Leaving your trainer when things aren’t going right is a seriously tough thing to do. What I was surprised to learn is that leaving can be just as tough when everything is going right. What do you do when your hand is forced and you have to go but you really don’t want to?
When you leave of your own accord, the decision to leave is probably the toughest part. Sure, it could be awkward at shows seeing your old trainer and barn mates. Then there is the whole question of how to tell them you’re leaving and the uncomfortable act of packing up your horse and tack trunk and hightailing it out of there. But after that, it’s usually a pretty clean break and the ties are cut fairly swiftly. You go to your new barn and you move on. This was your choice after all.
But what happens when no one wants the breakup when something like a job or family forces you to relocate and leave your happy barn home? What do you do when you don’t want to go?
I lived through this when a change in jobs forced a move out of state. I was devastated to have to leave a barn and trainer I loved. I still remember coming to the barn in tears to tell my trainer the news: I was leaving. The loss was real. Not only was I having to say goodbye to the trainer who brought me back to riding after a 16-year break but I was saying goodbye to everything I loved about riding, not knowing if it would ever be the same anywhere else, ever again.
See, I was one of the lucky ones. I was at a barn that was more like a family, a good family, where we all genuinely liked each other. It was a barn filled with mostly adult amateurs and hardly any drama. We typically rode 6 days a week, so I saw these people more than almost anyone else in my life. We were all really committed to our sport and worked really hard at our jobs to support our passion. So there was a shared experience and understanding of just how much this all meant to each of us, and that created real bonds and true friendships.
And it wasn’t just the amateurs, the whole barn was one big happy family including our trainer, the grooms, and even the owner of the facility. We all hung out all the time even when we weren’t riding. We’d have cookouts or impromptu mimosa brunches at the barn practically every weekend because it was just everyone’s happy place and no one wanted to go home. We all knew this was not the norm and we really had something special. How was I ever going to replace this?
As I mentioned, we were mostly amateurs, and we were all a little neurotic (shocking I know). We joked that our professional trainer was also an amateur therapist. Not only did she coach us based on our particular riding abilities, but she had a different approach for dealing with each of our mental “issues” when it came to riding. Like I said, I was just coming back to the sport after a 16-year hiatus. I was rusty and I hadn’t quite got my confidence back. She paired me with a saintly mare who left the ground from any distance I ever asked (or I just gave up and let her find the jump on her own). And when she has decided the time had come, that she had done enough hand-holding with me, she resorted to some tough love. I recall a lesson where I was being particularly wimpy. My trainer had just raised a fence and one of my barn mates took her turn doing the exercise. When it was my turn, I thought she would lower it back down. When she didn’t, I assumed she had simply forgotten, and politely reminded her to lower the rail. She stated that she meant to keep it that high and I should start. I looked at her bewildered and she said, “Oh you’re right, you can’t jump that high. Go ahead and do that little outside line again.” Genius move. I might have been scared but I wasn’t about to be told I couldn’t do something. I jumped the jump. She took me from being nervous jumping cross rails to doing a mini-derby by the end of my first year back. There was some serious trust built here and I didn’t want to leave it.
How was someone else supposed to coach me when they weren’t there for all this? How would they know all these things about me without seeing all the phases I went through, and knowing what it was like to work through them with me? How were they going to match me with the right horse that would keep my confidence but still challenge me to learn and grow as a rider? All these questions spun in my head and I was sure I was doomed.
When the day finally came for me to leave, I came for one last ride on my beloved lease horse, who I was also having to leave behind. We had a nice little hack on our own, just the two of us, but I wouldn’t get off. I just kept walking around and around. I finally got my courage up, faced the inevitable, and with tears rolling down my cheeks, dismounted in the arena, ran my stirrups up one last time, then walked side by side back to the barn with my horse.
When I got back to the barn, everyone was there. They had set up a surprise goodbye party for me, complete with a champagne bar. The bubbles were a barn staple and the perfect send-off. Then we did what we always did, we ate, we drank, we talked endlessly about horses and we all stayed later than we meant to. Because as usual, no one wanted to leave, especially me. Because this time, home was no longer 10 minutes away, it was halfway across the country, and because this time, I wasn’t coming back to ride the next morning.
This story continued in part two of this series.
Photos by Megan Basco and Thomas Reiner.