I was hiking with a friend and student of mine, an amateur rider who brought her last horse up to the FEI-level in dressage. Her next project is a young, athletic Warmblood mare who was, at the time, hissing and spitting about the application of leg, as the young and athletic Warmblood mares of the world have been known to do.
“I’d be a little panicked,” she said as we scrambled over hill and dale, “if I hadn’t known you for a decade and watched you suffer through Midge and Ella and Fender and Danny and Dorian’s five-, six-, and seven-year-old years when they were teenage dirtbags. And they all worked out. So I have faith.”
It’s a sentiment I hear often. I’ve been writing a blog for the “Chronicle of the Horse” for 10 years, a decade that has seen many a young horse come into my life, behave like a doofus for a while, then finally accept the rules of life and grow up to be a perfectly delightful international horse either for myself, an amateur, or a kid. I’ve also brought their stories out into the world through my personal blog, and at least once a week I get an email from someone who tells me that the stories of my idiot young horses growing up gives them hope for their rogue youngster. I love writing, and I’ve used the medium to share both the ups and downs of life as a dressage trainer, of which there are many.
In these internet-fueled times, where much of our time and energy is spent on social media, it’s easy to get caught in Wonderland, taking everyone’s Facebook and Instagram lives as reality. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be the average amateur rider, dealing with the frustrations and plateaus of training with their one horse on whom they focus their attention (and, accordingly, base their happiness), only to see on Facebook a pretty picture of me frolicking on Elvis in the field. That moment I posted for the world to see is a sunny view of my life, but I promise you, things are not always as rosy as they appear. What they don’t see is Puck had a fat leg that day, Swagger is two inches taller behind at the moment, and I’m dealing with having gained 10 pounds since I hurt my back this winter. On the flipside, I’m thrilled to death because I have two new working students, which brings an end to me running my barn at 50% staff. And that’s just this month.
The life of a professional might seem glamorous, but ask any one of us during a quiet and candid moment, and we’ll tell you about the sacrifice, the tough choices, and the unexpected disasters. One twist of fate can send years of work with a horse up in smoke in the blink of an eye.
Two years ago, I sold my aging CDI grand prix horse to a Young Rider and sold another up-and-coming horse to an amateur. Those sales provided me the funds to start over again with a group of baby horses and to focus my energies on my first real career-maker horse, a nine-year-old named Danny. Together, we endured the young horse years and emerged touching all the pieces of grand prix as good as anything at the top level of sport, with a ton of energy and a deep love and trust of one another. Exciting times, right? The world was my oyster! But then…
Over the course of that summer, one of the young horses in whom I’d invested everything I had sustained a pasture injury, the other became incorrigible and a bit dangerous, and Danny underwent colic surgery, for which I had insufficient insurance. I went from hopes and dreams of future greatness to just-shy-of-bankrupt and devoid of purpose. It seemed like every two weeks some new disaster turned up, and it didn’t stop, not for months. My personal life, my professional life, even my fantastic family had hiccups, one calamity after another that would throw me back into the dark. When it seemed like things were finally stabilizing last summer, another of my career great horses died, and Danny colicked again a month later, this time fatally. Now I had two dead horses, a seven-year-old who was still mostly an ass, a four-year-old doing four-year-old things, a nearly-depleted bank account, and a really hard time getting out of bed in the morning.
It’s easy, in those dark times, to let social media pour salt into wounds: Sally Superstar just posted another video of her piaffing one of her three grand prix horses, and Yvonne Young Rider’s parents just bought her another new prospect. I should just quit now and take up alpaca farming. And since I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like to admit she needs help, it’s easier still to feel pathetic, to feel shame when the news tells stories of war and genocide and natural disaster when I’m moping in the corner because my horsey is dead. Even writing this, with the healing balms of perspective and time, I can’t help but hear the world’s smallest violin behind these words, because there’s still a part of me that is embarrassed by my weakness in those times.
"...we’re all facing difficulty, no matter how perfect life looks like from the outside perspective."
Knowing I was not alone is what helped me pull myself out of that hole. At the time, with apologies to her for finding peace through her struggles, I found myself so grateful to read that Charlotte Dujardin struggled with depression after winning Olympic gold — gold medals! — at the 2012 London Olympic Games. I also recently read that Laura Graves isn’t sure what’s next after her fairytale career with Verdades. Whatever it looks like, we’re all facing difficulty, no matter how perfect life looks like from the outside perspective.
After Danny’s death, I started listening to the podcast “How I Built This,” where people who’ve created successful companies like Spanx and HelloFresh talk about how they got from there to here. One hundred percent of their stories go like this: things were crappy, I had a vision, I worked my ass off, I made it happen.
I also have a vision: to make horses in a positive and correct way through the levels of international sport. I’m working my ass off, and eventually I’ll have one horse who dodges the bad luck enough to get there. I also have a vision of teaching my human students how to do the same. And I have an idea. An idea to combine those two dreams with my ability to tell a story and desire to put some realism out into the atmosphere about what the world of professional riding really is (and isn’t). That idea is to create a fan club, with a monthly newsletter chronicling the story of a foal’s journey with me from first ride to FEI. The members of the club will get to experience what I do as a professional bringing horses up the levels, both the highs and the lows. It will be a glimpse behind the scenes and the opportunity for others to join me on this adventure, investing in and experiencing the emotions, learning and growing through the undulations of the path before me.
Photo by Belinda Nairn.
The foal is a filly, currently a weanling, Dutch bred by Vitalis out of a mare by Sir Sinclair. She was bred in the U.S. by a dear friend of mine. The filly’s grandmother is one I really coveted and of a similar breeding to one of my all-time favorite horses. She’s also a chromey chestnut, so she’ll be perfect! (Or an unholy terror. But either way, her story will be a good one to tell!)
If this little girl is everything I could ever hope for and fulfills all my wildest dreams, then it will be a thrilling ride for her followers, one that holds back the curtain on a journey most people don’t get to go on, and shows them that even if the end result is wondrous, it certainly won’t be because of a linear path. And if she encounters the unexpected along the way, then her community will see that disaster and tragedy know no bounds, that there is no amount of diligence and energy and preparedness and forethought that can overcome Lady Luck. But if that happens, we will have a community of friends and family to be pillars of support, see us through difficult times, and help find a new path forward.
I’m excited to use my little corner of the internet to take people on a journey, one that will certainly have some twists and turns, but one that will be real and honest and true, warts and all.
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Feature photo by Tori Repole.