I’ve been a horsewoman for my whole life. I’ve trained horses, taught lessons, boarded horses, braided horses for shows, clipped horses for the winter, given vaccines, bandaged wounds, welcomed new members into the herd, and cried my eyes out when it was time to say goodbye to one of our faithful equine partners. So many times over the last
few several decades, I’ve thought, “This is what I was put on Earth to do.”
When we bought our 42-acre, 42-stall farm in CT – the one with the collapsed indoor arena (which is what put it in our price range), and stalls in the back barn black with creosote, little light, and stall floors about 10″ below the level of the aisle, I was sure we’d be there forever. I always said just bury me in the muck heap – then I could continue to improve the farm after I was gone. We fixed fence, fixed stalls, installed lighting, and generally made the place a workable farm. We replaced the collapsed indoor with an 80′ x 200′ steel frame building that had been a warehouse. My husband bought it from the demolition company, dismantled it piece by piece, my brother delivered it to our farm with his trailer truck, and we hired a crane to erect the frame. With a new indoor, skylights in the back barn, stalls level floors, and rubber mats, we soon filled the 42 stalls with lesson horses, horses in training, and boarders. I was doing a lot of teaching, showing, (and mucking), and I couldn’t imagine being happier. But after a dozen or so years, the relentless winters and darkening economic climate made us reconsider our “we’ll be here till we die” feelings, and we sold the farm and headed to Virginia.
In Virginia, I had a lesson program, did summer camps, and volunteered at area dressage shows. We had leased a small barn and I was happy there – until a disgruntled parent (who wanted to buy our best lesson horse) began calling animal control saying our horses weren’t being cared for. Although the State Vet suggested I sue her for slander, I needed a break, so I closed up shop and the horses came to live at home.
A couple of years later, we were managing a large private barn. We rode on trails throughout the 2500+ acre property, led guests on trail rides, and generally immersed ourselves into the care of the horses and the property. Often working 7 days a week and 10 – 12 hour days, I thought we’d be there forever. We weren’t. All 3 of us were let go when we complained to the absentee owner when one of the grounds people physically assaulted my husband. Took me a while to get over that one, but I came to see it as somewhere where I wasn’t really growing as a person, or a horsewoman, so I became OK with it receding in the rear-view mirror.
In the middle of all of this, I started writing for a local horse magazine, then another regional horse magazine, then I wrote articles for the USDF Connection, the Chronicle of the Horse, and Dressage Today. I sold some of my photos to Warmbloods Today, and I was beginning to see there were ways to be involved with horses without necessarily being outdoors when it’s 37 degrees and sleeting.
My next job came with the absolute certainty that this was what I was put on this Earth to do. I became a Therapeutic Riding Instructor, and an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning. Teaching Therapeutic riding was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I was given the opportunity to have a huge impact on the lives of my students and their families. It was an honor and responsibility that I never took lightly. I ultimately left that job because I suffered a sudden onset heart issue and badly injured my knee within the span of 4 days. Trying to teach while on crutches and suffering standing blackouts multiple times a minute was incredibly stressful, and potentially extremely dangerous. After a few days in the hospital, my doctor said I needed to focus on getting better. Walking away from my students was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I was doing some freelance teaching, which I enjoyed, and still writing. I became Volunteer Coordinator for several large Dressage shows – all of which I loved, but I knew there was still something else coming along for me. I’ve managed to become a bit more patient allowing life to unfold for me in its own time, and during the pandemic, I circled back to an idea I’d had years before of coaching horsewomen in a more mindful and spiritual way. I wasn’t teaching riding so much as teaching my students how to develop a deep bond with their horses, and confidence in themselves. I give them tools to help them manage anxiety, trust their gut, and tap into those aspects which turn us from riders to horsewomen. My efforts were focused beyond the saddle, and “Empowering Women in the Barn & Beyond” became a mission as well as a tagline.
It’s often said that hindsight is 20/20, and that was brought home to me as I reflected on my “this is what I was meant to do” areas of my life, and I realized that all of those times were what I was meant to do at that time. For as I gained wisdom and perspective from each season, it helped me become the person I needed to be for the next season and the next and the next.
