I was speaking to my friend Brooke the other day when the conversation quickly turned to one of our most frequent laments….selling horses.
The process of retraining thoroughbreds is quite near and dear to both of our hearts, and we quickly became friends through our journeys at the Retired Racehorse Projects Thoroughbred Makeover, a process that I have blogged often about.
And we admit that retraining these magnificent creatures has given us purpose, has strengthened our riding, and has opened doors to us that we never knew possible.
But as is life, if we are to continue to pay it forward to numerous other horses with our retraining, we are forced to sell or rehome the majority of those that we lay hands on, which allows us to open a stall and a place for the next steed to benefit from the process.
It is simple math – one in, and one out. But it also is what leads us into our least favorite aspect of the process: The Horse Sale.
And as we lament about the long messages answered, the tire kickers and the overzealous parents, the trials cancelled, and the ridiculous price negotiations, one other part of the process came up which annoyed us both.
The question that was asked time and time again. Over and over.
What exactly are you training him for?
Now Brooke and I both come from diverse worlds – she having grown up in the breed world riding in varying forms of tack, while I ran up the ranks of western disciplines, and added some rodeo, before we both became eventers.
So while we appear as though to be simply eventers now, we are always perturbed and confused by the question. And maybe we are different. Maybe we are unique. Because we are not limited by the discipline in which we actively compete in, and therefore neither are our horses. So we both agreed…
We are not training for a DISCIPLINE.
We are training the horse for LIFE.
I may be considered simply an eventer, but I can guarantee that my exposure of that sales horse to a coop on the cross country course will benefit it in the hunters. I may be schooling dressage today, but I can guarantee you that those haunches in that I just taught this horse will help him in reining. And I may have just gone for a walk hack to check out the sights and scenes while cooling out, but you’ll thank me later if you ever want to do endurance.
And more importantly, I do not take on these horses thinking that they will all fit into my wheelhouse, and that was no more true than when I attempted to make Nixon an eventer that entire first year that he just wanted to dance in the sandbox.
But if you are truly good at this retraining business, and truly in it for the betterment of the horse, than you will quickly realize that the end goal isn’t that the horse fits your hopes and dream, but rather that your lifetime of education around these horses will allow that horse to have hopes and dreams of his own.
And I think of this each time that I get a horse, and begin this process over and over again.
What are the fundamentals? What can I teach this horse that is important?
And not important for eventing, or dressage, or hunters, or even western pleasure.
What are the fundamentals of simply riding?
It isn’t a piaffe or a puissance that will guarantee these horses a safer future. It isn’t a 10 on an extended trot, or a 1D barrel run. It isn’t rearing on command or laying down to be mounted.
It is simply usability. Rideability. Trainability. Good manners and easiness to be around.
I don’t get on these horses and put them into a frame just because they look prettier in the sales pictures. I do it because it is teaching them to move off of my leg and accept contact on their mouth.
I don’t only road hack to take pictures of manicured stone walls with perky ears in between, I do it because it exposes them to being off property, seeing scary objects, and responding with the appropriate attitude.
I don’t work with the horses daily just to keep them tired, I do so because on a daily basis there is something else that they can be exposed to – whether it is at a walk or a gallop.
And I don’t ask them to learn anything that I wouldn’t expect from every horse. And this can be as simple as loading onto a trailer, or as complex as an in and out.
We as trainers or horsemen box these horses too quickly and too easily. And I admit that I have caught myself doing the same thing. I have gotten on that horse for their first ride and been sure that they will end up a hunter simply because of how they move, only to realize two months later just how far from the truth that can be as they see their first XC fence. I have watched horses move in the field and assumed they will be superb in dressage, only to realize after popping over a crossrail just how much they love jumping. And I have free jumped horses who have unlimited scope, only to watch them revolt once fillers are added and a human swings on.
And that is why my strategy for this crazy game of retraining these thoroughbreds is more simple. Less quarantined. More open.
Remove my expectations from the equation.
Remove my bias from the equation.
And train usable skills.
Skills as simple as calmly assessing new situations. Being ridden alone or in a group. And even ground manners.
And skills that may seem advanced or of a single discipline, but are truly applicable across the board. Moving off of the riders leg. Accepting contact. Being exposed to foreign places and foreign concepts. Adjustability.
I am not training the horse to utilize those skills simply to be an eventer, they are just the things that I have found lead to success in eventing. But in exchange, none of these skills will take away from the training for future success in any other arena, and they all can enhance that process.
You can lengthen the stride across the diagonal in a dressage test at the preliminary level of eventing, but you also lengthen the stride of the canter as you see your distance in the hunters. You ask your horse to do shoulder-in at second level of dressage, but you also need that shoulder-in as you round the barrel of your pattern. And you ask for adjustability in the canter to put a 5 in a 6 stride line in the jumper ring, but you also constrict and contract that stride as you charge the ball in polo.
And you need a distance, a tempo, bravery, and a lead change whether you are doing hunters, jumpers, eventing, foxhunting, or anything else requiring a fence.
So no, we do not need to specify that we are training that horse to be a hunter. And in contrast, we do not need to specify that we are training them to event.
Especially not during those pivotal first few months.
Instead, we need to focus on training them for life.
Those life skills that are needed for all disciplines, and all horses. Skills that are translatable and useful.
By getting out of our own heads, out of our own worlds, and out of our own comfort zones, we can then truly put the horse first. And by putting the horse first, we open a whole new world of opportunities. These opportunities might make us feel as though we are teaching our horses more. Broadening their education and therefore both their ability in addition to their price. But at the end of the day, maybe these opportunities are truly their to train us. To open our eyes and allow us to fully understand what equestrianism is. What horsemanship is.
And when that happens, we all benefit. Us, and the horses that brought us here.
“But, this is the last one,” I reasoned with both my fiancé but mostly with myself. “Kennedy is tucked safely in the barn, Sail Maker is over at Lee’s, and the rest are accounted for. This would be the last one.”
My fiancé Luke stares at me and rolls his eyes, fully knowing that I am moreso rationalizing what I am about to do than asking for permission from him. He of all people knows that once I set my mind to something, there is no stopping me, including his opinion.
I am staring at my cell phone, watching the short 11 second video that the owner has sent over and over. I hit pause and zoomed in on each leg, looking for blemishes. I wind the video forward and backward, noticing every time any of his legs bobbles or mis-steps.
I took a deep breath in, looked up at my fiancé, shrug, and smile nervously. He shakes his head at me but doesn’t try to stop me. “You’re a sucker, you know.”
“Yes. But this is the last one,” I mumble as I hit send on Facebook messenger, offering the hard earned money I had saved to secure him back.
Five years ago, I would have never been able to do this. Five years ago, I went to the Subway near my school and watched my credit card get declined for my $6 turkey sub. Five years ago, my mother listened as I told her that I simply couldn’t afford my horse and was to put him up for sale. And five years ago, she offered to cover my board for six months while I got myself back on my feet.
But five years ago, I made the mistake of doing it again. Five years ago, broke and in graduate school, I let myself fall. Because five years ago, for the millionth time in my life, I fell in love with a bay thoroughbred. He came in with a tumble, but he came in strong. And just like that, I lost my heart to Bode.
