Remembering Your Why

BY April Bilodeau

I had a chaotic day.

We’ve been shorthanded at the farm since our barn manager left mid-March. While our facility is certainly not as large as most, 15 horses is a lot to manage when you’re the only person around.

The plan for the day was to do the barn chores, teach, ride, and feed dinner, then I was aiming to leave by 7pm to end my day with my husband at his parents’ house, something I really look forward to not only because I enjoy their company but because sometimes, I just need to leave the barn.

My day at the barn starts with feeding breakfast, greeting them the same way every day.

“Good morning, ponies!”, which is usually followed by little nickers because I, the food lady, have arrived.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain, so turnout has been tough lately. While my morning chores are cut in half due to no turnout, I now have the looming responsibility to make sure that every horse gets out of their stall at least once throughout the day.

My 9am lesson was late which stresses me out right away. With the whole barn on my back at the moment my days are planned out to the minute, so one small thing can cause a domino effect to the entire day’s schedule.

While my 10am lesson was on time, I was reminded that I need to find a new school horse to take the load off of my more senior horse in the program. But as most know, finding a beginner friendly, quiet horse on a small school program budget can be difficult.

Before I knew it, it was lunchtime. Unlike mornings, the horses typically greet me at lunchtime with a bit more of a pushy “it’s hay time” manner than the happy breakfast nickers. But I’m always happy to fill their bellies with hay, talking to them as I make my rounds.

I got back on schedule with a successful ride on a client’s older Holsteiner gelding. I was told this horse doesn’t have a lead change, but after a little maintenance work last week, voila! The perfect lead change during our ride. Success!

At this point it’s about 3pm, meaning my day has already been about nine hours long. I’m getting tired but know I have four lessons to teach before I can enjoy that personal time I was craving so much.

“Just a few more hours,” I thought to myself.

When my lessons started was when I started to crash.

My 4pm, a talented junior, had some frustrating moments with her horse as we began to progress to more challenging exercises. A replicated course from a recent clinic I attended was asking her and her horse all the right questions. As a trainer, I love to push people and find those holes that need filling. But the self conscious side of me asks “Am I pushing too hard? Am I even doing this whole thing right?”

My next student is an 8-year-old girl who is having a lesson on the lunge line. She’s tired. A school field trip to Boston took the wind right out of her sails, causing the lesson to take more out of me than probably her and the pony combined. But cultivating good riders from within the barn is what I love, so tired and all, I teach with a smile.

Next is a lovely lesson with a long-time pair who had struggles in the past but is really putting the pieces together.

“My hard work paid off here,” I think to myself, as I watch the two navigate a tricky course of roll backs and a short three stride to a long five stride.

But as invigorating as that was, all hell broke loose in my last lesson when a pony bucked one of my students off right after she got on at the mounting block. Unfortunately, she hit the ground pretty hard.

She’s a tough kid, so to see her upset worried me.

“Do you have a headache? Any nausea? Stay still for me for a minute until we know you’re ok.”

Just like my student earlier, the wind was taken right out of my sails in that moment.

As trainers, we worry with you and about you. What you bring into the barn, we take on too. It’s a blessing and a curse, right? I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing if my ultimate goal wasn’t to bring my passion for horses to others who want to feel the same. But that comes with getting to know people personally, wanting to feel their emotions so you can use the horse as a therapy tool on the days where they just can’t put the work in to lay down a perfect course, or learn a new training tool.

Jasmine Van’t Heike – One of my many “whys”

As I rushed into the barn to get things done before leaving, one of the doors to the barn wasn’t working.

“Why is this happening?”, I asked my husband on FaceTime, who at the time was planting Christmas trees with his dad on their farm.

He’s normally the farm handyman, while also being a good horseman himself.

“Is there anything in the way of the sensors? If not, I really don’t know,” he says.

In an effort to educate me and unintentionally frustrate me, he tells me to Google it.

At this point, it’s late. I’m tired. I still have horses to hand walk and feed. I also need to spend some time with the naughty pony who bucked my student off.

So there I was, on a ladder in the middle of the aisle, “My LiftMaster won’t work” on YouTube on my phone in one hand, and a screwdriver in the other, doing my best to fix this door so the horses don’t freeze. The wind is blowing through the aisle to the point where my thought was “I sure hope someone is still here to scrape me off the floor when this ladder blows away.”

Somehow I successfully fixed the door, a small win for the day.

There were still a couple of people at the barn. At this point I’ve been working close to 14 hours. I’m tired and know that I am not going to make it to dinner, which was acting as a carrot through the chaos.

This is when the thoughts start to sneak in.

“Why am I doing this? I can’t do this forever. Do I even know what I’m doing?”

The barn is now empty and I’m in tears. Not hysterics, just those types of tears that roll down your face in a state of being completely and entirely drained. I put my heart into my business every day, but sometimes I feel like my business doesn’t give me its heart back.

Finally, I was walking my last horse that needed to get out. She’s a special one to me as she’s the first sale horse I ever had and sold. Her owner recently moved her to my barn and the excitement I have working with her again has been apparent to everyone.

As I’m walking her with my head down, a little removed from the situation, she stopped and lifted her head, letting out a big snort at something she had her eye on.

I let out the most involuntary, genuine laugh.

In that moment, I remembered why I do this. Why I can do this. And all the reasons that show that I do know what I’m doing.

A quiet moment at Junior Hunter Finals with a client’s horse, Lightly Frosted.

I love the horses. If 5-year-old me could see me now, she wouldn’t understand why any tears would ever be shed. I get to wake up every day and walk 50 feet to a barn full of horses who are waiting for me. That’s the greatest gift anyone could ask for.

While the day to day can be draining for anyone, it’s important to always remember our why.

To reflect on my own thoughts about how sometimes I have to absorb people’s emotions as their trainer, I have to remember that the horses absorb that too. After that mare let out her big snort, I sat in silence for a minute with her and just used her as therapy. Even the barn cat joined in, jumping up on the tack trunk as if to say, “Cheer up, we’re all rooting for you.”

What better way is there to end a day?

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