As I open my mind to ways to expand my coaching business and serve more deeply, I’m being connected with people and opportunities that I never could have dreamed of a year ago. My focus is Confidence Coaching for horsewomen, and I know that whatever comes along in coaching and in life, it’s what I was put on Earth to do.
A little Learning…
As so famously said by Alexander Pope, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” This danger rises exponentially when horses are part of the equation. If you don’t want to be the bad example that becomes lore with your great-grandchildren, try a few of these suggestions to ensure your Horsey Life is long and healthy.
When more is better.
There are definitely some instances when more is better. Getting to know your horse – his particular personality traits, his normal appearance, and attitude. Having that knowledge will make it much easier to spot a small problem and prevent it from becoming a large problem!
Regular safety checks also fall under the “more is better” category.. Having a simple routine to check your horse in the pasture every day (if he lives out like mine do), can help . My simple field-check formula can be remembered as “22400 Gut”.
- You want to check your horse’s 2 eyes, (are they swollen or gunky or extra runny?)
- 2 nostrils, (Is there abnormal discharge?),
- 4 legs, (are they cool and “tight” with no obvious lameness, abnormal swellings or heat?),
- 0 swelling (insect bites, tick bites and hives show up on my Thoroughbred mare much more frequently than on my 31-year-old Dutch gelding. Knowing your horse’s body well will help you identify a new swelling – not one from an old windpuff he’s had for 8 years.
- The last 0 is blood. You definitely don’t want to see blood; however, blood will often make the problem easier to pinpoint!
- Trust your gut. If you know your horse really well and you know he’s not quite right, but can’t put your finger on what it is, call your vet. I’ve had horses for 50 years (literally), and I have never been sorry that I called the vet with some unexplainable attitude change – I just knew something wasn’t right. Trusting your gut (instinct) on this can literally save his life.
My 31-year-old Dutch Warmblood was definitely “not quite right” one day last fall. He wasn’t lame, he wasn’t coughing, there was no swelling, no bleeding, but something was wrong. When I called my vet, she had me check his temperature, which was 104!! She’d seen half a dozen or so horses with these same weird symptoms. All of them were sick for a few days and then just got better. 2 days into this high fever, he developed bright orange mucus coming from one of his nostrils. It was bizarre and a bit frightening – a 30-year-old horse doesn’t have as strong an immune system as a 10-year-old horse, and I was very worried. Fortunately, his recovery followed the same trajectory as my vet’s other clients and within 5 days of starting antibiotics, the fever was gone, the mucus was gone (it really was gross), and he was back to being his own incorrigible self. The moral of the story is that if I hadn’t picked up on those subtle symptoms of him being “not qI do advise (to myself as well as you) that you check it for several days over the next week or so so you have a baseline temp. That will give you the knowledge of what’s normal for him.
When do you call the vet?fever was gone, the mucus was gone (it really was gross), and he was back to being his own incorrigible self. The moral of the story is that if I hadn’t picked up on those subtle symptoms of him being “not qI do advise (to myself as well as you) that you check it for several days over the next week or so so you have a baseline temp. That will give you the knowledge of what’s normal for him.
If you’re going to the barn or going trail riding on your own, make sure someone knows where you are. Just checking in with someone is a good idea any time – (Remind me some time to tell you the story of the message that never got delivered, leading to a missing person’s search, and a State Police car waiting for me in the driveway when I got home. It’s funny now…) Better to have that safety routine. I would text my daughter when I got on a horse if I was by myself. I told her I would text her back in xx number of minutes/hours. It made both of us a little more comfortable knowing that if something did go wrong, at least I wouldn’t be lying in the middle of the field with a broken leg…
Common sense often isn’t
Have you ever read the warning labels that come on chain saws, blow dryers, and other common items we encounter during out day? If you haven’t, I urge you to go to the closest small appliance or tool at hand, and read it. On a blow dryer, “Don’t use in the bathtub” and “Don’t use when you’re asleep”… I think one of my favorites was on a chain saw advising the user to not use it near their genitals… wow… and you seriously thought operating a chain saw near your genitals was a good idea… why, exactly??
