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Breathing sighs of relief

I’ve never really felt like I’ve fit in within the horse industry… I’ve never felt good enough, or brave enough, or refined enough, or pulled together enough, and honestly, I’ve never really wanted to try hard enough to achieve any of those things. But they still ate away at me.

I’m not a competitive person and the idea of spending so much money to just get a ribbon has never appealed to me… that, and the paralyzing idea of having everyone’s eyes on me, criticizing my every move and my horse’s every step.

I just really, really love horses.

I love the way they make me feel; connected, quiet, peaceful. I love the smell of the barn, and the atmosphere of the barn. I love herd dynamics and wearing dirty clothes in public like “so what? I’m a horse girl!”

I’ve always felt like I needed to “be” something; a jumper rider, or a hunter rider, or a dressage rider, or a gymkhana rider. I thought I always had to have a goal and a vision; a distinct discipline and a plan… I’ve never given myself the permission to just be a rider; a horse lover.

When COVID shut down all the horse shows this year, I actually felt myself breathe a sigh of relief. I kept playing this game as though I was going to do the show circuit; picking out shows I was never going to go to, working hard on a goal I didn’t even have, and pretending like I was disappointed when they all got canceled because “damn, this was going to be our year!”

Instead, COVID gave me the opportunity to pretend like I was taking the summer off and just enjoying the warm weather with my horse; trail riding, bareback walks around the property, fun groundwork that worked our minds.

It wasn’t until things started opening up again that I realized that it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do in the first place.

In August as the world started to open up again, I had the familiar feeling of “I need to prove myself to some non-existent critic who cares what the hell I’m doing,” so we traded in our blissful trails for early morning ring work, including poles, jumps, and grids.

I thought it was what I was supposed to be doing, like “time to get going again,” until after a few weeks of it, I realized that I really wasn’t having fun, and my horse wasn’t either.

I actually had a trainer friend, who specializes in ground work and horsemanship, come to give me lessons because I thought my mare seemed unhappy.

She said to me, “do you think it’s your horse, or do you think it’s you? Because maybe you’re reflecting your own thoughts onto her.”

Insert wake-up call here.

A few weeks later, my mare started showing symptoms that her hips were bothering her. Now, this isn’t a new thing; she has signs of an old SI injury that can cause her to be stiff and occasionally sore through her hind-end, and sometimes into her shoulders as well. She has her team of body workers, including a chiropractor, massage therapist, and saddle fitter, but I thought I’d get my vet to give me his opinion, since this is such an ongoing thing.

My vet assessed her, and his opinion was pain originating from her SI joint, likely leading to arthritis. He recommended injections if I was going to keep working her consistently and said that anything high-impact, such as jumping (or barrel racing, etc.) should likely not be in her future as it will only cause her hips to get worse… (have I mentioned she’s only 6 or 7 years old?)

But here’s the thing; the thing that took me awhile to admit to myself – the thing that took even longer to say out loud to my best friend… I breathed another sigh of relief.

(*Now, let me preface this with saying that my mare is not crippled or in pain. She’s stiff, she would be sore if I didn’t listen to her/get her treated regularly, and would be more sore if I tried to push her past her limits… which I don’t/won’t.)

But I breathed that sigh of relief to say, “hey girl, I don’t want to do this either. Thanks for being the one to take the blame, I appreciate that.”

I read a line in a book recently that said “I guess women have to almost die before we can give ourselves permission to live how we want.” It struck such a chord with me as I have been so willing to live a lie; to live someone else’s idea of what a “rider” should be… that it took a pandemic and a veterinary diagnosis for me to see things clearly and start to do what I want… I just want to love and enjoy my horse. I just want to end my day with a slow trail ride through the woods. I just want to sit on the grass next to her while she grazes.

There’s another line in that same book, which goes like this: “Remember that amazing Steinbeck quote? ‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.’ I’ve kept it on my desk for years. I looked at it last night and thought: ‘I’m tired of being good. I’m so tired.’ Let’s change it to: ‘And now that we don’t have to be good, we can be free.’”

The funny thing though, is that no one cares. No one has been watching me, judging me, or paying attention to my every move, wondering why we aren’t competing or trying harder. It has almost entirely been in my head; this self-limiting, happiness-sacrificing, stress-inducing critic has been living in my head.

And I too am tired. So to my horse, my beloved little mare… Now that we don’t have to be good, we can be free.

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