People have asked me what it was about this one that made him different. What made him special? Unique from the other 500 that either I or my fiancé has brought into this world. And I have to pause before answering.
Was he the most well put together? No.
Was he the biggest mover? Probably not.
Was he the most well bred? Definitely not.
But what he lacked in pedigree and paper, he made up for with personality. He made up for with spunk. He was just, quite simply, different.
He was born on a cold February night, and stuck in his mothers birth canal for over 2 hours. I was the first to see his nose, clinging to the aluminum walls of trailer that I rode with his mother, attempting to hold her 1400lbs up with my measly 140. I watched as they pulled him out of her and carried him away at the clinic, sure he was dead after being oxygen deprived for so long. I stared with a slack jaw as the technician came back into the room to say that he was too wild to place a catheter in. And I giggled as I watched him stand within 15 minutes of being born.
I knew at that moment that I could let out the breath that I had been holding, and replaced it with the love of a foal that became known as Bode.
Bode was a monster of a foal, and with his immense size of frame came an immense personality. He was born at 165lbs, and towered over the rest of the herd.
And like many clinic babies, his first friends were humans, and his love of a scratch on his back or a rub on his star quickly became known.
But as he grew for the next few months, the excitement of his arrival quieted and things on the farm returned to the status quo. I was working on my doctorate in equine reproduction while my significant other managed the farm that bred Bode. It was a small operation, and because of this, I got to be actively involved in the daily routine whenever I had a spare moment.
And Bode thrived in the extra attention, quickly becoming a ham. It was to be known that he was the prince. The one that made the grooms and interns roll their eyes, while Luke chuckled at his antics.
And I would go to Bode’s stall and give him just a little bit of extra love; some extra attention. A good curry or a good snuggle. In July, I even offered to clip off his baby fuzz, but with the manfriend busy mowing and his groom mucking stalls, it was just me, Bode, the clippers, and a lead rope. And the massive foal stood there ground tied, unsedated, as I ran the ridiculously loud clippers over his body. Luke was befuddled. Mario was amused.
And it was done. I was hooked.
But as is life, things changed.
Luke accepted a job on a larger farm as their broodmare manager, and we moved across town. I no longer had unlimited access to this now short yearling that I had become too attached to. Occasionally we would drive back to that cozy little farm and swing by to say hello to the staff, and on those days, I would swing an arm around Bode and nuzzle my face into his neck.
But I knew that the time was coming for when I would lose even that limited access to this lovable colt, and that it was coming quickly. Bode was entered in the Keeneland September sale, and secured a good spot in book 2. And I drove out there the day he shipped in to put an eye on what had become of this affectionate foal, and was pleasantly surprised. He was a stunning colt – still big, and now quite strong. His legs were clean and straight, his topline glistening in the sun. I knew he would sell well, and sell well he did, coming out of the ring for $150,000.
But then I lost my control. I lost my input. I lost my horse.
I knew that with the fall of the gavel, it was like rolling the dice as to where he would go. Who had bought him, and how open they would be with me staying in contact with the foal that I had fallen too hard for. I knew that with him selling for six figures that he was likely to go to a good home, and also that they would most likely give him a solid go in training.
For years, I waited in the wings. I contacted first his original buyer, and then the trainer. I mentioned my affiliation with the foal every time I bumped into the bloodstock agent who had bought him at the sales.
And I told each – if and when he is ready for retirement, I will take him, no questions asked.
Because he sold again, and again. Once through auction, and once privately. I reached out to each and offered my same sound bite of a comment, and yet my messages fell on deaf ears. I never heard back from what I had perceived as the last owner, and just hung my head, believing there was nothing else I could do.
And then he stopped racing.
And then he stopped working.
And then I lost him.
I have written numerous times about how hard it is to track horses that you don’t own. To the outside, this industry looks like a million people who don’t care. And yet to the inside, we all know not only how much we do care, but also how hard that love of the horse can be on an empathetic soul.
There are no GPS trackers on the horses that we love. There is no online search tool to let you know if they are well. And sometimes, even if you find the horse, there is nothing you can do to force anyone to do as you believe is best for it.
So a few months ago, during a conversation lamenting all of this to a friend, she asked about Bode. My inner circle knew how much he meant to me, and that he was the last on the list to be found. I try not to get too attached to too many, but when one gets into my heart, I will go to the ends of the earth to secure him a peaceful landing.
And I told her that I knew nothing. He hadn’t raced in almost a year, and there were no current works. His last listed owner had never responded to my message, and although the trainer had added me on Facebook, my message to him had also gone unread.
He was gone. There were no other options.
But Meghan didn’t take my defeat quietly. A true professional at internet digging, when I admitted failure, she took the torch from me and began her own investigation. An hour later, she told me she had found another connection. Minutes later, she had found his owner on Facebook. And with that one tiny thread of information, I felt the slightest reawakening of hope. But knowing how few responses I had received, I tried not to get excited.
So I sent the same cliche message, and I waited.
I watched the picture pop up that showed it had been read, and I sat on my hands.
And then I saw the bubble appear saying that a response was coming, and I grabbed Luke’s arm.
And then it happened. He not only responded, but he said that he thought that the horse was ready to retire. And more importantly, he was going to put him up for sale.
Which led me to this place.
Could I justify not only buying a horse, but also spending the thousands of dollars to ship him across the country? Could I justify spending money on a horse that I wasn’t putting my own two eyes on, and not even knowing any level of soundness or health? Could I justify dropping almost all of my savings account on a horse that I was buying with my heart instead of my brain?
This past year I sold four beautiful thoroughbreds, and quite luckily, I sold them easily. I hadn’t spent much of the money that I had profited, and was sitting on my first savings account in many years, if not for the first time in my life. These thoroughbreds had been exceptional in all ways. True athletes, sound in mind and body, and easy to be around. And with that, they had gone to amazing homes for good prices.
So here I was. Sitting on a nest egg. Something I could have invested into my stocks, or set up into a true savings. I could have utilized it for a more extravagant wedding, or even to benefit the three horses I already owned.
But then what was the point of it all?
These thoroughbreds had saved my life in more ways then one. They had picked me up in the severe depression after losing my father. They had gotten me through the loss of my uncle. They had held me up as I lost relationships, and they had caught my tears countless times as pain dissipated from my body.
And they asked for so little in return.
To be fed. To have hands ran down their legs and hooves picked. A break in the wind on the blistery days, and a break in the sun on the hot.
And also, simply to be loved.
It was time to pay it forward.
I already loved Bode. That in itself was true. And I was finally, at the age of 32, in a position where I could provide for the rest.
So I messaged the owner back, offered him the money I could afford, and signed on the dotted line. I purchased a horse I hadn’t laid eyes on in four years, and made the decision with my heart instead of my head.
This morning Bode stepped off the trailer, back into the state in which he first drew breath. He looked up at the same two faces that were the first he ever saw. And as if no time had passed, he gently butted my hand, looking for a treat or two.
I do not know what will lie in store for this colt who stole my heart. If he is sound, then I hope to do what I do best – to retrain him into a second career and then find him a forever home that will love him just as much as I do. If he is pasture sound, then we will find him a herd of his own babies to watch over and supervise. And if there ever comes a time when he is neither, than the decision will be made by me, and that is all that I can ever ask for.