All of those warnings come, in part, because we live in a very litigious society, and the manufacturers of these items need to cover their own arses if (or should I say when) someone idiot decides to use a chain saw near their genitals. “Probably a good thing Lorena Bobbit only had a carving knife…”
So, because horses don’t come with those handy little warning labels, my advice is this: don’t do stupid things on, with, or around horses. Just don’t. I don’t care how sweet your horse is – he is a prey animal and will react with his flight instinct if he’s frightened. I don’t care how long you’ve been ducking under your horse’s stomach to grab the girth. Unless you live in an area with no insects, remember the big horsefly that lands on his back leg will garner more attention than where your head is at the moment.
Just use your (all too often un-) common sense. Remember the chain saw warning when you’re about to take your green horse out on a trail ride alone when you know he has a big spook…
Just don’t do it.
Stack the deck in your favor
There are things you can learn (and do) to help keep you and your horse safe and happy.
- Spend time really learning about your horse. The more you know about him, the less you’ll be surprised by an unexpected spook or buck
- Put a bucking strap on the front of your saddle. Doing so shows that you are one of those rare breed, a person with common sense! They’re an inexpensive way to help stack the deck in your favor.
- Wear a body protector vest. Whether you go with an “active” (these are attached to the saddle with a cord. When the rider falls and the cord breaks, an air canister is activated giving you excellent protection. There are also “passive” vests which are made with heavy foam blocks covered in a tough material. They’re designed to limit blunt trauma damage to your torso from a fall.
- Wear a helmet – I’ve heard it all – you hate helmets, you get helmet hair, they’re hot, you never fall off… if Olympian Courtney King-Dye had been wearing a helmet on that March day in 2010 her life would have looked very different. But because she was riding a horse that was such a good boy, she figured she didn’t need it for what was supposed to be a brief ride. Despite being a “good boy”, the horse tripped and he and Courtney fell. She suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which damaged all 4 lobes of her brain.
In an interview with The Horse Magazine, Courtney recounted the series of events that unfolded that day.
“My accident happened in March, 2010. I didn’t fall off, and my horse did nothing naughty. He just tripped over his own feet and fell, and my head hit the ground hard. Hence my motto: expect the unexpected. I was not wearing a helmet, and my brain sheered, or bounced around, in my skull. I was in a coma for a month. I had to relearn to do things like walk, talk and eat.).”
Don’t take stupid chances with your life.
Till next time, Love Your Horse, Love Your Life, and Love Yourself!
If you are the sole horse person in your family, you may find that the flack about riding you get at home makes your Horsey Life less enjoyable. If riding plays a large part of optimizing your physical, mental, and emotional health, constantly having to deal with this conflict eat away at the joy you feel at the barn.
I was lucky – my parents knew nothing about horses (except food goes in the front end and fertilizer comes out the back end (my dad had a huge vegetable garden).
I met my husband, James, while I was at the @TallandEquestrianCentre in the UK getting my British Horse Society Assistant Instructor’s certification. He was also at Talland working on his BHS Intermediate certification, so I don’t have a non-horsey husband.
I know I’ve been lucky, but I’ve had many horsewomen come to me close to tears because she had family members who constantly complain about her horseback riding.
While I can’t promise that your family will suddenly become ubër supportive by tomorrow, here are some strategies to help turn the tide in your favor.
Be prepared. Consider the complaints they usually voice, and think about how you can address them. Don’t get defensive! If you know there are a few trigger words or situations, really take some time to try to understand your loved one’s side of the story. Do they have concerns for your safety? Are they upset that you don’t spend as much time with them as you used to? Or are they resisting change because it will shift some of “your” responsibilities onto them? (I use the quote marks because, as women, especially midlife women, we typically see household duties as our responsibility.
Choose an appropriate time Don’t try to have this discussion with them right before you’re ready to walk out the door and head to the barn.
Practice active listening. Be certain you are understanding your loved one by using phrases like, “What I hear you saying is that you’re afraid I’ll fall off and get hurt. Is that correct?” (For more on active listening, Positivepsychology.com has a great explanation).
