BY SOPHIA JURGENS
And then it was over. The dream I had since childhood, since I was that little horse girl running around in muddy paddock boots and a glittery “I LOVE PONIES” t-shirt, was over. Years of working student positions, catch riding, training, and “flipping” my own horse had led to my first paid, full-time training position… and I burned out.
I came into this job the same way many working professionals in the industry do. My years of hard work and sacrifice had not gone unnoticed, and someone was finally willing to pay for my skills. But what I was not told was that I would work well beyond full-time hours and still qualify for food stamps. And that I’d do this while being told I was the lucky one.
I loved my job—I truly did. That was the problem. I loved it so much that for eight months I was willing to put up with low pay and de-humanizing hours because of the horses. I got to spend every day riding and training horses. I thought that would be enough.
Am I not cut out for the equine industry, or does it need a serious overhaul? I’ve seen both arguments. I just know that, at least how the industry is now, it is not a healthy place for me. So, what now?
It’s been six months since I left my equine job. For a while, I didn’t even want to ride. I was so sick of the philosophical and ethical differences that I had with my employer, both towards horses and employees, that being around horses was not the pleasurable experience it once was. I moved to a new city with my partner, who had been begging me to find a less draining job for months, and started fresh.
For a while, I didn’t miss it. I took on food deliveries, getting to know my new city and enjoying the ability to work extremely flexible hours without a boss. It was the freedom I needed, but as many gig workers know—not sustainable for the long-term. Still, in that time I was able to refresh and take the time to job hunt outside of the horse world. I have since found a part-time job, that still at 15-20 hours a week is grossing more than my full-time salaried position in the equine industry. I am starting to discover not only what I’m worth, but that I don’t have to sacrifice my welfare—literally living on welfare—in order to have a job that is fulfilling.
Now that my own emotional dust has settled, I actually do find myself really missing horses. Many of the friends I grew up riding with have remained in the amateur world, quite a few still competing and doing well in their respective disciplines. “You should try eventing,” some of them say, “the community is really welcoming!” or “You should train another OTTB and get back into the jumpers!” One has even told me to dip my feet into the western showing world, saying a change of saddle and movement might be just what I need.
But here’s the thing; what if I don’t want to do anything that impressive or high performance? When I reflect on riding, I think of the moments in which I was happiest. I think of before I sold my mare when I would ride her lazily up the road in my bareback pad and halter, her head and shoulders bobbing lazily in the midday sun. I think of when I was a teenager at a sleepaway horse camp, racing my friends across the pasture at a full gallop, my hands tangled in their flying mane, held just behind their ears. I think of setting up a chair in the pasture the first horse I ever leased was turned out in, reading a book while she grazed in circles around me.
I always loved showing, and training to show, but if I really think about it, the love for that aspect of horses came after my love for horses just as they are. What I really fell in love with was the wordless communication and amazing power I felt when allowed to borrow their bodies, those moments when you feel almost like a centaur, the smaller part of one great body; truly free and powerful. That’s the feeling I was chasing before recognition and money came into the equation. That’s the feeling that made me into a Horse Girl, not an equine professional.
For the foreseeable future, all I really want is a horse of my own to putz around on, riding lightly in the ring or out on trails. A quick google search shows that almost all barns in the immediate area are show barns, requiring full training, 2 lessons a week, etc. That’s great. I get that it’s most trainer’s bread and butter and a really wonderful world to be a part of as an amateur rider, but it’s just not what I am looking for. So, for now, my riding is on hold until my mind changes or I find some somewhere that aligns more with my current goals.
For a very, very short time, I even looked up job postings for equine-related jobs (the temptation to be around horses again really got me going) but shut my laptop with a sigh. That part of horses just wasn’t for me anymore.
I know it is not uncommon for many riders to take a break from horses for months, or even years. These six months have been the longest I have gone without my fingers being tickled by the whiskers of a curious gelding or experienced the joy of finding a mare’s itchy spot. It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I miss the small things about horses the most, having had such big goals ever since I was a junior.
Sometimes, it feels like I have failed myself in those dreams. But most of the time, I just miss the horses.
Sophia Jurgens was born in Miami, Florida and has since lived in Virginia, Arizona, The U.K., and now Washington state, riding in each location. After a small stint as a pro in the Equine industry, she is now working on her second love, writing, and looking forward to enjoying life as an amateur equestrian.