes multi-dimensional. 

Transcendence is the third component. Esfahani Smith explains transcendence as a state in which your sense of self fades away and you feel like you’re connected to a higher reality. You’re “in the zone,” and you lose sense of time and space.  

Um, hello!? Have you ever heard of that weird vortex known as “barn time”? What feels like 20 minutes to us in a barn is actually three hours in the real world. There’s that expression about how we lose ourselves in the things we love, and we find ourselves there, too. It couldn’t be more true about the time we spend in the barn. 

The last element that Esfahani Smith discusses is the idea of story-telling, or the narrative we create for ourselves based on the events and experiences in our lives. In a way, don’t we all have an ongoing narrative about our time with our horses? We do love to talk about them. For me, my horses are my muses, and they are very centric to my own personal narrative. 

Esfahani Smith explains that personal narratives come in all forms—some are redemption stories (the bad events are redeemed by the good), others are stories of growth, or love or defining experiences. So when you think about your time with your horses, what’s your story? Is it a story of growth? Is it a story about love? Is it a story about something negative becoming something positive? Maybe it’s all of those things wrapped into one. Whatever it is, I know there’s a story there.

(If you’re interested in listening to the full podcast, DO! It’s only 13 minutes long and well worth the listen. Click here to listen to it!)

On most days, my horses make me happy. Other days, they drain my bank account, induce anxiety and make me question my life decisions. Horses might not always be a constant source of happiness—but for me they are a constant source of meaning, love, community, purpose and all that other good stuff. In the long run, aren’t the bad days a small price to pay for the good days?  

During the time I've spent hanging out at the barn (not riding), I've gotten the chance to bask in some pretty glorious sunsets that I might not have otherwise noticed. 

During the time I've spent hanging out at the barn (not riding), I've gotten the chance to bask in some pretty glorious sunsets that I might not have otherwise noticed. 

barn sunset 2

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