Three years ago I spent an entire summer traveling around the country showing my horse and having a fantastic time. However, at the end of the year my horse, Johnny, sustained an injury that sidelined us. The injury was difficult to diagnose, so I frequently began to think he had recovered only to take him to a horse show and spend the entire time (and all of my money) in the vet tent. Horse showing - once the highlight of my life - became a torturous endeavor, but I continued to believe that the fun was always just around the next turn. The fun was on the other side of one more shockwave treatment; one more chiropractic appointment; one more corrective shoeing. Before I knew it, a year had gone by; a year in which I’d planned a wedding and gotten married, and this awful, self-induced black cloud had shaded the whole thing. I had spent an entire year of my twenties agonizing about how to get my horse back in the show ring.
Then one day, in a sudden moment of clarity, I realized it was over. My dream was dead and it was time to face the music. Additionally, I was suffering from a serious case of burnout.
Driving an hour each way to the trainer’s barn five days a week only to stare at my frustrated horse and what-could-have-been was excruciating. It wore me down, and I knew I was going to end up in a straight jacket if I kept it up. I brought Johnny home, thinking I’d let him “be a horse” while simultaneously letting myself be a human. A real one. The kind that sleeps at night instead of laying awake wondering where she could come up with the money to do just one more MRI…just one more. Once Johnny was home, it didn’t take long before magical things started happening. I practiced jumping on my retired horse that had never really jumped anything in his life. I started riding bareback like I had when I was a kid. I rode the boys down the trail with my mom. Johnny made a miraculous recovery, and I started jumping him again. I sat under a tree in the pasture and watched my horses graze. I fell back in love with my first love, the horses.
Fast forward a couple of years. I’ve now got four of these rascals. I spend my days taking impeccable care of them. I’ve spent the last two years waking up every day and rushing down to feed, drinking my tepid coffee in the cold barn, leading horses to turnouts, hovering over them for hours because they are semi-suicidal and not to be trusted, carting hay and water to paddocks, cleaning stalls, sweeping, scrubbing buckets, leading horses back from turnouts (in a very specific order!), grooming, riding, sweeping, clipping, sweeping, feeding, sweeping, stuffing hay nets, changing blankets, dragging the arena, mowing the paddocks, night checking…and, of course, sweeping.
Hey, Thomas Edison, I’ll tell you what is often missed by people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work: me.
No. I’m tired. I’m aware that it’s an obnoxious first-world problem. I know it’s absurd that poor Courtney’s show horses are exhausting her, but they are. I am burnt out in a way that is reminiscent of the Johnny Injury Saga of 2012. I’m losing it. And by “it” I mean my sanity, any desire to ride, and if I’m being honest, that love of horses that drives me to do all of this in the first place.
This expensive hobby has become a career…a career that I pay for! A career that I pay for that, for two whole years, has kept me from even being in the general vicinity of my workaholic husband on the one or two days per week on which he is able. It’s kept me from traveling, from seeing my family, from being a regular girl that has clean hair and painted nails, from keeping in touch with friends that I truly like. I’ve missed bachelorette parties and baby showers and just regular old girls’ nights.
It was always worth it to me, and then one day this past November it just wasn’t anymore. I missed my husband. I missed my family. I missed those carefree days of having one-too-many drinks and staying out a bit too late without the nagging voice in the back of my mind saying, “Careful, Courtney. Even if you take the day off from riding, you’ve got 5 hours of manual labor starting at sunup tomorrow…and every day after that.” I missed having a weekend! TWO WHOLE DAYS OFF!! What was that like? Nate and I chose not to have kids so that we could always have the luxury of spontaneity, and quiet winter days by the fire, and sun-drenched vacations in exotic locations…and yet, we weren’t doing any of those things.
It took me a long time to admit it, but something had to give. I love my boys and they aren’t going anywhere, but there are ways to take care of horses that don’t demand nearly the work that I am required to put in. Things like stalls with attached turnouts…and hot wire…and automatic waterers…and dare I say, winter coats? We did some research and happened upon a small farm that was available for rent in un-frozen, un-muddy South Carolina. The setup was ideal, the flight from NYC was short, and I couldn’t sign the lease fast enough. We shut down the farm in New York, and jammed the entire menagerie into the truck and trailer.
It was a long, arduous drive with screaming cats, flatulent dogs, stir-crazy horses, and roosters crowing at every Truck Stop. Icy New York mornings and lugging 80 pounds of hot water to turnouts a quarter mile from the barn wasn’t looking so terrible at 3am, in the 14th hour of the drive. Still, shortly after we arrived I turned my boys out in their big, grass paddocks. They ran and played in good, solid footing, and the whole drive and weeks of planning were suddenly completely worth it.
It’s only been a few days, and I’m still trying to devise the perfect system, but the boys are so happy. It warms my cold, hard heart to see them so, and as if that’s not enough, I simply have to open the Dutch doors in the mornings and send them on their merry way to turnout. “See y’all tonight!” (Y’all see what I did there? I’m trying hard to fit in.) They run, but they don’t slip and fall in ice or mud. They decide they want to go inside, and they just…do. They don’t panic-run. They don’t kick or scream or squeal or bang on the gates to force me to come running, halter in hand. They also don’t stand in stalls 20 hours per day. They also don’t chew things out of boredom.
You know what else they don’t do?
They don’t care if they all have matching blankets. They don’t care if their matching blankets match their water buckets that match the trim of the barn and the doormat and the damn haynets. They don’t care. As much as the horses have made life difficult for me by refusing to behave in turnout no matter how hard I try, I have made it difficult for myself by being a type-A, anal-retentive horse snob. They must all be slick. They must all be shiny. They must all be fit, and clipped, and clean. And…and…and…
Burnout. Complete burnout. I even reached a point where I would occasionally have to consciously remind myself to breathe. I think that’s pretty much a textbook anxiety disorder. A self-induced anxiety disorder!! So I find myself here in sunny South Carolina, all alone in a strange place that is very different from home, but I have happy horses, coffee with my husband on the mornings that he’s here, and multiple vacations to plan. I’m already breathing involuntarily, and today, for the first time in two months, I patted Johnny affectionately on the rump and thought, “Maybe a ride would be fun.”