But as of now, he is with me and Luke. He is back in the safety of our arms, our eyes, and our care. For four years now we have been forced into the shadows and been merely bystanders. We watched from afar, through television sets, databases, and cell phones, knowing our opinion mattered the least.
And today that changes. Today he is ours and we are his. We can’t control the past, but we can control the future. And that is all that truly matters.
A few weeks ago, I broke down in front of my PhD advisor. I felt lost. Trapped. Confused and unsure of where to go.
And we spoke for hours. About what had brought me to this place, and which direction to take towards the future. Mats had moved past the place of boss and had become something of a father figure to me. At times employer, at times a kick in the ass, but also now friend.
And he ended the conversation not by demanding I do a specific something, or by asking me where I saw myself in the future. He didn’t ask me what title or what career I wanted. Instead, he simply asked me what my goal was.
It wasn’t whether or not I wanted to teach. He didn’t demand I stay in research, or that I should strive for the highest tier journal to publish. He just wanted to know what I wanted. Not on paper, not in salary, but in life.
And I told him that I didn’t get this doctorate to earn millions. I didn’t need to publish in Science or Nature. And I didn’t need to be sitting in an endowed chair in 20 years.
I just wanted now what I wanted six years ago when I started school. Ten years ago when I moved to Lexington, Ky. Thirty years ago when I swung on my first pony.
I wanted to have a positive impact on horses.
And as the year of 2018 ends and 2019 begins, I’ve begun to think about this more and more. 2018 was a year of ups and downs. I have not felt more lost since my last vet school application was rejected. I have not felt more confused since I graduated college.
For 6 years now, I have had an end goal. And alongside that end goal, I had personal goals.
I wanted to earn those letters behind my name. I wanted to publish my findings. I wanted to prove to the world that you didn’t need DVM behind your name to help the industry in its entirety.
I also wanted to ride. I wanted to retrain horses that had finished their first career for their next. I wanted to move up the levels and tackle the goals I hadn’t checked off in my teenage years.
I never knew I wanted to write. But once this blog took off, it travelled along an uncontrollable path that even I couldn’t guide. It has allowed me to speak on panels, attend conferences as a journalist, get published in magazines I had read since childhood, and brought me into the barns, homes, and cars with all of you.
But in between all of these things is a proud, sensitive, educated, and confused woman. I got those letters. I moved up that level. I wrote those articles.
But I don’t know where to bring those things together. What is my identity? Where are those silver linings? Who am I? All 2018 has shown me is that I do not know.
Am I an equestrian? A scientist? A blogger? A writer? A reseller? An activist?
I have applied for jobs that utilize my degree only to find out they will eliminate my time in the saddle and my ability to speak my mind. I have found so much joy and pride in my posts that utilize my knowledge of science only to be told by academics to quiet my voice. And at the end of the day, I have thought long and hard about burning my degree and going into horse sales full time. Because if ignorance is bliss, than a doctorate is hell on the mind.
I was trail riding with some of my girlfriends the other day when this topic was brought up. How do you summarize a year? A life?
In ribbons? Publications? Monumental life moments?
Because to the outside world, it would look like I had it all this year. If you polled anyone who follows me, they would smile and say that I got engaged. Sold a bunch of really nice horses. Jumped big fences on Mak. Finally evented Nixon. Got to travel to 4 different countries on 3 continents, all to speak of equine science.
But the outside world doesn’t see the lows. We speak or write of our triumphs without explaining the set backs. The falls. The refusals. The reprimands. And the feeling of failure. Over, and over, and over. My social media doesn’t see the meltdowns at the trailer after another bad trip on XC. My blog doesn’t get to witness my vent sessions to my PhD advisor. And no one sees the long talks in the car with Luke.
I don’t know what the answer is. I know that many near and dear to me have had their own trials and tribulations in 2018, and I just hope that they all know that they are not alone. Loved ones were lost, relationships ended, diagnosis given, and goals set back.
It was a year of hardship. A year of confusion.
There were highs. I can still taste the fish and chips on Raglan Beach in New Zealand. My fiancé’s eyes when he saw the Pacific Ocean off of those cliffs. And knowing that my adventure into science and academia got us to that moment. I’m so lucky to have experienced moments like this.
But there were lows. Lows that nearly kicked my ankles out from under me, and yet still I kicked on. Did that next trot set. Galloped that next table. Wrote that discussion and faced those naysayers.
My 2018 can only be described as confused. It was one of ups and downs. Mountains and plateaus. But at the end of the day, I made it. You made it. We all got through it.
So as this year ends and the next begins, I don’t feel able to set any big resolutions. I learned from 2018 that what I can write on paper and you all can visualize alongside me aren’t what makes me happy.
I don’t want a big salary, or a blue ribbon. I don’t want a huge wedding, or the launch of a business.
I just want to do what I set out to do all those years ago. What I told Mats I wanted to do.
I want to have an impact on the industry that I love. Whether that is by teaching students how to induce ovulation, finding biomarkers for ascending placentitis, selling a 4yo off the track Thoroughbred to a 4* rider, or blogging of my stories in the breeding industry, I am not sure.
I hope it is all of the above, and I hope it brings me happiness. I hope your 2019 is full of happiness too.
I was recently asked by a friend if the Thoroughbred Makeover was worth it.
Was it worth the cost?
The exhaustion, the nerves, the pressure?
And I told her that if her goal was to have this single horse show be a goal to finish the year on, rather than the end all-be all of her horses life, then yes. If you thought of it as one more mile on the long and at times arduous roads that you will take with that single horse, then yes.
If you were doing it with dollar signs and stories of grandeur in your eyes, then no.
This was a month ago. Before the current raise of entry fees and the rule book for 2019 was published. And I still stand by this comment, and hope you all will heed my argument.
When I entered Called to Serve in 2015, the TB Makeover was in its infancy. It was the beginning of its journey at the Kentucky Horse Park; and as a local eventer, I expected the show to cost a comparable amount to any other show that I have participated in there. It is roughly $300 to enter a recognized event or dressage show, and was nearly $450 to do a single division at a USHJA A show. When you get an insiders view of the Kentucky Horse Park and just how much it costs to rent one facility or arena, nonetheless twelve, you begin to realize just how hard the organizers have it, and how much the fees are out of their hands.
But the entry was the least of my worries. How it fit with my business model was the greatest worry I had.
My usually business model consists of this:
1. Find the horse.
2. Get the horse exposed to as many things as possible.
3. Sell horse before horse kills himself.
And for me, this means setting a goal of selling between 30-120 days of training, obviously praying for the lower end of that range.
So for me, it wasn’t the $200 to enter that scared me, it was the $350/month board, $150/month farrier, $5,000/running through the fence vet bill, and $7500/colic surgery that did.
My risk was about to increase much more by adjusting that 30 days to 10 months, and I wondered if the reward would justify it.
And I realized that it depends on what you set the reward at.
Is the reward in selling that horse? Then no, a financial advisor would tell you that owning a horse for one year and selling it after an unrecognized show is not a good financial decision.