Once you’ve taken the time to evaluate their more typical complaints, it’s time to think about why you ride in the first place.
Explain why it’s important to you. Are you less stressed from a crappy day at work after riding gives you some decompression time so you don’t bring home that negative energy? Have you wanted a horse since you read horse books by Walter Farley or Marguerite Henry when you were a child? Perhaps you have friends at the barn and enjoy some social time, or you like the fact that riding keeps you active, and pay more attention to your fitness. The trump card? You’re just a better person when you ride. You’re less cranky, less tired (although that may sound counterintuitive), calmer, and just happier in general. You can learn a bit more on finding your “why” in this post.
If your “why” isn’t resonating with your family, it might be time to draw some boundaries.
Setting boundaries. We hear about it in all of the self-care blog posts and instagram stories, but how the heck do you even know where to start? Make a list.
I’m not a counselor, but I’ve worked with many students over the years who had assumed positions and responsibilities with their home and family (and job!) by default (I know I sure did!)
Do an inventory of all of the activities in your typical day or week. Everything from throwing a load of laundry in the washer before you head to work, to making appointments for the dog to get his vaccines, to being the one responsible for your family’s menu. I don’t know about you, but I finally got so irritated with my husband answering, “Oh, I don’t mind” when I asked him what he’d like for dinner, I told him, “I’ve never heard of ‘I don’t mind’. You find it at Food Lion and I’ll cook it.”
Once you’ve written down your responsibilities, take a good hard look at what you can take off your plate. Are there things you’re doing that are completely unnecessary? Are there responsibilities you can hand off to other members of your family? Can you hire someone to do some of your tasks more quickly and better than you? Are there things you simply hate doing? Get it all written down. Once you’ve evaluated how you spend your 24 hours each day, brainstorm ideas about how you can reshuffle your day, and probably make your life run a bit more smoothly.
The hardest part of having your family complain less about your horseback riding is likely going to be to set and stick to your boundaries. You won’t be perfect, your family won’t instantly jump in to take over unloading the dishwasher or taking the dog to the vet (or suggest what to have for dinner), but you and your family may just be able to work out some compromises that let you spend time with your horse, and your family spend more time with you.
I hope these ideas will help you navigate the challenging waters of family expectations. Drop me a comment below if you’ve tried any of these, and how they worked out!
Until next time, love your horse, love your life, and love yourself!
Whether you’re an adult new to horses and horseback riding, or you’re returning to the equine world after a long break, there’s a bit of a learning curve to understanding a horse. (Trust me – I’ve been a professional for over 40 years, and I’m still learning :-).
There are some easily recognizable signals, such as the horse nickering when he sees you coming (and he knows you have a treat), or putting his ears back when he’s cranky (it pays to learn this one early on in your Horsey Life!); but there is also a myriad of other signals that you may be missing. And the best way to learn them may surprise you. Learn to understand yourself first.
Self is a four-letter word
There are a lot of times where “self” has a negative connotation: self-absorbed, self-centered, selfish – even self-confident has been given a bad rap.
Self-Awareness, on the other hand, is a good thing. By becoming aware of our bodies, our thoughts, and our emotions, we’ll not only gain insight on how we’re perceived by horses, but also why we perceive horses the way we do.
We all have built-in self-protection behaviors – it’s how we’re wired. They spend their days toiling away deep in our subconscious. They have a huge part in running the show in our lives, and we don’t even realize we’re relying on old habits of processing fear, anxiety, or doubt. Our sneaky subconscious has become pretty good at hiding in plain sight.
With a smile and denial
Think about a time when you were around a horse and you felt a little fear tugging at the edge of your mind. You brush it off. Why worry? This is a horse you’ve taken lessons on for a year – why the sudden whisper of fear?
You finish tacking up and hide behind a smile (and in denial). Everything’s fine – at least that’s what you tell yourself. You’re just being silly. After all, it would be too embarrassing to tell your riding instructor that you’re afraid, and you wouldn’t share that with your family – they don’t even understand why you want to ride in the first place.
