n the space between grand prix riders and Instagrammers that gallop down beaches bareback and tackless, there’s the rest of us. “The rest of us” are the people working multiple jobs to keep their horse’s SmartPaks packed and shavings fetlock-deep, the kids that spend their weekends mucking stalls in exchange for lessons, the people waking up at 4:30 a.m. to feed and groom their horses before work. And since “the rest of us” includes most of the equestrian population, I think it’s worth mentioning the mental, emotional, and financial stress that we face to keep horses in our lives.
I got my first horse when I was 12, a saint of an off-track Thoroughbred named Topper. He was kind, forgiving, affectionate, and funny, and he was everything to me. Although I grew up just 45 minutes north of Wellington, Florida, home to the prestigious Winter Equestrian Festival, I didn’t know anything about horse showing, nor did my non-equestrian parents. In the days when barns were chosen from a phone book (I’m dating myself here), my parents called the barn closest to our house, which turned out to be a laid-back lesson barn — the kind where the owner lived in a camper on the property, and everyone rode in tall, black, rubber boots.
It was heaven. I spent long summer days riding, climbing hay bales, racing wheelbarrows, and jumping courses on foot (the unofficial pastime of barn rats).
As (incredibly) difficult as it is for me to say, I fell out of love with riding when I started high school. Many of my friends had outgrown riding years before, and I was having a hard time finding my identity as a rider — I didn’t show frequently, and this was well before groundwork was en vogue. I still loved Topper fiercely, but I felt like my “career,” or lack thereof, as a rider had plateaued.
This is where I wish I could tell you that I brought Topper to college, that we turned into a power team, that we dominated the circuit, that he became perfectly clicker-trained. But unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
Topper and Maressa in the early days.
When I graduated high school, I “permanently leased” Topper out to a family at our barn (honestly, I gave him to the family but made them sign a detailed contract stating that he couldn’t be sold to anyone else) and moved to Boston for college followed by New York City for graduate school. Every time I thought about riding, I felt guilty for giving up on something that I loved so much — and for leaving Topper. I went to extremes to avoid thinking about it, even taking the long way around so that I wouldn’t run into mounted police officers on the street (which seems ridiculous in hindsight). I tried to focus on my life in New York and on my career as a music journalist, and I worked hard to convince myself that horses were just a part of my past.
I had lived in New York City for three years when I finally admitted that I was profoundly unhappy. I felt so disconnected from everything and everyone. I knew something needed to change, but I wasn’t sure what.
On a whim, I started Googling nearby barns, and found one that offered semi-affordable lessons. A few days later, after an hour-long subway ride, a 30-minute bus ride, and a half-mile walk, I arrived at the barn for my first lesson in nearly six years. I rode a spicy young gelding that spooked and took off with me, and it was more fun than I had had in years.
It was then I realized that I needed to overhaul my life and make some serious changes, but I didn’t know how. I was 25 with a job and a life in the city, not to mention a lease on a (way too expensive) studio apartment that would charge me a hefty sum if I broke my contract. I anxiously waited for my lease to end and planned my escape from the city. A few months later, I moved back to South Florida, jobless but ecstatic to have found my passion again. As soon as I landed at the airport, I drove to see Topper, who was still boarded at the same barn.
"I rode a spicy young gelding that spooked and took off with me, and it was more fun than I had had in years."
This is where this story gets really, really hard to tell. When I got to the barn, Topper looked awful. His once gleaming coat was dull, he was underweight, his feet were grown out, and his mane and tail were knotted. The guilt was crushing.
The barn’s owner had been paying for his feed, hay, and care for the past few months, as his “new” owners had simply stopped paying for things or coming out to the barn. And worst of all, no one had told me. Irate doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I called his owners, who quickly agreed to give me back ownership, and within hours he was mine again.
I had the vet and farrier there the next day, dove into extensive research about feed and hay, and loaded up on supplements. As Topper’s weight built back up, so did his spirit.
I got a job at a therapeutic horseback riding center as the volunteer coordinator, and became a certified therapeutic riding instructor soon after. It was kismet — I was able to board Topper at the center and had found a job that I absolutely loved. I felt like I had found what I was missing, like my life was back on track.
A few months later, at 27 years old, Topper had a stroke. Deciding to euthanize him was both the hardest and easiest decision of my life — there was no alternative. As I laid next to him sobbing, I swore that I would never own a horse again. I was, and still am, devastated. The weight of that decision, and all that led up to it, nearly ruined my relationship with horses.
I quit my job. Being around horses hurt far too much, and it took nearly a year before I wanted to teach therapeutic riding again, let alone ride. I started teaching part-time at a center in Orlando, and I realized that being around horses was as therapeutic for me as it was for my students.
It’s been five years, and I still think about Topper every day. While I don’t get to ride as much as I would like, I work hard to keep horses in my life despite having a “real” job. I am fortunate enough to freelance for Noëlle Floyd, and I still teach therapeutic riding part-time in addition to riding the center’s horses to keep their minds fresh. I also still spend far too much money on breeches (old habits die hard). I’m incredibly lucky to be able to keep horses in my life, despite an impossibly busy schedule. If I go too long without teaching or riding, I dream about Topper — a gentle, subconscious nudge not to give up.
As I get older, I realize that my story isn’t all that unusual. Many people never stop riding, many struggle to keep riding, and many of us are just getting back into riding, but here’s the thing — that’s okay. In the age of social media, it’s easy to feel like we aren’t enough (both personally and as an equestrian). But you don’t have to show, you don’t have to be able to get your horse to bow on command, hell you don’t even have to ride. You can take a month off, a year off, a decade off — but that doesn’t make your passion for horses any less legitimate.
What matters is that regardless of our challenges, we’ve managed to keep horses in our lives. And we’re willing to fight to keep them there.
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Photography courtesy of Maressa Taylor Levy.