Is the reward winning the entire competition and walking away with $15,000? Well, 500 entered and only 1 did that, so again, I would forewarn that the odds are stacked against you. I even won my division, and would heed the warning that most horses just KNOW when you are “rich” and immediately slip and fall in the mud. If you’re particularly lucky, they do so the day before a PPE.
But if the reward is different, if the reward is less quantitative, then yes. You should enter.
If the reward is developing friendships that last a lifetime, go for it.
If the reward is getting to compete at the storied Kentucky Horse Park where the greats have launched over 4* fences, get in there.
If the reward is taking a thoroughbred off of the track who was famed for his terrible demeanor and dangerous reputation, and showing off his balance, beauty, and brilliance as a sport horse, then you’ve found your reason.
Do I think that the Thoroughbred Makeover can get better? Heck ya, and I’ve been the first to tell their followers, their board, and even their president. Do I think they should have warned interested competitors that fees would increase and not demand this increase immediately following the holidays? You bet ya, and I have already spoken my piece. There was room for growth in 2015 when I did it, but the margin for that growth has decreased as the years continued on.
I love some of the rule changes. Optimum times in the jumpers, emphasis on jumping in eventing; and a longer duration of showing to give horses breaks.
I also love that the organization is willing to listen. Do they demand us to believe they are perfect? No. They are the first to ask for input and opinion, and answer almost all requests.
But do I still think that the reward can be worth the risk? It’s 100% up to you as an individual.
Some people might feel that the reward is so great that they can, and will, continue to enter year in and year out. Others, like me, will do it once and end up with a horse that is a lifer. And some others may simply watch from the wings and learn from each individuals endeavor.
And if the risk is too great, that is fine. You can still take on that Thoroughbred. Set that end of the year goal as another show or simply a trail ride. Be the best ambassador that you can be for this amazing breed. No organization, entity, or person can, or should, stop you.
To most, my takeaway from my personal Makeover experience would simply look like a huge check and a big blue ribbon. But what they don’t realize is that I’ve already spent the money on adult equine-related things, a goat ate the ribbon, and all I was left with was the experience.
I made amazing friends. I experienced a dressage test that still brings tears to my eyes. And I developed a horse that was given to me to show just how much these horses can change.
So, if those rewards are the ones you are seeking–do it. Get that entry in. Because, trust me, $300 is worth every penny of that reward.
About a year ago, I rode in a clinic with my young, and very difficult, horse Nixon.
Immediately before the clinic, my friend Brooke reached out to me and asked how I was doing with Nixon. Was I making any progress? Any training advice? Any bit changes? Exercised, or even gimmicks?
Because she had taken on a quirky thoroughbred herself, and was about at her wits end with him. We commiserated on those tough horses, and lamented on how they mentally did us in on a daily basis.
And then we both tacked up and headed off to that clinic.
True to form, neither Kulik nor Nixon behaved. Both were hot. Both were strong. Both were freakishly talented, and both big fancy movers. But when they decided that they were done, they were done. And both Brooke and I were exhausted. Ready to throw in the towel. Ready to admit defeat before either of us got hurt, or worse.
And after the clinic, we both hit a wall. Kulik strained a tendon, and Nixon tore some more brain cells, but Brooke and I stayed in contact.
I watched as she leaned on her other horse for comfort in the dressage arena, as I found my own confidence return with my steadier horse Mak. And occasionally, we would message each other to ask if it was even worth it to bring our other horses back. She lamented on the fact that she was, quite simply, scared. She only felt comfortable in that dressage arena on that safer horse. But what would she do with Kulik if she never threw a leg over him again? How do you sell that hot of a horse? How do you give away a horse that you fear can hurt someone?
And yet, after months of rehabbing his injury, the springtime found Kulik sound, and in need of a job. But after all of those months only weakening her confidence in him, Brooke wasn’t sure she was the one up for the task.
But, being a true equestrian and horsewoman, she knew she couldn’t just throw away a horse she had committed to. So she reached out to a friend for help.
For most of the summer, we got to watch as Tay brought Kulik’s body back. But with each ride, it was evident that she was also rehabbing his brain. At first it was just some small cavelettis, focusing on adjustability. But then the jumps grew bigger, and it became evident that both body and brain were being healed.
Raised in the equitation and jumper world, Tay truly vibed with this more sensitive ride, and was able to ride without an ounce of doubt or anxiety – which was exactly what Kulik needed in this transition. And with each ride with Tay in the tack, it became evident that he was coming back. That he could come back. That he would come back.
And yet, as happens so often, social media blew up. As we see too often, people felt the need to offer an opinion or give unsolicited advice. Friends began asking Brooke why she wasn’t riding. Why wasn’t she the one on in the videos? The one jumping the big oxers or the bending lines? Why was she scared when he looked like such a simple ride for Tay? Why wasn’t she showing him? Why wasn’t she braver? Better? More involved?
And I would wonder…why do they care?
Because each time, Brooke would then reach out to me, and in frustration and sadness, she would ask how I handled these suggestions. How did I explain to people that my horse was too hard for me? That I was in over my head? That I was just, quite simply, scared.
Because I of all people knew what it was like to have my confidence be shot, and the vicious cycle that it ensues when you are riding backwards on an already mentally damaged horse.
A mentally imbalanced horse with a mentally damaged rider never ends in success, and Brooke knew this without me ever having to say a word.
She knew that one part of the equation needed to be remedied for any hope of success. She knew what the outside didn’t have the tact to realize: that by removing herself from the equation, she could rehabilitate that one half, thanks in huge part to a rider whose frame of mind and bravery were fully intact. And on the other side, she could still build her skill set on her other horse, all while playing owner with Kulik – something she quickly realized she quite enjoyed.
It wasn’t admitting defeat, or giving in to fear. It wasn’t tossing in the towel or listing the horse for sale in frustration. Brooke chose the hard road, removed her ego from the equation, and reached out for help – something so few equestrians readily do.
And as the months went on, we got to watch their relationship grow inward from opposing ends. Brooke found her confidence renewed in herself while riding other horses, while Kulik became a more confident horse under the tutelage of Tay.
We knew it was working when summer began to turn to fall, and I began to get different messages from Brooke.
They were no longer lamenting or full of strife, but instead inquiring into what I thought about her entering a little jumper show, or maybe a combined test. Would this particular mini trial be appropriate? And how did I think that recognized event would be designed? Would the jumps be maxed?
I slowly watched the spark come back into my friends eye, where once there was simply fear. I watched as this fear of eventing turn back towards excitement. And I watched as she found happiness in her horse again. I watched as she finally swung up onto the saddle and listened to Tay’s advice on the ride she needed to give. I watched as the reins were handed over, and Brooke took back the ride that had been so carefully repaired.
This past weekend, she entered in the culmination of our eventing season in Lexington, KY; Hagyard Midsouth and Team Challenge at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The courses are maxed. The park exists in a frenzy. And to top it off, the weather is always brisk.
And yet with each phase, we all watched as Brooke got her groove back.
