I had the pleasure of organizing a clinic with Courtney Crane in the spring of 2021. Something I’ve learned to appreciate in great horse people, and something that I saw in her, is emotional fortitude and steadiness. Something she shared that seemed to reinforce that was a simple saying of “not this, that!”. As she worked with a horse, instead of punishing the wrong behavior, she just reemphasized the desired behavior. It took the emotion right out of her training.
That saying really stuck with me. And lately, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Except right now I feel like it’s life talking to me, not me talking to a horse.
As you may know, I moved to Germany last July. I was meant to start my bereiter apprenticeship, a program that would last two years, and then I’d finally be ready to call myself a proper horse trainer. It was a clean, simple plan, but as you can imagine, it didn’t work out that way.
When I began my apprenticeship I was pleasantly surprised by the hours and how manageable the whole thing seemed. I felt well prepared, like my Working Student positions in the U.S. had done their duty of preparing me for the “real” world. Kind of like the way high school is meant to prepare you for college. My previous positions and my previous bosses had done a good job. But in this new chapter of mine, something didn’t sit right with me. Looking back at my journal, there were early indications that it was not the right fit for me. Five days in, I didn’t want to get out of bed. In hindsight, that was a good intimation of what was to come.
I learned that a highly competitive stable in Germany was not the place for me. The pressure that competition puts on riders, and in turn horses, was more than I wanted to bear. I felt the horses were at a disadvantage because they had been deemed worthy enough to compete.
Similarly, the team around the horses, from riders to grooms, seemed to put competitive success as the highest priority. I had just spent a year learning about horse psychology and how to see when a horse is anxious or unhappy, and to be put in an environment where that wasn’t acknowledged eventually pushed me beyond my limits.
I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t really understand why. After all, this was what I had been working towards for years. I could see a clear path where this position would be the perfect stepping stone to eventually being an international competitor myself. But what my soul knew was that I wanted nothing to do with this. If this was what it took, then I was out. That left me in a very uncertain place for my future. This wasn’t what I wanted, but what was? In the past, I could see myself running a traditional training program, but now that seemed uninspiring, unfulfilling. I didn’t know which of my skill bases I should expand, if at all. Part of me wanted to run away screaming. It just felt so hopeless; my idols had not lived up to my expectations.
One day, as I was hand walking a horse, I realized that I’d been getting through the days by dissociating. I tucked my true self away, and just let the shell of me go through the motions. I looked over at the tall mare that I’d grown fond of. I listened to her grind her teeth. I thought, “Maybe this is how they do it. Maybe this is how they make it through the day…” The difference being, I could go home. I could (and did) quit. She didn’t have a choice. And I suppose that’s what opened my eyes to the absurdity of it all. The horses are there at no fault of their own, the least they deserve is to be listened to.
"What my soul knew was that I wanted nothing to do with this."
People are fundamentally good, and one person alone is never at fault. What I’ve realized, is that in Germany, this system has been built up over generations, and people get sucked into it without even knowing. And within this system, there is a lot of pressure to perform, especially at the top stables. Unfortunately, the vicious cycle repeats itself when the revered stables perpetuate this toxic mindset and the rest of the industry follows suit. What we get as a result is a lot of stressed, tired people that lose sight of what’s really important. That’s when you see young horses pushed at a pace that their fragile bodies can not withstand, and their fragile minds even less.
When life told me not this, that! I didn’t listen. I took yet another job working with horses that went in a completely different direction. While this job wasn’t involved in the competition world, I still felt like there was something else I craved. A different type of knowledge than I had acquired so far on my journey.
Finally, I realized what the that! was.
In Glennon Doyle’s Untamed she says “Heartbreak delivers your purpose”. What breaks my heart is misunderstood horses. And that is my that!
I suppose there are many ways that I could delve into this heartbreak. And I’ve already tried out a few routes. Along these paths, I’ve uncovered new aspects of the horse industry I didn’t know even existed, but I felt unsatisfied; like there was another layer to it all. I feel an urge to know and learn as much as I possibly can about horses, from the cells up. So one day, as I was talking to my dad from my small Münster apartment, I had a strong gut feeling as I thought out loud about going back to school.
My path is through education. I want to study and learn everything I can about horse behavior from a scientific side and help spread that knowledge. I want to help people to understand that if the basic needs of a horse are met and understood, they will do almost anything for you. But I need to be able to defend the facts with science, experience, education, and authority, or else my contribution will be drowned out by the traditionalism that plagues this industry.
There is already so much information out there that people do not know exists, but there’s also a lot to be researched still. I hope my unique perspective from the high-stress competition world, to natural horsemanship, to research-backed science will give me the tools to improve the lives of horses in every situation, even those that we see as well-cared for.
Once I’ve ventured into this field, I’m sure I’ll be drawn to something new again, but that feels like the exciting thing about life, and the force that propels me towards tomorrow.
Feature photo by CMJ Photography
Written by Juliette Cain
Juliette Cain is a 21-year-old dressage rider who won NAYC Jr Team Gold in 2018. After aiming to participate in the 3-year-long Bereiter Program in Germany, she's rethinking her plans and documenting the journey on NOELLEFLOYD.com