Rekindling the Spark

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A burned-out dressage trainer finds an unlikely cure: a horse

By Jec Aristotle Ballou

Reprinted from the October 2014 USDF Connection magazine

For years, the advice of a former writing friend steered me. Do not make your avocation your vocation, she said, her point being that if you toiled all day trying to squeeze income from something you loved, you would be too tired at day’s end to enjoy it like the hobby it once was.

In my case, the advice applied to training horses professionally. Was it possible to fully enjoy my own dressage journey if I made horses my livelihood? Initially, I balked at the thought of losing even a thread of my equestrian passion. Soon out of college, though, repeated requests for lessons drew me in to a dressage career.

Just as my friend had warned, my career soon grew to occupy every corner of my life. My avocation had not only become my vocation; it had become every waking second, every missed weekend with family, every sacrificed vacation, and more. And sure enough, 15 years in to this experiment, I started to feel the tarnished edges of burnout.

Exhausted, I wondered: What had happened to the raw joy of arriving at the barn each morning? Where was that jolt of inspiration every time I swung my leg over a horse? Perhaps I had changed or should try something new. Maybe I did not love my job any more.

In the midst of this uncertainty, I made the most illogical decision: I bought my own horse. For someone who gets paid to ride horses all day, owning a horse makes zero sense, both financially and time-wise. It is entirely unnecessary—or so I believed.

My students asked what plans I had for the goofy brown gelding with the insatiable curiosity and the fancy sounding name of Corazon. I suppose they expected me to announce some grandiose goal, like dressage world fame or the intent to train and then sell Corazon for a fortune. Instead, I shrugged and said I didn’t have any concrete goals except to enjoy myself and my sweet gelding.

With my own horse, I’ve been able to revisit that giddy pleasure of horses-as-hobby again. Free from clients’ expectations and trainer responsibilities, I have unrestricted access to what I call horsey la-la land. Corazon and I do a bit of dressage, ride around the meadow, go on long trail rides at the state parks. He gets excited at the sight of my car and begs for the curry brush in his itchy spot. I swoon over his good looks and quirky nature.

Last summer, I audited a Buck Brannaman clinic, during which he stopped a group lesson to tell a skilled young trainer that she ought to do herself a favor and get her own horse. The noted cowboy went on to explain that he believes that maintaining a deep connection to horses requires having a personal horse. Maybe there’s just something indescribable about this connection; or perhaps it’s the freedom from the pressures of clients, show schedules, and income.

Whatever the case, now that I have Corazon, i see Brannaman’s point. A horse of one’s own makes you a more complete, and arguably more satisfied, horseman or horsewoman. Thanks to a silly Andalusian with a wild mane, I am reconnected to the wonder of daily life with horses. Am I plumb tired at the end of the day? You bet. But I have also learned that fatigue is not synonymous with burnout—and that I can be good and tired and still very much in love.

Jec Aristotle Ballou is the author of 101 Dressage exercises for Horse and Rider and equine Fitness. She trains in Santa Cruz, CA. Her website is JecBallou.com.

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