A steady dressage. A flowing stadium. And finally, after a full of year of trials and tribulations, a double clean cross country. Where once fear and anxiety existed, there was a cool confidence in both of them. Where my inbox would have been filled with a meltdown, the messages were replaced with photos and videos and exited updates. But maybe more important was that instead of being obsessed with the scores on Eventing Nation or the ribbons adorning the stalls, I found my friend focused on her reinvigorated spirit.
A horse so many thought was done. A rider who was ready to call it quits. A friend who could become trainer and help repair the two entities.
And, at the end of the day, a renewed love of the sport.
I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this duo, but am also wanting to just take a moment and exist happily within the current moment. Forget the plans for winter trips to Aiken, or move ups to Novice. Ignore the idea of AECs or clinics with Olympians.
Let us all relish in this one day.
One where we got to watch a horse woman do whats right by her horse, regardless of the outside perceptions. A horse who was able to be reversed dangerous hothead to capable partner. The ability to remove ego, ignore keyboard warriors, and reach for outside assistance. Because at the end of the day, all of those things were needed to repair this relationship, and with that repair, Brooke and Kulik have their groove back, and now the future looks oh so bright.
Last night, I was invited to speak to a group of young women from the equine programs of Lake Erie College, which is an institution that is near and dear to my heart.
Having existed just a stones throw from my hometown of Meadville, PA, we horse showed there often. Many of my friends attended, and many memories were made there.
So when I was asked to share my broad experiences about the equine industry, I willingly accepted the offer.
We started with an overview of my CV. I explained my background and my education, and I expounded on my entry into the land of thoroughbreds. I impressed upon them to gain as much experience doing as diverse of things as possible, because every experience would have an impact on their lives.
I told them to take that marketing class, and make sure to pay attention in their business lectures. To be cognizant of what they post on social media, and to realize that at all moments, someone is watching them. I explained to them that they did not just represent themselves, but their advisor and their entire college.
And at the end of the talk, I was surrounded. By twenty 18 year olds who could care less about that marketing and communications minor, or that class on public speaking.
What did they care about?
They were all dumbfounded that I was successfully able to retrain and sell a number of off track thoroughbreds, and wanted to know what my recipe was for success.
And I laughed at them, shrugged my shoulders, and said I was lucky.
I was lucky to have found myself unemployed in 2008 after graduating from college with a 3.4 in biology. I was lucky that this pushed me to desperation and eventually a job mucking stalls on a thoroughbred breeding farm. A job mucking stalls that eventually turned into a management position. And a position that allowed me to meet so many influential people in this industry who recognized me as a good hand and now offer me their retired stock.
I am lucky that in that position managing farms, I was forced to access conformation. I was forced to learn pedigrees. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by phenomenal eyes on biomechanics of horses, and blessed to have them teach me about which flaws they could live with, and which would lead to soundness issues. I was thrown into the sales where I was asked to appraise those flaws and assess movement, which a ton more money on the line.
I am lucky that I nearly failed organic chemistry, and that my advisor and father recommended that I up my GPA by taking classes in the arts. Creative writing, public speaking, and communications. Classes that I took to fluff up those grades, but that I now use daily as I write my ads for these horses, understanding just how to present something. Which photos to use and what draws an eye in. How to write a catchy ad and communicate to buyers.
I am lucky that my childhood horse decided that he didn’t want to be an event horse. And that in desperation and frustration I moved to Wyoming to take a break. I am lucky that during that break, I learned how to let a horse be a horse and how to force a rider to not impede this process. I was lucky enough to learn bravery outside of the confines of an arena and on the backs of 200 horses of mixed breeds, level of training, and bravery.
I am lucky that I didn’t get into veterinary school and eventually went back to get my doctorate. I am lucky that that career as a scientist opened up my schedule, while still paying me enough to gamble on these horses. I am lucky in that I have a career to pay the bills and I don’t have to be at constant risk of one of these horses running through a fence and bankrupting me.
And finally, I’m lucky to be lucky. Because I have been within the four walls of this industry long enough to know how much luck plays a role. And I also have personally witnessed when luck runs out. I still own a horse 3 years later who was supposed to bring me $30,000. A horse who has his shoes pulled and who’s only job is to babysit the new projects. A horse who checked every box and ticked every requirement. And yet who’s brain never held up and whose body never vetted.
I know what it’s like to find the most special horse and have them run through a fence. Or to find the diamond in the rough only to have them get into a trailering accident. I’ve witnessed horses hit a fence and never be the same, and I’ve watched horses lose their confidence over something as simple as a bad step.
But you can increase your luck to risk ratio by investing the time, patience, education, and ability into the next project. By working a season for a farm, and learning about conformation assessment. By taking that marketing class and educating yourself on advertisement. By investing in those riding lessons, and learning from the best on how to be your most confident self. By getting out of the arena and finding comfort in various experiences. And by meeting those connections on the racetrack, offering a firm handshake, and then holding yourself to your word.
All of these things seem so opposite to one another and yet I find them to be so crucial to my success. It isn’t simply finding the nice horses. It isn’t simple training the nice horses. It isn’t simply marketing the nice horses. And it isn’t simply luck.
It is all of those things rolled into one with some unicorn glitter thrown into the mix.
And at the end of the day, does any of it truly matter? Because beyond luck, and jealousy, and education, and failure, is the most important thing. And that is providing these horses with a second chance. Because while my resume may have depth and breadth, it is the horses resume that is developed underneath me which sets them up for future success, future fun, and future safety.
And that is exactly what the end game is for me. And why I’ll keep doing it as long as I stay lucky.
A decade ago, my mother sat us down and said she had signed a DNI.
A decade ago, I rushed to the hospital to ask my dad if it was true only to find him semi unconscious and untouched by my presence.
A decade ago, I paced the halls of an oncology ward, listen to “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” by Gary Allen at 2 o’clock in the morning.
A decade ago, I watched as so many friends, family, and loved ones came to say good bye to the greatest man they’ve ever known.
A decade ago, I also said good bye to this legend.
A decade later, I can’t believe it’s been a decade.
There is something so jarring about memories that are permanently engraved in your brain. Like an etch-a-sketch that can’t be shaken away, no amount of sunsets, alcoholic beverages, or therapy can remove that 24 hours from my mind.
I was twenty two and I thought I knew everything. I had just graduated from college. I was moving to Lexington, Kentucky to pursue my dreams. I was moving in with my first boyfriend. I was an adult. I had fully grown.
Only I hadn’t.
Because like all dark days, there is a pre- and a post. They are jarring. They are scarring. And they will forever change you.
The minute I walked out of that hospital, I was a different person than the girl who had walked in.
I was less reactive. I had already seen the worst, so what else was there to see?
I was more protective. I understood what a loss that you could never regain meant. This wasn’t a break up or a move across state lines. I would never see him again. Indefinitely.
I was sedate. I know this sounds strange, but it felt as though quick sand had risen up to my chest. I can remember calmly driving the hour and a half home. I can remember stoically shopping for the dress I would wear to the funeral. I can remember calmly facing my first love at the calling hours and telling him that this wasn’t the place to speak. And I can remember calmly walking to that pew and giving my first eulogy.
I know what my high school friends were wearing. I can remember the grimace on my grandmothers face. I can taste the Twizzler that my brother handed me before the service and the Miller Lite my sister handed me after.
