There’s a meme currently circulating on social media among equestrians. It’s got a photo of a guy who just oozes “horse guru” — clean cut, crisp polo shirt and hat, freshly groomed horse in the background. He’s facing the camera with tented hands, and the quote says something like, “One doesn’t simply ‘go to the barn real quick.’”
And that, folks, is the story of my life.
At the end of the day after settling everyone for dinner and then clearing the dishes away, I’ll often tell my husband I have to step outside “for a minute” to feed horses. Both he and I know “minute” is a massive understatement and that I am going to use this time to recharge my batteries.
After mixing and pouring feed to my impatient charges, I’ll be pitching hay, refilling water troughs, applying hoof treatment, addressing any minor injuries and making decisions on blanketing options for the night. The whole process takes 30 minutes to an hour, and that variation usually depends on what kind of day I’ve had. If I taught or rode earlier in the day, it’s a cursory visit, and everyone is put to bed inside a half hour. If I’ve been inside or on the road for the majority of the day, however, I need time to just stand and watch horses swish the dregs of their feed around in their buckets and then turn to their hay bales and begin pulling the long, stiff strands out.
The process of hooking packed dirt out of hooves and painting on a nourishing treatment or picking my way through the mud to check fence lines is oddly calming. Putting a horse back out in the pasture after covering them in a warm turnout blanket brings me a sense of satisfaction — I know they will be comfortable and that I’ve done my job well. I call my daily barn chores my “zen garden.” There’s something reassuring and soothing about setting things to rights in my outdoor workspace just before the day ends.
I caution new horse owners who choose to keep their equines at home that riding will be about 10% of the situation. There have been times in my life when that fact was very frustrating. If you’re trying to accomplish a competition goal and you can’t ride very much because you’re performing constant stall and pasture maintenance, it’s easy to become impatient and chafe at the bindings that make at-home horse life possible.
It’s also easy to look around your property from the back of your horse and realize that if you don’t stay active with upkeep, grass and small trees will begin to reclaim your riding area, barn and pastures.
Over my years of self-care horse ownership, whether I was leasing a barn I needed to maintain or overseeing my own facility, I’ve learned compartmentalization is key. My time for riding grows ever more limited, and I have to prioritize it if it’s going to happen. It’s far too easy to step out to the barn and begin working on something that can probably wait instead of saddling a horse. At this point, I’ve given in to the fact that my saddle time is going to be limited, and I try to maximize what I have by setting aside one hour one morning a week and having a friend instruct me.
This structure allows for several things. First, I am obligated to ride if I know my friend is going to be here waiting for me. Second, it allows me to optimize my time on the horse with good instruction. I believe that no matter how long we’ve been doing something, a little constructive criticism goes a long way. Since I don’t get to practice every day, having eyes on the ground every time I ride helps reinforce good habits. And finally, as stated above, I’ve commandeered the chores as part of my mental health routine. I tell myself that someday I’ll be able to ride every day again, and I hope I will, but I also hope that I can hang on to the balance that I’ve developed in my mentality toward horse ownership. I have always needed a certain amount of variation in my life to stave off boredom, but at this point, I’m also seeing that the ordinary and routine aspects can bring quite a bit of satisfaction when I embrace them.