But by pretending everything is OK, you’re setting yourself up for more discomfort down the road. Without acknowledging and working to understand your feelings, the fear will keep coming back and you will feel more and more powerless to combat it.
Bring your fear out of hiding
If you’re going to continue working with horses, you’ll need to do some inner work.
- Extend grace to yourself. You are not hopeless, idiotic, pathetic or any of the other nasty adjectives you use to label yourself. We are ridiculously unkind to ourselves – beating ourselves up over things we likely wouldn’t even notice in a friend. So – no self-flagellation allowed.
- Acknowledge the emotion. You are entitled to your emotions and no one else has the right to belittle you or gloss over your feelings. This extends to your instructor, your family and yourself!
- See and feel the emotion. Enter journaling and visualization. I know – journaling has become the new black. I think the only thing I haven’t heard people insist journalling can cure is male pattern baldness. But – I’m saying to journal anyway. Write down the instance when you felt the fear – put in as much detail as you remember. Now, visualize the experience in “slow-motion”. Take it one frame at a time and see if you can pinpoint when and how the fear showed up. Were you picking out the horses’s feet? Were you getting ready to tighten the girth? Once you’ve identified when you first noticed the fear, now connect with the what. What did the fear feel like in your body? Did you have a mini-flashback, so brief that you hardly noticed it? Did you feel a catch in your breath or a tightening in your shoulders? Sit with that feeling. You’ll most likely want to skip this or do a very cursory job of it. Resist the resistance. Acknowledging your emotion is the first step in understanding it, and understanding yourself.
- Visualize the scene again, but this time, imagine you acknowledged your fear. Imagine you spoke with your instructor and explained your fear. Imagine she listened and worked with you to find a way to work through the fear. How does that feel in your body? Did you experience the same tightening in your shoulders? Did it stay the same, intensify, or lessen? Being able to feel the physical manifestation of fear stops the downward mental spiral that can quickly spin into a much greater level of anxiety.
- Gradually work through your body, head to toe, and consciously relax each body part – the jaw and shoulders are often where the fear pops up, but check the rest of your body as well.
- Repeat the second visualization a few times and you’ll see your fear start to dissipate.
Visualization is a great way to “pre-treat” anxiety and fear as well. Visualize in great detail that you’re tacking up the horse, you and the horse are calm and relaxed. Feel the silkiness of the horse’s neck as you pat him, smell the peppermint that you gave him. Feel yourself leading him to the mounting block and mounting him quietly as he stands perfectly still. You take a deep breath and exhale, and carry on with a great ride.
Until the next time, love your horse, love your life, and love yourself!
Are you interested in a few more stress-busting exercises? Grab your free copy of 60 Seconds to Calm and learn 3 simple exercises you can do in 60 seconds or less to help you nip anxiety in the bud and fully enjoy your Horsey Life.
Have you ever realized that “goal” is a four-letter word? The irony and appropriateness of that amuse me (but my amusement threshold is incredibly low after a year of pandemic life).
According to Wikipedia, a goal is “an idea of the future or desired result that a person or a group of people envision, plan and commit to achieve.” When I was running my training barn, I created goals tailored to each horse. One stallion that came to me for training clearly needed to relax his topline use his back more freely. He had been started by a rider who tried to control him by taking a death grip on the reins. By the time the poor horse came to me, his defense mechanism was to just tuck his chin against his chest, totally dropping behind the contact, and then just tank off. He clearly needed to be ridden sympathetically, and learn to seek the connection rather than fearing it.
My solution for him was to take him out trail riding. He’d never been out on trails, so it would be an experience he wouldn’t associate with having his head cranked in, and he was fascinated by all the smells. He walked along like a bloodhound, nose to the ground, and stretching over his topline nicely. As the days went by, I gradually asked him to walk on very light contact, then a bit more contact, and he was perfectly happy to comply. After about 3 weeks of solely being hacked out, I took him back in the ring and he happily stretched over his topline and reached for the connection with the bit. How did I achieve my goal? I used 3 steps that can be applied to any goal – horse-related or not.