But maybe that’s what brings light to the dark days, and why those memories are so thoroughly etched into my brain; forever nonerasable.
Because the first few dark days were truly dark. The first few September 5th’s were so bleak. But then like cracks in the shield, lightness slowly seeped in.
I stopped thinking of everything as B.D. and A.D.
Before Dad and After Dad.
I stopped envisioning the disease and started remembering the man.
And I stopped allowing myself to be labelled as damaged goods. I wasn’t just the girl who lost her father. I was the farm manager. The equestrian. The scientist. The girlfriend. The fiancé. The friend.
And with those realizations, I started to see the glimmer of hope.
In 10 years, so much as changed. My siblings have both married amazing people and I am engaged to a third – none of which my dad had the privilege to meet, but both of which his best friends thoroughly interrogated.
All three of us have finished our graduate degrees. My sister as an orthopedic surgeon, my brother as an attorney, and me with a doctorate. He didn’t get to go to a single graduation, but my mother and aunt cheered loudly enough for him.
Because B.D. was such an amazing time, it set the bar high for A.D. But we retaliated. We took those cards and played the best hand we possibly could.
But it’s been a decade. Ten years. 3,650 days. 5,256,000 minutes.
I can remember his face but I can’t remember his voice.
I can envision his words of criticism and confidence, but I don’t remember his phone number.
And yet without thinking, I still try to hit send on my contact list, a decade later.
I have now spent almost half of my life without my father in comparison to what i got. I have conquered so many goals, and yet lost so many battles. I have paved paths and wandered aimlessly. I have hit the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.
With him, we had one hell of a family. A decade later, without him, we still do.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that a decade later, I still love him. There is no past tense to that declaration. But a decade later, I am so much stronger. So much better. So much braver. And none of that would be true if a decade ago I hadn’t faced the worst 24 hours of my life.
So on this dark day, that is what I think of. How bad it was. How hard it was. How breathtaking it was. How excruciating it was.
And yet, how much it changed me. How much it molded me. How much it strengthened me. And how much it defined the next ten years.
Twenty two years of preparation with him, and ten years of a gauntlet after. Sink or swim, they say. Do or die.
Well, we did, Dad. We treaded water for a while, but then we swam. It only took a decade. But we’re here. Head above the surf.
And that’s surely something to be proud of. To be amazed by. And for that, we thank you.
I love you Dad. 10 to 2.
A few weeks ago, I pulled my talented horses shoes.
So many of you have followed along with my journey with Nixon, and waited in anticipation for the great things we would do. You wanted to see us go to Rolex, or at least win a 1*.
And I understand why.
When he wants to.
When he doesn’t want to, he bolts. And then stops. He uses that athleticism for evil instead of good, and it’s bad enough to take my breath away.
Before Nixon, I had never truly understood fear.
I remember riding in a charity steeplechase a few years ago and commiserating with my fellow riders. They were all worried about their horses bolting off with them, and I laughed and said “Just bridge your reins and hold on. The horse will eventually slow down.” I shook my head and walked away, wondering how someone could be scared of a gallop. How you could not trust your horse to come back? Every horse eventually got tired and slowed down.
And then I understood it. I felt it.
Because I have yet to feel Nixon get tired.
What I have felt is the opposite. For he isn’t malicious. I truly believe that he breaks into a gallop when he doesn’t understand something, or when he feels unbalanced. Fight or flight? Nixon does both. He runs, but he runs TOWARDS the thing that scares him in order to attack. And I have almost no control when he does so.
And right when I feel like I have made a break through, something happens to set me back 17 steps. A few years ago, it was a popped splint. Last year it was a shattered hind leg. This spring, I thought I had made a break through, only to find out that I hadn’t.
We were going solidly at beginner novice, and for the first time ever I had a horse that was rideable on XC, and moreso was fun in stadium. I had just taken him to a local jumper show at 3’ and won every class we entered. He was finally FUN.
But trying to be a good owner, I had my veterinarian out to check him over. Was anything bothering him? Any last lingering bit of unhappiness caused by pain? And we found out that he still flexed positive on the leg that he had fractured. So without hesitation, I had his ankle and hock injected.
And after a few days off, I swung back up, ready for the rest of the year. Jumper shows, local derbies, and maybe even a recognized event were in our very near future. Only, instead of better, he was worse. It was almost as if he felt so good that he wanted to run. His soreness was what had made him rideable.
And I just don’t want to ride a horse that I only can when he hurts. I don’t want to push a horse to do something he doesn’t enjoy. And I won’t risk my own safety or sanity to do so.
I ride alone 99% of the time, and on those off days, I see flashes of what could happen if those bad days turned to the worst. I have seen friends and family lose loved ones because of those freak accidents, and I refuse to knowingly put myself in a situation that could end like that. As an eventer, I already perform high risk tasks. I need not add any more risk with a partner that I do not trust.
And I’ve been told by so many that maybe it will just take a few years, or a month or two off. I’ve been told by others to never quit, and even more that he can’t be as bad as I make him out to be.
I have read the memes telling me that the tough horses make us better riders. I have also read the blogs about finding the right horse for you. One turns my head and soul to the left, the other to the right. I have never felt more bipolar.
But I know myself, my strengths, and my limitations. I also know and love this horse enough to tell when he’s happy. And that is on the buckle, adventuring through anywhere on a leisurely walk. He loves road hacks and trail rides. He loves exploring. And he loves doing so regardless of if he’s wearing shoes or ridden 6 days a week.
And I know that I enjoy going to the barn every day to ride Mak and a few babies. I love the training process with a horse who enjoys to be trained. I like committing myself to a goal and then achieving it.
I do not project my goals on anyone else, so I apologize for saying that I can’t achieve any goals that the rest of the world has set for me. For Nixon. For us.
Because for now, we are just taking a break. That break might be until next spring, or even just until one of my other horses gets hurt. We might never return to an arena, or we might pick up a new sport like endurance riding-I’m truly not sure.
He’s healthy. He’s sound. He’s fat and happy, and he loves his life. His shoes might be off, and his back not covered in sweat once a day, but he is fine.
It’s not giving up, it’s not giving in. I am not admitting defeat or throwing in the towel. I am simply recognizing that not all horses are created equal, and that riding for me is a hobby-and a fun hobby at that. And I’m realizing that not all horses crave the sport like we humans wish they did.
For now, he is happy. For now, I am happy. And for our future? Nobody knows. But at this moment, we are taking a deep breath, a long break, and a reboot. When we reset, only Nixon and I know.
I am a perfectionist.
Sure, my house is filthy. And yes, my truck is full of dirty bandages and 17 pairs of shoes.
But, perfectionists aren’t always obsessed with cleanliness.
Instead, I’m obsessed with doing a good job. I hate criticism and I despise being told I messed up. And this carries into so many aspects of my life, and makes me turn into what so many people call the most competitive person they’ve ever met.
And yet I’ve spoken time and time again about how a true competitor isn’t just obsessed with trophies and blue ribbons. Instead, our battles, victories, and losses can be felt on a much smaller scale.
I get annoyed when I’m told I could have given a better presentation at a research conference. I’m frustrated when my fiancé tells me that my truck is disgusting. And when my riding isn’t going well? Well, it drives me to drink.
