Finding Balance as an Amateur Equestrian and Working Professional


In my last blog, I wrote about ‘making an equestrian passion a priority as an amateur’ – something that I feel grateful every day to have the opportunity and incredible privilege to be able to do.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned however, it’s that when you’re a working professional who is also ardently chasing goals as an amateur equestrian, there really is never a time when it’s not an intense challenge to find a balance. My life right now is a prime example of that.

Here we are amidst the holiday season, and it’s a particularly busy time for my family’s Gene & Georgetti restaurants in Chicago, where I am the managing partner. For my wedding planning business, Michelle Durpetti Events, and our event venue, The Estate, engagement season is in full swing, so it’s my responsibility to be marketing to brides so that they know both businesses are out there. In addition to that, I just got my horses all packed up and down to Ocala, FL, where we’re getting acclimated before the winter circuit starts in both Ocala and Wellington. Oh, and did I mention that I’m getting married in three weeks and showing at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) the week immediately following my wedding!?

It’s a lot, and some people may think that I’m crazy – and hey, maybe I am! However, I also know that, as I shared in my last blog, riding is what gets me up and out of bed in the morning. I know that those horses and my trainer, Caitlyn Shiels, depend on me, and I depend on them to continually give me something to work toward that really and truly pushes me. Riding keeps me from being complacent. It makes me a better business person, and I think it makes me a better human being.

Michelle Durpetti working as a wedding planner for her own Michelle Durpetti Events. Photo by Collin Pierson Photography

Accept Your Fallibility

By nature, I’m a goal-oriented person; I’m voraciously obsessed with goals, and I talked a lot about that here. I always strongly advise goal-setting to anyone in just about any area of their life; however, as an amateur equestrian, I’ve also learned how important it is to be realistic with your goals and expectations for yourself.

Following the Washington International Horse Show, my horses had a few weeks off to rest and restore, and then, when they were able to be ridden, my work schedule was so busy making up for being out of town for ‘indoors,’ that I was not able to make it to the barn (52 miles away!) to go ride! That meant that in the month of November, I rode only twice.

I’m now in Florida with my horses for five days, and it would be easy to want to get on, jump around, and expect everything to come up perfectly. Instead, I’ve learned the importance of patience and being realistic with myself and what I am capable of.

I now know that I have to spend four or five days when I come back from a long break like this, really just flatting, and I’ve accepted that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think that’s my secret to keeping it all going and to not freak out about being good enough or where I want to be: bringing it back to the basics. I go back to the flatwork. I drop my stirrups a lot. I take a deep breath, and I start back from the beginning.

I then graduate back to practicing with cantering rails on the ground and cantering cavalettis. Fitting in a stride, leaving out a stride, getting that sense of adjustability again, so I can retrain my eye and my rhythm. I’m fortunate, because I can generally see a distance, but nobody is that much of super hero after riding that infrequently or taking that much time off, they can come right back and see every single jump from ten feet out.

When I was at Washington, I was able to really lay down the handy round, and it felt so good! The minute I came out of the ring though, I thought, “It will be about three or four months before I do that again!”

I’ve learned to accept the fallibility and accept that when you’re fitting in riding in a hectic life, there are going to be imperfections and you’re not going to be incredible every time out. I think that acceptance is a secret to even greater enjoyment in the sport.

In today’s world, with Instagram and so many instant updates everywhere in equestrian sport, it’s really easy to feel the pressure. I look at my fellow amateurs and see them moving up or getting a new horse. All of a sudden I’m judging myself by these other people’s projected progress and social media highlights. The reality is, everybody goes through some sort of struggle that they don’t post about on social media, so I remember that.

I remind myself that I’m still here riding and doing what I love. For me, that in itself is an incredible privilege, and with patience, dedication, and the willingness to accept my imperfections, there’s no reason I won’t reach the realistic goals that I set for myself.

Michelle Durpetti rode Lucca to a fourth place finish in the Amateur-Owner 35 and Over Hunter Handy at the Washington International Horse Show. Photo by Jump Media

Surround Yourself with People Who Understand

Really going for those goals – no matter how big or how small – almost always means making sacrifices in other areas of life, and if the people around you don’t understand that or why you’re doing what you are, it can be extremely difficult. Having a circle of people close to you that get it makes a world of difference, and I’m fortunate to have just that in my family, in Caitlyn, and in my fiancé, Collin.

Do you know how many times my family has probably wanted to ask me, “Why don’t you just sit this month out?” There are trips that we don’t get to take because my time and finances are put toward the horses, and there are times when maybe I should be home for work, but my dad, who is also my business partner, always says, “No, go and pursue your goal!”

In three weeks, I’m getting married in Palm Beach, FL, and my horses are deliberately in nearby Wellington, so that, on the morning of my wedding, I can wake up and go hack. That’s my yoga; that’s my zen. My hair stylist for the wedding who is worried about helmet hair might not totally get it, but Collin and my family do. The week after my wedding, Collin and I aren’t going on a honeymoon. Instead, I’m horse showing at WEF, and Collin is nothing but supportive of that. He knows that I’ve saved up for two months to be able to rent a nice barn in Wellington and to bring my horses down there for a month. He knows that if I don’t show the week after my wedding, I lose a weekend of showing that I’ve saved and worked toward.

Collin is a photographer. He teaches all over the world, so he travels a lot. I believe it was on our very first date, he said, “Look, I’m out of town a lot. Is that going to be an issue?” I replied, “Not at all, because actually, here’s what my life is like!” I laid everything out there for him right away, and he was never anything but supportive. In fact, his response was to ask to take lessons so that he could understand what it is that I’m experiencing on a horse!

Likewise, Caitlyn understands the non-horse components of my life. She knows that I work hard to have the privilege of riding, and she knows when to push me and when to just say, “Okay, I understand that you can’t jump more than one horse today.” She and I talk every single day, and she asks about how my meetings went, if our timelines will still work, if I feel up to riding more. That communication and understanding makes all the difference in the world for me.

Michelle Durpetti with her parents, two of her greatest supporters and a vital part of her success. Photo by Fine Art Horses

At the end of the day, my fiancé, my parents, my family, my trainer, and my friends are my nucleus. Their unending support is what makes it all possible. I know that whether I have success or failure on the back of the horse, they are always there. That gives me the ability to just fly and keep pursuing this crazy life.

The pursuit of horses and a career may never fit perfectly together and there may never be a time when it’s not an intense challenge to juggle both, but I live for the enjoyment of this imperfect balance.