- Begin with the end in mind. I learned this from the late Stephen Covey, a leadership and productivity genius, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, (although the original idea is attributed to philosopher Seneca around 50 BC). So, how does that relate to goals for horsewomen? You’ve got to know what you want to achieve. In the case of the stallion above, my goal for him was to have him relax his back and trust the contact. I couldn’t do anything with his training until we achieved that objective. So, I started there.
- My second step was to establish exactly where we were starting. If I rode him on a loose rein and didn’t attempt to pick up contact, he was calm. He responded well to aids from my legs and seat, and would half-halt nicely just without any rein contact. That was good, but as soon as I picked up the reins, he would get tense and start to duck his head back against his chest. So, my starting point with him was that he was responsive to seat and leg, but the whole idea of contact really freaked him out.
- My third step was to reverse engineer the journey that would take him from very tense and tight to relaxed and trusting. I worked backward from my goal and brainstormed some ideas to use as goalposts along the way. I wanted him to seek contact, but before that, he’d have to trust contact. Before he could trust contact, he’d need to trust me, and learn that I wasn’t just going to pull on his face as hard as I could. Before he could trust me, he had to get to know me a bit better. I spend a lot of time on the ground with him. Hand grazing, grooming, a bit of lunging – all of those experiences let him began to see me as someone very unlike the original person who started him. It all began with trust.
If you’re having any training issues with your horse, take a step back and decide what your end goal is. The steps required to help a horse relax his topline may be quite different than if you’re wanting your horse to be more responsive to leg aids. I always ask students if they want to ride in the Olympics, or would they be happy taking relaxing trail rides or entering some local shows. Be crystal clear about your goal will help you attain it that much more quickly and easily.
In the words of the inimitable Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you‘ll end up someplace else”, so make sure you know where you’re going!
Until the next time, Love Your Horse, Love Your Life, and Love Yourself!
Did the title of this post get your attention? If you’re like me (and at least 97% of all the horsewomen in the world), you may be wondering what on earth I’m talking about. Of course he’s better cared for! He depends on you to feed him, keep him in a safe and comfortable environment, and scratch that spot right near his withers that always makes him do that funny thing with his lips.
Read the last sentence in the previous paragraph again. (Just humor me and do it, OK?) Anything stand out? How about the word “depends”? (I’m not even going down the bladder control rabbit hole)! He depends on you. So what happens if you get sick? What happens if you injure yourself? What happens if you’re so tired when you feed him at the end of the day that you don’t even notice that little lump…?
Do you see where I’m going with this? You can’t be the best horse owner if you don’t care for yourself. You need to be healthy, at least somewhat fit and rested to be there for him.
The Ugly Truth
Remember the movie A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise get in a shouting match and Cruise says he wants the truth? And Nicholson replies – “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Can you handle the truth about yourself? Can you look yourself in the eye (in the mirror, of course) and say that you’re doing everything possible to take good care of yourself?
“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
“Taking care of yourself” means different things to different people. Understand I’m not talking about massages, girls’ night out, or mani-pedis – I’m talking about your health (which also means different things to different people). For the sake of this post, I’m taking a lead from the World Health Organization, which describes health as, “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
So you don’t have to be running marathons every month (or at all), you don’t have to adopt a vegan diet, you don’t have to spend hours in the gym or drink gallons of green smoothies, but you should at least establish your baseline. Caveat – I am not, nor do I claim to be, offering any medical advice. I am not a doctor, nurse, nutritionist, or personal trainer (or marathon runner, although I do love green smoothies!). I’m simply a 62-year-old woman who has spent the last 50 years, yes – 50 years! – as a horse person, and I have the surgical scars and cantankerous joints to prove it.
The whole “self-care” thing has become a bit of a cliche – which is one reason why I didn’t use it in the title of this post! For a lot of horsewomen, myself included, “self-care” means washing the cut you just got fixing the fence, or at least squeezing on it a bit so it’ll bleed out any germs. Horsewomen, we need to do better.
I’m challenging myself to do better this month, and I’m inviting you to do the same. March is Women’s History Month, so let’s make a little history of our own by becoming the healthiest horsewomen in the world (or at least at the barn).