A couple of months ago I had a bad fall.
I was riding a young horse in a lesson, and aiming for my last line. The jumps were only 2’6, the footing was good, and the weather didn’t interfere. But it was as if he never saw the jump, and upon landing, he just went down. At first to his knees, and then as momentum slid him an additional 15 feet, he fell to his side – trapping me underneath him.
I laid there in the heat, and stared into the sky, not able to get my breath. I heard screams and the sound of boots hitting the dirt as both my clinician and my friends ran to my side, and I slowly counted to ten, making sure I was fully aware of my surroundings. I rolled my shoulders, wiggled my toes, and took a few deep breaths as they all demanded I not move.
And then the pain began.
Only, as a true (stupid) equestrian, I ignored it. I stood up and immediately walked to my horse. I followed him to the barn and stared at his lacerated legs, while ignoring my own throbbing knee. I watched as my friends grabbed my tack, grabbed my truck and trailer, and ran around doing exactly what good friends did – they assessed, they treated, and they planned.
And I sat there while icing my leg, and just began to panic.
Because as a perfectionist, I didn’t see the glass half full. I didn’t sit there and think “well, I at least walked away from that one.” Instead, I freaked.
I was sure my summer was over. I was sure my knee was surgical. And maybe even worse, I was sure that my mistake, my bad distance, my failed attempt at a jump, left my young horse damaged. Mentally or physically, I assumed that it was entirely my fault. I had ruined a good horse, and I could never take that one bad jump back.
And then the downward spiral began. Only, my riding didn’t.
I continued to tack up and ride off, ignoring my sisters pleas to take a break and my doctors advice that I shouldn’t ride until I could run. So ride on I did, and ride well I did not.
Because the perfectionist in me wanted the year of 2018 to go well, without realizing that without my perfectly sound and fit body, I couldn’t force that to happen. I refused to let the other riders get ahead, I refused to let my year of preparation get left behind. I didn’t want to say that I accomplished nothing in this year, and so instead of taking the time to heal, I kicked on.
A few weeks ago, I came off again. For someone who doesn’t fall off very often, this time felt worse. Because this time it wasn’t because of a bad spot or a quick stop. It was simply a shift in weight and an unprepared rider.
Due to my damaged knee, I didn’t have the same scrappiness I had become so well known for. I couldn’t stick the simplest misstep, and without the grip of my knee, my ass landed firmly on the ground. Was I ok? Physically, yes. But emotionally? No. Because yet again, I was ending that event on a letter instead of a number, and to my perfectionists mind, that was hell. And even worse, it was my fault.
I knew in my mind that I wasn’t riding at 100%, and yet I kicked on. I wanted to be perfect, but was running myself into imperfection by not riding when I was perfectly sound.
And I see this a lot, around me, even amongst my inner circle. I see us as eventers kicking on when we are ill-prepared just because we are so adamant to not be labelled as the quitter. The wimp. The one who falls off. The one who gives up.
We pride ourselves in rehabilitating things – specifically our horses, and the quicker the better. We ask for the laser, the shockwave, the Theraplate, and the sweat. My doctor only stared at my with his mouth agape when I asked about Surpass and PEMF. We are willing to doctor our own horses while ignoring sprains and bruises on our own bodies.
That night, my horse was iced, lasered, sweated, and administered NSAIDs while I myself ignored the doctors orders to stay immobile and rest. The minute I was released from the hospital, I took those crutches and raced to the barn to inspect the bandages that my friends had put on him. I ran my hands along his body, assessing for swelling and heat, all the while ignoring my ever-swelling knee.
Not surprisingly, my horse healed almost instantly, while my knee continued to flare.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t care.
Because although I am a perfectionist, it appears to be at the risk of my own perfect body. And isn’t that the trend for our sport? We applaud those who swing back on, just as long as their horses are well tended to. We argue that the horse doesn’t have a voice while the rider does. But I have yet to meet a rider to admit pain. To admit that they don’t feel balanced, or can’t grip, kick, or go into two point.
Instead, we pop some ibuprofen, pull on the Back on Track sleeve, and take a hot epsom salt bath later – usually stolen from the very tack rooms that we have recently left.
We share stories of pins and screws, breaks and tears, and smack each other on the back as we give a leg up. These same pins that would make us run during a PPE in a horse, or tears that would find us screaming to our veterinarian to come running.
We administer our horses the perfect care, while ignoring our own pain. We think that as long as we can get around that next course, or qualify for that next level, that we are living the perfect life. While in the meantime, we are failing our own bodies. We are setting ourselves up for an imperfect life. For if we are not perfectly healed, we are not riding to our best abilities.
Because we as perfectionist don’t treat ourselves perfectly.
And maybe that is something we need to discuss more than any rehab offered to our equine counterparts. Perfectionism doesn’t just appear on a record or in ribbons. Perfectionism can come by making the perfect decisions for both our own bodies in addition to our horses, and treating them as the only ones we will ever be offered. And maybe, just maybe, as we make those hard decisions for our own bodies, they lead to a better outcome for our equine counterparts. I can only hope so.
I met this young girl a few years ago.
I had seen her at shows previously, but never knew who she was. She was always the one on the rail with a camera strapped around her neck or blocking her face. She was always in breeches although I rarely saw her on a horse. And she was always wearing the same hat…every time.
I didn’t know her, but I knew of her. You see, the horse industry in Lexington, KY is surprisingly small, and the eventing industry even moreso. 100 square miles separate you from an Olympian, and even less stand between you and a sheikh. Very little goes unnoticed, or so I thought.
Because that day, I thought nothing more of the awkward 17 year old standing before me with the goofy hat.
She tentatively said hello, and I boisterously responded back. She quietly asked me about my horse, and I loudly responded by telling her that our first training was in just a few weeks.
I told her that eventing hadn’t always come easy to me, and that my mental demons were worse than most. I explained how training level had always been a mental block, and how nervous I was for the show ahead. And then I told her that if I made it to that finish line, I would be the happiest person alive.
And after hearing my story, she looked me dead in the eye and said that if this was that big of a deal to me, than she had to be there.
Weeks later, as sweat mixed with the tears streaming down my face, I saw that same hat at the finish flags, and the young girl wearing it with a camera in front of her eyes and a smile across her face.
And that’s how I met JJ.
I don’t write a lot of blogs about people, because I don’t ever want to offend. But I’ve thought a lot about a blog about this treasure that we had amongst us.
Many of you know JJ for her pictures, and some of you for her snapchats. Some of you might know her for her advocacy for therapeutic riding, and even fewer for her take on politics. It seems to be that these days, you can find JJ just about everywhere.
And yet what I think goes unnoticed beyond the pictures and the publications is the truly amazing human underneath the ridiculous hat. The empath. The educator. The peacemaker. The champion.
She is a champion for all things different. Through her own personal struggles with normalcy and the challenges each day brings, she is the fresh face of the anti-bullying campaign that is so needed amongst our young riders.
She speaks often of her own social anxiety and the reasons she wears her headphones and her hat, and has turned something to be bullied about into a staple. A trophy. This hat which has adorned so many 4* horses ears and so many 4* riders heads.
