Changing Careers – Rebuilding a Life with Horses

Photo courtesy of Sonja Boorman


I recently posted a picture of my new Amish-built barn, lush pastures, and emerging riding arena on a barn building Facebook group. Someone commented, “how does it feel to be literally living the dream?” and I replied, “Dreamlike…” 

Which got me thinking about the path that led me to be, as they say, living the dream.

It’s an understatement to say that the last couple of years have been hard—hard on us as a family, as a nation, and globally. We have been brought down by political divisions that have exposed our rifts and made some of our relationships feel more fragile. We have felt the impact of the global pandemic, with untold suffering and deaths, as well as job losses and economic stresses. We have locked in and locked down. We have held our collective emotional breath and feared for those of our loved ones who are more at risk.

Coming out of the pandemic, our family finds itself as one part of the wave of people who have leaned into the so-called COVID pivot. This nationwide re-evaluation of what we value, what we are willing to sacrifice for our salaries and careers versus what gives our lives deeper meaning: Our families and work from the heart. Our connections to each other. And I feel incredibly lucky to be coming out the other side with renewed focus and vigor, and a true sense of joy for our next steps. Glad to be a part of the great resignation. Although it is scary financially, it feels so right in every other way.

Photo courtesy of Sonja Boorman

In the last month, we have sold the home our children grew up in. We are preparing to leave the town where we raised our family, the community we know, and where my husband and I built corporate careers, in order to live a heartfelt second career. I’ve established an equine wellness business, in the town where I grew up and where my family still lives.

 A big piece of the community we built during our “busy years” was centered around the equestrian community, from my daughter’s first timid pony rides, to her nationally competitive equitation career. This was enabled by her role as a working student with a nationally recognized trainer. This equestrian community has helped me reconnect with the passion of my youth…

Flashback to when as a high school student, I was also a working student, in the days when working student meant shoveling stalls and teaching beginning lessons. My parents couldn’t afford a horse so I worked every day before and after school, managing the riding school program at the farm in central NC, occasionally traveling with Bryan Jones’ Harmony Farms to shows in Southern Pines or at the Raleigh Hunt Complex.

Photo courtesy of Sonja Boorman

That was when I thought I would have an equestrian career. I studied and planned for a future I didn’t know how to make happen. I would find myself staring out over the fields where I worked, planning my future farm—imagining the layout of my future pastures and the configuration of my barn. Or, sketching out the potential bridle paths and the riding arena in the back of my trigonometry notebook during class when the teacher wasn’t looking. However, the reality of my lack of funds, and the more limited pathways for working students (and perhaps lack of original talent as well!) compelled me – grudgingly perhaps at first –  to set aside my initial dreams and pursue my studies, my graduate work and ultimately a corporate career that took my husband and I into the energy industry in Texas. 

It was hard. When I left NC, I left horses behind as well. For a while… until inevitably one day my kids wanted riding lessons. My daughter became hooked and we half-leased a sweet, raggedy school pony called Pork Chop. I was quickly pulled fully back into the equestrian scene and before long, my daughter was competing in the big A-rated shows and I had a hunter horse to occasionally take to the amateurs. 

Fast forward to 2020. My husband was laid off when the oil price plummeted and his highly specialized, high-end research was seen as superfluous. We sold my mare. We leased out my daughter’s horse and re-evaluated. In the weird emptiness and isolation of the COVID lockdown, I completed a course I had previously begun on equine massage therapy, adding to that a variety of other studies in nutrition, anatomy, Magnawave, laser therapy, Equine first aid etc. etc. etc. 

Photo courtesy of Sonja Boorman

As lay-offs continued in my industry, my corporate job became more stressful and less fulfilling. My husband, an introvert, preferred to process his life changes quietly. It was good to throw myself into the new and expanding joy I was finding in the equine bodywork. As a scientist by training and inclination, I love learning and understanding how the integrated equine physical systems work, and the techniques and technologies that can help them feel more balanced and connected. I enjoy the Zen-like state that this slow work brings. I become focused and relaxed, the horses are so receptive, and my clients are so appreciative. My business has quickly grown even as I’ve maintained my day job. And slowly an old idea, the idea I had held at 17 and abandoned for the last few decades, began to re-form. 

We took the nugget of an idea, to make a business from the land we owned in NC and my passion for equine care and bodywork and turn it into our COVID pivot. This pivots away from my secure income, a career I no longer love, into a soul-satisfying opportunity that takes me back to my passions, and back to living near my hometown and family.

Photo courtesy of Sonja Boorman

We have spent the last several years planning our farm, building and cultivating our pastures, designing and building a lovely barn with a view to providing a unique service. We take residence this spring, and I have adopted a horse (OTTB). Although this is a COVID pivot, it doesn’t feel sudden. It feels like what I was supposed to be doing all along. I bet if I ever find my old trigonometry notebooks, the farm we built will be not that very different from the one I imagined in my teens. I cannot wait to bring the peace and healing that this new work has brought me to the horses who will be in our care. 

Sonja Boorman grew up in Chapel Hill NC, to which she is returning this spring to “live the dream.” In the intervening years, she earned her PhD in Geology at Duke University and lived and worked for about 20 years in the Energy industry in Houston with her husband, Mark and 3 children, Joey, Eleanor, and Ben. In the last 2 years, her business “Balanced Equine Bodyworks” has served as a source of joy and sanity. Look for them at “Timberwagon Farm” in Chapel Hill, NC and follow her @balanced_equine_bodyworks on Instagram.