When The Mare and I set out for vet school a little over a year ago, we had no idea what was in store.  I was getting ready to embark on an educational journey that I knew would be mentally exhausting and time-consuming, and my horse was along for the ride. And for the first time in my riding career and horse ownership, I was about to be without a trainer.

I had heard the skepticism from so many (well-meaning) people. Out-of-state vet school, 1. pretty tough, and 2. pretty expensive (I mean, all vet school is absurdly expensive, but out-of-state tuition is sickeningly high). Taking a horse with you, is it really the best idea? The Mare and I were getting ready to get out of our home state for the first time, and I think I had a bit of a need to prove that we could function as we found our footing in a totally new environment.

Since owning The Mare, I’ve developed an immense amount in my riding and horsemanship. Coming up with riding schedules, deciding when she should have time off, how and why my tack works best for my horse and all the trials and tribulations of finding the perfect combination, learning how to hack over fences by myself and not undo months of lessons, how to teach a horse to jump, how to rehab a horse, addressing health concerns and first aid, and building on many of the skills and subjects I had known about but never had to apply since I didn’t own a horse of my own; but we always had an overarching lesson/class schedule through our barn, or the college we were at. I always had my trainer within reach to consult on this bit, or what exercise to help with XYZ problem, or look at this cut on my horse’s leg and tell me if I should be freaking out or not.

One of the really wonderful parts of our sport (that is equally frustrating), is that you never stop learning; often through mistakes, finding all the ways it doesn’t work, and making the wrong judgement call, until you find the method that does work, and you start making the right calls. Out on our own, I was suddenly faced with doing a whole lot of learning (read: making mistakes).

I am lucky enough to have such a wide-cast and supportive group of trainers, coaches, barn-managing bosses, fellow equestrians and horse owners that I did reach out to many of them in times of crises for their voices of reason and expertise; but when it came down to it, the decision-making was solely in my court now.

Without a trainer, The Mare’s riding schedule turned stale; without time to look into creative exercises, our rides were the same, day-in and day-out. I knew out flat work especially was on a downward slide.

My classes got busy, I got uninspired in our work. Riding became something I needed to fit into my schedule, rather than a time to de-stress, and I focused more on the clock than my horse. Then my horse proceeded to spend the majority of the school year on stall rest between multiple, unrelated lay ups.

When it came to her injury and illness, I needed to make some big calls on her health and I constantly worried that I wasn’t making the right ones. Throughout her ~7 months of stall rest, I often found myself wishing I had more knowledge and I spent a lot of time researching her ailments.

I don’t understand the individuals who declare they don’t need lessons anymore or feel they can’t learn any more. I believe that you can always learn something from any situation, and any individual – even if it is how not to do something.  A former trainer told me that in developing my own style of riding (and in horsemanship in general, I think), I needed to learn what I could from each instructor I had; take what worked for me and leave what didn’t.

As The Mare and I have transitioned into our new barn this summer, my craving to learn only intensified and I had to rein myself in so as not to push The Mare too quickly in her rehabbing. After our first lesson back about a month ago, my head was swimming with new exercises and ideas to incorporate into our daily hacks.  And every. single. ride. since that lesson has been phenomenal. No tantrums, no mare-drama, no running after fences; all ears forward, responsive, ready-to-work, puts-her-all-into-every-movement type rides.  It seems that The Mare is just as happy to have some structure back in our lives.

Her flatwork got better almost overnight, and I had a plan and goals for each ride already laid out by the time my feet hit the stirrups.

By our second lesson, the difference in my horse’s athletic condition was already apparent to Trainer. We are slowly uncovering the athlete that was lost to all the stall rest and injury, and undoing the mistakes I’d made in her training while we were flying solo. We have instructions for interval training and walking fences. Our lateral work is stronger than it’s ever been, and we’re developing a plan to get The Mare’s hind end in gear.

A lot of learning in this sport occurs from making mistakes, and I have definitely made my fair share of them (and I’m sure I will continue to).  Mistake-making is an important part of the process; until you make the mistake, you won’t know how to fix the problem, react in the situation, etc.  Learning is not a linear process; mistakes remind us of this and occur only to make us better, stronger, quicker, more educated and knowledgeable, as long as we treat them as an opportunity rather than defeat.

As I learn more, I know I will be able to become a more confident and independent equestrian and horse owner; but for now, I’m happy to have my support system to fall back on.  I set out to prove we could make it alone…and we did, although not terribly well. We proved once again that it does really take a village in this sport, and I’m glad to have finally found mine.