But she is also a cheerleader. While so many beg for JJ’s pictures, those of us who know her well beg for her smiles and screams. On countless occasions, I have received an uplifting message or just a yelp across the arena as her smile dissipates all nerves. She is the first to crack a joke in a tense situation, and the first to offer a high five after a personal best.
I have watched so many young girls begin to look up to the following JJ has obtained, and attempt to follow in her first steps. It amuses me to no end to watch the evolution, but I am so proud to call her friend. She is the fiercest defender of our sport, and the riders in it, and a true champion for all things horses. Moreso, she is a fantastic mentor for so many young girls in such a tough age within such a tough sport.
I don’t know how to end this, except for to simply say—JJ, we love you.
Sure, your photos are epic. And yes, your style is second to none. But moreso, we love you for just being you. For being the best cheerleader, and most fearless voice, and the most fluid friend.
Happy birthday JJ. May it be great, just like you.
I started having anxiety attacks just a couple of summers ago.
I would drive to the barn after a good day at work, and swing on my first horse. Shoulder in, canter half pass, rein back, or a caveletti or two, my ride would go well.
I would untack, hose off, sweatscrape him, and place him back in his cool stall. I would undo his halter, swing it over his head, and calmly hang it on the door in front of him.
And then I would walk to the stall of my other horse, reach for his halter, and suddenly feel a pit in my stomach.
It is a feeling like nothing I can explain. Something I can only compare to the homesickness that I felt as a child when my parents would drop me off at my grandparents for a sleepover.
Something like the walls closing in on you, and extreme danger lying under your very feet-the feet standing on ground which just recently felt sturdy.
Something like an upset stomach and a tension headache rolled into one.
Suddenly, I was in my truck heading home without riding that second horse. Suddenly, I was on my couch an hour earlier than planned, with nothing left to do with my evening but stare at the TV. Suddenly, I was angry at myself for falling victim to this internal demon telling me that I wasn’t safe. That I needed to leave. That I shouldn’t stay.
And the worst part was, the very place that I was escaping from had always previously been my escape.
I didn’t truly understand what I was dealing with until I opened up to a colleague who immediately, and simply, just said “Oh. You had an anxiety attack.”
And with that, I realized I was suffering from a mental illness.
Luckily for me, I came from a family that is understanding of these illnesses and fully supported speaking about them and getting help. I at least didn’t feel alone.
But it isn’t until you are going through it yourself that you truly understand just how your mind can take over.
And just how much damage that can do to your life.
Because I was unhappy in my riding, unhappiness seeped into every other aspect of my life.
I felt unaccomplished. I felt frustrated. I felt disabled. And I felt like a failure.
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just rationalize with myself. Why couldn’t I just tell my brain that I was perfectly safe swinging onto Mak? Why couldn’t I just tell my body to put his halter on and pull him out? Why couldn’t I just make myself do what I knew would ultimately make me happy.
But I couldn’t.
We’ve heard it a lot in the past few days. Mental health knows no boundaries. Wealth, gender, sexual orientation, status, beauty, or even age.
And it certainly didn’t discrimate against me.
It doesn’t restrict itself to your youth, and it doesn’t judge which activity it will inhibit. It doesn’t listen to your passions, and it doesn’t discriminate on time.
And we as a society need to fully appreciate that. Open up to that loved one or that colleague. Listen to the advice on that therapist or seek out that specific medication. Speak of these diseases and disorders as if we have the flu or an infection. And offer no judgement for those who approach us asking for help. For assistance. For an ear or a shoulder.
All it took for me was someone who I loved telling me that what I was experience was normal. Was experienced by millions of others around the world. She gave me advice on steps to overcome it, and offered assistance when I felt another wave of emotions roll in.
But moreso; she was just there.
A friend who knew the truth. A friend who texted to see how I was. A friend who offered no judgment.
And at the end of the day, that is the first step towards progress with these diseases and disorder. A loss of judgement and an understanding of truth. May we all take a moment today to truly try to do either, or both.
Because the people you think of as the happiest, or the strongest, can ultimately be the ones who are suffering the most. They put on a brave face, post a pretty picture, or even wrote an uplifting blog. But they are suffering too. So many of us are.
To access the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, click here.
To speak to someone about your own concerns of mental health, click here.
I am an equine scientist.
I know, I know, many of you are currently sitting behind your monitor or laptop and thinking “yes Carleigh, we knew this,” but few of you probably understand what this means.
I spend most of my morning on a research facility. A horse farm that serves as a location where we can house “research animals.” Only instead of lab rats, I have a herd of horses. Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Morgans, and mutts, they all exist on the North Farm. And I voyage out to this field full of beautiful, well kept, happy ponies and begin my studies.
Currently, this means that I am taking some blood samples on these mares to then isolate their immune cells. And then I take those immune cells to the lab and assess how they function after being exposed to various sex hormones in a Petri dish.
It is beneficial.
It is enlightening.
It is frustrating.
Because at the beginning of each new protocol, the research never works. And when the research doesn’t work, the researcher must troubleshoot.
This is what I have been going through for the past few months. Changing an incubation time, or the way I pipette. Altering the liquid with which we dissolve these hormones, or altering the amount of CO2 they’re exposed to.
And as I undergo this phase of my research, this time of my life full of so much frustration, I tend to lament to my colleague and fellow postdoctoral scholar, Shavahn.
But recently I explained to her that while this aspect of the learning curve is so stressful at times, it is actually the part I enjoy most.
Sure, it would be great if everything went smoothly and we instantaneously obtained data; thereby finishing the study. But when that happens, what would I learn?
I wouldn’t learn the tiny minute details that make these steroids function. I wouldn’t understand the biochemistry of just how these antagonists bind. I wouldn’t know the nuts and bolts of cell culture, and just what every tiny detail of my protocol does or means.
And I wouldn’t leave the lab at 6pm and head to the barn ready for a long ride on a green horse.
For I have realized that my riding is almost identical to my scientific exploration.
I do not crave the perfect ride on the packer, because then I would never improve. I do not crave the immediate means to the end, nor do I relish in the final endpoint and rest on my laurels.
I enjoy sitting astride that difficult young horse and unlocking the tiny details that make him tick. I enjoy the bad days as much as the good, for just like my science, it is the exploration of those bad days that improves not only my riding, but my understanding of the horse underneath me.
I learn during the stops. The unplanned dismounts. The tense flats, and the rushed strides.
I learn during the shows which end on a letter instead of a number, and the days where I never even get to swing a leg on.
And I learn during the phases of the training scale where I feel my ears pop from the rapid decent instead of the linear climb.
It isn’t during the good times that we truly understand what exactly is entailed when one aspires to be the best. This includes everything: the best rider, the best partner, the best colleague, the best scientist.
It is during the opposite of this that you find out what you are made of. Do you have the skill set? The ambition? The passion? The drive?
Can you make the controlled changes to assess if you’re fixing the problem? Can you be confident enough to do so, and yet willing enough to understand that it might take a day or ten to get any data?
This is what I believe sets some apart from others. I know that I crave the learning process of those failed experiments; those failed rides. What about you?
If you would like to learn more about my research, click here.